Graphic Novel Friday: Wasteland, The Apocalyptic Edition, for the Holidays
I've been a fan of Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten's Wasteland for awhile. It's a complex, always exciting look at the world many years after the fall of civilization. When Johnston contacted me about doing an intro for a deluxe hardcover to commemorate the first few years of Wasteland, I jumped at the chance. It's a beautiful book, definitely something the comics lover in your life would appreciate as a gift. Here, as a Graphic Novel Friday web exclusive, is part of my introduction, to give you a sense of the flavor of the comic if you haven't yet read it. - JeffV
Sometimes Big Ideas come out of deceptively small beginnings. In the first issue of Wasteland, a wanderer named Michael comes out of the desert into a small settlement. It’s a century after the Big Wet has destroyed the world as we know it. Michael wants to sell the flotsam and jetsam he’s picked up during his travels, including an enigmatic machine. He’s a survivor with hidden powers, but he meets his match in the person of the healer Abi, among the best female characters in comics. Not only will Abi not let him alone, she won’t even let him bleed out in peace.
What happens next is similar to what happens in Stephen King’s iconic Dark Tower series: the world created by Antony Johnston opens up in continually unexpected and complex ways. It’s not just the ingenious religion-mythology of people trying to come to terms with both the why of a now-remote disaster and the here-and-now of dealing with the after-effects. Nor is it the attention to detail in depicting the politics of the city of Newbegin, or in creating a fiercely dangerous environment that adheres to an unbending logic of survival.
No, it’s really about the characters. The world opens up because in the person of Marcus, ruler of Newbegin, Johnston has created a creature of political intrigue and mystery. It opens up because other characters like Jakob, Golden Voice, and Doc not only behave as to their natures but also reveal new traits and gain our loyalty by being, if not always honest, then always true to themselves.
Did I mention the villains? I’m not just talking about Marcus—who I rate as ambiguous, because part of keeping power requires keeping order, and in this milieu order can’t be underrated—but the Sand-eaters, with their jagged, sawed-off speech, and the dwellers in the abandoned precity that rings Newbegin. These creatures act as to their nature, too, and they’re pretty bad-ass. There’s no slow zombie shuffle, here. These guys mean business. You come up against them, you suffer consequences. People die.
Have I praised the art, yet? As the plot of the Wasteland series widens and deepens, the slow rhythms and wider spaces of the desert are replaced with smaller panels that convey the hectic pace of intrigue and betrayal. But Christopher Mitten is up to the challenge, giving us what we want: complexity of character and situation while still rendering the action scenes in clear, pulse-pounding sequences. Then, too, Johnston and Mitten have a great knack for getting close-in to the characters, only to pull back and show us scenes that convey the true fallen majesty of the setting. I’m thinking of the wonderful art showing the precity, and then, a little later, the full-page introducing us to Newbegin. Note also how Mitten changes his style for recountings of the distant past—it’s a brilliant contrast, with a texture that boldly conveys archetype and myth. I also like the deliberate blurring of backgrounds in certain panels to accentuate the foreground or depict motion, creating an extra layer of comics realism.
But even with the additional nuance introduced into the story, Johnston understands where his focus needs to lie: with Michael and Abi. As Newbegin comes under threat and Marcus’s conflict with those he considers heretics intensifies, Johnston remembers to anchor the story with those two pivotal characters. Abi, in particular, strikes me as somewhat unique in comics, and in keeping with Johnston creating female characters as strong as the men.
In short, if you haven’t read the Wasteland series yet, you’re in for a huge treat—the combination of science fiction, intrigue, adventure, myth-making, and mystery add up to the kind of thrill I remember getting at the beginning of the first Planet of the Apes movie, or, heck, even the desert scenes in Star Wars (still the best part as far as I’m concerned). And, like such iconic series as Lord of the Rings, Wasteland has a knack for being both epic and personal.
The even better news? The series isn’t even at its zenith yet—the plot is still unfolding, the adventure still gaining strength and power.