If you tossed Outbreak into a blender along with Jurassic Park, then peppered it with a dash of Encino Man, you’d probably get something similar to RETROVIRUS.
I decided to give this latest Image release a chance largely on the strength of some of the past work by the creative team of Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti. While my reading was primarily centered on things like All-Star Western, the writing was always tight enough that I was intrigued to see them do a genre thriller like this.
A group of world-class scientists have been assembled to analyze cell samples drawn from a source that has far-reaching implications for history, archeology, and virology. Then all hell breaks loose.
Without spoiling anything (because this story is full of fantastic twists and turns), I can say that the story rarely lets the reader breathe. After concise character introductions, it moves along very rapidly. The way that Palmiotti and Gray manage to create such distinct personalities so quickly is a testament to compressed storytelling. The approach shows one of the best things about limited series or graphic novels as compared to monthly ongoings. We learn just enough about each of the characters to give us a sense of who they are, what they want, and how they’re likely to respond in certain situations, then we jump right back into the meat of the story. There is none of the extensive “talking heads” syndrome that seems to plague a great number of the monthlies, and they manage to pack more story into 72 pages than a lot of series do in a 12-issue run.
(Speaking of 72 pages, I’d like to pause for a moment to acknowledge how wonderful but rare it is to get this much story for such a low cover price. Digitally (which is how I read this book, sorry retailers), this book goes for $6.99. When the monthly comic reader is shelling out two-thirds of that for page counts which dip as low as 20, books like this are more than a bargain. Now that this wallet-rant is over, I return you to your regularly scheduled review…)
What I enjoyed most about this book was the characterization. Despite not beating the reader over the head with exposition to help define who each person is, the men and women who populate the research station all seem like very real people. There is nothing that they do, despite the extraordinary circumstances in which they find themselves, that seems to defy ordinary human convention. This is no small thing. Too often in comics, characters are mere foils for plot twists, and the result is something that comes off feeling very much like a soap opera. Even Marvel’s super-heroes-as-ordinary-people motif is beholden to so many years of history that it almost impossible for the characters to converse as human beings first, and agents of an amazing story second. This is probably one of the most attractive things about independent, creator-owned work, in that new works are not chained to lasting cultural impressions.
The art on this book was my first experience with the work of Norberto Fernandez. His composition is quite good, and his grasp of forced perspective gives the panels a very dynamic feel. Often times, particularly with less-experienced artists, there is a tendency to either follow the Dave Gibbons model and throw a mass of panels on the page in a static grid or to over-experiment with panel layouts that end up looking like an eyesore. This is not the case here, as Fernandez manages to lay out and pencil the story in such a way that the panels flow smoothly and hit the story beats on target. If the art has a sore spot for me, it’s that there are some facial proportion issues which give some of the characters a less-than-human aspect. Given the subject matter, this may or may not have been intentional, but with a story that is so firmly grounded in what would seem to be a highly-possible reality, it distracts at times.
In the end, this book contains a fantastic story, dynamic art, and rock-solid characterization. It’s light on the wallet and heavy on the page count. It’s everything that’s great about creator-owned work and is well worth your time and money.