Antony Johnston Returns to the "Wasteland"

Launching to critical and popular acclaim in 2006 with a double-sized issue, Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten's "Wasteland" became one of the most consistent -- and consistently enthralling -- black and white indie comics on the stands. Set one hundred years after a great disaster decimated the human population and set civilization back to its most rudimentary forms, "Wasteland" follows the story of Michael, a scavenger or "ruin runner," and Abi, the sheriff of a ruined town, as they struggle through the intrigues and betrayals of life in Newbegin, a city-state utterly under the control of a man named Marcus. Eventually, Michael and Abi escaped captivity to begin their journey toward A-Ree-Yass-I, the mythical origin of the "Big Wet" catastrophe that may hold the answers to many unformed questions -- if it exists at all.

In the past year, however, "Wasteland" has largely fallen off the publishing schedule. Oni Press has announced that January's "Wasteland" #33 will mark a return to form, with the series continuing monthly for the rest of its run, and hopes to draw in new and returning readers with a special $1 issue. Comic Book Resources spoke with Johnston about the series' past and present, "Wasteland's" cast and climes and righting course.

CBR News: First, Antony, the big news right now is that "Wasteland" is returning to a monthly schedule in 2012 after releasing only 3 issues in 2011 (the third due out later this month). Given how consistently the book came out before then, I'm hoping you can talk a little about what happened and how you've righted the course for the coming year.

Antony Johnston: We screwed up. Simple as that. We really pushed the boat out on our anniversary issue #25, making it double-length and fully-painted -- and it exhausted Chris Mitten. We should have taken a break after that, but we didn't, and soon he started struggling to hit deadlines, which was previously unheard of. Chris had been a machine for us since the book started, and we kind of took him for granted. Mistake #1.

So things started slipping, and Chris left -- amicably -- after issue #28, which was in the middle of an arc. I really didn't want to go on hiatus in that situation. In hindsight, that was mistake #2.

We found a replacement, Remington Veteto, who's a great young artist, but simply wasn't ready to handle the schedule Chris had established, and it all just kind of snowballed. But again, I wanted to finish the arc before we considered a hiatus. Mistake #3.

Finally, we got Justin Greenwood, fresh from "Resurrection," to start work on the next arc while Remi was finishing up to issue #31. Justin's been drawing "Wasteland" for the best part of a year, now, and has almost finished the entire arc already. Script-wise, I'm done up to #40. That's why we're now confident about meeting deadlines, because we're working further ahead than ever before.

You mention that the full-color 25th issue wrecked your schedule, but it was a beautiful book -- how did readers respond to that story and the changed aesthetic?

Oh, readers loved it, and rightly so. Chris did a stellar job, and made us all proud, and I was very happy with the story. It gave us a real insight into Michael's past and the complexities of his character. Unfortunately, as I said, #25 was also the issue that started all these problems. Talk about suffering for your art!

Before we go into the upcoming issues, I'd like to take a step back and look at where this series has been -- reaching thirty issues is a pretty big milestone for an indie title. For readers who might be joining with the January dollar-issue push, how would you describe the world of "Wasteland," its major players, and where things now stand?

The beauty of "Wasteland," at least up till this point, is that nobody really knows what's going on with the world. But that doesn't stop plenty happening, so are you sitting comfortably...?

One hundred years ago a disaster called the Big Wet destroyed society as we know it, and left the earth a broken, barren place with poisonous seas and dustbowl land.

No-one actually knows what the Big Wet was, although there are plenty of competing theories, but nearly everyone agrees that it started in a mythical place called A-Ree-Yass-I. Mythical, that is, except --

Michael, a scavenger, finds a strange machine in the desert. The machine "talks" in a strange language, supposedly giving directions to A-Ree-Yass-I. While trying to sell the machine Michael finds Abi, sheriff of a small town called Providence, and realizes that, like him, she's somehow special.

They both have strange, unique powers. They don't remember how old they are, or where they came from. And they're the only people who can understand the machine's strange language.

Michael and Abi lead the people of Providence to the nearby city of Newbegin, a vast metropolis by "Wasteland" standards, to escape an attack by the mutated desert creatures called Sand-Eaters.

But inside the city they're enslaved for being sun-worshipping "Sunners", at the behest of city founder Marcus. It turns out that Marcus is "special," like Michael and Abi, and is tortured by his lack of knowledge about his own life. Marcus captures them, tortures them for information and a strange "psychic event" binds the three of them together.

It also wakes up a strange man with a weird symbol burnt into his chest, who digs himself out of the desert ground and heads towards the city.

Marcus steals the talking machine. Michael and Abi escape the city during a siege by the Sand-Eaters, and Marcus sends his personal assassin to track and kill them. Some of the Providence townsfolk elect to stay behind and aid a Sunner rebellion. Meanwhile, another of the "special" brethren, a woman called Mary, arrives with the Sand-Eaters and convinces Marcus to appoint her co-ruler beside him.

Phew! That sounds like a lot to pack into thirty-one issues, but even there I've skimmed over a fair amount of stuff; politics, religious struggle, bizarre dog-cultures, epic battles -- nobody could ever accuse us of not giving you bang for your buck.

Up until the full-color issue, the series' focus had been on Michael and Abi, and with #26 you began the "Enemy Within" arc, which takes place in Newbegin after the pair have left. What was the thought behind bringing this sort of attention to the city, its politics and players?

That attention on Newbegin has always been there, way back from issue #2. It's a vital part of the story. The only difference, as you say, is that Michael and Abi were no longer in the picture.

But others from Providence were, like Jakob and Golden Voice, and that was always part of the plan -- to have these stories running in parallel, highlighting the differences (and similarities!) between life in the city and life out in the wasteland. And, of course, examine how the appearance of the Providence refugees affects the city, its politics, and its destiny.

The most recent issue, #31, wrapped up the "Enemy Within" story arc in quite dramatic fashion. How does the execution of Golden Voice upset the dynamics of the city, both in terms of the Sunner rebels (if any remain) and Marcus's willing and unwilling subjects?

Well, the rebels are certainly subdued, to say the least. But Golden Voice's fate has also taught them some very important lessons. And it was a big turning point for the Sunners who joined the Disciples of the Watch, too, as we saw at the end of #31. How those new attitudes and dynamics play out will be covered in later issues.

Coming up later this month is #32, a standalone issue illustrated by Brett Weldele. What can you tell us about this story, and how and whether it ties in to Michael and Abi's quest or the events in Newbegin?

"My Hope, The Destroyer" is a smaller, quieter story than the bombastic, sweeping events of the main story. Back in issue #5, Sultan Ameer's caravan escaped a Dweller attack, though not before Abi exposed the Sultan's slave-trading business. And the caravan escaped, quickly, without tending to the dead.

Except one of them wasn't dead. So this is the story of a survivor, who wakes up to find everyone has left her for dead, and learns to survive out in the desert -- before running into a familiar face, fresh out of Newbegin.

January's #33 is $1, sets you on a monthly course and catches up Michael and Abi. Where does their journey take them in this arc, and what are they up against?

After the Dog Tribes arc, Michael and Abi are accompanied by Gerr -- who says he's a ruin runner like Michael, but is in fact Marcus' secret assassin from the city, with orders to follow them to A-Ree-Yass-I and kill them.

Together, they arrive at the small town of Godsholm, a haven for pilgrims of a very old religion called Cross-Chains -- and find themselves, as they so often do, right in the middle of a crisis.

But this isn't just a local political situation, like with the Dog Tribes. This has implications for their entire quest, and even answers to some of the most basic questions around Michael and Abi: why are they special? Where did they come from? Just what is going on?

"Wasteland," to date, has carefully avoided references to God or gods, but you mention a town called Godsholm. Does this suggest we'll see a post-Big Wet version of present-day religion(s)?

See above. I suppose this arc could be quite controversial, but I hope we can avoid a "Life of Brian" situation if people just read to the end before jumping to conclusions!

World-building has been a huge part of "Wasteland." Will Michael and Abi encounter cultures different to what we've seen so far?

Definitely. There's the Cross-Chains people in this new arc, and later arcs will feature Pre-city looters, bookish wise men, tribes who worship strange artifacts fallen from the sky. There's a lot more like that to come.

Justin Greenwood joins the series as artist for this arc. What makes his style a good fit for "Wasteland?" And is he a guest artist or do you anticipate he'll be the artist from here on?

Justin's doing #33-#38, and then we'll see. It all depends on schedule, he's quite in demand. And you can see why. He's doing great work for us, some of the best pages he's ever done, and he brings a real dynamism and character focus to the book. He's a good fit simply because he's a great storyteller. To me, that's much more important than whether or not someone's style looks like Chris'.

Speaking briefly on your other announced Oni project, can you give us any updates on "The Coldest City" (formerly "Cold City")?

"The Coldest City" is now in final production. The art and lettering are done, and now it's just a case of taking it through the production process, doing the publicity, and so on. It looks great, and I can't wait to get it out there. I believe we're looking at May 2012 for release.

And I'm already writing another book in the same series, with the working title "Dead of Winter." Hopefully we can get that out a little quicker than we have with "The Coldest City" itself.

In closing, is there anything else you'd like to say about "Wasteland?"

As always, I just ask people to give it a try. If you like epic post-apocalyptic sci-fi, if you like complex stories that assume you're an intelligent reader, if you like fleshed-out characters who don't easily slot into "good" and "bad" categories -- then we're here for you. And come hell or high water, we're not going to stop.

"Wasteland" #32, a standalone issue illustrated by Brett Weldele, is on sale November 30; "Wasteland" #33 is on sale in January for $1. For more on "Wasteland," including the full first issue for free, visit http://www.thebigwet.com

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