A college campus transforms into a lawless land of quarantined dorms and sickly students following a virus outbreak in Lazaretto. Written by Clay McLeod Chapman and illustrated by artist Jey Levang, the complete comic book miniseries was recently unleashed as a graphic novel by BOOM! Studios and Simon & Schuster, and to celebrate its release, we caught up with Chapman (who is also the creator and performer of The Pumpkin Pie Show) in our latest Q&A to discuss the necessity of telling this story in the comic book medium, collaborating creatively with Levang and BOOM! Studios, and how the setting of Lazaretto was partly influenced by’90s slashers and real-life college experiences.
Can you tell us where the idea for Lazaretto came from? There definitely seems to be more of a scare of global epidemics these days with ebola making its way to North America and more anti-biotic resistant strains of the flu.
Clay McLeod Chapman: Back in 2009, The New York Times wrote a piece about "self isolation facilities" popping up on college campuses as the swine flu swept through the nation. Dorms were being remodeled into collegiate quarantines, where sick students were housed until the bug burned out of them. That means no classes, no homework, nothing but a group of sick young adults crammed together in the same dorm. I remember reading that article and saying to myself, "Oh, man, there's a story here, alright." I sat on it for a few years, trying to figure out how best to tell the tale... and that's when the fine folks at BOOM! Studios came calling. The flush of swine and avian flu hung pretty damn heavily over my head while working on it, but I wanted to pick a bug that had yet to make the zoonotic leap, so... the dog flu it was!
You work in a variety of mediums. Was this always a story you wanted to tell as a comic book series?
Clay McLeod Chapman: It had to be a comic. It had to exist visually on the page. Something about the imagery really added a palpable, tangible quality to the reading experience. The pages feel sopping wet to me. Things start off dry enough, but by the end of the series, these pages are downright soaked with bodily fluids. That's all Jey. They did an amazing job of imbuing the imagery with something septic. I don't think it's any exaggeration to say that when you're done reading the damn thing, you want to crack open a bottle of hand sanitizer, because it feels like the pages themselves are covered in illness.
How did you team up with BOOM! and Jey Levang?
Clay McLeod Chapman: That was all Eric Harburn. He was the criminal mastermind at BOOM! who brought Jey and myself together... God bless him. Jey's ongoing series HeLL(P) popped up on his radar and he shared it with me and that's all it took. Love at first sight.
What was your creative process like with Jey Levang? Did the original story take any unexpected directions due to your collaboration with them?
Clay McLeod Chapman: Eric again, god bless him, pushed me to go further the deeper into the series we went. With Jey onboard, we knew things had to get intense on a visual level—and that meant pushing the envelope. Hell, it meant tearing the whole envelope up. We came up with the notion of giving the virus phases, stages where it went from bad to worse... From sneezy to wheezy to pretty gloopy and gooey.
How much of this came out of your own college experience, specifically when it came to character types and social interactions?
Clay McLeod Chapman: I don't think I'll be popping up in any alum updates by saying this, but... I totally based the college around my own personal alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College. The campus in the comic was my campus. The dorm in the story was my dorm freshman year. I have vivid memories of the building's setup, the way the campus wrapped around it, how in certain circumstances it was a total playground and in other respects a total prison. God bless it.
Lazaretto has just been collected together as a single graphic novel. Do you have plans to tell this story in another other mediums? Has there been any interest in adapting this into a movie or TV series?
Clay McLeod Chapman: I'm going to come clean and confess that when I had originally conceived of the story, I had imagined it in the vein of Urban Legends or I Know What You Did Last Summer. Or maybe even Disturbing Behavior. You know, the late ’90s ensemble slashers. Just without the slashing. Sexy kids getting gooey in their college dorm. I'm being a bit flip here... but that's truly where the idea first started. When the comic came together, the story deepened itself in surprising ways, thanks a lot to Eric and Jey. We wanted to create a suffocating experience that I really think the collected graphic novel encapsulates pretty perfectly. Having a chance to read the whole series together is the way to go. There's no chance to breathe between issues now. You're stuck in the pages, almost as much as the students are trapped in their dorm... So, yeah, hell yeah, I totally think it would make a great feature. Keep those fingers crossed.
What projects are you currently working on? What do you have coming up?
Clay McLeod Chapman: In the comics world, I'm working on a new sci-fi graphic novel for BOOM! which I'm really excited about... I've got a new horror novel that should be hitting the shelves in the fall of 2019, which I'm completely gaga over. There are some pretty cool feature film projects in the works. It's a great time to be working. I'm totally being vague, forgive me, but until I'm allowed to announce these different things, I've got to keep a wee bit mum... But suffice to say, there are a lot of stories I'm dying to tell and I can't wait to share them with you. Keep those eyes peeled.