What Crawls Beneath It’s A Bug’s Life in The Exterminators

What Crawls Beneath It’s A Bug’s Life in The Exterminators
It starts with the bugs. What better symbol to represent the widening gulf between haves and have-nots in Los Angeles than the teeming underground of vermin: cockroaches, rats, raccoons - an invasive, unwanted infestation that lurks below, in unthinkable numbers, too powerful and yep, too icky to really contemplate. That’s the world that first-time comics scribe Simon Oliver tackles in The Exterminators, which follows ex-con Henry as he tries to rebuild his life by working for his girlfriend’s father’s pest control company, Bug-Bee-Gone.

Yet even in the first few pages of The Exterminators, it’s clear there’s more going on here than bug spray: Henry draws parallels between Los Angeles and the fall of the Roman Empire; his immediate supervisor, the slimy and crude AJ, has developed a nasty habit of injecting the latest in bug poison, called Draxx; and Bug-Bee-Gone’s chief scientist, Sal Saloth, has a mysterious past that may connect to Cambodian dictator Pol Pot. As the early issues of The Exterminators unfold, it develops along not-unfamiliar lines - as Henry tackles the daily grind-under-his-boot of exterminating, his relationship with his girlfriend, Laura, starts to unravel. He’s enjoying the satisfaction only hard labour can offer; she’s on the rise in the corporate world of Ocran, not-coincidentally the parent company that makes not-what-it-seems bug dope Draxx.

From the outset, there’s a sense that The Exterminators has bigger issues and broader scope in mind than just this greedy corporate conspiracy. The moment that AJ injects Draxx into his vein, literate readers (and Cronenberg fans) spot the Naked Lunch parallels. But the literary sensibilities come into clearer focus when, on a bug call, Henry meets Page, a "literary hooker.” At her high-class place of work, clients enter literary fantasies, including the William Burroughs room, where paying customers re-enact his infamous "William Tell” routine before having a shag. Down the hall, one finds rooms honouring Lewis Carroll (Alice In Wonderland), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World, The Doors of Perception) and of course Franz Kafka (The Metamorphosis). Oliver keeps the high and low culture in balance, contrasting high-minded symbolism (including a fascination with Egyptology) with some disgusting anti-vermin violence, sexual shenanigans and underground fight clubs involving man-vs-rat. When AJ meets an unfortunate end, Henry’s new partner is Stretch, a cowboy hat wearing vegetarian Buddhist who’s also a top-notch exterminator. (How’s that for karma?) Oliver plays Stretch for laughs as much as wisdom, and the smarts lend an air of sophistication to the staff at Bug-Bee-Gone.

British writer Oliver brings a unique sensibility to this subject matter. He sees the surface glitz and underlying rot of Los Angeles with the clear eyes of an outsider; the fact that he travelled extensively in developing countries before arriving Stateside is demonstrated not only in his political sensibilities, but also in the broad worldview of his reference points. For one thing, he’s not afraid of political hot buttons, even if they are disguised in a disgusting soup of sewer waste. The second trade paperback collection of Exterminators is called Insurgency; as the Bug-Bee-Gone team face a newly organised front of bug swarms - much more of a challenge than they initially expected - the war against the vermin "insurgents” takes on much more than literal terms.

It’s just one example that demonstrates Oliver is not a comics scribe content to merely reference its own inward world; he simply (and rightly) sees comics as the purest form of storytelling available to him, in which he can both realise his ambitions and not be curtailed by more censorious forms of entertainment.

Television is of course one of those scaredy-cat media that wouldn’t go near The Exterminators; Oliver initially wanted to develop it as a series for television but even the bravest cable outlet wouldn’t allow him the freedom - nor the budget - to tell these stories. It’s no coincidence that the first trade paperback, Bug Brothers, features a prominent pull-quote that calls its publisher, Vertigo, "the HBO of the comic book world.” Ironically, success in the comics world is turning out to be the latest fast-track into television and movies, as Brian K. Vaughn (Y: The Last Man and Lost), Jeph Loeb (Batman and Heroes) and many others can attest. Oliver is continuing to write spec scripts in an effort to break into television and films, but The Exterminators remains his only published work so far, though he’s rumoured to be developing a crime noir comic for Vertigo.

The Exterminators should keep him busy for at least the next couple of years; he sees it as a self-contained story that, like Vaughn’s Last Man epic, will conclude around issue #50. A dozen issues in, The Exterminators gets more fascinating, broader and more ambitious with every issue and Simon Oliver is proving himself to be one rookie writer who’s having a spectacular debut - albeit a dirty, disgusting, icky one.