1987 And All That: Wasteland #1

A column in which Matt Derman (Comics Matter) reads & reviews comics from 1987, because that’s the year he was born. Click here for an archive of all the previous posts in the series.

Wasteland #1 (DC) by Del Close, John Ostrander, David Lloyd, William Messner-Loebs, Donald Simpson, Lovern Kindzierski

Horror in fiction tends to involve the jumpy, the gory, the hideous, and/or the monstrous. As a genre, horror often aims to shock its audience, to have us screaming and leaping out of our seats and staying up at night to avoid the inevitable nightmares. That said, being scared is not necessarily the same thing as being horrified, is it? The sudden thrill of a masked psycho killer lunging out from the shadows might startle me and get my heart racing, but I don’t feel any deep-seated disgust, displeasure, or discomfort because of it. There is no true horror there, only cheap fear, and though some may argue that this is a subtle, even needless distinction, it is nevertheless a significant one when it comes to talking about Wasteland #1.

There is nothing in in this debut issue to be scared of directly. No ghosts, no demons, no murderers, none of the most classic and obvious tropes of the horror genre. Instead of trying to instill quick, fleeting fear in it's readers, Wasteland #1 offers an examination of the fears and flaws of its characters. In doing so, it becomes a lesson on or reminder of the power that our own emotions have over us, their ability to influence our decisions and shape our lives in ways we cannot control or understand. This is a comic book that wants us to be afraid not of its content but of its implications, uneasy at the thought our own internal processes. The three narratives contained in this issue work together to paint a portrait of humanity as slaves to our own curiosities, anxieties, biology, and desires. They fill the reader with a creeping, lasting dread, a purer and more personalized kind of horror, not shaken off quite so easily as your average monster or slasher story.

Del Close and John Ostrander share the writing duties, always at least plotting the stories together if not necessarily writing the scripts (though some of those were done collaboratively, too). Close is a legend of the improv comedy community, but his comic book work seems to be limited to this title and a handful of back-up stories for First Comics’ 'Grimjack' (also written with Ostrander). Having one half of the writing team be a primarily non-comics guy is beneficial for Wasteland #1, and not just because of his zany autobiographical story at the end of the issue. What Close brings is a conceptual freshness and experimental approach to the storytelling that results in unique and often very funny stuff. Ostander, meanwhile, keeps the narratives tight and crisp, allowing full stories to be delivered in succinct, nine-page packages.

Of course this is speculation on my part. For all I know it was Ostrander who had the outlandish concepts and Close who handled the pacing, and I am sure they both did handled each to one degree or another. But if you read the credits for each story and compare them to how those stories read, it seems clear to me that for the most part Close was the broad idea man while Ostrander filled in the details. Whatever the case, it is a duo that clicks right away, as all three of the tales told in this debut are original, successful, and whole. Each one is also paired with the artist most suited to it stylistically (out of the four that Wasteland used for every issue), a decision that would have been easy to mess up. So this is a creative team firing on all cylinders immediately, which is an essential part of what makes Wasteland #1 so effectively eerie.

The opening story, titled "Foo Goo", is drawn by David Lloyd, and is probably the best part of the issue in both concept and art. The plot is admittedly a bit light, relating the story of a group of four people who come together to take foo goo, a mysterious plant/mushroom that is rumored to provide the ultimate high to any who try it, only to end their lives an instant later. And that is exactly what we see. One by one, the characters each have their tastes, and then their bodies rise up in an uncontrollable fit of what could be drug-induced ecstasy, but could just as easily be intense pain or merely be the inexplicable spasms of sudden death. We never learn if the promised high is realized, but we do know for sure that no one survives the foo goo experience, as we also watch a pair of detectives make their way around the room from corpse to corpse the next morning. The story hops back and forth from the present tense of the detectives to the previous night when everything was actually going down, and this temporal shifting is one of its biggest strengths, particularly in regards to Lloyd’s art. Often transitioning between the two days from panel to panel, he makes dying look exciting while life seems boring. The scenes with the foo goo group are all heightened lighting, underlying tension, and sudden bursts of action and energy. Meanwhile, for the policemen, the aftermath of this strange suicide pact is nothing special, the fourth example they have seen in less than a year. They are archetypes, the detectives, and the lighting of their panels is flat and dull, because they live in a world of routine and order. Though they died for it, the four “victims” all got to escape the drudgery of that world for at least one fleeting moment, and the way Lloyd draws it, you almost understand why they’d make that call. It is a question the detectives ask out loud more than once: why do people keep using foo goo if they know they’ll die? The answer is embedded in Lloyd’s imagery, right up to the final panel when one of the cops decides to see for himself what all the fuss is about.

The specific motives of the dead folks vary from hubris to loyalty to boredom to something like spiritual greed. These characters do not necessarily represent the worst aspects of human potential (though some of them do), but they certainly act as examples of extreme personalities, so devoted to their mindsets and trapped in their own momentum that even after watching one another die dramatically, they press forward until all have had a turn. There is also that strange group hysteria, the passive-aggressive “no one is forcing you” peer pressure in the dialogue that makes it easier to comprehend why someone might go through with this. Once you’re sitting at the table, you've already agreed to die.

Is it an anti-drug story? Arguably, but I think of it more as a warning about the edges of human curiosity and exploration. Some stones are best left unturned, no matter how grand the revelation they might be covering. It is distinct from yet not dissimilar to the message of the next story, "R. Ab." which we learn stands for “retroactive abortion.”

"R. Ab." is more on the sci-fi side of the spectrum than horror, but it is no less disturbing for it. A more overtly cautionary tale, it takes place in a not-all-that-distant future. People get married over the course of a single video chat in this world, and babies are commodities that get delivered and can just as easily be disposed of. After conversing for only a few minutes, Sal and Hal decide to get hitched. Then, in rapid succession, he gets her a cushy CEO position, their baby arrives, and both parents neglect the child in pursuit of their careers and ignore his crying for six months until they just can’t stand it anymore. So Sal and Hal opt for a retroactive abortion, which amounts to backdating some paperwork to make it so their son legally never existed and then tossing him out a window. This decision gives them a renewed sense of happiness and relief, and so, in a warped yet predictable ending, they decide to give parenthood another try.

It’d be a gruesome story if it weren't handled so comically, and that begins with William Messner-Loebs. His lines are exaggerated, his figures amorphous caricatures with eyes and teeth barely contained by their heads. Everyone and everything looks so cartoon-ish, down to the toilets being labeled “waste unit,” and it establishes an immediate lightheartedness even before we understand the nature of the narrative. Messner-Loebs is clearly having fun on these pages, and that translates back into the story, making it seem far more ridiculous and amusing than it would if rendered in a more grounded style. The story also moves very quickly, whizzing past us toward its grim finale, and the art services that speedy pacing, too. It is cramped without being unclear, and the characters are very frenetic, never fully settling into their lives. There is a constant motion to the script that’s reflected in the art, all helping to amplify the humor and undercut the infanticide of this tale. But no amount of goofiness can entirely erase the still-heartbreaking image of a child thrown away, falling into non-existence without a sound or a prayer. It’s a tough pill to swallow, even though this is a nameless kid who we met only a few pages before, because Messner-Loebs plays up the fear and sadness in the child’s face. So this is still a story with the power to horrify, because like "Foo Goo" before it, "R. Ab." shows the ugliness and danger of the most intense of human impulses. Here, we see the potential damage of blinding ambition and, to a lesser extent, relying too heavily on technology. Perhaps more fitting warnings now than they were at the time.

Another aspect the opening two stories share is the idea of societal pressure as a powerful and threatening force. In "Foo Goo" it is the peer pressure I mentioned before, and the notion that people might rather kill themselves than admit to others that they have made a mistake or that they’re scared. And the only reason Sal and Hal bother getting married or having kids at all in "R. Ab." is because that’s what people are supposed to do. It’s all just transactions for them; there’s no romance there, no genuine desire for family. They are fulfilling obligations, and badly.

The final third of Wasteland #1, however, does not address this concept of external influence, nor does it examine the outliers of the human experience in the same way as the two preceding stories. Instead, "Sewer Rat" is an autobiographical narrative from Del Close about a time in the 60’s when he took too many drugs and got temporarily lost in the sewer. Rather than try to further shake up or scare the reader with a third example of the worst in people, the issue wraps up with Close providing an honest, open look into a time when he wrestled with his own fears. In his willingness to reveal and embarrass himself, there is an implicit invitation for the reader to do the same, to think back on a time we were confused or frightened like the man about whom we are reading. It’s less a warning of what could happen to us and more a reminder of what has and, more importantly, will happen to us down the line. Nobody can avoid fear altogether, but Close’s adventure shows us that if you ride out the terrifying times, they too shall pass.

Donald Simpson is on art duties for this piece, and he steals the show. How could the artist not be the true star of a hallucination made into a comic book? It’s not groundbreaking stuff, but it is very clean and clear, which is important when the script meanders like it does here. There’s not a lot of forward narrative momentum, only lateral; Close is already in the sewers when the story begins, he explores them and trips for a while, and then he lucks upon a way out. That is about as in-depth a plot synopsis as I can provide without breaking it down one panel at a time, but Simpson’s visuals are enough fun to carry us through. He walks the line between realism and surrealism, drawing scenes of the unbelievable in a way that makes us almost believe them. And that’s what hallucinating is like, anyway, so it’s an apt approach. The other technique Simpson employs that I like is the use of uniform and widely-spaced panels. Though the exact layouts shift from page to page, there are a lot of grids, and everything is contained in rigid, rectangular boxes. Each of the panels might show us something insane or hard to understand, but as a whole they provide a steady rhythm which, again, is a big help when the narrative feels a tad aimless. Simpson reins in Close’s story just enough to make it entertaining and easy to follow without detracting from its inherent fantastic absurdity.

Wasteland #1 doesn't exactly show us reflections of ourselves, but it asks that we examine ourselves nonetheless. It tells us that we each hold the potential to be like the characters we see here, that normal and even well-intentioned people can become monstrous, too. And even if we don’t feel frightened by ourselves, even if we’re confident that we’ll never succumb to our most extreme impulses and compulsions, we are reminded that such people exist among us every day. They’re out there, seeking knowledge they can’t handle, irrevocably damaging their kids, talking one another into suicide, and any number of equally horrifying things.

NOTE: An earlier version of this review appeared on The Chemical Box.

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