Monday, May 4, 2009

Things What I Like: Wasteland

I've always been fond of apocalypse stories, even though I frequently misspell the word and find it a bit tough to roll of the tongue. It's not the word's fault though, many of these problems are my own. I don't hold apocalypse's semantic problems against it.

As a kid I loved the Mad Max series, and virtually any other story that featured dirty men with long hair dressed in football gear roving the wasted ruins in a hodge podge of recycled vehicles. Which I guess is kind of odd considering how overwhelmingly depressing stories about the end of the world can be. What with the mutants, and the cannibals and the rape gangs.*

The Apocalypse makes for compelling drama though**, and despite the dreary setting, most end of the world stories are built on the foundation of hope. Hope that in the absence of all of our technological wonders, and in the aftermath of a total breakdown of civilization, there remains a chance that heros can rise and perform good deeds, even if it is often for the wrong reasons. The plot of these stories resonates with the audience because it reflects the very real fears that most have about the delicacy of our world. Whether it's from environmental mishap or nuclear exchange, there is a persistent, and frankly arrogant, belief among humans that we have the power to destroy the earth we inhabit.

Providing an audience with an environment they can connect to is very important in engaging their attention and the aftermath of a collapsed civilization provides a convincing setting for contemporary fantasy. People turned off by most genre fiction for the unrealistic and unbelievable backdrop of either dragons and elves or of space flight and aliens, have little to no problem imagining themselves as a hardy survivor of the apocalypse.

All of which is a very long introduction to Wasteland, via a love letter to the genre of the apocalypse.

I saw the trade collection of the first six issues while browsing a bin at the Phoenix Comic-Con, I was immediately drawn by the hauntingly beautiful Ben Templesmith cover. It's evocative of the entire genre and immediately signals, "THIS STORY IS ABOUT SURVIVING THE END OF THE WORLD." Furthermore, it tickled my memory, as did the first few pages. I'd clearly seen parts of this story before, perhaps in a preview book from a previous con, or perhaps in a fevered dream brought on after unwittingly insulting a Voodoo Queen on the bus.

I picked up the book immediately, how could I not?*** Antony Johnston has presented a rare story. A subtle combination of epic plot and archetype characters delivered in a lean package that reflects the setting. There's no significant dialogue until page five and the protagonist doesn't speak until page eight. For most comics that aren't G.I. JOE #21, this would be a problem. Johnston makes it work and he does it in such a way that it not only doesn't negatively impact the story, but actually reinforces the oppressive setting of the desert wasteland the story is set in.

To support this dearth of words, Christopher Mitten's illustration is equally lean without being sparse and delivers engaging visuals. The ink reflects the story and outlines the important and bold elements while implying with subtlety the background and supporting elements. This is art that immediately and efficiently tells you what's going on. With no written introduction and minimal dialogue, the setting, character archetype, antagonists and motivations for the first act of the story are immediately and clearly established. Mitten has great lines and uses them like a surgeon, deftly rendering both action and motivation.

The audience isn't directly presented with any information about what caused the breakdown in civilization****, or indeed which civilization it may have been that failed, or when it may have happened. By the end of the sixth issue, we still don't know what the catalyst for the apocalypse is and it doesn't matter that we don't know. While that information is an element of the plot, and like the mysteries surrounding all the main characters, the details of what happened in the past are rationed out at a pace that keeps you wanting to learn more and searching the background and dialogue for hidden clues. This story isn't about what caused the fall of man though, like almost all apocalypse stories, it's about good people trying to survive in a world that's been overrun with the tyranny of the strong and morally compromised.

I think Wasteland is an extraordinarily well assembled story, and I'll be on the lookout for work by this writer and illustrator in the future. You don't have to take my word for it though, you can download the first issue from the official website in .jpeg, .pdf, or .cbr.

There's another lengthy story here about new media savvy publishers and adopting to digital distribution markets, but I'll save that for another day.

Originally published at []

*I suspect this says something very deep and troubling about me as a person, but I choose not to investigate it.
**John of Patmos knows what I'm talking about.
***I have extraordinarily poor impulse control, one of many reasons I'm not allowed access to an open bar without a handler.
****I'm guessing "out of control government biomedical research", or "simultaneous bankruptcy of Krispy Kreme and White Castle." Both would be devastating.


  1. I haven't read this book because of my loyalty to the 80s Wasteland anthology horror title published by DC and written by Del Close. Man was that a wierd book. I may have to cop Jon's stizzo and write it up as best as I can remember it after not reading it for like, 20 years or so.

  2. Not to nitpick, but I gotta say, it's arrogant to think that our society is invincible, and that civilization is not balanced on a pretty flimsy foundation. Clearly the fear that we will "OMG Destroy the Earth!!!1" is ridiculous from the perspective of "The Earth!!!1", but society and our way of life is different matter.