“Feel the fever burnin’ inside of me”
You might think that with a name like Resistance, this book is about rebels fighting against a totalitarian government or something like that. Instead, Val McDermid and Kathryn Briggs bring us a book about a plague that kills about 99% of humanity because the virus is “resistant” to medicines. Oh dear. This chilling comic is brought to us by Black Cat.
I don’t love stories about plagues, because they depress the hell out of me. They’re far too plausible, even the most ridiculous ones, and McDermid’s book is far more plausible than most, because she knows that the destruction of a society does take some time, and while it feels like the book moves at a breakneck speed, when you think about it, it does take a while for the events to unfold. She chooses Zoe Beck, a reporter, as her point of view character, which is wise as Zoe can track the movement of the virus because it’s her job (although it’s not always her job, as the tension between information and secrecy and how that has an impact on journalism is part of the story). It begins at a music festival in Northumberland, where some kind of virus seems to jump species from pigs to humans, and it’s a strange one because it’s resistant to anti-viral medicines. It doesn’t seem terribly harmful at first, but then it starts killing people, and then it mutates, and then human society collapses because there ain’t no one left. Zoe tries to find the source of the virus, but the rest of the press quickly scapegoats friends of hers who run a food truck, and then the knives come out. People love an easy scapegoat, and although Zoe suspects the source of the virus is a factory farm in the area, that place is run by powerful businessmen, so of course that goes nowhere. Eventually, of course, it doesn’t matter where the virus came from. By the end of the book, Zoe and a small group of humans are beginning the centuries-long rebuild of humanity. Good luck with that!
McDermid does a nice job balancing the high-level, pandemic-killing-everyone stuff with the more personal. Zoe wants to keep working even as her husband begs her to self-isolate, because she is coming in contact with potential carriers of the virus (some people, like Zoe, seem to have natural immunity). She is torn, because the world should know what has happened but she wants to keep her family safe. She pushes back against the scapegoating of her friends, but that’s a relentless wave, and she can’t hold it back. She meets scientists who are plugged into counter-measures, but because McDermid is able to focus on other characters besides Zoe, we see a lot more of what’s happening behind the scenes than she does (Zoe narrates the book, but a lot of what she doesn’t see first hand she narrates as hindsight). McDermid shows how all the little things add up – the people who don’t think what they’re getting is serious and therefore ignore it, the politicians who don’t want to cause a panic and therefore suppress news of how bad it is, the businesses that don’t want to lose money so they bypass safety regulations – and how enough of the little things can cause an apocalypse. She shows how society breaks down a little at a time, until there’s nothing left. It’s depressing because there’s nothing in here that feels fantastical. Maybe not all of the events would line up like McDermid shows, but we’ve experienced everything in here at one time or another, and it’s not hard to believe all the stars could align perfectly and wreck us completely.
Briggs does a nice job with the artwork – it’s a bit rough and her figure work is a bit stiff, but this isn’t an action-packed story, so the fact that her characters don’t “move” as much as they would in a superhero comic, say, isn’t that important. She creates a lot of interesting characters who have to react to a world dying, and she does a very good job with that. Zoe is the primary character, of course, and it’s interesting to watch her resignation as things spiral out of her control. Early on, she’s confident and engaged, but as the book moves along, her posture suffers, she gets more of a vacant look in her eyes, and her personal hygiene goes to hell. She never gives up, but Briggs does a good job showing how beaten up she is. Meanwhile, she does a lot with a little – the small sneers on some character’s faces as they turn their towns into insular pods and they use violence to keep people out; the indifference of politicians as they argue who’s fault it all is and try to save their reputations; the hollowed eyes of scientists searching for a cure and going without sleep to do so. She uses a lot of interesting page designs to get across a lot of information – some of her layouts have things in the margin that relate to what’s going on in the main panels, others incorporate certain images into the panel designs – an hourglass, for instance – to suggest themes that McDermid is working with. Briggs does extremely clever things throughout, using medieval plague imagery in the backgrounds of many panels to link this story with plagues of the past and show that death is inexorably stalking the land and people can’t do much about it. It’s a nicely illustrated book, with a lot of visual information to go along with the text.
McDermid doesn’t need to be subtle about the parallels between our world and the one she creates in the book, because like climate change, resistant viruses are nothing to fuck around with, and the time for subtlety is long gone. McDermid makes a point that before the rise of antibiotics, humans handled death better because it was so common, and while I doubt if anyone wants to go back to a world where a cold could wipe out your entire family, it’s not a bad point about our distance from death. Our fear of death has made us reluctant to talk about it, so we want to stave it off by any means necessary, and the rise of a resistant virus becomes more and more likely. However, she makes a lot of other points, too, about politicians who want to cover their own asses, about politicians who deny that there’s really any problem, about people who don’t want to hear the truth, about turning xenophobic when things get a little tough, about gutting science budgets because people think they don’t produce enough revenue to justify their own existence. This is why I don’t like reading plague stories, because they hew a bit too closely to the real world, and the real world’s fucking depressing enough already. That being said, McDermid does write a compelling book, and Briggs does illustrate it very well. It’s not their fault that after reading this I want to watch Phineas and Ferb for a year!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆