CCI, Day 2 - The Future Is Now: Antony Johnston's "Wasteland"

Sat, July 16th, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

From his work at the Ninth Art Web site to his well-received work at Oni Press, Antony Johnston is becoming more well-known among comic book fans with each passing issue of "Previews." But if past ongoing series from Oni are any indication, his star will rise with the debut of "Wasteland" next spring. CBR News caught up with Johnston to learn more about the series and scribe was happy to talk.

"'Wasteland' is a brand new ongoing series, written by myself and drawn by my 'Queen & Country' collaborator Christopher Mitten. It's "'Preacher' meets 'Mad Max,' directed by Richard Stanley," and the first, double-sized (but regular-priced) issue will be out next spring.

"'Wasteland' takes place a 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 that manage to survive in it. The great rivers are dry, or vanished into the ocean. Cattle, horses, sheep, all gone. Instead, people use goats and dogs as both working animals. Thousands of species are extinct, of both animals and plants. 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.

"But what still bothers people is that no one knows why it's like this. No one knows 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 ..."

Johnston is referring to a character known as Michael, mentioned in an Oni Press release for the book with the fewest of details, though he is central to the book.

"Michael gets called many things, by many people -- ruin-runner, corpse-cleaner, waste-walker. But they all mean the same thing; he's a scavenger, a wanderer who survives by trading what he can find in the wasteland to the people huddled together in towns. No one likes ruin-runners. They have a well-deserved reputation for being antisocial and untrustworthy. But they're a necessary evil to people who are too afraid to go venturing into the desert themselves.

"Michael's no exception, and he likes his life just fine. But he isn't just a scavenger for profit. He stays away from other people for other reasons, and good ones. Michael's different, and he knows it. He's been walking the land for literally longer than he can remember. He doesn't know how old he is, where he comes from, he can't remember his parents ... he doesn't even know his own last name. And he can do things -- things with his mind -- that frighten people. He's completely alone; he's never met anyone else like him.

"Until he walks into the small shanty town of Providence and meets Abi, the town's 'sheriff.' Just like Michael, Abi has no idea how old she is, or where she came from. Just like Michael, she can do strange things with her mind. But that's where the similarities end. Abi lives amongst people, a vital part of the community. She's friendly, and helpful. And most of all, she believes in A-Ree-Yass-I. She's wondered about it for as long as she can remember, and when Michael arrives in town carrying a strange machine that speaks in a forgotten language, she sees an opportunity to go searching for the mythical land once and for all."

The press release also mentioned that the landscape of America has been dramatically altered by the "Big Wet," leaving some cities such as LA and New York ... non-existent.

"Completely wiped away, yes. But the inland cities were all wiped away, too, which is one of the big reasons why no-one can agree on just what the Big Wet was. Was it just a flood? Was it an act of God? Was it the 'new killer war' the elders talk about? No one knows. They call the old places 'precities' now -- barren, deserted places lying under tons of sand and dirt, riddled with disease and danger. The only people who go into precities are crazy, or suicidal. Or scavengers.

"The landscape, and certainly the coastline, is practically unrecognizable by modern standards. America is a vast dustbowl, an arid zone where people cluster together around the few remaining pockets of semi-fertile soil and sources of water in shanty towns and villages.

"The new cities, of which there are only a few, are built on high ground, well away from the dangers of sandstorms and the poisonous sea. These are the only places you'll find large-scale manufacturing -- places where there are enough people to do the work, and enough communal resources to make it happen. Because the cities are also where the Artisans live, men who carry and guard the secrets of engineering and science from the old world."

Before you conclude that this another British writer happily enjoying wiping away America in a piece of fiction, you should know that Johnston has made the entire world suffer, something that could easily prompt spin-off books.

"Yes, the Big Wet was a global catastrophe. The whole world was changed by it. But it also destroyed the comforts of our own modern transport - airplanes, ocean liners, cars, trains. And the seas are so dangerous anyway that crossing from one continent to another is impossible.

"We will get a look at some other areas of the world as the story unfolds, but that's much further down the line. For now it's firmly focused on America, and Michael and Abi's journey."

"Wasteland" is a creation that has been in the back of Johnston's mind for quite some time and in bringing it to fruition, he pitched it to Oni in an unusual fashion.

"I first had the idea for this story over 10 years ago. It's just been quietly chugging away at the back of my brain since then, waiting for the right time to be told. Well, about six months ago I decided that the time was right, and started fleshing it all out. Oni and I had been talking about doing an ongoing series of some kind, so I suggested 'Wasteland' - in fairly vague terms, I must admit! - to [Oni Editor-in-Chief] James Lucas Jones.

"Then it all got a bit unorthodox. Instead of a pitch, I did a first draft of the script for issue #1. I felt that would do a better job of getting across the kind of story this was going to be, and the mood of the book, than a pitch could. So I sent that to James, and he liked it. I then sent Chris Mitten a copy, and he did some design sketches based on it. The three of us kind of teamed up and used all of this material to persuade the other guys at Oni this was a book worth doing, and it seemed to work. They asked me to work up a full pitch, which I did, and now here we are."

As with many new ongoing series in today's comic book market, Johnston sees a definite end to the series but he doesn't want to put a firm number on the possible length of the series.

"I do have a definite ending in mind for Michael's journey, but it's going to take a long while for him to get there. There's a lot of ground to cover, literally. I don't want to get tied to a hard and fast prediction, but ideally it'll be a few years before we start seriously thinking about the end. In theory, I suppose 'Wasteland' could go on forever, with perhaps other stories taking place in the new world. But it's a little early to jump that particular gun."

Most of Johnston's work has come in the form of mini-series and original graphic novels, making this a change of pace and one happening because, he says, "The main reason is simply that 'Wasteland' is a long story. There's no getting around that. It's a 'road trip on foot,' if you will, and it's one bloody long road.

"And yes, I'm really looking forward to working in serial format for a change. Much as I like writing OGNs, there are certain things that just work better in serialization. I always try to make the telling of a story fit the format, so I figure I may as well use these advantages where I can to make each issue something worth picking up.

"One example of that is extra serialized material; I'm writing a text piece for the back of each issue, shedding some light on the world of 'Wasteland,' so that month by month readers learn a little bit more about the setting from a different viewpoint to the main characters. The pacing will be faster than in a GN, with a lot happening in each issue. And I'm looking forward to being able to use cliffhangers properly, something that's extremely difficult to make work in an OGN.

"I should probably also say at this point that one of the reasons the book's launch is still a ways off is because we're working well ahead of ourselves to make sure we hit every deadline. I've seen first-hand how delays can kill interest in a serial. Luckily, both Chris and myself work pretty fast."

Looking at the description of the series, it's hard not to think that Johnston was influenced by "The Postman" and "Mad Max," but the scribe says that there's so many influences on the book that it's hard to keep track.

"The influences on this book are many and various, some more obvious than others. Richard Stanley's cyberpunk movie 'Hardware' is a very obvious one, for example, and other dystopian works like 'Mad Max' and 'The Sheep Look Up' are certainly in there in terms of the visual feel. But there's a lot of other, less obvious influences at play. Music by bands like Covenant, Paradise Lost and Fields of the Nephilim. Road trip fiction, like 'Preacher' and 'Easy Rider.' My strong interest in environmentalism, particularly the irreparable damage we're doing to our ecosystem. (Though I should probably caution readers against going too far down that particular road for answers to 'Wasteland's' mysteries ...)

"It's hard for me to list many direct influences, because it's all been simmering away inside my head for so long. But by the same token, I think anyone familiar with me or my work will recognize 'Wasteland' as 'one of mine' straight away. There's simply a lot of me in it."

Artist Christopher Mitten was Johnston's collaborator on "Queen & Country Declassified III" and the two re-teamed quickly after their work on the series.

"Chris was the right choice - my only choice, actually - because his style suits the feel I want to get across in 'Wasteland' so well. He uses a very open line, but his composition and mood are very gritty, a bit rough and jagged, which is exactly what I was looking for. More than that, though, he's a great storyteller, and we work well together.

"I like to give artists a certain amount of freedom - I'm the writer, after all, not the artist. Chris ran with that on 'Queen & Country,' following the script very closely, but also adding to it in ways I hadn't thought of. That's the kind of artist every writer likes to work with. I wouldn't say we developed a 'shorthand' as such, but Chris immediately understood what I was going for. We communicated very well, the end result was wonderful, and he didn't hate me for filling his inbox with reference photos for a month. So he was a dead cert for 'Wasteland,' really ..."

In the end, while the release of "Wasteland" is months away, Johnston urges readers to pre-order the series.

"Chris and I are working hard to make sure 'Wasteland' is a compelling read, with a lot of story packed into each issue and a fully realized world waiting to be explored. We hope people come along for the ride."

Look for more announcements from Oni Press later today here on CBR.

CBR Executive Producer Jonah Weiland contributed to this story

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