Michael and Abi have been walking the desert together for days, on a seemingly endless march towards the fabled city of A-Ree-Yass-I. They've escaped execution and imprisonment, losing friends, and enemies, all along the way. They keep marching Westward across the sun-bleached dustbowl that was, once upon a time, America.
Michael and Abi are the protagonists of writer Antony Johnston's ongoing series "Wasteland," from Oni Press, which the creator describes as "a post-apocalyptic sci-fi western fantasy adventure." The pair's will see their relationship tested ever further in the upcoming story arc, "Lost in the Ozone," beginning in "Wasteland" #40 featuring art by Russel Roehling, on sale October 31. Having rid themselves of the treacherous assassin Gerr with a well-placed bullet, Michael and Abi are again on their own.
Comic Book Resources spoke with series creator and writer Antony Johnston about the next phase of their journey and the role of faith in a scorched world.
"This is Michael and Abi's long dark winter of the soul," said Johnston. "They find themselves more alone than ever, wandering the desert in search of meaning -- and, of course, A-Ree-Yass-I." In this next stretch of their march, they come across a small town, Far Enough, built in the shadow of an ancient Precity.
"They'll encounter a very special family, who'll hold up a mirror and make them realize what they're becoming," Johnston told CBR News. "A dying town, where Abi will face her biggest fears; new life in the desert, where Michael will gain a new hope; and finally a renewed sense of purpose, as they march ever onwards into the West."
Since Michael wandered into Abi's life, the two have never been quite comfortable with one another. They tolerate each other out of necessity, and some sense of a shared common purpose.
"They're becoming much more comfortable with one another, each learning to live with the other's habits and outlook," said Johnston. "But events at the start of this arc will test them, and they have to decide if their bond is stronger than their instinctive sense of self-reliance."
The bulk of "Wasteland" has featured artwork by Christopher Mitten, lending the book a distinctively stylized and gritty aesthetic. Mitten began stepping out of his role on "Wasteland" with issue #29.
"We worked [Mitten] a little too hard, and he needed a break," Johnston said of his original collaborator. "Because of a scheduling error -- which was partly my fault, and I hold my hand up -- we couldn't give him that break. Besides, he wanted to do other things, and who can blame him? Chris drew 'Wasteland,' and pretty much nothing else, for three years solid. It's not an easy book to draw, by any means. I've always said I was surprised he stuck around as long as he did. There are no hard feelings, no 'acrimonious split' or anything like that. We remain great friends, and you may have noticed he's now drawing our covers!
"We spent a little time in the wilderness, trying to find the right replacement for Chris," continued Johnston. "It became clear that he's one of a kind, and we wouldn't be able to find a permanent replacement for him. So instead we looked for artists who could at least do an arc, and do justice to Chris' visual legacy on the book, which is huge."
This change has led to arcs featuring art from Remington Veteto and Justin Greenwood, with the upcoming arc, "Lost in the Ozone," featuring the work of Russel Roehling. "Wasteland" still carries the influence of Mitten, and that legacy will likely stick with the book for its duration.
"Chris established our visual style so firmly that I still write scripts as if he'll be drawing them," said Johnston. "And that's not disrespecting artists like Justin and Russel -- it's simply because Chris' visualization of 'Wasteland' is so ingrained in the story. Hell, those guys became fans of the book because of Chris' work in the first place, so I know they'll back me up on this."
Johnston feels "Lost in the Ozone" is an arc particularly suited to Roehling's work, with a strong emphasis on character moments and empathy.
"Russel was suggested to me by editor James Lucas Jones; he's a fan of the book, and his work has incredible 'character acting,'" said Johnston. "That's always important, but for this arc in particular it's vital -- It's a very emotional arc, probably more so than any other arc in the series so far, full of character reflection and meditation. That doesn't mean everyone's sitting around talking about their feelings, but that's kind of the point -- to handle that emotion in a naturalistic way requires an artist who can pull off great acting, and Russel can.
"The emotion, reaction, and empathy he can evoke with his line work is fantastic," Johnston continued. "And his grey tones are painted, just beautiful stuff. He's a real find."
Despite its depiction of a blasted, dust-bowl world scarred by violence, slavery, and persecution, "Wasteland" is a story of hope and faith. Michael and Abi, despite their extra-normal abilities, are mired in what many believe is a fool's errand, in search of A-Ree-Yass-I, a city of myth that may or may not exist.
"Faith is a uniquely human proposition, and basically universal," said Johnston. "There isn't a society throughout history that hasn't believed in something bigger than they are, something they feel they must answer to, and I find that fascinating.
"They say faith is what gives people hope, but how can you have hope in a world like 'Wasteland?'" the writer asked. "Or is it the very state of this world that reinforces faith and hope somehow, that makes people seek meaning despite all evidence to the contrary? Is that, in fact, what makes people human? And how does that affect our relationship with other people, in a world where you are literally fighting to survive?"
Johnston raises these questions, not in hopes of finding definitive answers, but as a starting point to question what it is that makes us human, and in seeking out a great story. "Wasteland" is itself marching towards an inevitable conclusion, an endpoint Johnston has been planning for since the story began. The journey toward that conclusion remains flexible to some extent, shifting with the creative sands.
"There are certain immovable points in the story we had to hit, in order to move forward, that were planned from the start," said Johnston. "But the journey we take to get from one point to another has always meandered a bit, according to how things played out. But the conclusion, the actual ending of the story, hasn't changed -- I can't wait to get it out there in a couple of years' time.
"Only maybe half a dozen people in the world actually know how 'Wasteland' will end," Johnston added. "And even they don't know everything; there are some pieces of the puzzle I've kept entirely to myself."
"Wasteland" #40 by Antony Johnston and Russel Roehling goes on sale October 31.