guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten, Wasteland (Oni, 2006- ). monthly, $2.99.

By Jared Gardner

It is not hard to see why post-apolalyptic narratives have been especially appealing to authors and readers in recent years. The combination of world events, an endless war, and the very real possibility that in our lifetimes we will witness our environment tip irrevocably into self-destruct mode has made the imagining of such scenarios increasingly urgent in this decade. Comics have long lent themselves to the genre particularly well, at least as long as it is focused primarily on one central character or group, as in the case of Y: The Last Man or Walking Dead. What made Wasteland such a surprise when it launched a couple of years ago was that it attempted to bring the epic sweep of Dune and the massive ensemble cast of Lost to the spartan formal restraints of the comic. Two years later, what makes it so remarkable is that it has succeeded in these ambitions beyond what most readers could have reasonably hoped for. And the best, it would seem, is yet to come.

I have held off reviewing
Wasteland for these many issues because, in truth, I was not convinced it could pull off half of what it had set itself to do. The whole thing begins fairly conventionally for the genre with the story of the post-apocalyptic outpost of Providens being attacked by vile and (at first) incomprehensible Sand-Eaters, being rescued by a mysterious stranger, and then beginning a long hike through the waste to the city of New Begin. Adding another layer of complexity to the narrative, we then begin to explore the political situation in New Begin itself, where a meglomaniacal leader, Marcus, has grown increasingly paranoid about a coming threat to his city and his rule represented by visions of a man and a woman in the approaching caravan. But even as Marcus attempts to stave off disaster by enslaving those who refuse to worship him (the Sunners, who believe that the unspecified disaster that has created the Wasteland was a punishment from Mother Sun and Father Moon), we begin as well to learn about the political machinations of those surrounding him on the council, and of the desperate choices of those who face enslavement at his hands. While the mysterious stranger, Michael, and the former sherrif of Providens, Abi, remain vital to the increasingly dizzying energies circulating around the story, they quickly become just two characters in a vast cast, each with backstories, secrets, and ambitions.

It is not a big surprise when, in one letters page, Johnson confesses to being a fan of
Lost. The book is demanding of the kind of obsessive attention as the show, and it offers similar rewards to the attentive--and similar frustrations. But Wasteland is ultimately more emotionally believable than Lost, a really impressive achievement considering the form. Johnson and Mitten never take recourse into the kind of operatic melodrama that Lost must to compensate for the interruptions of commercial breaks, writer’s strikes, and production schedules. Even the Sand Eaters are given their chance to tell their own origin story, their own vision of the world we are inhabiting, although translating that story requires the kind of scholastic patience that I couldn’t quite bring to the subject. (I’m waiting for the SparkNotes, or for the generous and energetic contributions to the letters pages from the book’s faithful readers, who early on deciphered the mysterious and possibly mythical A-Ree-Yass-I as “Area 51,” which is as convincing as anything I’ve come up with thus far.)

Johnston’s abilities to bring the breadth of the epic novel to the comic form is a real achievement, but the book’s success owes much as well to Mitten’s art which is somehow angular and gritty while being warm and human. I love the Templesmith covers that grace each issue, but I am grateful that Mitten is the artist bringing the story to life precisely because he resists the temptations of the material to overplay the gothic and grotesque visions of our post-apocalytpic future. Given Johnston’s determination to get us to see through
everyone’s eyes, sand and all, this gentle touch is vital. And Mitten can handle the energy of the action—which is sometimes dizzying to behold—with both guns blazing, never letting us forget about the human (and inhuman) costs of the violence we are seeing.

There are risks the book runs as it approaches its 20th issue. Recently, one of the leaders of the Sand Eater’s attack on New Begin was revealed to be Marcus’s sister, Mary, in disguise. Somehow, this twist felt to me one too many, a new character, a new backstory, and one in this case that made us question the whole Sand Eater perspective we had only recently been let in on. On their website, Johnson suggests he will wrap it all up in 50 issues, but as he keeps adding characters, tribes and political layers to the story, this is starting to seem as unconvincing as the promise of
Lost’s creators to have their loose ends tied up in two short seasons. But 19 issues in, Johnson and Mitten have made believers of me and I’m willing to risk the next 31 issues to prove they can do it. And, heck, if they need another 50 issues, I have absolutely no problem with that at all!