First published back in March of 1990, ‘Among Madmen’ was the joint accomplishment of the married couple Jim Starlin and Daina Graziunas. Both Starlin and Graziunas have a background performing the writing and artwork apects for graphic novels; making a move towards writing a standard novel a slight change from their usual creative output. The novel nevertheless contains a number of black and white pen & ink illustrations by Jim Starlin.
One minute everything was as it always had been and then the next minute people all over the world began to slip into catatonic states, turning them into helpless vegetables. At first the scientists diagnosed this strange phenomena as an extreme version of schizophrenia, dubbing it Schizophrenia X. But as more and more people gradually joined the ranks of the veges, the authorities started to get increasingly concerned. Soon the veges were being herded together into specially designed hospitals and quarantined. But the vege numbers kept swelling, until six months had passed since the first Schizophrenia X patient was diagnosed and an estimated five percent of the world’s population had fallen victim to this new disease.
Money and resources were being pumped into figuring out what the hell was going on and what their options were in order to cope with the situation, but still no one had a clue. Furthermore, the growing vege burden was gradually becoming more and more of a financial and economic strain on those that were left. Something had to be done and soon.
And then Schizophrenia X started to mutate. Suddenly, a small number of the once placid and unresponsive catatonic patients, started to burst into a new vigorous and highly violent state. Like a switch that had suddenly been flipped, veges were all of a sudden waking up into with a whole new rage-fuelled persona, hell-bent on ripping anyone and everyone to pieces. The berserkers had arrived.
And with the chaos now really hitting the fan, ex-Vietnam and New York City cop, Tom Laker, gets the hell out of the doomed city with his wife Maria – heading out of the escalating madness and off towards Shandaken, situated in the Catskill Mountains. And upon arriving, Tom finds that the people living there have been handling the epidemic much better, due to their widely dispersed population. The Berserker syndrome was being controlled by well-armed militias who instantly took the law into their own hands. Here at least the situation seemed to be under some sort of control.
But that was not the case for the rest of the world. With the violence and mayhem escalating to hellish new proportions each day, some crazy General somewhere decided to up the stakes and make the problem a thousand times worse. Atomic weapons were deployed. And soon no one was left other than those living in the isolated out-and-back locations.
But in Shandaken Tom Laker was doing okay considering. Okay, so Maria wasn’t exactly the same woman that he had married. Berserkerism had had its effect on her too. Although it only really manifested itself in her after they had been intimate. And so Tom had been doing a good job at keeping her in check and away from the nervous eyes of the rest of the small town. Besides, Tom was head of Shandaken’s police force. And so he had a good amount of sway in the small town. But deep down he knew it couldn’t go on forever. Nor could the peace and relative safety that they had managed to make work in Shandaken.
And he knew that life would soon get a whole lot more violent once again…
Upon starting the tale, what’s noticeably obvious from the exaggerated and slightly clichéd storyline is Starlin and Graziunas’ graphic novel background. Other than being purely text (aside from the odd black & white illustration) the story itself still reads like a gritty adult comic. However, this is certainly not particularly detrimental to the quality of the novel. Indeed, it’s straight-to-action nature and bold-as-brass characters makes for (mostly) a hugely entertaining post-apocalyptic romp.
In essence what we have is an early Americanised re-working of James Herbert’s ‘The Fog’ (1975). Furthermore, although the novel clearly predates David Moody’s ‘Hater’ (2006) trilogy, Richard Laymon’s ‘One Rainy Night’ (1991), Stephen King’s ‘Cell’ (2006), Simon Clark’s novels ‘Blood Crazy’ (1995) and ‘King Blood’ (1997), or indeed Danny Boyle’s film ‘28 Days Later’ (2002), it nevertheless has a huge amount in common with their general theme and plot.
What ‘Among Madmen’ offers up to the reader is a post-apocalyptic set plot that’s pumped full of violence alongside a survivalist struggle. Very much in the same vein as a post-apocalyptic zombie story, the tale reads like another ‘us against them’ tale, where the enemy are humans who have become infected by some strange and unknown virus that turns them into blood-crazed berserkers (after a brief stint at being a catatonic vegetable that is).
Okay, so alongside a somewhat far-fetched end-of-the-world idea, the novel also contains some wonderfully over-the-top characters. The tale is very much an exaggerated piece of action-rich entertainment, along the same lines as a ‘Deathlands’ novel would be, insofar as the approach goes for pure-unashamed-entertainment. However, where the ‘Deathlands’ novels paint a vivid picture of a desolate post-apocalyptic wasteland, ‘Among Madmen’ barely manages to paint any sort of backdrop for the events. Instead what we have is a somewhat generic out-and-back community setting, with very little actually defined or detailed to any believable extent.
Instead of spending the entire length of the novel just following our principal protagonist through his painful ordeal with his wife and on to the sudden threat against Shandaken; Starlin and Graziunas instead move the novel’s perspective around the whole town – showing how a number of the other survivors there have managed to cope with the situation. Done in a similar way to James Herbert’s ‘Domain’ (1984), these small vignettes add another disturbingly dark element of near-comedy to the story, or otherwise provide a harsh reflection of how the survivors have needed to disconnect themselves from who the berserkers once were in order to survive. And it’s in these short stories alone that the novel as a whole really excels in its post-apocalyptic message.
As the tale spirals towards a dramatic finale, Starlin and Graziunas ramp up the unfurling action for all it’s worth; bombarding the reader with scene after scene of desperate fighting and rage-induced violence. All hope of giving the novel any degree of realism in thrown out of the window in place of a manically energetic final fight for survival. And it’s one heck of a final showdown that ends the novel on an action-rich high.
The tale runs for a total of 268 pages.
© DLS Reviews