Garth Ennis’ Crossed Vol. One

Posted by on August 19th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Garth Ennis, story & Jacen Burrows, artwork; Avatar; 240 pp. Color; Hardcover, ISBN-13: 978-1592910915, $32.99; Softcover, ISBN 1592910904, $24.99

I.

It is one of the paradoxes of our culture that post-apocalyptic literature — those fantasies of plague, famine, nuclear winter, civilization collapse and social chaos — is perhaps our best example of moral fiction.

Initial appearances to the contrary, post-apocalyptic stories are not really stories of mass destruction.  Destruction is merely the premise; it forms the background of the narrative.  Really, they are stories of survival.  Nor is post-apocalyptic literature nihilistic; it represents, instead, what comes after nihilism.

Mad Max is apocalyptic: it depicts the collapse of social values, ending with the protagonist’s abandonment of moral restraint and his initiation into a new world of creeping barbarism.  The Road Warrior, on the other hand, is a tale of redemption.  In this sequel, Max rediscovers a purpose beyond that of mere survival; he finds something worthy of sacrifice — a sense of community, a hope for a better future.

Likewise, Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road received a lot of attention for its unremittingly grim picture of life in a poisoned world — scarcity leading quickly to cruelty, and despair to depravity.  But The Road is also a tender story about a father’s desire to care for and protect his son.  The book is about the horrible things human beings can do to each other when they lack the necessities of life.  But it is also about the value of particular human beings —  if only their value for each other.

Even at the end of the world, there is love.

II.

There have been a lot of post-apocalyptic comics of late — Wasteland, Freak Angels and the “survival horror” zombie series, The Walking Dead, to name a few.  But the purest example of the genre — working without recourse to superpowers or undead hordes — is likely Garth Ennis’ Crossed.

In Crossed, humanity is decimated by a world-wide plague that produces madness, unleashing the most sadistic impulses of its victims. As is typical of the genre, the story focuses on a small group of strangers thrown together by circumstance.  It follows them as they search for supplies, try to avoid the kill-crazy rapist cannibals, and slowly form a plan for the longer term:  “It was like that, that first year.  Meeting others.  Learning, preparing.  Being ready to kill a stranger or a friend, before they do the same or worse to you.  Moving on, quashing every thought and feeling, not least of which was what it might be doing to your soul.”

Survival is only half the challenge.  The other half is hanging onto the idea that it is worth surviving, and learning to live with yourself and the things that you’ve done:  “Stay alive.  Stay human.  Never mind that you could end up one without the other.”

But then, “even the regrets and the guilt we’ve been carrying with us, that’s what makes us different from them.”

Those infected — called “the crossed” because of a pattern of scars the disease leaves on their faces — aren’t mindless zombies, but something worse.  They retain their sentience, their memories, skills, knowledge and intelligence, but they lose any moral restraint, along with most of their instinct for self-preservation and even their basic impulse control.  They come to glory in pain and cruelty — even when they are its victims.  (As a group of the crossed attack one of their own, a witness reflects:  “Takes me a minute to realize whoever they got’s not screaming.  He’s laughing.”)

The crossed are, in essence, the worst aspects and cruelest impulses of ordinary human beings.  They are, truly, insane — but they also know what they are doing, they recognize the people they abuse and mutilate, and they enjoy it.  Ennis thus has plenty of opportunity to display his trademark flourishes of grotesque violence and dark humor — but here, unlike in so much of his work, they are put to good use and serve a purpose beyond mere gross-out, “man, that’s fucked up,” shock value.

“There was no great secret to the crossed.  I’d never seen one do anything a human being couldn’t think of doing.  Hadn’t thought of doing.  Hadn’t done.  They were all the awful aspects of humanity magnified a hundred-thousandfold.  But they were nothing more.  Where did they come from?  Us.  They were every brute.  Every sadist.  Every rapist, pedophile, render and torturer.  Every ethnic cleanser, serial murderer, zealot, tyrant, holy killer.  Every terrorist and bomber.  Every smirking criminal in office.  Every shitty, cruel parent who should never have had kids.  And every bad, debasing thing that men and women have to do to deal with evil, the marks left slashed across out souls.

III.

The question post-apocalypse stories pose is the question of human nature.  What, exactly, makes us human?  Beneath our social roles, and our petty quotidian dramas, and our consumer goods and obedience to authority — who are we?

The literature offers two kinds of answers.  We are Hobbesian brutes — selfish, violent, amoral, and (at best) cunning.  And we are, in a sense, Diggers — cooperative, compassionate, solidarity and humane. Crossed likewise shows us two versions of humans in the ungoverned state of nature, and perhaps surprisingly, Ennis argues for the more optimistic view — a tendency more in the direction of mutual aid than toward the war of all against all.

Ennis’ apocalypse, unlike that of Mad Max, is not just a case of “things fall apart.”  The crossed are infected with a virus, and this biological origin is important — not only for the plot, but for the politics of the story.  As one of the characters explains:

“It goes a lot further than some kind of grown-up Lord of the Flies.  It’s more like what our brains naturally prevent us from doing — for the sake of self-preservation, even for the survival of the species.  It’s primal.  And that part of the brain just switches off. . . .”

The point, here, is that even though human beings obviously can behave like the crossed, it is, in a perfectly coherent sense, unnatural for them to do so.  And this judgment is not just a matter of moral prejudice.  In purely Darwinist terms, unrestrained violence is not a good evolutionary strategy.  As Pyotr Kropotkin observed more than a century ago, cooperation is at least as important for survival as competition.

No one would accuse Ennis of being a utopian.  He takes every opportunity to stress what a bad place the world is.  And he never even seems tempted to idealize his characters:  they can be petty, callous, and sort-sighted and they sometimes do terrible things in their struggle to survive.  But he does, nevertheless, put together a story that — despite, or perhaps, because of its horror — presents a very hopeful view of humanity.

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2 Responses to “Garth Ennis’ Crossed Vol. One”

  1. Timfastic says:

    This may come across as a bit harsh, so please take it in stride, as it is simply my opinion (both of the comic and of this review).

    A rather painfully simplistic review of this comic, regurgitating the same discussion of post-apocalyptic narratives that have been written for time immemorial.

    This statement alone shows a general misunderstanding of Ennis’s work, ” unlike in so much of his work, they are put to good use and serve a purpose beyond mere gross-out, “man, that’s fucked up,” shock value.” This stands out like a sore thumb when reading this review. If you are reading the work of Ennis, and you think this is the single comic he’s written in which his humor and violence serves a greater purpose, then you are very poorly mistaken. It is so incredibly distracting to see this line in the work of someone who is supposedly working in a more intelligent context of comic critique.

    I think an obvious part of the “crossed” that is not mentioned in this analysis is that of pleasure. The crossed aren’t just simply aware of their brutalization of people, but they take pleasure in it. This moves away from the realm of a Hobbsian perspective (though, I can understand it’s usage, considering the narrative motifs…) and possibly shifts to a Freudian analysis, in terms of pure Id. Pleasure is important in this context – just look at the crossed, they are always smiling. This also connects to the use of rape within the series. When one sees the panels of rape within the series, it is beyond an expression of power. Rape, in a literary context, is often used as an expression of power rather than an act of pleasure, which is why in this context, where the usage is reversed from its traditional usage, it is all the more terrifying, as the crossed are displayed as being beyond the politics of social power.

    Another element that is missing is that of religion. They are “the crossed,” and bear the mark of a crucifix. Not discussing the allegory of religious social brutality is criminal when discussing this series, particularly when it is a reoccurring thematic device in the work of Ennis.

  2. […] became aware of a post about Crossed at The Comic Journal, a site that I probably should be reading, but again, I’ve […]