The cover of Retrovirus is great, I admit. The promise of violence, a Strong Female Lead, an enigmatic plain white background – it’s full of promise. Then you turn to the back cover, and are promised de-frosted neanderthals. You can’t lose, right?
Yes. Yes, you can. This review is full of spoilers, because I read this and feel like sharing as much of the pain as I can.
I finished reading it, and had to turn back to the title page to confirm that this slab of tripe was published in 2012 and not 1962. The Strong Female Character – who has no competition, being the only female character – is one of the worst pieces of wish-fulfilment I’ve seen in a comic. This is a top scientist who, after one brief flash of realistic independent thought early on, swishes effortlessly from warrior to sex object to mother, doesn’t mind being filmed in the shower and seems to do all her science while nobody’s looking. This incredible multi-tasker is hired by an Ominous Corporation, packs all her best underwear and, at a moment’s notice, takes a seaplane to the Evil Research Base in Antarctica. What does she find there? Frozen neanderthals, of course! While researching them, she strikes up the world’s creepiest relationship with her jailer/CCTV operator, who seems to be moonlighting from his other job as a Big White Hunter. This genius has installed audio and speakers in the scientist’s bedroom cameras, but not in the lab. This leads to a key scene where the leading lady flashes the lab camera to get the Big White Hunter’s attention, which of course is how leading female scientists who are tired of casual workplace sexism always communicate in the wild.
Why were there neanderthals in Antarctica to start with? Nobody’s telling. The opening sequence has them running about in the snow in loincloths and bare feet, which is yet another detail in this book that raises far too many questions. Jumping forward, these resuscitated cavemen have the power to destroy the world, but before the inevitable breakout they’re going to watch the Alien films and a big stack of ’50’s creature features for hints and tips. Having done that, mass carnage ensues as they kill time before trying to Violate the White Woman. The Great White Hunter can’t be having that, so he saves the day and gets the girl, this seduction happening on the rescue plane – a private jet, as far as I can tell – with three panels of dialogue that might be less realistic than the entire rest of the book.
There is no foreshadowing of anything, anywhere. Neither is there any self-aware aspect to the pulp clichés and b-movie logic, they just jump down your neck one after the other and stick in your throat in a big, jaggy, slapped-together mess. This title is meant to feature drama, action, sci-fi and horror, but mangles every one of those definitions to breaking point. The art is decent, admittedly, but it feels rushed. It is also let down by the compositions, which are badly matched to the pace of the story – some potentially very impressive panels are left in miniature while the frame lingers on every last scrap of bare female flesh. The over-arching impression this graphic novel left me with is that it was conceived, scripted, drawn and sent off to the printers in one heroically ambitious single draft, without a single piece of revision. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it gets one out of five, and that feels generous to me.