Book review: Resistance, by Val McDermid and Kathryn Briggs

This graphic novel about a killer bacteria is a powerful illustration of what our next pandemic might look like, if those in power choose to ignore the lessons of the past, writes Roger Cox

Val McDermid PIC: Lisa Ferguson
Val McDermid PIC: Lisa Ferguson

The Covid-19 pandemic has already thrown up one remarkable graphic novel – Together by Luke Adam Hawker, reviewed in these pages earlier in the year – and now here comes another one, written by queen of Tartan Noir Val McDermid with art by Kathryn Briggs.

In Resistance, the threat facing humanity comes in the form of a bacteria rather than a virus, but the basic scenario is chillingly familiar: a small outbreak isn’t contained (this time ground zero is a music festival in the north-east of England), the authorities’ reaction is sluggish and complacent, and as a result the illness spreads all around the world with devastating consequences, as scientists struggle to find a cure.

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The new bacteria’s official name is Erysipelas, but it soon becomes known simply as “the sips.” Antibiotics are useless against it because – as is the case in real life – existing supplies have been overused.

Resistance, by Val McDermid and Kathryn Briggs

What happens next is the kind of disintegration of society many (well, all those seen bulk-buying loo roll, anyway) feared might happen last March.

Zoe, a journalist, is mates with Sam, the sausage seller at the festival who was blamed for the outbreak, but when she visits the “farm” where his meat came from, she discovers that the fault really lies elsewhere. By this time, however, things are already spiralling out of control: Sam and his family have had to go into hiding after their takeaway was attacked by an angry mob, and gangs of armed vigilantes have started to form cordons around their communities, chasing incomers away and occasionally ejecting their own when they become sick.

Against this horrific backdrop, two scientists, Aasmah and Cheryl, continue to search for a cure, teaming up with colleagues all over the world to pool their knowledge; and then Zoe and Sam realise that they might be able to help, if only they can track the scientists down across a dangerous and devastated landscape.

Graphic novels are an ideal medium for capturing broad-sweep, “everything is happening” narratives, and as the pandemic tears through the population, Briggs’s illustrations take us leapfrogging rapidly from Zoe’s newspaper office to Aasmah and Cheryl’s lab to the corridors of power and back again with no need for endless paragraphs of scene-setting.

At times, in order to advance the plot, the dialogue is a little reminiscent of the Basil Exposition character in Austin Powers. It’s hard to imagine anyone in the course of a real-life chat with a work colleague delivering a line quite as wooden as: “I’m more concerned about the failure to fund the research we need to make headway against the sips” or “I know. I feel so frustrated. I’m a scientist and I should be able to do the research we all need to survive.”

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Even so, this is still a powerful cautionary tale about what can happen when politicians who don’t fully understand an issue ignore repeated warnings from people who do.

Resistance, by Val McDermid and Kathryn Briggs, Wellcome Collection, £18.99

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