If you’re a regular reader you’ll know the deal with Avatar Press’ hyper-violent, no-holds-barred CROSSED comic book by now (and if you’re not, you can catch up here and here). The latest four-part storyline, by CROSSED universe regular David Layman and original artist Jacen Burrows, has just come to its blood-spattered, stomach-churning conclusion. Fans of the franchise will be pleased to learn that the latest arc maintains the series’ admirable standard of gruelling post-apocalyptic nihilism, and goes out of its way to live up to its reputation as the most amoral, graphically grotesque, gleefully pitiless comic book on the market.
Layman’s latest story goes back to the beginning of the outbreak, and views the action from the perspective of small town America, embodied by the figure of Edmund Wickenthorp, a recent high school graduate and self-proclaimed coward. Edmund is an everyman, a kid who isn’t either an under- or overachiever, who has friends but isn’t part of the in-crowd. It’s an effective device, allowing us to experience the end of the world through the eyes of someone who’s barely lived. Edmund’s narration is painfully honest, deviating from the cold hard facts only when he’s trying to mitigate the horror of his latest cowardly act and convince himself he’s not such a bad guy after all. Having located the story in the most archetypal of fictional settings, Layman goes all-out to throw as many horror tropes as possible into the mix. The Crossed outbreak first manifests at the circus (which is of the distinctly old-fashioned variety, boasting a freak show and a snake-eating ‘geek’), affording Layman the opportunity to saturate the story with images of psychotic, rapist, serial-killing clowns. He also includes a biker gang, a plucky group of residents fighting for the town they love, and even a love story (of sorts). Edmund is the one constant, drifting unscathed through the carnage that consumes his family, his town and, ultimately, his country. This freewheeling, unfocused approach, where peripheral characters come and go and the emphasis is on the story’s perpetual forward motion, is reminiscent of the works of Daniel Ketchum and Richard Layman, writers known for their brutal, bloodthirsty aesthetic, and for tackling the weighty subject of the end of the world.
At its core, CROSSED is about survival. The world has almost literally gone to hell and humanity has regressed to a primitive tribe of atavistic psychopaths, but the survival instinct among the few uninfected is as strong as ever. And if the BADLANDS ongoing has taught us anything, it’s that bastards prosper. There’s no place for bravery and nobility, for any of the virtues aspired to by civilised society; the only way to survive in a hostile world is to sink to its level. That Edmund is a coward is a given – his nickname at school is Yellow Belly – but he takes his spinelessness to new depths during the course of the story, which sees him evade one certain-death scenario after another simply by doing the wrong thing. By giving in to his craven nature and abandoning any pretence of decency or dignity he lives to fight another day. It’s a disheartening sentiment, but one entirely in keeping with CROSSED’s pitiless, desolate attitude.
The artwork, by series veteran Burrows, is as accomplished as ever. The action is clearly and cleanly choreographed, the characters are all commendably distinct, and he doesn’t shy from the shockingly graphic depictions of torture, sexual assault and wholesale butchery for which the book is infamous. As ever, it’s depravity with depth, slaughter in the service of a story, which, while it doesn’t make the suffering of the characters any less piquant, at least lends the atrocity a certain legitimacy. As we’re fond of mentioning, the CROSSED universe isn’t for the faint-hearted, but for fans of adult, intelligent horror red in tooth and claw, it ties with THE WALKING DEAD as the best ongoing comic book currently being published.