Comics You Should Own – ‘Wasteland’

Post-apocalyptic stories don’t get much better than this!

Wasteland by Antony Johnston (writer), Christopher Mitten (artist, issues #1-6, 8-13, 15-28, 52-60; layouter, issues #29-30; letterer, issues #1-3; painter, issue #25), Carla Speed McNeil (artist, issue #7), Joe Infurnari (artist, issue #14), Chuck BB (artist, issue #20), Remington Veteto (artist, issues #29-31), Brett Weldele (artist, issue #32), Justin Greenwood (artist, issues #33-38, 46-51), Sandy Jarrell (artist, issue #39), Russel Roehling (artist, issues #40-44), Omar Olivera (artist, issue #45), Matthew Razzano (toner, issues #35-38, 44-45), and Douglas E. Sherwood (letterer, issues #4-60).

Published by Oni Press, 60 issues (#1-60), cover dated July 2006 – April 2015.

I try not to SPOIL too much, but as always with these, read at your own risk!

Post-apocalyptic stories are notoriously hard to pull off, but they’re also very popular because they allow writers to delve into humanity without worrying about the way society functions now – you can just make up your own! The sheer amount of them means that a writer (or, in the case of comics, a writer and artist) needs to do something special to make them stand out, and in comics, the best post-apocalyptic story of the 21st century is Wasteland, because both Antony Johnston and the artists (mostly Christopher Mitten, who’s the co-creator, but not exclusively him) take what could be a simplistic story and add layer upon layer of text, turning the story into something bizarre, tragic, hopeful, cautionary, and utterly humanistic. It’s a wonderful balancing act, as Johnston knows he needs plenty of action, so we get that, but he’s far more interested in philosophical questions, and he does an excellent job introducing several conundrums about the world and trying to work through them. It elevates the work and makes it truly special.

One of the things that most post-apocalyptic stories do is ignore how society is structured in the new world. Either there’s no society whatsoever, which is unrealistic, or the society is fairly simplistic, which is a bit more realistic (it’s after an apocalypse) but seems usually done for convenience. In the cases where there’s a society, it’s often simply modeled on what exists today, but wildly simplified. Johnston, however, creates a society that obviously has many echoes to our world, but he has also thought about how society might change and what the consequences of that might be. It’s only one hundred years after the collapse of society (which is called “the big wet”), but Johnston understands that doesn’t necessarily mean everything will be lost. Yes, there are far fewer people around and the cities of the world have been abandoned (those that are left are called “pre-cities”), but some places still have electricity and guns are still around. New religions have sprung up, and Christianity survives but on the fringes of the world. Religion is a huge component of Wasteland, which is another reason why it’s so unique. In most post-apocalyptic stories, religion doesn’t exist or there’s a bastard form of Christianity as the dominant religion (in Western tales, at least – I imagine if Arabs or Indians write post-apocalyptic tales, Islam or Hinduism might be the dominant religion in them). In Wasteland, in addition to Christianity (which is only relevant in one arc), there are two main forms of religion – the Sunners and the cult of personality around the ruler of Newbegin, the city at the center of the narrative. The Sunners worship the sun and moon, appropriately enough, while the people of Newbegin are ruled by Marcus, a seemingly immortal man with odd powers. As we discover early on, Marcus and the leaders of Newbegin consider the Sunners heretics, and they seize an opportunity to persecute them early on, leading eventually to the enslavement of the Sunner population. This doesn’t go well for anyone, as you might imagine.

Johnston makes some interesting allusions with regard to the religions in the comic. Christianity hasn’t changed too much – in the one arc where it’s prominent, the church has become the government, which leads to a police state run by zealots, but that’s happened plenty of times in the Christian past and doesn’t feel too surprising here. At the end of the arc, the priest decides to separate the church from the state, but again, that’s also not too surprising in the history of Christianity, especially with regard to Western democracies. But the Sunners and the worship of Marcus presents an interesting analogy to early Christianity – the Sunners are clearly the early Christians, a desert religion made up of lower-class followers, while the religion that swirls around Marcus is clearly the urbane Roman religion (their god even has a good Roman name), one that counts the upper classes among its followers and builds elaborate temples to its god (the early Christians, having very little money, were fairly iconoclastic). The analogy isn’t perfect – for one, Newbegin’s god walks among them – but it’s interesting because of the ferocity of the Sunners’ beliefs and the way they make inroads into the higher classes of Newbegin society, turning them against Marcus, which is what happened in the Roman Empire. The other big difference is in how we can classify them – the Sunners’ beliefs are clearly a religion, while Marcus’s group is a cult. The Sunners don’t focus on one person, which is why their religion can survive their persecution by the Newbegin elite, while Marcus is the focal point of his religion, and it can’t survive without him. This makes it a cult, and it’s clear as Marcus becomes increasingly unhinged over the course of the book that his hold on his followers doesn’t depend on an esoteric notion of salvation but a personal connection to him. His entire story is colored by a doom greater than he arriving in the city, which brings home the idea of a cult better than if Johnston had been blunt about it: There’s always a bigger bully, and Marcus’s influence doesn’t translate if the bigger bully knocks him down.

Religion isn’t the only way Johnston thinks about how society would look after an apocalypse. He gets rid of big cities, naturally, but the “pre-cities” remain, populated by vicious sub-humans called “dwellers.” Johnston never explores them too much, but the implication is that they’re people who refused to move on from the old world and revel in attacking the people who have. The people who live in the wasteland are hardened and marginal, and very little can upset their lives. Obviously, people are always going to congregate in cities, so they exist on a smaller scale, but Newbegin, for instance, has electricity and other “modern” conveniences (they’re in the stages of building a railroad to Wosh-Tun, the other big city we hear about in the comic), and it’s nice to know that guns are still used in the post-apocalyptic future, because where would humans be without their guns? Out in the wasteland, there are two groups that the “civilized” people avoid – the Sand-Eaters and the Dog Tribes. The Sand-Eaters are the more ferocious of the two, as they attack people without, it seems, regard for any life, including their own. We get to know a little about them as the series moves on, and in the final arc, we discover their origins and why they act the way they do. It doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it makes it comprehensible. Johnston doesn’t ignore their society, even when it appears they’re just boogeymen to vex the humans. Issue #15 focuses almost entirely on the Sand-Eaters, and we see they have their own creation myths and societal hierarchy, and it’s a fascinating story, partly because Johnston uses their “language” to tell it – it’s just English stretched out by hisses, but it’s difficult to read, and it makes the issue one where you really need to pay attention to what’s on the page. The Dog Tribes, meanwhile, are what you might expect – nomads who have built their society (and their language) around canines. They call the men “alphas” or “betas” and bond with their dogs, who become lifelong companions. The most telling societal stricture about most of these groups is that they still treat women poorly, and that brings us to power, which is far more of a theme in the book than religion.

Power, even more than sex, is at the center of all narrative fiction, and Johnston is writing a story about power and who has it and how they wield it. When Abi and Michael and the others get to Newbegin, they find a power dynamic centered on Marcus, mainly because Marcus can do things ordinary humans can’t. Unfortunately for him, Abi and Michael can unusual things too, which leads to Marcus viewing them as a threat. In the world that Johnston creates, power is even more jealously hoarded because the safeguards a modern society has aren’t there, so those in power can dominate those out of it, and those without it have little recourse but violence, which spurs the powerful into oppression to keep what they’ve seized. This works for Marcus as long as he is the most powerful, but first Abi and Michael chip away at his power and then, later, a bigger threat looms, and Marcus begins to wield his power poorly, becoming more despotic. This is most notable in his treatment of the Sunners, whom he persecutes … but they too know how to use power, and while many want to remain committed to their stated position of non-violence, others begin to realize that violence is the only way to redress their grievances. Johnston writes this in a sadly familiar fashion – the power structure in Newbegin is still anti-gay, but it’s implied it’s more because of the downturn in the population than anything else, but when one power-hungry Watchman, Dexus, discovers that one of the major councilors is gay, he naturally uses it for blackmail. Meanwhile, as the book moves along, more powerful people begin to sympathize with the Sunners, who begin to strike against the power structure, leading to open rebellion just when Marcus needs all the power at his disposal to deal with the looming threat, a man called Adam. The implication is that Marcus needs worship to remain strong, and just when he needs it, he begins to lose it, leading to a confrontation with Adam that he never wanted. It’s difficult to feel sorry for Marcus, and there is certainly some satisfaction to seeing him try to deal with something stronger than he after so long of abusing his power, but at the same time, there’s a fear when reading the book that Marcus might be the devil we know, and who knows what the characters are unleashing in Adam? In the final arc of the book, we discover how the world “ended,” and Johnston does a good job upending our expectations and tying everything into the religious theme that carries over into the present of the story. There is a religious undertone to every world-ending disaster, mainly because most religions promise an apocalypse, and Johnston leans into it as we see humanity walk closer and closer to the brink until they finally tip over. He gives away the secrets about Adam fairly early in the book (I won’t spoil it, and Johnston doesn’t, exactly, just has a character mention a possibility that turns out to be correct), but when we get to the final arc, it hits more powerfully because we’re not sure what we’re going to learn. As always, those in power do foolish things and think they’re all-powerful until something else comes along to show them that they’re not, as while it’s a depressingly familiar turns of events, the fact that it comes at the end after we’ve seen the way humanity has become something else is interesting, because while Johnston hints that those in power will always be corrupt, he has already shown glimmers of hope with the way the people in the story learn from their mistakes and try to be better, so the end of the world, we know, isn’t as final an ending as it might be. It’s a clever way to show the apocalypse, and Johnston handles it well.

Wasteland, ultimately, is the story of Abi and Michael, despite the side trips we take over the course of the series’ life. Michael is the first character we meet, as he’s a “ruin runner,” wandering the desert and trading with townsfolk when he can. He finds a corpse and takes a machine off the body, fights off a few Sand-Eaters, and heads to Providens (“populayshun 250”), where the first person he meets is Abi. They both have unusual powers, and while they never quite become close (mainly because Michael is not someone you become close with), they are linked in many ways, and eventually their fates become tied together. While the drama in Newbegin is fascinating, Abi’s quest to find a place where she can get answers about herself and the world is the driving force of the book. She wants to find out who she is (the earliest thing we know about her is that she was being sold at a slave auction, where a man from Providens bought her) and why she can do what she can, and she thinks Michael, with his powers, can help her. In the first issue, she reads a letter Michael found in the desert that discusses a strange place that Michael claims doesn’t exist, but she thinks will provide the answers she wants (a reader early on in the letters page sussed out where this place was, but I won’t spoil it). The story of Abi and Michael is crucial, because not only does it lead to answers about what happened to the world, but it stands in marked contrast to the Newbegin narrative and therefore highlights what Johnston is saying about power. Abi, specifically, does not seek power even though she could. Michael has unusual powers, too, but we see in his past an event that made him turn away from the path of control, but Abi hasn’t made that choice yet. She’s the sheriff of Providens, so she’s in a position of power when the book begins, but she quickly loses that position when the Sand-Eaters destroy the town. When they reach Newbegin, she’s even further down the totem pole, and she’s uninterested in that sort of story anyway. Even on the way to Newbegin, she starts to see the world as it is, when her charges end up in a “caravan,” a roving group of wagons run by a “sultan” who trades with everyone. The people of Providens discover that the sultan is a slave-trader, as well (mostly women and children, naturally), and it reinforces the patriarchal hierarchy of the new world (it hasn’t changed all that much post-apocalypse, it seems). So when she gets to Newbegin, she’s already disinclined to involve herself in the politics of the city. As she and Michael wander the wasteland, they come across several different groups, and Abi learns more about control and how to avoid wielding it. They first meet the Dog Tribe, the largest group, and she sees what happens when a group is too rigid in its tenets. They come across Christians in the town of Godsholm, and she sees what happens when religion is too involved in ruling (which she saw in Newbegin as well, but it was on a larger scale and therefore more difficult to process). Later on their journey, they meet Thomas, another person with a strange power like they possess, and Abi sees power in a family dynamic, as Thomas is desperate to hide his daughter away from a world that wants to kill her, while she wants to explore the world that’s been given to her. When they reach their destination, she and Michael (and Thomas, who has joined them) see how the world ended, and of course it stems from an abuse of power, as well as a misunderstanding of true power, that leads to it. Abi comes out of the final arc with even less reason to seek power, despite her abilities, and her salvation is in marked contrast to Marcus’s fate, which comes from trying too hard to accrue power. The way Johnston sets up the two separate story strands (Abi leaves Newbegin in issue #13 and never returns) is brilliant, as it provides two different ways of dealing with the world – one which is the same old way, while the other – Abi’s – isn’t completely the right way, but at least it’s not destructive. Johnston does show that involvement in the world is necessary, and perhaps the people Abi leaves behind are beginning to figure that out, but because of who she is (and again, I’m not going to spoil anything), she can’t be part of it. Johnston makes sure the book comes full circle in more ways than one, which is nicely done – he doesn’t leave us in the same spot as we began, but he shows how some people need to be separate from society because they won’t be able to have anything but a negative impact on that society. Meanwhile, the others have to move on as best they can.

Johnston has a big assist in bringing Wasteland to life, and that’s Christopher Mitten. Mitten is something of an acquired taste, as he has a bold, angular line that leaves little in the way of nuance, especially when he’s working in black and white. He’s excellent at facial expressions, but ones that are easy to read – he doesn’t go for small twitches of the mouth or a wrinkled brow as much as some artists, but he’s still good at cocking a head or narrowing a mouth or opening an eye just enough to convey deeper meanings to the words. Despite his sharp lines, his characters flow quite well on the page, so his action scenes are very well done. But the harshness of his line is always present, and it makes some of his comics a bit incongruous, as the tone of the art doesn’t always match the tone of the writing. However, Mitten’s perfect on this comic, and he shines no matter what he’s drawing. The very first sequence, when Michael is walking across the desert and gets attacked by Sand-Eaters, is an amazing distillation of everything Mitten does well. He uses deep blacks very well, placing Michael’s face in deep shadow except for the reflection of the lenses of his glasses, which gives him an eerie, alien look. Almost everyone in the book wears thick, weather-proof coats and cloaks, and Mitten draws them with thick folds, emphasizing their utility. The Sand-Eaters are creepy, with expressionless eyes, less description of their faces, small sharp teeth, and long, spindly fingers. Mitten always draws the desert beautifully, making it harsh and lifeless, so the small oases stand out even more. His towns are also well done, with adobe dominating even in a “city” like Newbegin, in which the people use more wood and stone, but still bend to the reality of living in a desert. He adds nice touches like broken pieces of stone and paint chipping off brick to show that civilization is still holding on by a thread, and it feels like everything could come crashing down at any moment. Mitten also “softens” his pencils when two different characters tell “origin stories” at different times in the book. He uses shapes instead of harsh lines, smudging grays onto the page to give the scenes a more ethereal feel, making it clear that it’s both a flashback and perhaps not exactly literal. Mitten’s designs are terrific – his Dog Tribespeople have strange hair styles, less clothing than the other characters, and many piercings. Johnston and Mitten want to create an “other” for the main characters to be frightened of while still humanizing them, and Johnston does this with the way he writes them, while Mitten gets to the humanity beneath the odd appearance of the tribespeople. Mitten left the book soon after the epic issue #25, which was extra-sized and in color (which Mitten did himself). Issue #25 is beautiful, full of earth tone watercolors, and it shows how skilled Mitten is. In the few issues before and after #25, in the last work before he left, it’s interesting to see his line work become a bit, for lack of a better term, “messier” – his lines weren’t quite as crisp, but they were shaggier, allowing Mitten to show even more the raggedness of the world in which the story occurs. He also used shading a bit more, so the starkness of the early issues was lost a bit, but it was replaced by a bit more nuance. Mitten left the book, and while the artists who came after him were all pretty good, it became clear that he was a very big part of the comic’s success. Justin Greenwood, who drew the second-most issues in the series (Greenwood drew 12, while Mitten drew 34, with some pages of a 35th), draws in a similar style to Mitten’s – he uses fewer lines than many artists and relies on blacks and heavy lines more than others. Greenwood’s lines are not as harsh and angular as Mitten’s, though, and while his art is perfectly fine, it’s a bit too cartoony for the book. He does, however, do a nice job with the final confrontation between Adam and Marcus, and he draws that with great epic power, making Adam a bit more god-like than Mitten drew him earlier in the book (although Mitten does a good job with Adam in the final arc). Russel Roehling, who draws only five issues, is terrific on them – he’s much more detailed than Mitten is and his lines are much more rounded, which lessens the harshness of the book. This might not be purposeful, but it works for his arc, which contrasts the “civilization” of Thomas’s small village, where Roehling gets to draw more intricate clothing because the people are more settled and more time to create, with the dwellers of a “pre-city” near the town, who have turned into savage monsters after the apocalypse. Roehling also gets to draw Sunspot, the town where the leader of the Sunners back in Newbegin was raised, which is also a bit more settled, and he draws a verdant oasis in issue #43, something that Mitten might have made too stark (I don’t know if he would have, but Roehling definitely nails it). Mitten returned for the final arc, and he does a terrific job shifting between the present and what Abi, Michael, and Thomas have discovered, and the pre-apocalypse, when humanity was on the brink even before they find things that were not meant to be found. Mitten’s pre-apocalyptic world is just as harsh – in a different way – as the one after the apocalypse, and his Adam is slimmer and less muscular than Greenwood’s, which works because Greenwood’s was more of an avenger while Mitten’s version is sadder and less prone to violent action. They’re the same character, but at different times of life, and it shows in the artwork.

Wasteland is Johnston’s masterpiece, a brilliant and exciting science-fiction story that, like all good sci-fi, doubles as a good allegory for our times. Johnston wisely never pushes the parallels too hard, preferring instead to let us discover them, and his depiction of the pre-apocalyptic times is chilling and depressingly prescient (probably; it’s not as bad as Johnston has it, but it’s getting too close for comfort). He gives us a world that is scary and filled with death, but one in which the people have tried to learn lessons and become better, even if they keep slipping into old patterns. Johnston shows us how hard it is to create something new, how there are those that will always seek to rule through domination, and how that way ultimately leads to destruction. The book is a mystery, too, despite some of the answers being pretty easy to figure out. Johnston plotted it very well, so that things always fit together very well, from the first scene in the book, which links to the last scene in the book. Abi’s story is the axis around which the series revolves, but Johnston is a good enough writer to use that to delve into the religion, the power structure, the societies, and the sexual politics of this new world. The book is packed with fascinating characters who become more interesting the more you think about them. It’s the kind of series that doesn’t seem like it will make you think as much as some comics, but when you get to the end, it’s one of those books that stays with you, as Johnston has made it much deeper than it appears on the surface. It’s a superb series.

Wasteland is available in several different editions, including five nice hardcovers, the first of which I’ve linked to below (which, if you use it for anything, even something non-comics-related, will give me a few ducats, so there you go!). Johnston and Mitten have worked on some very good comics over the years (including some together), but if you’re looking for their best work, you can’t go wrong with Wasteland.

Of course, you can always check out other Comics You Should Own in the archive, if you so choose!

6 Comments

  1. fit2print

    I’ll grant Wasteland the title of best post-apocalyptic comics SERIES of the 21st century (in a tight race with Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth) but, for me, the best comics STORY of this type is Olivier Vatine’s 2018 adaptation of Stefan Wul’s 1957 novel Niourk.

    Wasteland and Niourk are pretty much two entirely different animals so it’s something of an exercise in futility to even compare them. That said, Vatine and Wul’s book has going for it an even more ambitious scope than that of Johnston and Mitten’s series, a genre-bending SF-fantasy-questing (super)hero-centric plot of the sort that Theodore Sturgeon might have dreamed up, meticulously detailed, full-color artwork (in an oversized hardback) that even the late, great King Kirby would likely have gazed on with admiration (it helps that the story has many echoes of Kamandi and Planet of the Apes) and, above all, themes of racial equality, multiculturalism, ecological responsibility and non-Christian spiritual awakening that were decades ahead of their time when the original prose novel was released and might still qualify as forward-thinking today.

    Long story short, upon coming to the last page of Niourk on my first leisurely reading, I promptly returned to page one and pored over every last image and word balloon again at an even slower clip. I’m pretty sure I’ve never read a better comics adaptation…

    1. Greg Burgas

      I may have been engaging in some hyperbole there, although I do read a lot of post-apocalyptic stuff, but definitely not all of it. Of what I’ve read, I would say it’s the best.

      That book sounds keen, though. Now I have to track it down!

    1. Greg Burgas

      Will: Oh, I’m not even close to being done! I’ve almost gotten through my single issues, but of course I’ve bought a lot since I started, and I haven’t even started on the stuff I have in trade paperback! So I’ll be doing these … forever!!!!

      Thanks for the nice words. I always appreciate it!

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