Among the current, quite understandable, surfeit of apocalyptic and dystopian literature – a product of both a long-term decline in peoples’ faith in many things including governing bodies and the state of the world, and the seemingly never ending COVID pandemic – there is a very welcome trend that posits that the real story in any of these confronting tales is the raw humanity of the people caught up in them.
While there is a visceral thrill of sorts to watching fast-moving zombies swarm across cities or seeing an asteroid slam into vast landscapes, what really brings us deep into the compelling folds of any end of the world narrative is how it affects people just like us.
While we sit snug in our cinema seat and curled up in bed, there are people facing the very worst days, weeks and months of their lives, simultaneously dealing the most significant existential crisis of their lives while having to keep on with the demanding day-to-day business of staying alive.
It’s this great tension between the macro hellish of the loss of everything you’ve ever known and the micro need to keep food in your mouth and death far from your door that makes The Fall (Volume 1) by Swiss writer and illustrator Jared Muralt so brilliantly and unputdownably readable.
Mirroring the way in certain respects that Fear the Walking Dead let its tale of the undead end of civilisation unfurl, The Fall takes its time showing us just how the world as they know it ends for Liam, his wife and their two children, teenager Sophia and tween Max in their home city of Bern, Switzerland.
As the twin perils of a faltering world economy and a sweeping, ever-escalating pandemic take their brutal hold, we bear witness to how quickly the things we take for granted from food & water, security and the rule of law, electricity and neighbourly companionship can crumble into nothing.
The virus at the heart of this pandemic is, by the artist’s own admission, “far more aggressive than the Corona Virus [sic] and kills way more people”, and arrives just as the world is starved of the resources to respond properly by the accompanying economic collapse.
Hence, while the military does its best to quarantine people and to provide some sense of order and protection in a society rapidly starved of both, governments around the globe can do little as the house of cards that is our civilisation folds in on itself in record time, carrying countless lives and any semblance of normal life with it.
Muralt captures in ways powerfully expansive and affectingly intimate what it feels like to live through such a terrifying period in human history.
He documents the lawlessness, the kindnesses and the horrors meted out to people, the way in which what once looked so mighty and strong suddenly feels paper thin and weak, with this dialogue and his beautifully detailed art conveying how Liam, Sophia, who has to take over when her father falls ill and can’t look after them in the Alps town in which they’ve taken refuge, and Max react to the massive ups and downs, mostly the latter of course, of this brave new world.
In panels chock full of emotion, action and quiet terror, Muralt documents the slow and steady decline of society and how the will to survive may not always be enough to escape the tsunami of horrors coming your way.
What does emerge powerfully is how important the bonds of family are in such a circumstance.
Were it not for the closeness of Sophia and Max – though they are hardly angelic, they are far closer than most siblings which proved crucial to their survival – and Liam’s quick thinking that spirits them out of Bern when all appears lost to the kids’ grandparents’ Alpine retreat (one of the enduring mysteries is where have they gone? They’re nowhere to be found), the fate of this family would match the truckloads of those carted out on trucks for, you presume, mass graves (until there is sadly no one left to bury anyone).
It’s this intimacy of experience that lends The Fall such emotional immediacy and impact.
While the sight of surging, desperate crowds and eerily empty, leaf-strewn streets can feel overwhelming, it’s hard not to be moved by a little boy mired in grief, or a young teenager mourning the loss of her pet, or a father’s focused determination to save his kids, no matter what.
At the end of the day, while all of the apocalyptic terrors are suitably terrifying and enthralling in their own scary way, what really grabs you and keeps hold of you in The Fall, vividly realised art aside, is that there are real people involved in this story who suffer, hope and run for their lives just like you do, and that was the end of the world to arrive in this way, you might be reading about your future, one too frightening and yet impactfully human to contemplate.