The Exterminators is one of those comics that came out of nowhere, smacked me in the face and demanded my attention. I was working at Wizard at the time and was always looking for a new comic to check out and Exterminators was it for me. Not to toot my own horn or anything, but if you ever read anything in Wizard about this book, I probably wrote it. I think it was Book Of The Month at some point, something I had to fight for. Exterminators is one of my favorite Vertigo comics and probably their best series in a while. I was bummed to hear it got canceled and had unfortunately gotten behind in the issues, so I slowly collected the trades to read all at once at some later date. Well, that later date started last week and carried over to today when I finished the fifth volume. This is another long one, so hit the jump for the full review.
I should probably explain the comic a bit more than just saying it’s awesome. The basic premise is that this dude, our hero, Henry James has just gotten out of jail and is working at his new step father’s exterminator business Bug-Bee-Gone. Meanwhile, there’s something weird going on with Draxx, the latest in bug-killing chemicals. And by weird I mean that it mutates certain kinds of pests so they no longer have the genetic restraints for things like size and ability to procreate. All of which leads to an all out war between man and bugs by the end of the series.
The series (which ran for 30 issues total) reminded me a lot of Preacher. You’ve got a mysterious yet chivalrous hero with his fair share of lady problems (his new girlfriend Page is a literary stripper) dropped into a supernatural problem he knows nothing about, but is willing to fight the good fight. There’s also plenty of corrupt, terrible people around him, though he has a solid group of confidants he grows to rely on. I don’t make the comparison to say that Oliver cribbed from Garth Ennis’ book, I just say that to get you interested if you’re not already. In fact, there’s a physical injury that Henry suffers at the end that Jesse Custer also survived that I probably would have changed if I was Oliver, but it’s not that big of a deal.
I want to elaborate a bit on the place of the supernatural in Exterminators. I wasn’t expecting it because the book seems so firmly planted in the real world what with them killing all manner of creatures from bugs to animals. But, having read it all in a short period of time, it all makes sense and fits. It’s kind of like an Indiana Jones movie where you’re solidly in the real world for most of it and then you’ve got thousand year old Grail knights or guys ripping hearts out through chests. In this case, the supernatural elements stem from Egyptology. I have no idea whether the gods mentioned in the comic are real (I’m guessing so), but everything seemed really well put together and it was ingenious of Oliver to combine these elements with modern day exterminating, big business, a take on environmentalism, Cambodian history and the role a bug called the Mayan hisser had in the downfall of the Mayan civilization (again, something I don’t know about, but totally bought in the context of the story). I think it’s Oliver’s ability to weave these real world elements in with the supernatural ones that makes them make sense within the story.
But a story can’t just be told with creative details, the characters also have to be there. Now, unfortunately, towards the end of the book we lose some of the characters we were introduced to. I’m guessing that Oliver had more story to tell and had to sacrifice some characters like Henry’s mom and her step son in favor of actually finishing the overall arc of the book. Regardless, the characters that are around are very intriguing. Henry’s a lot of fun to read, especially as you learn more about his past. Then you’ve got his bug brother Stretch, a Buddhist with a mean streak and a cowboy hat. Nils, Henry’s stepfather, is of the old school. He’s been in the pest killing biz for years, in fact inheriting the business from his own father who has an interesting past. AJ’s a scumball beyond the pale. Saltoh is a man of science with a very dark past. The list really could go on and on. I can’t think of a single character that wasn’t at least reasonably fleshed out.
And, considering I’m talking about a comic book here, you can’t ignore the artwork. For my money, no one draws a creepier bug than Tony Moore, who can be considered the regular artist on the book since he pencilled 17 of the 30 issues. The other artists do a good job keeping up Moore’s aesthetic while using their own styles, but none of them quite hit the absolute creepiness of the swarms Moore did. I really wish he could have stuck around for the full series, but he had Fear Agent to do, a book I’ve never read, but have heard is very similar to Exterminators (but in space). I know that a few people from back in the day at Wizard couldn’t stomach reading Exterminators because of how gross the bugs look (we used to read new comics at lunch all the time, which didn’t help).
And for anyone wondering whether this book should really fall into the horror category, the book is basically about monsters trying to destroy a city and then humanity as a whole. Oh, plus it’s gross at times. Let’s just say that bugs aren’t the only things that get annihilated.
So, I can’t recommend a self-contained book more than Exterminators. It really is the full package as far as I’m concerned. And, unlike some books that got canceled before their time, it definitely has an ending. Yes, some elements don’t get addressed before the very end (What was the deal with Nils and his son? Who gave Saloth the Draxx information in Vegas?), but it feels complete enough for me. Word on the street (ie Wikipedia) is that Exterminators might be making it’s way to television thanks to Showtime, which is interesting because it started as a TV pitch). My fingers are crossed. Plus, you’ve gotta love a book that uses a quote you wrote on the cover (#10, it reads “With more intriguing plot twists than ‘Lost’, THE EXTERMINATORS seems poised for a long, mind-blowing run.” – WIZARD Magazine). That’s my first (and I believe only) cover pull quote!