Post-Apocalypse Now: Johnston's "Wasteland"

A while back, comics scribe Antony Johnston gave CBR readers a primer for his new series, "Wasteland," a post-apocalyptic yarn set a hundred years after a disaster called the Big Wet destroyed the world as we know it. Fans wondering why there wasn't an issue of "Wasteland" on the stands last month need not despair, November was a planned skip-month for the comic's creators. But the sci-fi epic returns tomorrow with issue #5, and CBR News caught up with Johnston to talk about where "Wasteland" has been and where it's going.

There are many and varied accounts amongst the survivors of the Big Wet of what happened and why. The people of Wosh Tun believe that God sent his angels to smite the corrupt people of the earth in what is being called the New Killer War, leaving the good and just people to rebuild the war-torn world. And there are those who believe the opposite, that the Big Wet was God's way of whisking the worthy souls off to heaven, and leaving the unworthy in the purgatory that is the new earth. Others still leave God out of the picture entirely, saying the Big Wet was a side-effect of a war between mankind and nature, a war that the latter lost. And new earth's latest and fastest growing religious sect, the Sunners, say that Mother Sun and Father Moon got angry at mankind and drowned the world in their tears. The one thing all the stories have in common is that the Big Wet started in a place called A-REE-YASS-I.

"Wasteland" follows a scavenger known only as Michael. The so-called Ruin Runner's travels bring him to a shanty town called Providence, where he barters some of his ill-gotten goods with Doc, the proprietor of the local trading post. When an attack by a pack of Sand-Eaters (savages reminiscent of Tusken Raiders) all but destroys the town, our reluctant hero agrees to escort the Providence refugees to a burgeoning city called Newbegin.

Newbegin is the largest known city in the post-Big Wet world, and was founded 80 years earlier by an enigmatic blind man called Marcus. Marcus has held the title of Lord Founder ever since, and has inexplicably not aged in the intervening years. When word reaches the Newbegin city council that vandals desecrated a statue of the Lord Founder inside the Temple of Light, Marcus uses it as an excuse to wage war on the growing underclass of Sunners in the city. Marcus hopes to scare the glorified slaves into renouncing their heathen religion. Primate Heddor of the Newbegin Council does not agree with many of the Lord Founder's policies, including his views on Sunners, and lays the foundation for a coup with his council allies. The Sunners, for their part, don't take kindly to their continued persecution, and sow the seeds of revolt themselves.

In their travels, it becomes clear that Michael has more in common with the people of Providence than it originally appeared. Every so often the Ruin Runner makes an offhand remark that betrays a deeper knowledge of the town and its people. Even stranger, both Michael and the sheriff of Providence, Abi, share a mysterious (apparently telekinetic) ability, and the nosebleeds that come with it.

En route to Newbegin, the refugees from Providence come across all manner of foe and strange bedfellow. They are saved from a pack of wild wulves by the timely intervention of Michael, and shortly thereafter encounter a machine convoy led by Michael's old friend Sultan Ameer. Michael barters safe passage with the caravan. The caravan takes a shortcut through a Precity, where it is revealed they mean to sacrifice a young girl as payment to the mutated Dwellers who prowl the Precity at night. When the refugees attempt to intercede on the girl's behalf, the Dwellers come out to play.

Johnston fondly recalls his father reading comics to him when he was a wee lad, which no doubt fostered his life-long desire to become a writer. And Johnston attributes much of his early development as a writer to his passion for roleplaying games. "What roleplaying games did was give me a channel for that desire and energy when I was far too young to know how to tell a story properly," Johnston told CBR News. "And refereeing RPGs helped me learn a lot of those skills." This lead to Johnston writing a supplement for the Providence RPG in 1998. "Writing for the Providence RPG was one of the things that directly led to me writing fiction again, after some years' hiatus. I loved writing RPG stuff, but one thing I always hated was all the rules malarkey. I just wanted to build worlds, create characters and tell stories," Johnston explained. The shanty town of Providence where "Wasteland" begins, is a nod not only to the erstwhile RPG, but also to the "Salvation" arc of Garth Ennis' "Preacher," a series which Johnston counts among his influences for "Wasteland."

"Wasteland" is a tale that's been 15 years in the making. "It started simply as an image I had in mind, of a lone wanderer crossing a devastated wasteland with nothing but layers of tattered clothing, a gun and a pair of goggles to keep him alive," Johnston said. "It was still little more than a notion, though, until Oni Press and I first started talking about launching an ongoing series a couple of years ago. After throwing a few ideas around, I remembered 'Wasteland' and realized it was a perfect story for the sort of ongoing I wanted to do: a long, epic adventure story with a wide scope and a multitude of characters."

Johnston assures readers that there are definitive answers to all of "Wasteland's" questions, and each of those secrets will be revealed come the final arc of the book, which Johnston estimates is a good thirty to forty issues away. "The last arc is already outlined, and I have a rough idea of the overall shape of the story," Johnston said. "But from day to day, I only plan 3-4 issues ahead. I like to keep a little flexibility so that if I think something needs to change, or a situation needs more time to explore, I can do that."

And the monthly comic is not the only opportunity fans have to delve into "Wasteland." Between the series' theme song (composed by Johnston himself) and the official website, "Wasteland" is a decidedly multimedia venture.

Music has always played an important part of Johnston's life, who was in and out of bands all through his adolescence. "So one day, during what you might call pre-production of 'Wasteland,' the thought struck me that a book so closely tied to my musical influences should probably have a theme song," the writer said. "Now I'm contemplating creating a new tune every six issues or so, and by the end of the series we'd have enough for a soundtrack CD!

"The website is there for both existing fans and people who are interested and want to find out about the series before jumping in," Johnston continued. "It contains (spoiler-free) character bios, behind-the-scenes style features, desktop wallpaper, banners, buddy icons, issue solicitations and so on. Plus there's an introduction to the series as a whole and, of course, the entire double-sized first issue to read for free. In a couple of months' time (when the first major arc is over) we'll start posting summaries of past issues, with spoilers (and warnings, of course!) to help fans keep up to date."

"Our main characters - all of them - are about to go through the worst time of their lives," Johnston said of the series' future. "Next year we'll get some revelations and clues about Michael's past, and more members of the Newbegin council will come to the fore as the game of politics gets turned up a notch."

As a rule, Johnston writes full-script. "I don't feel like I've done my job properly if I don't give the artist everything they need to do their job properly," he said. "To me, that means controlling the pacing, giving panel directions, letting them know how I envisage everything looking. If they can think of a better way to achieve the same effect, then I'm all for it."

This is not Johnston's first collaboration with artist Christopher Mitten, and the two comics creators have worked so closely for so long that they've developed something of a shorthand. "Working with Chris is fantastic, because we have a lot of shared notions about how a comic is composed, how pacing works, what a page should look like, and so on," Johnston said. "We just clicked from the first time we worked together on 'Queen & Country,' and the process is now very smooth. Although we do still manage to surprise one another every so often, like when I give Chris a panel direction and it comes back ten times better than I pictured it. Moments like that are golden."

Look for issue #5 of "Wasteland" on December 20th at a comics retailer near you.

Now discuss this story on CBR's Independent Comics Forum.

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