Today, Michael and Drew are discussing Pestilence 1, originally released May 3rd, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Michael: Deadwood is lauded as one of HBO’s greatest, albeit short-lived, series. One of the hallmarks of that show was creator David Milch’s decision to modernize the swearing habits of the Old West cowboys to make it as striking as more colloquial slang of the time was. I’m reminded of this in Pestilence 1 as its characters do much of the same as far as their speaking habits go. Another modernizing effect put in place? Zombies.
The year is 1347 and the Knights of Fiat Lux — Latin for “Let there be light” — handle all of the Church’s wet works needs. The majority of Pestilence 1 deals with Fiat Lux infiltrating and assassinating a rogue group who has committed many an atrocity in the name of the Church. Frank Tieri and Oleg Okunuv use this portion of the book to let Fiat Lux flex its muscles. They’re a merry little band whose penchant for cursing is matched by their brutality.
The leader of the group is Roderick Helms — whose letter to his wife serves as narration for the story. It’s a basic role call for all the fellas of Fiat Lux and what their specialties and defining characteristics are. This is a pretty common narrative device but, it was somewhat repetitive in its presentation here, seeing as how the book opened with a who’s who of Fiat Lux. It’s a minor complaint, one that’s more likely an editorial afterthought — but it’s something that stuck out to me.
Another thing that was hard not to notice here was the depiction of women here. Yes, I understand that it was a different time and women were treated like garbage. I’m not saying I need to see a lady crusader going all stabby stabby on the enemies of the Church — though I’m almost positive that Abel’s secret is that he’s a woman — but it’d be nice to at least have one…speak?
The only women present in Pestilence 1 are those who are being raped by the invading forces of Sir Archibald. Tieri and Okunuv are trying to underline the fact that these are heinous monsters of men that are worthy of a gruesome end by Fiat Lux’s swords. This is a point I can understand, even though they might go a little too far trying to make that point.
The real issue I have here is with Oleg Okunuv’s character designs for the females present in Pestilence 1. Scan your eyes across these panels of gluttony and rape and the only females you’ll find are big-breasted, big-hipped and teeny-tiny waisted. They are essentially pornstars: “perfect” women invented by the male gaze. Maybe they’re captive slaves, maybe they’re willing participants or even prostitutes. But by sexualizing them with this modern look of beauty, Okunuv undercuts the notion that what we’re witnessing is horrible. The message gets muddied and makes me feel kinda dirty.
Let’s talk zombies, shall we? I think it’s safe to say that we are all collectively over zombies as a society, don’t you think? The tired longevity of The Walking Dead — comic and TV show — is a great example of this. It’s a popular trope much like the concept itself: an overwhelming, unstoppable force of braindead garishness. So as a concept I don’t think I’m all that interested in the zombie genre anymore.
That being said, I don’t hate the concept of Crusaders vs. the undead. After Fiat Lux chops up Archibald’s pals, they run into a lone zombie who attacks them. “This is surely the work of Satan himself,” one of them says. This is where the concept makes itself work: God vs Satan. Fiat Lux, an army of light vs the undead, an…Army of Darkness?
But contrary to what it may seem, I didn’t hate Pestilence 1. Frank Tieri has a tight script that doesn’t feel over-explainy and gives you a sense of who these loveable murderers are. Naked ladies aside Oleg Okunev has some striking imagery, often having characters extend beyond the breaches of their panels. What if the plague was actually a zombie epidemic? Who doesn’t love a little bit of revisionist history?
Drew, do you love a little bit of revisionist history? What do you think of these Fiat Lux potty mouths? Are you on board with the gratuitous swearing, nudity and violence or does it seem excessive? Or is this a purposeful overindulgence of R-rated material?
Drew: You know, I picked up this series because I thought its revisionist take on the black plague would be fun, but this issue left me cold. For me, a big part of this is that this issue doesn’t seem to have a strong sense of its own identity. Is it a story about a man separated from his wife? Or about a ragtag team of assassins? Or maybe it’s a Pride and Prejudice and Zombies-style “accurate, aside from the zombies” historical drama? It tries to be all three, and thus never really finds space for its own voice, feeling more like a first draft list of ideas than a finished story.
Part of the problem may be that the creative team is clearly not on the same page. Michael is absolutely right to point out how the “hey look! Boobs” depiction of the women in this issue is completely at odds with the horrors that are meant to be conveyed in those panels, but I was actually struck by the discrepancies we see between the script for page 2 (included in the back of the issue) and the finished product. Tieri gives a lot of details that don’t make it into the finished art, but the most perplexing is that he specifically calls for a closeup of the book in Roderick’s hand so that we can read “The Diary of Roderick Helms” on its cover.
It’s unclear where this detail was lost in the process, but the fact that this page was effectively built around that reveal — going so far as to still have a closeup of the book but still somehow lacking an explanation of what it is — gives me pause. Whether that change is the result of a simple lettering error or an editorial decision made after the page was already drawn doesn’t really matter; the problem is that the page is at odds with itself, investing in the importance of that book while also completely failing to identify it as anything important. It makes for a perplexing read.
Michael also already mentioned the opening roll call, but I think it’s worth dwelling upon, because it really feels like an odd choice. As a rule, I tend to hate opening a narrative with paragraphs of context — if the story itself can’t successfully introduce the world, the characters, and their motivation, it should go back for another scripting draft. Even worse, the title crawl here doesn’t just explain what has already happened, but what will happen in the issue we’re about to read. The events of the issue should speak for themselves, and the fact that somebody felt the need to explain them betrays another little disconnect between the creatives and editorial.
That the events of the issue are spoiled on that page is particularly disconcerting, since Tieri clearly means for much of the events to be a surprise. We get in-narrative introductions to the characters and their world that are rendered redundant because of the opening page — including, perhaps vitally, that Roderick’s team is much larger than just his right-hand man. There could be some tension in introducing our heroes in captivity, but because we know that they have unseen accomplices somewhere, we’re waiting for that axe to drop, rather than fearing for our heroes. It takes a surprise and turns it into something predictable, which is a deadly sin for a first issue.
Then again, Tieri kind of undermines the final reveal of this issue by opening with a flash-forward containing it’s own mini-reveal of zombies. That opening is so invested in that reveal, it’s distractingly cagey with details, hoping to somehow keep us hooked until the zombies arrive. It’s a bizarre gambit, but is downright perplexing when the issue closes with a similar reveal, pulling out not to a massive cathedral surrounded by zombies, but the vatican city surrounded by zombies. I guess that’s an upping of the stakes, but because our heroes have seen neither at this point, the takeaway that “zombies are coming” is the same for both. Misusing a flash-forward in that way would be bad enough, but for all of Roderick’s narration about exposing “the terrible, terrible truth,” he never explicitly says “the black plague isn’t what you think it is,” which is the obvious hook that this issue somehow never articulates. The one benefit of opening with narration that already knows the truth is that we can be told it, but we somehow don’t ever get that. That horrible opening title crawl tries to remedy this, but again, any important details should come from the events of the issue itself.
So yeah, I really didn’t enjoy this issue. We didn’t spend nearly enough time with our heroes (of which I think there are simply too many), instead spending far too much time with a completely irrelevant villain (who speaks more than most of our heroes), all to never quite establish what should be the funnest part of the series. It could be that one or another on this creative team has a solid idea for what this series could and should be, but it’s clearly getting lost in the collaboration. It’s a real shame.