The Rising Tide: Antony Johnston talks Oni's "Wasteland"

Imagine a world where a spectacular catastrophe called The Big Wet has caused the oceans to rush inland, destroying modern civilization. The world is now a barren, mostly lifeless place without trees and gray skies. The oceans are dark and poisonous; the rivers are dry or have vanished into the oceans. Thousands of animals have gone extinct. Cities like Los Angeles and New York are simply gone, gobbled up by the rising seas. But through all this, somehow, a small portion of humanity has survived this cataclysm and, slowly, society is reforming with new towns popping up and new religions being born. A whole new way of life is taking shape.

Except one big thing-- no one knows why or how this all happened. And other strange things are happening, like certain people have found they have extra-normal abilities, ways to affect things with their minds. The one thing they all do know is that this all started in a land that's taken on a mythical tone called A-Ree-Yass-I, but no one's ever been there or knows where it is.

Thankfully that's not the world we live in, but this world is very real for writer Antony Johnston, who's created this very different landscape in the pages of "Wasteland," a new ongoing series by Johnston and artist Christopher Mitten coming from Oni Press this July.

When CBR News spoke with Johnston in July of 2005, he gave us loads of details on "Wasteland." With the book now available for pre-order, we sat down with Johnston, who gave us a 21 page preview of issue one, and told us more about this intriguing new series that presents a very bleak future for humanity, albeit one filled with very personal stories and a sparkle of hope for all of humanity.

To begin with, while nine months may have transpired since our original interview, much of the original plans for the series remain in tact with two small changes. The series still begins with a double-length issue at the regular issue price and still features an extra prose serial written by Johnston, which explores the wider world found inside the book. The only changes are the release date -- originally set for the Spring of 2006 and now scheduled for a July 12th release -- and the addition of a new cover artist -- acclaimed artist Ben Templesmith.

Johnston began by explaining the reason behind the delay in publication. "The delay is just down to scheduling, and a desire to make sure we had everything in place for a good run before we started," Johnston told CBR News Tuesday afternoon. "We all know only too well what happens to ongoing series that start missing deadlines, and we've used the extra time to make sure that doesn't happen here. Issue #1 is already done and finished, Christopher's working on issue #2 right now, and I've already written all the way up to issue #6. By the time #1 ships, we'll have three issues in the can. And remember that one of those is twice the length of a normal issue."

As to the story of "Wasteland," Johnston was happy to give our readers the nitty gritty details once again of what they should expect from the series. "'Wasteland' takes place one hundred years after the Big Wet, a catastrophe that brought the oceans rushing inland and destroyed modern civilization. No one knows what really caused the Big Wet, but the result is a barren, devastated world bereft of much of the life we take for granted. The sky is cloudless, dim and grey. There are no birds flying in it, and no trees for them to nest in if there were. The oceans are dank and poisonous, and no-one dares eat the fish anyway. The great rivers are dry, or vanished into the ocean. Cattle, horses, sheep, they're all gone. Instead, people use goats and dogs as both working animals and livestock. Thousands of species, of both animals and plants, are extinct. In short, it's not a pretty place.

"But humanity has survived, somehow. Over the last century, the few who remain have adapted - a little, anyway - to this new world. And slowly, in this crucial turning point for mankind's future, society is reforming. New towns have been built. New religions have sprung up. A whole new way of life is taking shape.

"What still bothers people, though, is that no-one knows why it's like this; what the Big Wet was, or why it happened. There are theories, of course, but no-one knows for sure. The only thing everyone can agree on is that it all started in a land called A-Ree-Yass-I. But no-one's ever been there, or knows where it is - it's a myth, an Atlantis for this new world.

"Of course, that's where our characters come in. Because one of them thinks they know how to find A-Ree-Yass-I ... "

One of the recurring themes Johnston tends to explore in his comics is one of miscommunication and that's to be found in "Wasteland," too. "'Wasteland' is about people trying to build a new world by searching for the truth, both literally and figuratively, and the obstacles they face during that journey, both environmental and human. It's about how far people will go to survive in a world that their own ancestors made hostile to their very existence. Are those themes? I honestly don't know.

"Whether or not our characters can face the truth when they find it, of course, is the big question."

In terms of how the story is told, Johnston said it's not exactly laid out like your typical comic book. There will be story arcs, but there will be no definitive split where you can say one story has cleanly finished and another has begun. "It's all one big tale, in the same way something like 'Preacher' or 'Y: The Last Man' is. Which also means the arcs will take up different numbers of issues according to their needs. The story is the most important thing, and we'll never artificially 'inflate' an arc just to fill a trade paperback.

"The first 'arc' - which is six issues long - deals with the arrival of Michael, a scavenger, in the small shanty town of Providence, and the havoc he brings in his wake. From an innocent stop at a small-time trading post, the story moves into brutal violence, an escape from certain doom to a new life, and a dangerous, violent journey through the wasteland. It shows us some of this broken world, deals with the way people naturally form into tribes for survival, and the consequences of our paranoid fear of the unknown. But much of that is subtext. Violence, betrayal and swarms of horribly mutated predators are what you'll actually see on the page!"

Johnston and Mitten have gone to great lengths to bring this world to life and have a very clear idea of exactly what this world looks like after The Big Wet. "This series has taken a huge amount of research, and that includes a realistic look at some of the effects a disaster like the Big Wet would have on the world," said Johnston. "I've been fascinated by the impact of rising sea levels for years. I even designed a cyberpunk role-playing campaign about ten years ago, set in a world where the polar caps had melted. A lot of the research I did for that -- including relief maps of the planet's surface, and projections of the planet-wide ecological impact of global warming -- came in very handy for 'Wasteland.'

"Chris and I have maps and lists detailing the new landscape, the surviving vegetation and animal life and so on; a full ecological breakdown of 'Wasteland's' world. But we won't be publishing it, sorry. Well, maybe when we actually finish the series. But that will hopefully be some years down the line."

The series is laden with mystery after mystery, beginning with the fact the citizens of this new world don't know how it all came to be. Then there are the mysterious powers that our main characters Michael and Abi have discovered. So, the question remains, does Johnston know the truth behind these mysteries already and will he be revealing those truths over time, or will he torture us indefinitely like the creators of the hit TV show "Lost" like to do? " I love shows like 'Lost' and 'Invasion,' and they've definitely had some influence on how I write 'Wasteland.' But you don't have anywhere near as much space to spin things out in comics, even in a serial, so we're going to move a bit faster than those kinds of shows. Season one of 'Lost' alone would need as many comics pages as the whole of 'Sandman.'

"The 'big questions' - does A-Ree-Yass-I really exist, what was the Big Wet, why do Michael and Abi have these strange powers - definitely have answers, and I know what they are. All those answers will be revealed in the fullness of time (I already have the last story arc outlined, in fact). But we'll discover as much about the characters and their world during their search for the truth as we will when they reach the end. This is definitely a case where the journey is more important than the destination."

Johnston mentioned he's already outlined the final "Wasteland" story and while he has a definitive ending in mind for the series, the length of the series at this point is rather flexible. "In an ideal world we'll probably run for 30-40 issues before we get to the final story, to give us enough time to explore the world properly and follow the characters' various journeys through to their proper end. But that may end up taking longer - I have a rough map, but it's not broken down by issue or anything. It'll take as long as it takes, I guess."

The set-up for "Wasteland" provides Johnston with certain opportunities to comment on current geopolitical movements around the world. Johnston said that the series is more an extrapolation of current political and environmental movements versus a comment on existing ideology. "The world in 'Wasteland' was certainly inspired by my interest in environmental issues, and global warming in particular. But frankly, the world of 'Wasteland' - as violent and hostile as it is - is much more optimistic than any realistic view of what the world will be like after the human race has finished with it. Human beings are still around, for a start.

"There are some parallels to current problems, of course. Cultural xenophobia is a big factor in the first story, for example. But they're not direct allegories of existing situations so much as an examination of human nature, which never really changes. Those kinds of issues are impossible to avoid when you're writing about people searching for identity and safety in a strange, dangerous world.

"If what I'm writing about in 'Wasteland' touches on some of the current political issues in the world, well, maybe that's just because the world gets uglier every day."

Oni Press is really getting behind this book, giving it a big push on the Web via a custom Web site hosted at thebigwet.com, which officially opens Wednesday, April 26th. The site includes desktops, icons, previews and much more, something quite unusual to come from a smaller publisher like Oni Press, let alone a book coming from the big two. Johnston took on the task of designing the site himself. "But it couldn't have happened without Oni's support," admitted Johnston. "When I suggested the idea to James Lucas Jones, he was immediately 100% behind it, and their support has been invaluable," said Johnston.

"I really just wanted to create something that people interested in the book, or who maybe pick up an odd issue in the middle of a story, can visit to find out more and catch up a little. Going back to something like 'Lost,' I've relied on TV show 'mini-sites' myself in the past when I miss an episode, or just because I want to find out more about a particular show and its creators. That's the kind of thing I want thebigwet.com to be, a first resource for anyone who wants to find out more.

"We'll update the site when each new issue goes on sale, expanding the character biographies and issue summaries, and adding new behind-the-scenes features."

Now, while readers of this article already have access to a 21-page preview of the first, double-sized issue, that same preview will be made available to users of thebigwet.com in a variety of different formats. There'll be the standard JPGs like we have here, plus a PDF version and .CBR (comic book reader format, no relation to this Web site) formatted files. Oni is even offering the CBR files up using the BitTorrent client, a peer-to-peer file sharing program associated primarily with pirated movies, music and programs, but it also serves as a great way to distribute large files without the site host having to eat the cost of bandwidth. Johnston explained why the multiple formats and what the thinking was behind all this. "It's about choice and convenience," explained Johnston. "I want everyone interested in the preview to be able to read it, from tech-savvy people who read .cbr files without a second thought, to the casual computer user who wouldn't know what a PDF was if it danced on their keyboard. It's about saying to potential readers, 'If you don't like or understand this format, we won't shut you out - we'll offer you another instead.'

"As for BitTorrent, like you say, it's just a great way to distribute files. And it also helps expose us to readers who may not buy Diamond's 'Previews' catalog, or browse comics news sites, but will happily download something featured on a BitTorrent site."

Also on the Web site visitors will find the "Wasteland" theme song, written by Ruin Runner. Who's that, you ask? Johnston admits it's actually him, a little in-joke for the series. "I'm a big music lover and a musician myself; I spent most of my teenage years and early twenties in various bands, and 'Wasteland' is heavily influenced by music. So it just seemed natural to compose a theme song around the book's mood and atmosphere. People should listen to it as they read the preview of issue #1!"

Finally, Johnston's excited about the possibilities "Wasteland" presents and hopes readers will react to it with the same level of enthusiasm he had when he first starting writing the series. "This is a book I've wanted to write for over ten years, and I'm incredibly excited that I finally have the chance to get it out there. I just hope people like it and get behind Oni, Christopher and myself as we tell what we hope is a compelling, intelligent adventure story."

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