ResistanceThe origin story of this timely graphic novel preceded our current pandemic situation as it was written as a radio drama for the BBC in 2017. In Resistance, the disease, Erysipelas (nicknamed “The Sips”), is a bacterium rather than a virus like COVID-19, but there are noticeable similarities between the two situations. Eerily, both diseases have a parallel incubation period, Australia is relatively safe because of its strict government and geographic location, and there are strong likenesses in the reactions and inaction of both the fictional and the authentic pharmaceutical companies and government leaders. Indeed, the most frightening aspect of Val McDermid’s story is the interference of politics and commerce with scientific exploration and development in trying to contain the spread of this fast paced and deadly infection.

Told through the lens of an investigative reporter, Zoe Beck, who had been sidelined to cover inconsequential events rather than hard news stories, the tale begins benignly at a food truck at a Solstice music festival in Scotland. At first, it is thought to be cases of food poisoning arising from the food truck’s meat products, but soon the infected people start to develop skin lesions and the illness becomes highly contagious and lethal. The pace of the story accelerates as the contagion begins to spread and the reporter—and reader—are faced with a frustrating lack of action. Scientists ponder while a plethora of worldwide deaths mounts and overwhelms the structures and procedures in place. Besides the talking media heads and scientific assessments, the reader is introduced to members of the reporter’s family, her colleagues, and contacts such as infectious disease expert Dr. Aasmah Siddiqui, as well as her friends, including the proprietors of the food truck initially blamed for the onset of the contagion. In fact, much of the horrifying plot revolves around blame, and the lack of admitting accountability. Award-winning mystery writer McDermid is in her element in creating a fictitious narrative that is all too plausible, in which strong characters are faced with horrific choices.

The murky black and white illustrations by Katherine Briggs are exceedingly compatible with this bleak story. The layout of many of the pages strongly advance the action while, at the same time, they alleviate the tedium of reading large amounts of text, some of which is fairly technical. She effectively utilizes frames, oddly shaped panels, overlays, and literary, symbolic, and iconic references that range from the medieval to New Age tarot cards. These embellishments add to the feeling of timelessness and, at the same time, the historical continuum and backdrop of such disasters. Her characters are quirky and, in some instances, represented as caricatures rather than full blown individuals, aiding this reader in keeping track of the main players while appreciating the contribution of other personalities who have a minor but essential role in the story.

There is much to contemplate and discuss in this graphic novel. It has a thread of hope for a society that tends to ignore any signposts that may lead to destruction while having a noir-like quality to both the writing and the artwork. Although set in Scotland, it has universal appeal and relevance. Recommended for public library collections and for high school students and educators.

By Val McDermid
Art by Kathryn Briggs
Grove Atlantic, 2021
ISBN: 9780802158727
Publisher Age Rating: Adult

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation: Scottish
Character Representation: Scottish

Agnes, Murderess

The legendary nineteenth century Agnes McVee: madam, serial killer, and inn owner of 108 Mile House, may not have really existed; but author and illustrator Sarah Levitt has brought her to astoundingly vivid life in Agnes, Murderess. Levitt introduces the folkloric Agnes to the reader through the backstory of Agnes’s childhood in Scotland through to her immigration to the Cariboo Region of British Columbia, accompanied by the grim ghost of her witchy grandmother Gormul. She also introduces the reader to early British Columbia gold rush geographical naming. The Cariboo Wagon road was started in 1862 from Mile 0 at Lillooet, a major town in the 1860s, where miners prepared to head north to the gold fields near Barkerville. As each mile was completed, a post was planted to accommodate the road crews. Several developed into well known “Mile Houses” when these places developed as stopping places to exchange horses or for travelers to obtain food and lodging. 108 Mile House was not much more than vacant land in 1860 with the 108 Mile Hotel of Agnus McVee fame operating from 1875 to 1885.

The new world was to be an agent of freedom and new starts, but unfortunately for Agnes, the struggle to remove herself from her upbringing and relatives proved to be deadly… deadly for those who met her. Levitt used a brochure about the legendary woman who killed some fifty people at her hotel with the aid of her husband and son-in-law as inspiration for her character and story. Although no official records of the woman or the murders existed, Levitt knew she had to tell the story depicted in the brochure. As noted in the introduction: “the first written record of Agnes did not appear until the 1970s, when an amateur historian self-published a guide to buried treasure in British Columbia.” “Lost Treasure in BC #3” is an expressly gruesome and violent story by Larry Lazeo of Fort Langley who was repeating a story he heard from an unnamed old timer. In 2006, Red Barn Productions filmed the story for CTV’s Travel and Discovery series and is also on a BC Government web page of historical information.

Levitt’s Agnes, taught by her greedy grandmother to adore shiny items, is drawn to the gold of the miners who stop at her hotel. She does not resist the call of that gold, and her bloodthirsty manner of acquiring it demonstrates her strength, both physical and mental, as well as her lack of ethics and morality. This is a woman who is her own person and follows her own desires, but also a woman who is also haunted by her upbringing and her lack of empathy and compassion. She is quick to anger and is reactive without a thought to consequences. She is not a conventional heroine but someone to be regarded at a far distance for your own safety! She leaves Scotland after a squabble between Gormul, and Seamus, a village boy, erupts in the unplanned stabbing death of Gormul with a pair of scissors. Seamus travels with Agnes to the new world and is an unwilling participant in much of the subsequent mass murders, thievery, and mayhem. 

Levitt’s years of research into the gold rush, the Cariboo Region, the men that came to find the gold, and the women who came to service the men, is evident in the authentic and gritty setting of the graphic novel. The remote rural Scottish community and its members are also vividly portrayed but this reader is enchanted by the familiarity of the equally remote area of western Canada and an era that is so paramount to the development of that region.

According to Leavitt, the images of Agnes and her horrendous deeds came to her first and then the narrative expanded to represent journal entries found after Agnes died. Leavitt’s moody illustrations are in black and white, with occasional touches of grey. They are stark, unsentimental, harsh, but, especially in the case of the landscapes, breathtakingly appealing. Leavitt effectively uses deep blacks to amplify the loneliness and mental confusion of the terrifying but oddly ingratiating protagonist who remains with this reader long after the covers closed.

I highly recommend this title for adults and high school students who wish to explore Canadian history and legend, strong female protagonists, mass murders, evil, and the possible long-term effects of a non-nurturing upbringing. It is a story without any definite answers, and I would not want it any other way. Just in case you find this critic and review rather morbid and seek a second opinion, the title was a 2020 Doug Wright finalist for the best Canadian graphic novel. It has also been nominated in two categories for the 2020 Alberta Book Awards: speculative fiction and book illustration. Sarah Leavitt is also the author of Tangles: A Story of Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me. She teaches comics classes at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Agnes, Murderess
By Sarah Leavitt
ISBN: 9781988298474
Freehand Books, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: Adult

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)

Related to…: Retelling