Welcome to the petri dish, kiddies!
Creator Clay McLeod Chapman’s Lazaretto is told in a series of five issues (BOOM! Studios released the trade paperback in December 2018), each issue detailing one day. The story begins with a bunch of freshmen nervously moving in to Yersin University. Parents warn kids to behave and get good grades. Roommates anxiously greet each other. Student clubs chant “Join us! Join us! Join us!”
Two of these freshies are Charlie and Tamara. Charlie is a closeted, timid kid who would really rather not major in Business as his dad wishes. Tamara is a quiet, Christian mid-western girl who recently lost her mother to cancer. Both are uncertain about how they fit into the college scene, so, naturally, they find each other. They quickly go from acquaintances to blood brothers as a Canine Flu outbreak ravages the campus. However, Lazaretto tells a college contagion narrative that is about so much more than the spread of a physical, literal disease.
Chapman and his creative team use contagion as a vehicle to comment on college culture at large. There is a ton of popular culture out there that treats college like a magical utopian place where everyone is hot, flush with cash, and partying without consequence. That’s the opposite of what we get here. From the first page, the Canine Flu is felt as the panels drip with sickly pastel hues and Jey Levang’s brilliant thinly-lined artwork, filled with characters who always look off-kilter to varying degrees. As the students unpack, tightly filing into dorm rooms and not-quite hygienic spaces, you immediately know what’s coming. And you dread it.
But what’s also happening, on another level, is that the reader becomes aware of, one, just how easily this could occur (maybe not Canine Flu, but remember the big Swine Flu scare, anyone?) on a college campus, and, two, how gross college culture can be as a whole.
The definition of lazaretto reads “an institution (such as a hospital) for those with contagious diseases.” In this case, our institution is a college and “contagious diseases” is both the Canine Flu and — not to be overwrought — human nature, especially of the corruptible variety. In addition to Charlie and Tamara, one of our key players here is the power-hungry R.A. The R.A. considers himself to be somewhat of a philosopher, who regularly expounds on Sartre and Aristotle to doting freshman who view him as a god of sorts. As you can imagine, this only escalates when the campus is on lock-down and paranoia and self-delusions soar.
A definition of contagion includes “contagious influence, quality, or nature,” as well as “corrupting influence or contact” and “rapid communication of an influence.” If that’s not college, I don’t know what is. And I say this as a college professor, who is in no way anti-college, but let’s just say I’m skeptical and cautious after having been in higher-ed for over 10 years as both student and teacher.
While college can certainly be a positive experience in which minds are opened and positive relationships are formed, there is also contagion — which Lazaretto beautifully communicates as being not only a literal disease but also the corrupting influence of people and ideas. Think college as a petri dish, with individuals collected in one space, feeding off of each other, multiplying bacteria, fostering a very toxic culture. Do I sound too jaded? Maybe. But this comic is so perfectly executed that I can’t help but embrace this cynical, terrifying view of a place I know all too well.
“A virus like this,” the R.A. tells Tamara, “What does it tell us about ourselves? The systems we rely on … The institutions we assume are going to protect us … can’t. They won’t. We’re on our own here. We have to save ourselves.”
Writer: Clay McLeod Chapman
Artist: Jey Levang
Letterer: Aditya Bidikar
Cover Artist: Ignacio Valicenti