Crossed is not a zombie book. People keep saying it's a zombie book, but they're wrong. This is a plague story along the lines of George Romero's The Crazies or Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. What's the difference, you ask? I'll tell you.
When George Romero invented the contemporary zombie, he did something special. Before 1968's Night of the Living Dead, the zombie in film and literature was essentially a metaphor for slavery and racial anxieties. The zombie was almost always the undead slave of a master and used for manual labor or the settling of grudges, etc.
Romero took the idea of the walking dead and added a touch of the vampire and unwittingly created what is perhaps the most socially relevant metaphorical monster of the 20th Century. The cannibalistic zombie carries with it subtexts of existential anxieties about the inescapability of death, clearly, but they also represent, and provide a scenario for the exploration of the loss if individualism in a capitalist, consumerist society.
The plague story is a subtly different beast. It maintains many of the same narrative structures and existential story elements, particularly the breaking down of society and the formulation of new communities in order to provide defense and survive at least a little while longer. However, the killers in plague stories represent something different.
Romero again initiated this trope with 1973's The Crazies, about an outbreak of infectious homicidal madness. It's a classic that doesn't hold up as well as NOtLD, but is still worth seeing. 2002's 28 Days Later was essentially an updating of Romero's ideas, transplanted to England. When Boyle called the plague "Rage" he made plain the metaphorical power of the infected.
The infected weren't necessarily symbolic of the inescapability of death (although, of course, they kill violently) and loss of identity, but instead represented violence and brutality, abstracted and removed from ideological constraints and motivations, as well as a pack-like new social organization. The infected actualized violence for violence's sake, somehow recognizing instinctively others who were infected and banding together to hunt down and brutally murder anyone who was clean or innocent. They aren't consumers. They are rabid pack animals. They don't care if they kill you, so long as they devastate you physically and psychologically, and express their rage.
There's a thematic reason why our hero, in order to save the others, becomes a killing machine. That violence is inside of us all, just waiting for a reason to be let out. Without structure, without morality, violence is bestial. With structure, with morality, violence is still bestial, but can serve a "noble" purpose.
But ultimately, in both The Crazies and 28 Days Later, the mindlessness of the infected allows them to be seen more like forces of nature, which is one of the main reasons that people mistake these films for variations of the zombie motif.
Which leads me, finally, to Garth Ennis' new comic Crossed.
The infected in this story are not the walking dead, so don't call them zombies. They are the rage-infected people of 28 Days Later taken to a very different, much darker place. These aren't mindless, animalistic acts of violence. These are planned acts of brutality and sadistic abuse. These infected take pleasure in torture and rape and, ultimately, murder. They work together to hunt down anyone not infected (and therefore not marked with the cross "rash" across their faces), and then take great joy in doing savage things to them until their victims are either dead or infected themselves.
This is the point that really sets this apart from the other plague narratives I've mentioned. The infected here aren't amoral forces of nature. In Crossed the most excessive sadistic impulses are consciously acted upon by the infected. They use tools, make plans, and revel in their actions. They are completely and enthusiastically immoral, lacking any type of restraint, thanks to their infection. The behaviors and characterizations of the infected actually share some similarities with the infected in Warren Ellis' Blackgas, if you read that.
This story is planned as a nine issue series (plus the 0 issue from a month or so ago), following a group of survivors as they try to keep ahead of the infected and stay alive. At the moment, even they don't know what they're trying to stay alive for, and it is pretty bleak. The main thrust of this issue is our main characters sitting around in a cave trying to make sense of what's going on, broken up by bursts of some of the most graphic, brutality I've seen in a comic (that didn't have Warren Ellis' or Alan Moore's name on it).
This is not for everyone. The sexual violence alone will put off a lot of readers, in part thanks to the disturbingly detailed artwork of Jacen Burrows. This is ostensibly the best work I've seen by Burrows yet. So when you finally get to the two-page spread of scalping, rape, mutilation, murder, and joyous masturbation, it could make even the most jaded reader take a moment before going on.
The infection is spread by contact, I believe, so the dialogue on this page, while at first seeming a bit absurd and humorous, is, at the same time, disturbing and devastating. These are the stakes that these characters are playing with. Get away to live another day, or fall behind and be tortured and raped to death. Or sometimes, not to death, which is worse. It's that simple.
And there is no real hope in sight.
But it's fascinating, horrific, and tense as hell. I highly recommend this, if you have a high tolerance for violence of all stripes. Ennis' characterizations are subtle in this first issue, but the core relationships look promising. This has the potential to be one of Ennis' best works.
What did you think of this book?
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