This week sees the release of the Lazaretto miniseries from BOOM! Studios, a book that we’ve been eagerly anticipating here at Broken Frontier for some time given that it represents the US serial comics debut of artist Jey Levang. One of our mentored and championed Broken Frontier ‘Six Small Press Creators to Watch!‘ for 2016, Jey first came to prominence as part of the line-up of that vital UK indie showcase Dirty Rotten Comics and was also a contributing artist to our own 2017 Broken Frontier Small Press Yearbook.
Written by novelist and screenwriter Clay McLeod Chapman (Miss Corpus, The Tribe trilogy, The Boy) Lazaretto follows the (mis)fortunes of a small group of students who are trapped on campus when a horrifying pandemic strikes. It’s our ‘Comic of the Week’ at Broken Frontier and you can also expect to see a review of the first issue on the site later this week. The series is lettered by Aditya Bidikar, designed by Michelle Ankley, with covers by Ignacio Valicenti.
We caught up with Chapman and Levang to chat about the book’s real life parallels, its use as a vehicle for social commentary, rising artistic profiles, and just how much in the way of oozing contagious body fluids we can expect from this particular unsettling ick-fest…
ANDY OLIVER: To begin with can you tell us about the premise for the book and a little about the characters involved?
CLAY MCLEOD CHAPMAN: The basic premise is this: Civil society quickly disintegrates when a college campus undergoes a quarantine during a worldwide epidemic. There actually is an H3N8 virus, a.k.a. the canine influenza, a.k.a. dog flu… but we’ve cranked the volume up just a weeee bit. Thankfully, the H3N8 has yet to make the zoonotic leap, much like its cousins the swine and avian flu have. Let’s give it a few years and it’ll probably get there, But, for now, for our humble story, we’ve what if’ed the idea that the dog flu is now infecting humans.
It’s still the early days of the outbreak, the bug just barely beginning to sweep the nation, so most folks believe it won’t touch them, so they go about their lives as if there’s nothing to worry about. Consider issue #1 Day Zero. We’re coming upon a cross-section of kids getting dropped off at college. They’re about to embark upon this new adventure, their freshman year, and it just so happens to dovetail with this burgeoning global pandemic.
We’ll cross paths with a few different characters, but the story focuses on Charles and Tamara. These two undergrads come from completely different backgrounds. At first blush, you’d assume they might not be contenders for BFFs, but given the sticky-icky situation they now find themselves in, they’re thrust together to survive. Most freshmen just have to find a way to make it through their first year of college alive and in one piece. Charles and Tamara must survive a bad, bad bug and all the effluvia it brings out of their fellow classmates.
Lazaretto sounds like it’s going to play on some particularly primal fears about contagion and mortality. How much fun has it been playing with the squirm factor in the story? How disquieting a read will it be for its audience?
CHAPMAN: I’d say very disquieting. It’s definitely not for the weak-stomached, particularly once we’re in the thick of issue two. For the first issue, we wanted to introduce the world and lay down some character groundwork—introduce our major players, get the lay of the land. But by the end, all hell breaks loose and we’re off to the races. We wanted to root the story with as much of a real-time sensibility as possible, tracking the infection from your first cough to your final death rattle—and every gooey hiccup in between. There are phases to this bug and each one is worth studying under the microscope of [artist] Jey [Levang’s] panels.
To what degree is the claustrophobic post-apocalyptic environment of Lazaretto, and the make-up of the cast involved, also an opportunity for social commentary?
CHAPMAN: I think a college campus serves as the perfect microcosm to view the world at large and all its moral hiccups, and that’s even before introducing a highly contagious disease into the mix. For most kids, college is a test-run for the real world. You can learn a lot about yourself in that first semester away from your parents: what your core values are, your morals, your sense of compassion for your fellow undergrads—and possibly where it stops. The virus is essentially just an accelerant. Gas on the fire.
I’ve always been a fan of George Romero. His original trilogy of zombie films is my holy trinity. And The Walking Dead is holy text, too. But I don’t know. Seems like folks are tired of zombies right now. So, I wanted, in a very humble way, to create a zombie story—without the zombies. One that focuses on a small group of people who must come together to fight for survival amidst societal collapse.
With Romero’s recent passing, I revisited one of my other personal faves of his, The Crazies. I’ll pony up to it, but the “Hazmatters” from our story are a direct rift on Romero’s suited soldiers. All the “adult” figures in Lazaretto, every last person of authority, are essentially hidden behind a protective layer of plastic. They won’t touch these kids. They’re afraid of them. Which is, in my mind, so punk rock. This virus has a communal effect to it, oddly enough. It brings the infected together, starkens the divide, the have’s and have-not’s. Are you sick? Are you clean? Are you one of them or are you one of us?
We’ve been following Jey’s comics here at Broken Frontier for a few years now and have even published their work in our 2017 Small Press Yearbook. But for audiences outside of Europe how would you describe their style?
CHAPMAN: Heaven sent, for starters. I count my lucky stars every day for having been teamed up with Jey. Their style is absolutely simpatico with this story. We’re inseparable now.
I’ve always preferred comics that felt palpable. Textural. That it’s not purely visual, but somehow contoured or tactile in some way. Almost like those world globes with raised relief surfaces. You have to touch it, too, to engage with it. That’s what Jey’s work does for me. It’s organic. Alive—or alive at one point, in a way that, in a day or two, you might even be able to watch it begin to decay. Flip deeper through Lazaretto’s pages and you might even think it’s decomposing.
How did Jey become involved with the project? What does their approach to the page bring to the narrative in terms of emphasising the book’s themes and building its atmosphere?
CHAPMAN: I truly owe it to our editor, Eric [Harburn], and BOOM! Studios, for bringing Jey onboard. Once that happened, everything really started to click in terms of the world we were building. Look, if you’ve got a group of students undergoing a viral infection, you want to watch it take hold. Take root. And worsen.
There are times when I’ll read the comic without taking in the dialogue. I’ll just follow a character, tracing the narrative through their infection. That’s all Jey’s doing. Jey’s telling the story of these characters’ illness through their flesh.
Upcoming covers by Ignacio Valicenti
As a creator who has worked across a number of media what are the specific storytelling advantages of comics as a form here? What was it about the medium that made it the perfect vehicle for this particular story?
CHAPMAN: This is a story I’ve been dying to tell since 2009. When we had the swine flu sweep through America, colleges across the country instated isolation facilities on campus, and I couldn’t help but think this was a perfect scenario to explore the darker undercurrents of college life and what that might say about humanity at large. But it had to be wet. It had to be colorful. Jey’s technicolor spew is just the goo this story has been looking for. A novel wouldn’t permit that kind of visceral response. Readers need to see this infection. Text couldn’t cut it. It had to have a little extra wetness to the page, and that’s what comics do… can do. What this comic does, in particular.
A personal goal for me is for readers to feel like the comic they’re holding, the very paper itself, runs the risk of carrying the virus, and if they’re not careful, they just might get infected themselves. So, tread carefully, dear reader. Peruse at your own risk.
Left – a page from HeLL(P), Jey’s collaboration with C. Vinter. Right – a sample page from Jey’s many contributions to British anthology Dirty Rotten Comics
Moving over to you now Jey, before we talk about Lazaretto can you tell us a little about your work to date including your self-published webcomic HeLL(P) with C. Vinter and your small press anthology contributions over the last few years?
JEY LEVANG: About four years ago, C. Vinter and I launched our webcomic HeLL(P). It’s a story from Hell where the characters join a contest and compete for a ticket to Heaven! One of the reasons why we started this webcomic was because I realized that to get good at making comics, you’ve got to MAKE comics! And yeah, I wanted to learn how to make comics.
About a year later, when we were out of university, I felt kind of lost. I’m sure many people can relate to how hard it can be to motivate yourself to finish stuff after living with deadlines and expectations from tutors. Then one day while scrolling around online, looking for comic anthologies or contests to join, I stumbled upon Dirty Rotten Comics. I sent them a comic (they even gave me an extended deadline because I found them the day before the deadline or something), and it got published. I LOVED being part of the Dirty Rotten Comics anthology. From the first time I talked to Gary and Kirk over there, I felt welcome and included, and they were so passionate about DRC that it was hard not to get excited about it. So, I kept submitting work to them, and later even got the chance to do a cover!
I moved back to Norway after a while. Here, I got in contact with a Norwegian anthology called Überpress. In this anthology, I got to challenge myself even further, both technically and as a storyteller. The comics were longer, 10-16 pages and in full color, which I hadn’t really done much of before. It’s crazy to think how I’m now coloring 22 pages for Lazaretto in about seven days, while just one year ago I probably spent weeks on 16 pages.
It’s been quite a year or two for you in terms of your rising profile. How did being approached by BOOM! to be a part of Lazaretto feel?
LEVANG: I was MINDBLOWN. For some reason, I always thought my style wasn’t really suited for other comics than self-published ones and anthologies. I didn’t think of it as a bad thing; my mindset was always to just “keep on drawing” and see where it would lead me, but being approached by a publisher like BOOM! Studios was the last thing I expected. It felt absurd and a bit intimidating I have to admit, but now I just feel super lucky and honored to get to be part of this!
Left – a page from Jey’s stunningly coloured story ‘Detour’ from the 2017 Broken Frontier Small Press Yearbook and, right, work from their story ‘Freden’ in the Norwegian Überpress anthology
This will be the first time many regular readers of your comics will be seeing you working directly to someone else’s scripts. How different a working experience was that for you?
LEVANG: It’s been an interesting experience for sure. At first, I was a bit unsure how close to the script I had to keep it. I quickly learned, or was encouraged, actually, to experiment with the layouts and do what felt right. Never having worked with an editor or a writer before, I thought this was a bit surprising, but super cool! It makes sense though, when I think about it…
Another difference is that when I’m making my own comics, a looot of time (and frustration) goes into the whole brainstorming and planning of the comic. I keep changing my mind, I’m terrible at making decisions, so it’s cool to be able to focus purely on the art for a change.
LEVANG: I never had a moment where I had to change or do something that I didn’t agree on. I would say though, that Clay’s imagination is just as wild as mine! There’s always lots of fun and juicy details and descriptions to enjoy, and with an editor reminding me to add more blood and goo, I’m having a lot of fun!
And, finally, what other projects should we be looking out for from you both in the near future?
Apart from that, I’m now focusing on Lazaretto. When that crazy adventure is over, I’ll probably keep working on HeLL(P), perhaps pick up one of the other billion comic ideas I have and see what happens…
CHAPMAN: There are a couple exciting projects on the cinematic horizon with some amazing collaborators that I can’t talk about just now, but rest assured, there’s some giddy stuff coming your way. Sssh. You didn’t hear it from me.
And hell, who wouldn’t want Lazaretto II: Electric Boogaspew? I’m down if Jey’s down!