Interview: Clay McLeod Chapman on BOOM! Studios’ Lazaretto

Lazaretto #1

Lazaretto #1

Clay McLeod Chapman has written books, plays, comics, and more. Now he joins forces with artist Jey Levang for Lazaretto from BOOM! Studios. This horrific story of a pandemic takes place in a quarantined dorm on a college campus as the rules of society break down. Chapman tells Westfield’s Roger Ash more about this exciting new series.

Westfield: What is the genesis of Lazaretto?

Clay McLeod Chapman: Would you believe me if I told you Lazaretto is based on a true-ish story? Remember how back in 2009, when the Swine Flu pandemic was coming on strong? The school year had just kick-started and a handful of infected kids were heading off to college for the best years of their lives. This outbreak was particularly nasty and universities across the country had to figure out—and fast—how to tackle containing a campus-wide pandemic. So, a lot of schools started these “isolation facilities.” Dorm quarantines. You go in sniffling, you don’t come out until you’re symptom free… These kids didn’t have to deal with classes or homework. Can you imagine? Students were turning the whole experience into a snotty slumber party. I remember hearing about these on-campus quarantines and just thinking to myself, This is a perfect recipe for anarchy, if you just adjust the dials on the bug a bit. Like a zombie outbreak but without the, you know, zombies. You get to deal with society collapsing and cultural upheaval and chaos but within a tighter, more intimate aperture.

Charles character design by artist Jey Levang

Charles character design by artist Jey Levang

Westfield: Where did the title come from?

Chapman: There are two people who I owe virtually everything to when it comes to this comic. First up is my dream editor Eric Harburn. He humored me when I pitched the story, saw the desiccated nugget of potential in it, and has shepherded the narrative along every step of the way since. He’s pushed me, challenged me, and championed me in ways that I feel elevate the story far beyond my scrappy imagination. He even came up with the title. Or maybe I should say the collective brain-trust at BOOM! Studios central came up with the title and Eric serenaded me in his best Jack White karaoke-stylings and I was sold.

A lazaretto is, simply put, a leper colony for wayward travelers. You’d find them along the coasts where sickened sailors would need to be put under quarantine. There’s something eerily fitting about a college thematically dovetailing with one of these maritime quarantines, in my mind. For those first few weeks at school, no freshman feels settled. Everything is so discombobulating. You’re displaced. To be under quarantine in your dorm, away from home, your family… you might as well be a sailor wasting away in some far-off lazaretto.

Plus, it sounds like lasers.

Westfield: What can readers look forward to in the book?

Chapman: They can look forward to that creeping feeling of never wanting to touch a door handle for fear of it being covered in bacteria. That sense of dread that comes over you when you’re sitting in proximity to some stranger who suddenly sneezes. That queasiness you get when you borrow a pen and realize, too late, that the pen itself was in somebody else’s mouth… and it’s still wet. We want you to feel icky. We want to make your skin crawl.

We’re giving new meaning to the phrase “spitting distance.” We want to frighten you on a cellular level. Literally. We want to force the reader’s body into self-defense mode, like white blood cells battling against our comic book. And while this is all happening to you, dear reader, just know we were all having a blast putting this book together.

Westfield: Who are the main characters we’ll meet?

Chapman: We’ve got a solid cross-section of students to introduce… I’ve talked a bit about our main characters, Charles and Tamara. Both are freshmen coming from different backgrounds, both arrive for their first day of school with the hope of discovering themselves.

But you’ve got to have your foils. So, there’s Henry, the RA for the boys’ hall. Imagine that one senior guy who is perfect in, like, every way. Intelligent. Grounded. Good-looking. Charming. Of the Earth. Into hiking. Philosophy guy. He can quote Kant like it’s a poem he just wrote for you earlier that afternoon. He knows a lot about, you know, politics and stuff. He’s ambrosia. Maybe there was a thing with him and some freshman girl that was hush-hush, him being an RA and all. But you get the perfect. Wolf in a philosophy major’s clothing.

Henry character design by artist Jey Levang

Henry character design by artist Jey Levang

Westfield: Do you see this story as allegorical?

Chapman: What’s great about setting this story on a college campus is that, well, I feel like college has always been a micro-rendition of the world at large. We live in a bubble for four years and our everyday interactions with our fellow classmates are magnified to Wagnerian proportions. Everything feels so immediate and vital. We live intensely, feel intensely. Our personal journeys are on scale with Joseph Campbell. Any self-discovery is momentous. And it truly is.

But what blew my mind—and broke my heart a bit—was the moment when I realized I was living within one microcosm out of Lord knows how many other collegiate microcosms spread across the country, where some version of my personal journey, still very personal to me, was being experienced by someone else at practically the same time. This didn’t diminish my college experience, but it made me realize how campuses everywhere are their own Blue Lagoons, filled with strife and political discourse and hormones and the need to understood just who you are… and more hormones.

If that bubble were the beginning of an outbreak story, then I think you can have a fresh, more fun spin on the epidemic chestnut. We’ve seen Outbreak and Contagion, where we witness the toll of a viral epidemic on a massive, global scale. But what if you were to intimate that experience on a college campus? Colleges are already closed off from the rest of the world—and yet, they are their own worlds, teeming with a whole slew of different identities, different races, different nationalities, genders, sexual preferences, political inclinations… One big melting pot. A college campus is the world-at-large simmered in a sauté pan to its most hormonal essence. Talk about a perfect place to watch the world collapse during an epidemic. It feels epic while remaining intimate.

Westfield: You’re working with artist Jey Levang. What can you say about your collaboration?

Chapman: Jey would be my second blessing who I need to give massive props to. I just saw colors for issue #1 and I’m in awe. Absolute awe. Eric brought Jey on to this project and I can’t even for a second imagine—I refuse to imagine—anyone other than Jey smearing the page with all that ink. All I can say about our collaboration is that Jey makes me look better. Whatever Jey wants to do, Jey gets to do in my book. There’s a distorted quality to the inks… like… like you picked up an old comic, somebody else’s. It’s almost as if someone accidentally spilled their drink on it. But this spill happened years ago. The drink itself dried, but it really took its toll on the image. Leeching the ink. Sapping the image. There’s a sag to the line work. What’s left is something… almost sinister. The characters are now gaunt and haunted. You’re looking at kids, college kids, good, decent human beings, but something’s happened to them. They’re distorted now. Deranged in a Dorian Gray kinda way. Whatever this fictional illness is that we’ve come up with in Lazaretto, Jey’s visual style is the perfect way to embody that seething, infectious corruption.

If anybody remembers Lazaretto five years from now, it’ll be because of Jey.

Westfield: Any closing comments?

Chapman: I’ve mouthed off a lot here, so if you’re still reading this: Thank you. And thanks to you guys at Westfield for giving me a chance to chat about Lazaretto. If it’s not clear, I really love this comic and where it’s going. We’re doing a lot of damage in five issues. If it weren’t for folks like Eric and BOOM! Studios, I honestly don’t know how I could’ve told this story. I’ve had it in my back pocket for years now… and I’m just tickled pink that I finally get to share it with y’all. Cough, cough


Lazaretto #1


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