The Exterminators Vol. 1: Bug Brothers
Simon Oliver, writer
Tony Moore, artist
Originally written on November 2, 2006 for publication in The Comics Journal
Conspiracy theory has long been the hallmark of a certain strain of DC-subimprint storytelling. From Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles to Warren Ellis’s Planetary, the edgier edges of Time Warner’s sequential art empire are rife with tales of beautiful badasses whose proficiency in matters of philosophy, style and killing people enable them to thwart the world’s secret chiefs and revel in knowledge withheld from the blissfully ignorant masses. The Exterminators is almost a willful antithesis to such books: Here, the people who unearth the true world order are an assortment of creepy working stiffs who kill bugs for a living.
If anything, first-time comics writer Simon Oliver actually goes overboard in serving up steaming piles of anti-glamour in this opening chapter of what augurs to be an apocalyptic conflict between humanity and an army of nature-run-amok creature-feature “smart roaches.” If Oliver had one Direct Market retailer order for every time one of his characters says “motherfucker,” he’d be well clear of the cancellation threshold. Meanwhile, the (self-conscious) sexiness of the Illuminatus!-inspired work delivered by his UK-based counterparts is transmogrified here into a sordid vibe that borders on misogyny whenever sexuality is broached. The archvillain of the piece is a lesbian corporate overlord who inducts new recruits (like lead character and ex-con Henry James’s restless girlfriend Laura) into her sinister enterprise by fucking them; future installments of the series introduce a new prostitute love interest for Henry who dresses up like famous literary figures for her johns, and an obese researcher who obliviously bangs a shady scientist who all but wears an “I’m a Fugitive Khmer Rouge War Criminal” T-shirt. Aside from the single angelic Hispanic mother whose horrific roach infestation serves as the central plot of this volume (and it’s not like that cliched character does much to ameliorate the other ones), women in The Exterminators haven’t yet proven to be a whole lot more than whores.
But based on this volume, I’m willing to give Oliver time to fix that problem. There’s something enormously refreshing about Henry, a character who genuinely enjoys the break he’s making from his criminal past and the hard but rewarding work he’s doing at the Bug-Bee-Gone company, run by his step-father Nils. Even as he’s slowly drawn into the mysteries of Egyptian bug gods, super-roaches and sci-fi biological weapons (developed by the corporation at which Laura is exploring her lipstick-lesbian side), he never cops a “look how cool I am” attitude nor a working class anti-hero pose–Oliver’s delightful scripting shows him attacking each problem like it’s a particularly frightening and yet potentially surmountable obstacle in a 9-to-5 job. He’s aided tremendously in this by the effortlessly pleasant cartooning of Tony Moore. His oblong faces and expressive eyes give each of his characters the kind of air that, were they real people, would make you come home from a day at work and say to your significant other, “You know such-and-such? Man, there’s just something about that guy I really like.” Moore broke out by helping to launch Robert Kirkman’s hit zombie epic The Walking Dead, and he’s just as proficient with horror-genre tropes here as he was there, from bug-ridden corpses to armies of the bugs themselves.
Overall Bug Brothers is skeevy fun, which is probably exactly what it set out to be, and the bargain price DC slapped it with will hopefully go a long way toward encouraging readers to pick up one of Vertigo’s most unique offerings. It’s not a series I want to see go legs-up anytime soon.