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