Written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, with art by Norberto Fernandez and design and lettering by Bill Tortolini, Retrovirus is an interesting one. Firstly, this is exactly the sort of science heavy action horror that I grew up on and Scott Sigler has based a chunk of his career on and secondly, I donated to this project. This book exists, in part, because of me, and I was curious, when I opened the PDF, to see how that altered my reading of it.
Picture a Michael Crichton ‘Pushing the frontiers of science’ type story and add heavy metal guitars to it. That’s probably the best, and shortest, summation I can give you of Retrovirus’ tone. This is a smart book, its science is either rock solid or at the least plausible and it sits firmly in the Jurassic Park/Prey school of thought; a group of eccentrics with their back against the wall struggle to triumph against the odds.
Professor Zoe Wallace is a retrovirus specialist, her work centering on the ancestors of modern viruses. One part historian and one part scientist, Zoe’s work is brilliant, leading to her being approached by Bio-Pharm, a big pharma company who have access to something she’s never seen before. Flown out to their polar research facility, she’s introduced to her colleagues and the silent partner she had no idea she’d be working with; the virus itself. Infected and under armed guard, the scientists struggle to find a cure, but are completely unaware that the virus may be the least of their problems.
Done wrong, this sort of thing reads like a trumped up movie pitch and, to be fair, the first time you see Professor Bruno Jordan, one of her colleagues, your first thought is ‘Oh, so he’s being played by Sam Elliott then.’ There’s the same hair, the same mustache, the same old cowboy air to the character that Elliott excels at and for about half a page, it’s jarring. After that, it settles down and as you’re introduced to the characters at the research facility you not only get an idea of their personalities but also get to play that beloved game of science fiction horror stories everywhere; Guess Who Makes It.
I was, I’m delighted to say, completely wrong with my guesses. Gray and Palmiotti upend your expectations not just with the characters but with the plot, no less than three times and for a book that’s under a hundred pages that’s a hell of an achievement. Zoe’s discovery that everyone is infected is just the first of these, and it’s the one that bears most exploration. The writers use this to neatly twist the ‘scientists in an isolated location’ trope away from survival horror and onto something far more intimate. These people are all infected, and they’re all completely at a loss as to what’s going to happen. This is curiosity powered by terror, the need to find out more handcuffed to the desperate need to survive and the result is a neat subversion of expectations. It’s particularly true of Zoe who could so easily have been a damsel in distress but instead beats the crap out of a couple of the men who betrayed her before becoming a reluctant leader. For all that, she’s alone, surrounded by people who she doesn’t trust but needs to in order to survive and her fury at this is balanced with her basic human need for contact. Her growing relationship with Conri, the chief of security springs from this and it’s here where the book really surprises. An inch to the left, and the relationship would play as massively creepy; after all Conri is initially a paid voyeur, monitoring the complex through security cameras. However, the script does a great job of establishing them as equals, Zoe maintaining her agency even as the two find common ground in isolation. It’s a neatly handled relationship dynamic and one of the highlights of the book.
The other major highlight is the pacing. As the book develops, the premise is neatly expanded from the traditional ‘scientists in jeopardy’ to the twists described above to the revelation that Bio-Pharm have successfully cloned Neanderthals and are keeping them at the same site. This very deliberately moves the action outside Zoe’s lab, giving us a chance to meet Conri face to face and also for the inevitable breakout, the ‘heavy metal guitars’ added to the science if you will. The book, much like the Neanderthals, is contained for its first half. For the second, they both break free.
This is one of the most impressively paced, and choreographed, action sequences I’ve seen in a while, as the Neanderthals swarm the facility and tear anything in front of them limb from limb. There’s a palpable air of savagery to the carnage and a real sense of the human characters racing to stay just ahead of hideous, violent death. Most of them don’t make it, and the circumstances of this lead to the last element of the book that truly impresses; its willingness to commit. Almost the entire cast die horrifically, on the page, and the only reason Zoe survives is yet another neat upending of established tropes. She’s the only woman on base, her pheromones driving the Neanderthals to turn on one another, making it a weapon not a weakness. Whilst the fact Conri saves her from this relegates her to damsel territory a little, it’s much less a deliberate depowering of the character and much more the chance for the two to finally meet face to face. It’s also neatly put in context by the fact it’s Zoe, and female intelligence agent Reed Wu who resolve the situation past the basic need for survival. There’s even a potentially cheeky message that can be read from this; that male characters excel at the physical side of things but the female characters actually get things done.
I helped this book exist and that’s something I’m really proud of. This is exactly the sort of story I like and the entire creative team turn in impressive work throughout. Tortolini ‘s lettering smart and informative whilst Fernandez’s art is clean, expressive and brutal when called upon to be. There’s a rictus-grinned glee in the brutality of the Neanderthals, like an old EC horror comic has broken out of its pages and invaded something more contemporary that he clearly relishes whilst maintaining a keen eye for character. Zoe is, refreshingly, in proportion for a female comic character and the rest of the cast are for the most part plausible and visually distinctive. There are a couple of points where his work becomes needlessly grotesque, the sexist professors in the opening scene for one, but other than that Fernandez impresses, turning in consistent, good work filled with people who look refreshingly normal, to say nothing of fragile when pitted against the huge Neanderthals. When paired with Palmiotti and Gray’s smart, nastu script it makes graphic novella which manages to take a very established, very tired set of tropes and turn them on their head. Clever when necessary and brutal when required, it’s science fiction with the emphasis on science, red in tooth and claw. If Kickstarter helps produce books like this, then more power to it.