|Simon Oliver and Tony Moore, The Exterminators (DC/Vertigo, 2006-present), published monthly, $2.99.|
by Alex Boney
The Exterminators is a book I’m not supposed to like. Any fledgling academic knows that he’s not supposed to like sensationalistic horror, just as any English major knows he’s not supposed to like a book whose narrator is named Henry James. The “original” Henry James, the prototypical American Europhile, is also the godfather of focused, controlled English-language narrative. Naming the protagonist of your comic book series after him is indulgent and probably unwarranted. But there are plenty of things I’m not supposed to like, such as Sex and the City and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, that I manage to enjoy despite the guilt. The Exterminators, a new Vertigo series written by Simon Oliver and illustrated by Tony Moore, is most certainly a guilty pleasure. But it also stands among scores of “mature readers” and independent books currently on the racks as something different—something new and unique. The book is difficult to shuffle into a classification, but that’s probably a good thing in contemporary comics.
The Exterminators is ostensibly a horror book. Each cover and each issue push the boundaries of taste. Flies, cockroaches, rats, and various other insects and vermin are deployed to incite fear and queasiness. All of this can be rather hard to get past, and it would be easy to dismiss the series as “that awful bug book.” But when you pick an issue up and actually start reading it, you might realize that there’s something else going on here. The first page of the first issue opens with cockroaches crawling through a run-down tenement apartment, but the captioned narrative presents a reflection on The Complete Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Particularly relevant is Henry’s description of the empire’s rise and spread: “Ahead of their time, those Romans. Their empire wasn’t just about the fun stuff, like pillaging France and letting your pet lion eat Christians. It was about spreading the Roman way of life, building railroads, amphitheaters and schools in the conquered lands.” The juxtaposition of mating, scrounging roaches and historical analysis of human sprawl is jarring and effective, even as one of the employees from the “Bug-Bee-Gone” extermination company comes into the apartment and says “Hey, check out these two motherfuckers fucking.” It’s crude, but at least it’s highbrow crudity.
In fact, highbrow crudity is essentially what informs The Exterminators in its first four issues. The cast of characters is comprised of a number of humans as detestable and repugnant as the varmints that forage and spread disease in dumpsters and apartments. As series writer Simon Oliver says in his introductory “On the Ledge” column, “First thing you have to ask yourself is just what kind of fucked-up society would stand idly by and allow a bottom-feeding, muck-raking exploitative piece of junk like The Exterminators to see the light of day.” This is a good question, and many of the characters in the book demonstrate exactly the type of society has lead to the publication and relevance of such a book. Each of the characters reflects aspects of humanity—avarice, addiction, lust, selfishness, unchecked ambition—that cumulatively reveal the darkness of human behavior. Henry’s first partner, AJ, is an appropriately rat-faced junkie whose addiction to the new pesticide DRAXX leads to a gruesome death by the second issue. The developer of DRAXX is fully aware that the pesticide is making roaches stronger and more aggressive rather than killing them, but his scientific curiosity leads him to keep that knowledge to himself. Henry’s second partner, Stretch, accepts bribery and turns a blind eye to the horrors he witnesses at a halfway house. Even Henry is an ex-convict who takes the job at Bug-Bee-Gone to keep his parole officer off his back. Ultimately, The Exterminators is as much about the depravity of humanity as it is about the squalor of pests.
One of The Exterminators’ most effective tools is its shock-factor. Oliver’s pacing works well with Tony Moore’s meticulously detailed pencils and inks to develop the tension of a well-crafted horror story. Even Brian Buccellato’s muted color palette contributes to the atmosphere that’s necessary to make this book work. But shock-factor is difficult to manage and sustain over time. I stopped reading Vertigo’s mid-90s hit Preacher about forty issues into its run because it seemed that Garth Ennis was more interested in shocking and offending his readers than developing the plot and characterization of the compelling story he’d set up in the beginning. The Exterminators runs the same risk, and I’m not sure yet how the book will work as an ongoing series. The story reminds me of 1995 “Vertigo Voices” books like Peter Milligan’s Face and The Eaters and Jamie Delano’s Tainted, all of which were highly-disturbing but highly-engaging single-issue psychological thrillers. If The Exterminators can manage to keep its focus more on human insight than on the nastiness of bugs and rodents, it will make a curiously appealing addition to Vertigo’s increasingly diversified lineup. If not, it will turn into the gross-out book of the month. I’m hoping for the former.