Rare is the comic that from the very first issue—indeed, the very first pages—manages to grip you. Supreme Blue Rose #1 was one such comic for me. Sheltered #1 was another. From its first issue up to #5 (which comprised the Volume 1 trade paperback), it was a taut, claustrophobic thriller soaked in paranoia and apocalyptic hysteria with a touch of Lord of the Flies and Children of the Corn.
Sheltered Volume 2 picks up where issue #5 left off and doesn’t let up, keeping up the atmosphere of fear and desperation and continuing to find ways to amp up the tension.
For those who aren’t familiar with this title, Sheltered bids itself as “a pre-apocalyptic tale,” and actually that’s a perfect subtitle for it. This is one of the first works I’ve seen that manages to utilize all the tropes of apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic fiction that we’re familiar with and have come to love as a culture (bunkers, the hoarding of supplies, mistrust of fellow man, and lots and lots of guns) without actually having an apocalyptic situation, technically speaking.
Actually, that’s not entirely correct. I should say that there is an apocalyptic scenario but it has a big question mark surrounding it. I won’t say much more than that as I don’t want to spoil it. I’ll just say that this ambiguity is a critical component of the plot because it is through the mystery that Sheltered is most effectively able to accomplish its aims beyond simply telling a good story.
And it is a darn good story, but it is also a scathing critique on people’s romanticization of the apocalypse and over-willingness to believe in far-fetched end-of-the-world scenarios (a case in point being real people who actually and sincerely believe there is going to be a zombie apocalypse and are preparing for it). It skewers the culture of survivalism and the scarcity mindset which drives it and leads people to hoard resources and to be paranoid and tribalistic. In this way, Sheltered manages to do something very interesting which is to tap into and appeal to a readership of apocalyptic fiction buffs while, simultaneously, critiquing the culture of apocalypse fetishization.
Sheltered is one of those one-location stories and this limited geographic sphere allows it to accomplish a number of things. (1) It allows writer Ed Brisson to keep raising the tension and sense of desperation. (2) It allows for a commentary of the title “Sheltered” and what that actually means in the context of this story. Yes, it refers to literal shelter as in an underground bunker. But it also means “sheltered” as in being removed from and out of touch with reality. Continually, we get the sense that these characters are so isolated, both literally and figuratively, that the feverish ideas their imaginations come up with in the dead of night never get to see the light of day, so to speak. The result is self-perpetuating extremism and hysteria.
Brisson’s writing is excellent, with the exception perhaps of heroine Victoria’s dialogue (which at times feels a bit too sophisticated for a girl her age). Illustrator Johnnie Christmas continuously bathes the white snow of the survivalist compound in a stark red, highlighting the horror of what is going on. And needless to say, the image of kids running around with assault rifles is disturbing and a withering visual condemnation of the way that the fanatical love (but not the cautiousness) that gun nuts have for their weapons gets handed down to their children.
The only very minor complaint I might have about Christmas’s work here is that depending on the page, panel and angle, some of the characters’ appearances, mostly notably our hero Victoria, seems to morph. A degree of this is almost always inevitable since the amount of detail must vary depending on whether a panel is a wide shot, medium shot or close-up and on the action the character is performing. But in Victoria’s case the disparity seemed significant enough that at times that she comes across as a different character with a different appearance.
I had a troubling but ironic thought while reading Sheltered, Vol. 2. If anything brings the world to an end and causes humans to slaughter each other, it will not be a zombie apocalypse. It will not be “Obama and his cronies” coming to get your guns. It will be precisely the kind of scarcity-driven, us-and-only-us mindset that fuels the sheltered and self-isolating lifestyle of the survivalist movement.