In 2006, Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten launched an ambitious new series at Oni Press. Wasteland is set somewhere in America, and picks up 100 years after a mysterious event only whispered about in hushed tones as “The Big Wet.” Antony Johnston’s script hooked readers early; amid tribes of people struggling to survive, we meet a post-apocalyptic drifter named Michael, a healer named Abi, and their cryptic connection draws them into several adventures on their journey to the fabled land of A-Ree-Yass-I, where it supposedly all began.
Chris Mitten’s lines played like flinty ink on crumpled parchment, illustrating a lost manuscript chronicling The End Of The World As We Know It. But, Wasteland was never merely about its post-apocalyptic setting. In a tradition of high-quality, high-interest sci-fi, it was also an examination of evolving social paradigms. It was a parable about lost opportunities. It was a cautionary tale about man’s ability to muck about in things we don’t fully comprehend. It was ultimately a humanitarian story about what it means to simply exist on Planet Earth.
To commemorate the close of one of the great modern epics after a nearly 9-year journey, Comics Bulletin is proud to present an exclusive retrospective of the series, including interviews with writer Antony Johnston and artists Chris Mitten and Justin Greenwood, along with never before seen concept art and previews of the issue #60 finale, courtesy of Oni Press. “Wasteland Week” here at Comics Bulletin will be a 4-day event with new content up each day from Monday to Thursday. Today, we’re featuring Part 1 of my interview with writer Antony Johnston.
Justin Giampaoli for Comics Bulletin: Antony, I promised myself I wouldn‘t ask you any softball world-building questions, so let‘s start at the beginning, how‘d you pitch the series?
Antony Johnston: The short version: I wrote the entire issue #1 script on spec and sent it to James Lucas Jones [Editor in Chief] at Oni Press, while also suggesting Chris Mitten to draw. The rest is (future, alternate) history.
The longer version: I’d already written several graphic novels for Oni, and James asked if I had anything longer, maybe even an ongoing, that I wanted to pitch them. At first I wasn’t sure, until I realised this was probably the best chance I’d ever have to launch ‘that big post-apocalyptic epic’ that had been stewing in the back of my mind for the previous 15 years.
I’d been putting off My Wasteland (the original working title) because, for a long time, I wasn’t confident I could do the story justice. But by 2005 I felt I had enough experience, both in life and my work, to get it right.
But this was a huge, complex beast, and I knew a traditional pitch would have to be twenty-plus pages long to explain everything. No editor will thank you for that. So instead, I figured the best way to explain what kind of story this would be was to go ahead and write that first issue.
So I did, and submitted it along with a short pitch that basically said, “More stuff like this.”
CB: I reread the entire series and was very impressed by Volume 1, the characters are so crisp and fully realized, Michael as the laconic drifter with the unknown past, Abi as the healer some call “angel,“ Marcus and his paranoid visions, even supporting characters like Golden Voice and Sultan Ameer have instantly distinct voices. How do you approach character development?
Johnston: I’m generally a plot-oriented writer, so my characters often stem from a story need. What kind of character does the story require to start, or to move forward, or to make a point? etc. I don’t like characters who serve no purpose, especially in a book like this where I’m already asking the audience to concentrate and interpret more fully than most.
Once that idea of the character is established, though, I approach their development in a very naturalistic way. I put myself in their shoes, and imagine how their personality has been shaped by their life experiences; how they speak, as a result; how they treat other people, and what their motivations are in life (because these only rarely coincide with what someone does in their life).
Hopefully, that process makes for characters that are unique and distinctive, but also feel natural for their circumstances and the position in which we find them.
CB: I was also amazed in Volume 1 how you basically lay out all the clues to deduce what‘s already happened and exactly where you‘re going to take the series. Between Golden Voice‘s account of The Big Wet, the letter that Michael finds, and deliberately bringing Abi and Michael together, the major beats are identified. It‘s all there! How do you approach plot development?
Slowly, and with copious notes.
That sounds glib, but it’s 100% true. I think the story over a lot — in the case of Wasteland, for more than a decade! — and note down every idea that comes to mind, before later sifting through them to find the ones that still sound like something worth doing.
I knew Wasteland would be an elliptical book, that it would end where it began, and how the ‘quest’ would be to unravel the big mystery. So I had to lay the groundwork, and establish the pieces of that puzzle, as soon as possible.
If you don’t do that, as far as I’m concerned it’s not a mystery. Without that gun on the mantelpiece, it’s just a sequence of things that happen. That’s totally fine for some stories. But not this one.
CB: At 60 issues, Wasteland is your longest running series to date, so congratulations! What did you learn?
Johnston: To never do another 60-issue series. It’s exhausting.
I learned a lot about my own tenacity, about who my audience is, and about my work habits, to be sure. I feel I’m a better writer now than when I started. But how much of that is down to Wasteland, and how much is just the natural progression of time, is impossible to say.
CB: Where does your affinity for language come from? I love degenerated stuff like “Wosh-Tun“ or “New Killer War,“ and pejoratives like “goat-fucker.”
Johnston: It’s hard to pinpoint, but here are some anecdotes.
There was a 1980s computer game (post-apocalyptic, of course) called The Sacred Armour of Antiriad, where the final revelation was that the “sacred armour” you were assembling was in fact an anti-radiation suit; the name was a simple corruption of “Anti-Rad”.
In Nicholas Fisk’s YA sci-fi novel Flamers, the lead character’s name is “Mykl”, and there’s a race of humans called “Romni”. “Michael” and “Romany”, you see — futuristic simplifications, evolved from modern English.
(In another Fisk novel, the excellent A Rag, A Bone and a Hank of Hair, the lead character is called “Brin”, corrupted from “Brian”. Fisk did this kind of thing a lot.)
And of course 2000AD delighted in neologisms, like Rogue Trooper‘s “Norts”, from the Northern hemisphere of the war-ravaged planet; Judge Dredd‘s “Resyk” facility for recycling corpses; or the very title of Strontium Dog, a nickname for mutants caused by radiation fallout.
These may all seem slightly obvious, but I was barely a teenager when I encountered them, and they had a profound impact. I haven’t even touched on Tolkien, where everything has ten names according to which Elvish dialect you’re using…!
CB: I‘m really fascinated by alt creation myths, and Wasteland allowed you to use several, the corrupted version passed down by the Sunners, the twisted version Marcus uses to further his own agenda, and even the Sand-Eaters spin a version in their “Sandie-Speak“ issue. Can you talk about the intent of all these accounts?
Johnston: Creation myths unite humanity. It’s the one thing shared by every single culture in the world, in the entire history of man. So even if the world was swept away, and all the old knowledge lost, it’s inconceivable to me that the survivors wouldn’t devise new creation myths to suit the new world they found themselves in. I wanted to imagine what those might be like.
And naturally, each myth is different according to who tells it. Every culture sees itself as the sacred people, the holy heroes. I find it fascinating to imagine how that comes about, the mindset and legend creation necessary to make that universally true, even in a ruined world.
CB: I‘m curious how your own outlook may play into the belief systems in your work. For example, you‘ve talked before about how in Wasteland the accepted belief system is largely based on misinformation, while in Umbral it‘s the rejected myths that turn out to be quite real. It strikes me that Wasteland is a bit cynical or distrustful then, while Umbral is a little more hopeful or willing to take a leap of faith, is that fair?
Johnston: Mmmmaybe? I don’t really think in those terms, but if that’s the impression readers walk away with, I guess that would be fair. Wasteland is certainly cynical, but that’s not connected to the creation myths, or whether characters believe in them.
Perhaps ironically, I’m an atheist and humanist. I believe in charity, kindness, the sanctity of life; love, peace, and goodwill. But those things rarely make good drama! A big part of my work is exploring and sympathising with viewpoints I don’t agree with at all.
I’m not big on symbolism, but here’s one I could never avoid: Michael is not a good guy. He’s a selfish asshole. But that’s what it takes to survive in the world we see in Wasteland … until the final scenes of the book. There, we see the emergence of hope. With Michael gone, Abi takes his place and sets out to show that maybe the world has changed, after all. Maybe now, after passing through the ultimate shadow, a good person can survive and make a difference.
CB: With “The Branded Man“ (Adam) going after Marcus specifically, you seem to be saying that parents are ultimately responsible for the actions of their children?
Johnston: Nnnnnno comment. I don’t want to get too deep into what things “mean”, really. I’m certainly not judging anyone.
CB: A-Ree-Yass-I. Why was it important to create this puzzle for readers to guess at?
Johnston: It’s all part of that creation myth I mentioned earlier. It’s not just a puzzle for readers, it’s a puzzle for the characters as well. And a good mystery is a nice hook to pull people into the world.
CB: Can you talk about using some of these universal themes, love, survival, power, religion, class dynamics, is that your interest as a writer, or something you know audiences respond to?
Johnston: Given the size of our audience, definitely the former! To me, those things are just… life. And Wasteland is ultimately about life, how resilient it is, and how it would need to change, to adapt and survive in that kind of world.
I can’t imagine writing a story like this without touching on those areas. That’s one of the reasons I always wanted to write Wasteland, because so much post-apocalyptic fiction ignores them completely. But how can you? How can you destroy civilisation and not talk about something like religion? It never made sense to me.
CB: When Abi is leaving Godsholm she says that “Everywhere we go, it‘s just people killing each other.“ Ankya echoes this observation during her travels. The Branded Man quips that “the children always fight.“ In the final scenes at Newbegin, Skot sees that all the politics and fighting got them nowhere. Was this underlying theme deliberate, the futility of all the strife? Does Wasteland ultimately carry an anti-war or anti-conflict message?
Johnston: Absolutely, yes. All the fighting, all the killing and death, and what does it achieve? In the end, very little. One tribe “owns” a fraction more dirt than they did before, until someone comes along and kills them in turn.
What’s the point? What does any of it achieve, ultimately? Nothing at all. In a matter of centuries — the blink of an eye in historical terms, let alone cosmic terms — everything we are, everything we’ve known, everything we’ve built, will be dust.
CB: Wasteland began in 2006, so describe this nearly 9 year journey you wanted to take readers on. Are you satisfied you accomplished what you set out to do?
Johnston: It’s a fairly equal split.
On the one hand, I finished a 60-issue epic; a 1400-page graphic novel, told without compromise or editorial fiat, that tells a complete story from beginning to end. The number of people who’ve done that in our industry is shockingly, and disappointingly, small.
On the other hand, we had some terrible delays and production difficulties; we were, and continue to be, mostly ignored by the media; and there were literally dozens of possible storylines I didn’t have the time or space to go into. It’s amazing how quickly the end sneaks up on you, in a way.
Join us tomorrow for our interview with artist Christopher Mitten!