by Matt J. Popham
Garth Ennis has never gone easy on his readers.
From the moment he caught the comic book world’s attention, ratcheting up the visceral and emotional intensity of Vertigo’s already dark and disturbing Hellblazer, his relentless, full-throttle approach has earned him a double-edged reputation as one of mainstream comics’ master purveyors of shock and awe. Not for the faint of heart, or weak of stomach, Ennis puts the “graphic” in graphic novels. Yet even by his standards, Crossed, a stark and savage tale of a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by an unknown virus that transforms humanity into hyper-aggressive, sadistic berserkers, pushes the envelope. Written by Ennis and illustrated by Jacen Burrows, its unflinching and, sometimes, blackly comic depictions of previously unimaginable acts of brutality and perversity have sparked outrage and condemnation, even among many of Ennis’ and Burrows’ longtime fans. When the series debuted in 2008, one could almost hear the sound of hundreds of copies of Issue #1 – which infamously features a full-page, detailed rendering of a couple being viciously gang-raped while their five-year old daughter is torn limb from limb – being thrown against the wall with great force. To call it “divisive” would be granting it a better reputation than it actually has. But Crossed and its grim and grisly execution (to say nothing of its executions) may, if one can stand it, be deserving of a closer look…
Vol. 1 collects the first ten issues into a complete narrative arc, following a ragtag group of uninfected survivors as they trek northwards on foot towards the less populous (and, therefore, they reason, somewhat safer) Alaska, vigilantly determined to sidestep any confrontations with the Crossed (as the infected are called, due to the cross-shaped rash that spreads across their faces) along the way. While the basic plot is readily reminiscent of numerous zombie films, from Dawn of the Dead to 28 Days Later, as in most of Ennis’ work, Crossed’s narrative functions primarily as a framework for exploring character. For all the buckets of blood and blasphemy that marked his celebrated Hellblazer run, Ennis effectively opened up (sometimes literally)the hardened and unflappable John Constantine – first with lung cancer, and then with Kit Ryan – providing the most recognizably human portrayal of the character in the series’ history. When DC Comics’ “No Man’s Land” crossover hit the streets of Ennis’ ultraviolent Hitman, he was content to keep his rogue’s gallery of crooks and killers holed-up in a bar relating personal stories. Similarly, Crossed’s familiar plot tropes and ad nauseum barbarity are designed to test our characters’ limits, and our own, in the hopes of revealing something about them and us. Encountering horror after horror as they journey across the devastated American landscape, each member of Crossed’s motley crew grapples with their respective ideas of what, if anything, makes them – and, by extension, humanity – worth saving. Forging reluctant and uneasy bonds, they gradually become a dysfunctional and dwindling family, fighting desperately for a future that is, at best, as bleak and unforgiving as their frigid destination.
Ennis’ interest in character even extends – significantly – to the Crossed, who are studied closely by both our authors and characters, emerging as something more than the simple zombies one might expect from the genre. Though overcome by a merciless, unquenchable bloodlust, they are far from being mindless avatars of appetite or rage. They retain the encyclopedic memory and learned skills they possessed before they “crossed over” and, though it’s often subsumed in the overwhelming rush of their monstrous cravings, they evince some capacity for thought, strategy, and decision-making. The survivors frequently speak of them as pure evil, even speculating that the plague could be some form of divine retribution heralding the end times. Given their grotesque and sadistic nature, it’s hard not to view them as demonic and their affliction as something preternatural. But while Ennis and Burrows never explain the origins of the epidemic, it’s revealing – though, no doubt, off-putting and offensive to some – that they inject a pitch-black absurdity into their depictions of the diseased, keeping them decidedly down-to-earth. Though their ferocious assaults and the human suffering they inflict are never played for laughs, there’s something clownish about the Crossed when we see them in their element. Their violent excesses are hideous and terrifying, but also – like most things when taken to an extreme – faintly ridiculous.
Even more revealing is the fact that perhaps the most horrific act we witness in Vol. 1 is not perpetrated by the Crossed, at all, but by our two lead characters. Our narrator, Stan, spends the first few issues closely observing Cindy, the de facto leader of Crossed’s small band of “clean” humans, and she quickly wins his – and our – respect. A smart, decisive, and supremely capable survivor, she protects her young son as fiercely as she fires the rifle she keeps slung over her shoulder. But Ennis, aware of both human complexity and the hollowness of hero-worship, refuses to let us settle comfortably into our admiration. Cindy’s toughness also translates into a kind of callousness, the cost of having weathered her share of harsh experiences, even before the world went to hell. Walking a fragile line between cool-headed and cold-hearted, she is a leader only because those around her are drawn to her competence. Her son is her only real priority and, except on rare occasions, she shows little interest in anyone else beyond offering brusque “my-way-or-the-highway” ultimatums. At the end of Issue #3, the steel of her resolve is cruelly tested and she makes a decision that most readers would find impossible to support. Stan’s complicity in the act only makes it that much more difficult to stomach. And while there’s little room for regret or repentance in Crossed’s austere universe, the burden of their choice eventually leads them to an act of recognition that is essential to their evolution as characters and cuts right to the heart of Crossed’s thematic intent.
On the rash-riven face of it, it’s easy – too easy – to look upon the Crossed, in their extreme aggression and savagery, as Satanic harbingers of Revelation, when the real revelation is the horrors that normal humans prove capable of carrying out in the name of their survival, self-interest, and salvation throughout the series. The deliberate juxtaposition of the Crossed’s hot-blooded frenzy with the cold, rationalized violence of the survivors only underscores their shared characteristics while exposing the slipperiness of the survivors’ perceived moral high ground. Crossed is not a typical zombie apocalypse parable about a group of survivors struggling, in the midst of chaotic and desperate circumstances, to hold onto their humanity. Crossed is about a small group of allegedly “clean” humans slowly coming to the realization that the Crossed are humanity. Each of us carries some measure of their perversity, their depravity, their brutality deep within. There is something inherently dark and savage in our nature, and refusing to recognize that fact only makes us more vulnerable to perpetuating the very horrors we condemn.
In much the same way, it’s easy – too easy – to dismiss Ennis’ and Burrows’ gruesome strategies as purposeless provocations, pushing the envelope merely to push their readers’ buttons, putting us through hell for the hell of it. At the beginning of Crossed’s brief prologue issue, Stan laments that “nothing shocks us anymore,” but to interpret that as some sort of authorial declaration endorsing shock for shock’s sake is to give the book a shallow read. Yes, many of the images and acts we are confronted with in Crossed’s pages are jarring, sickening, and terrifying. There would be something wrong with us if we reacted to them in any other way. One of the things that makes Crossed such an intense and compelling read, in fact, is our trepidation in turning every page, fearful of what we might see next. But the grim proceedings and graphic illustrations are only agencies of a more penetrating vision. Crossed is not a book about shock value. It’s a book about people struggling to relate in a world overrun with human horrors. Its real horrific impact is rooted, not in its explicit images of cannibalism, rape, and murder, but in the realization that our humanity is not what elevates us above our most abhorrent specimens, but what inextricably links us with them. Apt as it may be to sum up with overworked aphorisms about fighting monsters and gazing into the abyss, even more fitting, perhaps, (and certainly less wearisome) is this bit of wisdom from one of comics’ finest: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”