In Search of Shivers: get double CROSSED

 CROSSED:BADLANDS #25 (Avatar Press – March 13, 2013 release) Garth Ennis: Story. Raulo Caceres: Art. Digikore Studios: Color. James Reed: Letters. (Intended for Adult Readers)

Reviewer’s notes: CROSSED: BADLANDS marks my first return to the world of the Crossed since the initial nine-issue story arc a few years back. It didn’t seem possible to me that other writers could duplicate the volatile blend of extreme violence and serious drama that Ennis has such a knack for. After Ennis left the book, and fearing that those who followed in his footsteps would focus on the exploitation elements and disregard the rest, I opted not to continue. However, after returning to these books and also enjoying a twisted but respectful story from a different author (CROSSED ANNUAL 2013) my curiosity is prompting me to explore further into this strange, cruel apocalyptic world. It’s time to check out the Trade Paperbacks. I’m also wondering now if any of the later stories have explained the origin of the Crossed virus or affliction (if that’s what it truly is.)

crossed badlands 25

At first it seems odd to begin this story with a four-page summation/history of the rise of the British Empire. It’s a soldier/mercenary’s reflections on his country as well as his interpretation of events as he contemplates the early British exploration in terms of “trade or steal, to befriend or to murder, to civilize or to subjugate.” As he rests on his back on the grassy knolls at the White Cliffs of Dover, he gazes skyward and partly justifies Britain’s pursuit of “blood for gold” by recognizing that other countries pursued similar quests - - “the division of the spoils.” He ends his restive interlude by recalling the WWII air battle fought over the same skies: “. . . perhaps in recognition of the debt we owed the peoples of the world . . . we fought a battle in the sky to save them all.” Then, on the fifth page he declares his own remorse: “This is England, it’s history written in its’ earth and air and currents . . . And now my men and I will write its end.”

Five years have passed since the outbreak of the Crossed in Great Britain as the powerful opening serves to introduce us to the forces at work in this story. Without making any actual references to the Crossed, a comparison/contrast is laid out in front of us. How different is the mission of the Crossed to envelop the continents in an endless mass of senseless depravity and bloody genocide from the exploratory missions of the Empire? Is it not just a more extreme version of the same thing? And, just as England made amends for its past sins through a decisive air battle, the main character in this story makes his intentions clear to apologize for mankind’s latest transgressions through a total cleansing. After five pages, we want to know more of who, what, when and where and are prepared to spend three more issues in search of those answers. Garth Ennis is bloody brilliant - - and still capable of surprises.

In the next three pages, we learn that the philosophical but also authoritative and decisive strategist Harry (an Englishman?) is the apparent leader of the company of four heavily armed militants that include an Irishman, a Scotsman and A Welshman. There’s the tall Paddy, always wearing a grim expression; the bearded, bald and short Taff – a foul-mouthed master of scatological references who Paddy suspects of Tourette’s syndrome; and Jock the huge, red-bearded longhair with a short tolerance for stupidity among survivors. Once the introductions are complete, the pace picks up as the party spots a wandering band of the Crossed on the grassy plains below.

Just when it seems like the group can easily avoid confrontation, Paddy spots a priest trying to conceal a group of schoolchildren under his care who are directly in the path of the oncoming madness. Rather than endure the sound of young children being slaughtered, Harry’s company decide to intercede and help delay the inevitable a bit longer. They later learn that the priest and children were turned out by his own parishioners - - just another example of survival instincts bringing out equal measures of unkindness among the remaining uninfected.

During a night chat with Harry, the priest learns that their rescuers are not part of a mission to locate survivors, but independent agents on a mission of their own assignment. They seek to locate a former Ministry of Defence biological and chemical warfare centre, “to find out what they’ve got down there and set the whole lot off at once.” It will be interesting to see if Harry’s company accepts the excess baggage as they continue on or simply offer them some survival advice and leave them to fend for themselves.

The art by Raulo Caceres is extremely expressive and suited to the task of depicting the extremes of slaughter, torture and sexual cruelty detailed in Ennis’ grim world. The colors by Digikore Studios are equally vivid and paint a horrific canvas in bright, bloody dashes of red. Stay away if you are squeamish or disturbed by graphic images, even though you will probably miss an enthralling story with a deep message on human society buried in the details.

CROSSED 2013 ANNUAL (Avatar Press – January 2013) Simon Spurrier: Story. Gabriel Andrade: Art. Digikore Studios: color. Jaymes Reed: letters. (Intended for Adult Readers)

Reviewer’s notes: Simon Spurrier is the writer of the free weekly web comic Crossed: Wish You Were Here , which features a group of survivors defending an island against the Crossed. This serialized tale is also known for strong character depiction as opposed to gratuitous bloodshed. After reading the excellent story by Spurrier in CROSSED 2013 ANNUAL, it’s another site I plan to catch up with.

CROSSED 2013 ANNUAL can serve as the perfect jumping on point for new readers curious to see what is holding the attention of a growing legion of comics fans. It will also help those new readers determine whether or not they have the stomach for more, as this issue (unlike the apparently less bloody web comic, also by Spurrier) contains bright red splashes of every heinous act that could possibly be imagined capable of a murderous horde of infected psychopaths. Is it any wonder that the uninfected would not also be driven to madness simply from being eyewitness to these events? Who could blame them for equally insidious acts of cruelty in defense of their sanity?

crossed annual

CROSSED 2013 ANNUAL focuses on one of the main characters in the weekly web series, Andrew Frazer Jackson, a Scottish soldier-of-fortune with three decades plus of experience in Special Boat Service of M-Squadron (like Navy SEALS), Marines, Infantry, and Covert Ops. Jackson narrates this story to three captives secured to chairs, and in a strong Scottish brogue (perfectly phrased by Spurrier) we learn of his adventures, misfortunes, love and romance, and how he frequently crossed paths with the edges of the infection that later became known as the Crossed affliction. Jackson has become critically unhinged by these events and driven to madness, as he is reputedly depicted in the web series.

He admits to his condition and blames his captives in his introduction to them: “Ah was born in Glasgae, Scotland. Ah’m 58, proudly hetero, prefer salt in m’oats t’sugar, never got along wi’ haggis in spite ‘o the cliché, an’ up til fair-recent times every cunt I kil’t was in uniform. . . . . Alas: intae last month ah murdered somethin’ in the region ay two hundred civilians, an’ ah consider aw mah woes t’be basically your fault. . . . . Awso: . . . . ah’m profoundly an’ conspicuously mental. . . . And tha’s yer fault ‘n all.” Artist Andrade indicates the most manifest moments of his madness by depicting all manner of horrific wraith-like creatures that seem to shadow him like an aura. If the images in this Annual don’t sufficiently disturb you, the events certainly will.

On the surface it may seem that mad Jackson has identified the source of the Crossed infection, tracing its formative years back to the 1980’s when he began his on-again, off-again relationship with a sultry chemical weapons specialist (Magda) on a sinister covert mission. Just when it seems like Jackson has figured it all out, he (and we) get new information that enshrouds everything in a fog of doubt. Who can trust the words of a madman? Spurrier teases the reader with these hints and the possible grim implications as well as condemnation of several nations should they turn out to be accurate. It’s never resolved, and that’s as it should be since the Crossed is the creation of Garth Ennis. He should be the one to write the origin story of the Crossed.

While Jackson blames his madness on a specific incident, there are instances in his past that indicate his problems began much earlier, but perhaps intensified by later events. As early as 1982, those ghastly images seemed to surround him during the Falkland Islands invasion. But we also hear of events that make us suspicious, such as during a 1985 hostage situation when the smoke bombs supplied to Jackson’s covet ops team turned out to contain some other ingredients. Those bombs were conveniently supplied by Magda, who later interviews Jackson asking to describe the effects of the gas and explain the rashes that developed on the terrorists’ faces. He runs into the mysterious woman yet again in 1990 in the company of a known gun-runner, receives new direction from command to provide discrete escort through British waters. This time he gets what he’s been craving – a sexual encounter. Following a moment of passion, Magda reveals the secret mission but Jackson is confused by the plethora of information and can’t sort it out: “chemical weapon”, “smokescreen for the oilgrabs in Africa”, “secret alliance”, etc. In 1992 his task force looks for a secretive research compound in Iceland and receives search-and-destroy orders. Surprised by finding his one-time lover there (and with young children) he’s driven to commit an act considered treason after Magda sprays something in his face. He later claims this is the defining moment when he became mad. Was the spray the prototype for an earlier version of a weaponized Crossed infection, or just a simple steam mist meant to distract him long enough to escape? Jackson’s mistake resulted in a dishonorable discharge and following some years of criminal occupation and his first encounters with the Crossed, Jackson makes his way back to the Iceland compound in search of answers or resolution. The story takes some twists that cast doubt and suspicion on everything that’s been related up to this point. Spurrier has managed to confuse us readers a measure at a time until we can only wonder. It’s a magnificent piece of writing that deserves repeated readings.

And the tale is complex enough that in spite of all the detail provided in this review, much more awaits. Efforts have also been made not to spoil any of the plot turns. As Andrew Frazer Jackson himself puts it: “Life’s just full ay surprises when ye’re aff yer nut.”

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