When something's strange and it don't look good, who ya gonna call? No, not them-you're going to call the stars of DC Comics/Vertigo's "The Exterminators." The mature readers series has quickly garnered a strong following, as fans have found that killing bugs and exploring complicated relationships produce quite the engaging combination. Add in the always acclaimed art of Tony Moore, subversive scripting by Simon Oliver and you've got the next big Vertigo hit series on your hands. CBR News caught up with Oliver to learn more about the book and what new readers can expect from the series.
"The quickie version is it's about our delicate balance with mother nature," Oliver told CBR News of the series' premise. "A small group of pest control workers defend the thin line that divides our civilization from the chaotic power that mother nature can unleash on us in the form of pests.
"That's the basic premise, from there my ADD kicks in big time and the subplots spin out in about 58 different directions, we have Khmer Rouge flashbacks, white supremacists, literary sexual fantasies, Egyptian mythology, corporate intrigue, and a cockroach gel that doubles up as a narcotic that makes the user explode. I throw a pretty wide net so it's a lot of fun to try and weave it all together.
"The hero is our man Henry James, shady past, making good now in his stepfather's bug company. His partner Stretch is a Zen quoting cowboy. Ex-girlfriend Laura is clawing her way up the corporate ladder at Ocran, (the company that happens makes the bug poison/ drug). Current girlfriend Page works in the literary fantasy peep show. Dr. Wolfe was a Junge groupie and therapist to the Nazi's. Mrs. Perez was a customer of sorts in the first arc and is now becoming a full on Exterminator herself, Saloth the company scientist was a Khmer Rouge doctor, kind of a Cambodian Dr. Mengele. AJ was killed by Draxx in the 2nd issue and as his body passed through the afterlife CJ picked it up, so CJ was AJ, sort of."
In a medium as diverse as comic books, fans are accustomed to the unusual, but "The Exterminators" is a more unique mix of stories than readers might expect. The book deals with an "X-Files"-esque conspiracy, the nature of man, a little bit of horror and the rigors of marriage. "The kicking off point was to create a bug version of 'Six Feet Under,"" explained Oliver. "Taking something very ordinary, something that's always under our noses everyday and blowing it up, running with it and seeing where it would go. I'm kind of a sponge for what ever I'm reading about at the time, and I'm always kind of spitting parts of it back up into the narrative.
"I did a lot of reading about bugs, rode with an Exterminator, subscribe to the magazines. I've become quite versed in pest control, so much so I'm pretty much the first person friends turn to for pest control advice. I could class myself as a 'lay Exterminator.'
"I'm starting to think of it as a three ring circus style of writing. The great thing about a monthly that is, spread over time is that you can branch out and without being limited to one genre or style within the book. I also wanted to hit a lot of things along the way on this, have it gross and borderline bathroom humor one minute and spouting Zen philosophy the next. One page we squash a rat the next we have Henry dealing with a real life relationship issue. As nuts as it may sound I think it helps to ground the book with a foundation of reflecting real life. We bounce around like that on most days."
Keeping the series grounded is Henry James, the aforementioned lead who gets thrown in some very unexpected situations, but manages to feel "real" in every scene. Fans have commented on the authenticity of James and to that Oliver responds, "Well he's someone who has a less than glorious past and now he's trying to redeem himself. In varying degrees I think that probably accounts for about 98% of us. Also if you fill the supporting cast with some real sleaze bags he becomes, by comparison far more likeable."
In between all the extermination, romance, dark humor and intrigue, there's some very strong social commentary in "The Exterminators." Asked if he's trying to make a specific commentary on the world, Oliver replied, "Well first off I'm British but left 15 years ago, lived around the world and eventually settled in Los Angeles. So I have dual citizenship, US and British, the 'Frik and Frak' of international diplomacy, although actually proven now in Iraq the British passport buys me 38 hours longer in a hostage situation.
"Yeah I find it kind of hard to get up I the morning and tune all that stuff out. I try and put what's going on now in context of what's gone down in the past. Historically we seem to bounce between a bumblingly incompetent government and a criminally incompetent one.
"Unfortunately, for a writer it's getting a little like shooting fish in a barrel when it comes to using some of the themes bouncing around out there at the moment. I'm afraid that if I ever wrote a kids book it would end up with Jack and Jane in stress positions at Guantánamo.
"But yeah I do try and touch on certain things when I see an opportunity in the context of the book narrative, but it has to be a part of the whole.
"It's part of less a direct statement than a bubbling frustration I have about the lost potential of our current situation. Maybe not being born in the U.S. I'm missing something, but as the richest country in the history of the world can't we manage a health care system, or a decent school system?
"Just on the basis of those two issues I'm kind of scared about the future for my kids.
"Anyway it's all part of a much bigger question that a comic book about bugs."
Aiding in bringing these nuanced stories to life is artist Tony Moore, whose work has earned the artist a lot of acclaim. So why is he so perfect for the book? "He's grubby and nasty, what more can I say," smiled Oliver.
Moore has publicly joked that he'd go over to Oliver's house and "kick his ass" if the scribe included "draw swarms of bugs" in another script. With that in mind, CBR News had to find out if Oliver had learned any new ways to drive his artist crazy. "Writing a script that calls for visual characteristics on individual ants would be a start," he revealed.
Both creators have been received near universal praise for their work on "The Exterminators" and while they're not about to complain, they're not letting it influence their work. "As cool as I would like to be about that part, it's nice to get good reviews and it hurts to get slated," admitted Oliver. "But when you're faced with a blank page you have to forget about what other people think and say and be true to your gut feelings. Personally I'm really happy with the way the book came out, as a first book and writing project for me a lot of that can be attributed to Jon Vankin, (my editor), Tony and everyone else who has had their hands on it and weighed in."
Some creators worry about the "other shoe dropping" when it comes to fan support, and while Oliver won't deny it's crossed his mind, it doesn't keep him awake at night. "I'm looking at all this as a starting point on 'The Exterminators' and any other projects I'm working on. There's always room for improvement and new ideas out there. If you don't think you can do better it's probably time to do something else.
"Someone told me the test of whether you were in the right career or not is, 'would you still do it if you weren't being paid?' No doubt in my mind on that."
With Vertigo's quick turn out of trade paperback collections of "Exterminators," some fans may eschew the monthly issues for the collections. It's an issue on which many creators argue for and against, since the life of a comic can often depend on monthly sales. "First off I'm happy that anyone is reading it, monthly or trade," said Oliver. "From what very little I know about the comic business and it's history, it seems like the non-superhero books are not selling as much as they once did in the monthly form, the if's, and's and but's of it I don't know. There's some great work going on out there that deserves a bigger readership, maybe it's a good time to look into other ways of bringing in the wider audience that I think maybe out there outside the traditional direct comic market, but once again I don't really know that much about the business side."
For those current "Exterminators" readers, Oliver was happy to offer some hints as to the future of the series and a certain animal. "The present arc is a Laura-centric story, she's on the way to a full character redemption until faced with making choice about the future of the Draxx program, and related to that story line is an interesting death by cactus.
"Her decision sets the ball rolling for the 2nd half of the big story, and when a new, previously lost species of bug turns up in a banana container all the pieces start to fall into place for the big showdown of man vs. pest.
"They will be aided by good old CJ and a "fifth column" of human's deep within Ocran. They're the natives of a South Pacific Island lost by global warming who are in possession of a testament written by the mysterious Mr. Crawley (the original money partner in Bug Bee Gone), a document that prophecies the future of our dysfunctional civilization.
"Oh and we blow up a hamster - it's all good stuff."