What starts off as a series exploring the everyday activities of bug exterminators quickly turns into a darkly humorous look at man vs nature and the notion of fallen empires. And it all starts with this opening panel.
The first issue opens with a shot of an apartment floor. The scene is dimly lit, cloaked in shades of grey and black. We see detritus that one would associate with a messy living space, a bottle top, a TV remote, a fork, a bottle and some food packaging. Also in the shot are cockroaches. Lots of them. They clamber over the rubbish, climbing here and there and over the bottom of the furniture that looms out of frame.
The captions, narration by Henry, speak of his time spent in jail and only being able to choose one book per month to read. One of his choices is The Complete Rise And Fall Of The Roman Empire (it’s unclear if this is meant to be a reference to Edwards Gibbons The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire).
In his book A World Without Us, author Alan Weisman describes how the environment, wildlife and man-made structures would change in the wake of mankind’s disappearance. As part of his research into the book Weisman used the Mayan civilisation as an example of how quickly a society can disappear and be reclaimed by nature. This is something that The Exterminators explores a lot throughout its run, making specific references to the Mayan’s throughout, predating Weisman’s book by several years. But the idea of man being a blight on this planet, of causing its downfall is one that hangs heavy throughout the narrative. The cockroaches in this first panel then are swarming over the relics of what will be left of us.
The first page of the issue continues with the idea of empires and their fall laid out in the first panel, detailing the Roman’s spread across the globe before becoming undone by rats brought back from Iraq, carriers of the Black Death. It shows us that even the greatest empires can fall prey to mother nature and her whims. This first panel then is a sneak peek of the ‘worst case scenario’ this series potential end game, a microcosm of what may come to pass if we continue on our current path.
The idea of the Roman’s downfall being caused by their incursion into Iraq is also tied into a mysterious box that becomes integral to the series as it develops. As well as connoting the fall of empires and the power of mother nature, the first panel also conjures up ideas of the primeval – a return to how the Earth was before man came along and soiled it, a grand reckoning by nature to level the playing field.
As this first batch of issues plays out Oliver begins to thread in the idea of man’s primal nature being one of aggression and expansionism. This culminates early on in a shot of the protagonist, Henry, killing a raccoon with his bare hands. This is a panel that’s echoed in the final issue of the series, highlighting its importance to the work’s overall meaning.
So, what’s the difference between them and us? Oliver seems to argue in the opening panels of Issue #2 that it’s science.
“Science is truth, it’s what makes us civilized.”
There it is again, the return to the year dot, the beginning, before corruption. Science and technology are what separate us from the animals and insects that wait for our inevitable destruction. But these things are also what corrupt us, paving the way for our downfall.
It’s surely no mistake that the cockroaches in this opening panel are crawling over relics of modern living– bottle tops signify alcohol, the fork and food packaging point the way to processed food and obesity. I don’t have to explain the TV remote, do I? At our most basic core, man is no better than the cockroaches depicted spreading out and stumbling over the contents of the living room floor. We breed, we kill, we expand.
Nature wants to take the planet back from us. This conflict is what drives the series and is perfectly captured here in the opening panel.
Empires rise and empire’s fall, but nature will always be waiting for us to mess up, waiting to reclaim what’s hers.