The cover of the first volume of Simon Oliver and Tony Moore’s graphic novel series The Exterminators compares the publishing imprint Vertigo as the comic book version of television’s HBO. In that case, it’s easy to take this comparison even further and liken The Exterminators to Six Feet Under. Like Six Feet Under, The Exterminators takes an unlikely career path with a strong ick factor and uses it to look at issues of human relationships, conglomerate corporations versus independent business, life and death. However, everyone’s favourite undertaker family never had to battle an army of mutant cockroaches and a reincarnated Egyptian bug worshipper. I’m tempted to take this analogy further, but really there’s nowhere else to go with it. While Six Feet Under had the most perfect ending of any television show ever (in my completely biased and not often humble opinion), The Exterminators starts off strong but lacks momentum to bring it to a fully realized and effective ending.
Volume One: Bug Brothers (Simon Oliver & Tony Moore, 2006) introduces us to Henry James, a convicted criminal who, thanks to his step-father, has taken up the post-jail career of exterminator with Bug-Bee-Gone. Henry is learning the ropes of the vermin killing business with the very possibly deranged AJ. Exterminating is, and take this as a warning readers of a sensitive disposition, gruesomely portrayed. All the vermin are shown as vicious, drooling, diseased and the kill scenes are often full pages that bask in the glory of a successful kill. Only, these vermin aren’t completely innocent. The Bug-Bee-Gone researcher Saloth has discovered a new strain of cockroach that is not only resistant to the best roach poison, but fuelled by the very chemicals intended to kill it, mutated into something stronger and much more sinister than your average roach. The narrative in this first volume is set up so well, with every page come new possibilities and potentially intriguing side stories; such as the mysterious Saloth’s past connection to the Khmer Rouge, or Henry’s prison connection to the Aryan brotherhood, or Henry’s girlfriend Laura’s new job with Ocran – the makers of roach poison that doubles as a narcotic for humans brave enough to indulge Draxx, or the green scarab. All these little hints build anticipation for further volumes. The artwork is strangely beautiful, as though the world is being viewed through sunshine and a haze of pollution, lending it an almost otherworldly, though recognizable, murky hue.
Volume Two: Insurgency (Simon Oliver, Tony Moore, Ande Parks and Chris Samnee, 2007) continues with this narrative set up and builds on our knowledge of the characters. We’re introduced to a new love interest for Henry, Page – a literary hooker that works within the constraints of fulfilling sexual fantasies taken from literary works, proposed as a preferable option compared to the corporate career-minded Laura. An issue featuring complementary storylines that compare and contrast Page and Laura, after Laura and Henry have broken up, allows us to see the differences and similarities between them, but issues raised here are hugely contradicted by later storylines. Meanwhile, at Bug-Bee-Gone, the mutant cockroaches are infiltrating essential infrastructure and it is up to Kevin, Henry and Stretch to do the dirty work involved in clearing them out. The Exterminators really revels in the detritus of both humans and and plays on the base disgust we tend to have for bugs, rodents and vermin.
Volume Three: Lies of Our Fathers (Simon Oliver, Tony Moore, Mike Hawthorne and John Lucas, 2007) finally delves into Saloth’s back story as he fabricates his refugee past for a date. An encounter with a past comrade forces him to confront that past, and vows to never let it jeopardize his life’s work again. One of the most disturbing scenes in the series occurs in this volume, as a young boy who has just had his eyes operated on has consistent itching beneath his bandages. Just don’t expect there to be fully healed wounds and cheer beneath those bandages. Oh, and there’s another fantastically gross scene involving the resuscitation of a pet hamster. Despite some brilliantly disgusting moments, here is where the series really began to fall apart for me, as contradictions arise and problematic turns of events just aren’t as strong as those that preceeded them. Laura is set on a rape revenge path and viciously murders her boss – an image that contradicts completely with that we have of her crying to her mother and worrying about her career. And why is it that rape is used as a dramatic trope so often for female characters in graphic novels? It’s offensively reductive, and cheaply used as a convenient plot point. Though the plot twists are unpredictable and no character safe from death, it doesn’t feel like as cohesive, it seems directionless and as a reader, I lost trust in the storyline.
Volume Four: Crossfire and Collateral (Simon Oliver, Darick Robertson and Ty Templeton, 2008) features a really cool one issue story about Saloth and Stretch (the spiritual zen cowboy type who is also, if you’ll pardon a brief outburst of fangirlishness, really effing hot.) in a desert casino for a pest control convention, where more is revealed about Stretch’s shady past. This issue almost made me regain my faith in the story, but I’m thinking it was the combination of a story completely separate from the main narrative and artwork by Darick Robertson of Transmetropolitan fame that made me enjoy it so much. The rest of this volume focuses on a neighbourhood gang war over Draxx drug dealing, and the introduction of Draxx into black neighbourhoods by the Aryan brotherhood. This reads like an attempt to give The Exterminators more of a social slant, but I’m not entirely convinced. Too much of the dialogue and slang rely on painfully outdated stereotypes.
The final installment of the series, Volume Five: Bug Brothers Forever (Simon Oliver, Tony Moore, John Lucas and Ty Templeton, 2008), sees the epic showdown between bug and man that the series has been leading up to and … it’s disappointing. Again, some single story issues are entertainingly horrific, but the main narrative loses momentum as it draws to a close. The main issue is that the delineation between good and evil in The Exterminators is too convenient. The good guys – the Bug-Bee-Gones and associates – have their morally murky pasts and stories, but the bad guys are purely one dimensional. How can you create sympathy for a cockroach? It lacks the moral weight to make it truly engaging, and there never seems to be any doubt that the good guys are going to come out on top, albeit with significant losses. The final pages emphasize that this is just one battle won in a larger war of man against nature. More insight and exploration of the fascinating characters and less on the bug versus man battles would have made The Exterminators a triumph. As it is though, it’s a moderately entertaining graphic novel series that has hints of unfulfilled greatness.