Be sure to catch every installment of Surviving The Big Wet, Comics Bulletin’s week-long Wasteland event:
Justin Giampaoli for Comics Bulletin: Antony, our generation grew up with these cautionary tales like Mad Max, but why do you think readers and pros alike are so drawn to the post-apocalyptic genre?
Antony Johnston: I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, it’s twofold. First, you get the chance to begin again, to create a whole new world and society; but you can also cheat a little, because the reader knows our world, right now, and therefore how much has changed in the story presented.
Second, you get to explore that society from viewpoints and angles that, like the society itself, simply don’t exist in our modern world. In some cases, they never have. That’s catnip to an SF writer.
You could say you also get those things with alien-world fiction, and that’s mostly true, but what you don’t get is that context of change. The reader has no prior reference for the alien world, unlike our own world today.
CB: Any regrets with Wasteland, any story arcs or interlude issues that you didn‘t get to explore?
Johnston: So many it’s not even funny. You start out thinking 60 issues is practically infinite, enough time to explore every possible idea you could ever have… and then you hit issue #30 and suddenly realise that not only are you already halfway through, but you’ve barely covered a quarter of what you hoped to by now.
I think that’s a natural part of writing a long episodic story, though. It changes shape as you go, and sometimes takes you places you didn’t expect, which is a good thing.
One early plan was to write an arc about the In Here people, but the more I thought about it the more I realised it would be a diversion without much substance beyond “isn’t this society a peculiar idea.” So I explored it over a few installments of Walking the Dust, instead, and that turned out to be sufficient.
CB: I loved the interlude issues in between arcs, but what purpose did they serve both artistically and functionally?
Johnston: There were aspects of the world, and the characters’ lives, that I wanted to tell without resorting to cutaways, or endless flashbacks, within the main story. I wanted to keep that fairly lean and focused, so I planned to use the interludes as a way to quickly visit different places and times in the world of Wasteland, without distracting from the main story.
Functionally, they were also a way to give Chris Mitten a rest in the early days, when he was drawing every issue of the main storyline. We knew taking a break between arcs would help with scheduling (and we’ve been proven right, given that almost every creator-owned book being published now follows the same model…!)
It was James Lucas Jones who suggested giving each one to a different guest artist, which was a real stroke of genius. That was what encouraged me to experiment more, and resulted in things like issue #20, “Apocalyptic City”, with Chuck BB’s wonderful splash illustrations.
CB: What‘s the reader demographic like for Wasteland? One of the observations I made at the LCS was that women were drawn to The Dog Tribes arc specifically.
Johnston: And when you mentioned that on Twitter, I was genuinely (but pleasantly!) surprised.
Let me clarify: it’s no surprise that of all the arcs in Wasteland, Dog Tribe would appeal to women the most. But I find it difficult to sell female readers on post-apocalyptic fiction, because so often it’s a big old boys’ club. I love Mad Max, but its enormous cultural impact burned the concept of post-apocalyptic fiction being a men-only genre into the public’s minds for a generation. I look forward to Charlize Theron’s role in the new reboot for exactly that reason.
My own observation is that Wasteland mostly skewed towards men 20-40, which in light of the above isn’t too surprising. But I always hoped Wasteland would appeal across gender boundaries, so I’m really glad we touched some female readers too.
CB: The critical response to the series was predominantly favorable, but (and no offense intended here) sales of the singles didn‘t seem incredibly strong. I assume the trades did well? Did you ever have to consider wrapping it up early if it was cancelled, or was there a commitment from Oni Press to see it through to 60 issues no matter what?
Johnston: Wasteland was constantly on the point of cancellation up until our ‘soft relaunch’ with issue #33. The trades have always sold better than the single issues, and turn a profit, but they’re hardly setting charts alight.
For a long time, because of the massive delays and production problems we had, Oni wanted to relaunch with a new #1, to get a sales spike.
But I was 100% against that. Yes, we’d get a short-term spike. But those spikes never last, and in the process you piss off your existing readers, destroy the prestige of being able to say “issue #60” at the end, and spoil the cohesiveness of the series as a whole. I’ve never seen a single instance where relaunching a book like Wasteland with a new #1 was a good idea, in the long term.
At one point I even suggested going straight to digital with the singles, if that was what it took to maintain series numbering.
Anyway, we resolved that, and then finding Justin and Russel enabled us to work out the remainder of the schedule. From that point I think Oni knew it was all about trades, and the issues’ main purpose was to spread awareness. We were also now Oni’s longest-running series — in fact, one of the longest-running series outside of Marvel and DC, period. Maybe that played a part.
CB: “Walking The Dust“ is ultimately a 74-page prose novella (and it reads so cohesively collected, by the way!). Would you do that type of backmatter again?
Johnston: Not without a much better plan, and not for free…!
I’m very proud of the end result, but Walking the Dust was a constant source of stress and exhaustion. Every issue, I was convinced the well was dry, that I’d run out of things to write about, and I’d have to wrap it up soon. Most of the installments were written in a Sunday afternoon frenzy, less than 24 hours before the book went to press.
CB: Is Ankya related to anyone we meet? I know the timelines don‘t work out, but I was always hoping she was the daughter of Jakob and Tajj or Diana and Arddem or something.
Johnston: No. Ankya’s story was always intended to be separate to Michael and Abi’s.
That’s partly because I wanted it to have a different, more contemplative feel than the main story. But it’s also because of the way the timelines interrelate. I wanted to leave it unclear as to when exactly Ankya was wandering around, until towards the end when we realise she was contemporaneous with our main characters, and is now looking back on those days… from a world that actually hasn’t changed much.
CB: I always assumed she was a Ruin Runner, but in my recent reread you‘re very clear she‘s a traveling writer. When she says “Words are what I do,“ I get the sense there‘s a little bit of Antony Johnston in Ankya Ofsteen?
Johnston: Definitely, yes. Beyond the desire to explore the world of Wasteland in ways I couldn’t in the main story, Ankya’s story is also about being a writer, filled with curiosity and learning as many new things as you can.
CB: You‘re not known for exposition, but in the final arc, Michael, Abi, and Thomas say the words, that Marcus killed all of their brothers and sisters. Was it important to spell it out a bit?
Johnston: Yes, especially because we don’t fully revisit that event until issue #60. I always err on the side of letting readers work stuff out for themselves, but the whole business with Marcus, Mary, “Dr Scott”, and the Father of the Children was so central, I felt it was absolutely vital everyone understood what had happened. To do that, I was prepared to make a small sacrifice to the exposition gods.
CB: The final arc flashbacks were really unexpected. There‘s climate change, global food shortage, global economic collapse, and then you add in the catalyst of hasty genetic engineering. Then 100 kids wake up, followed by a sort of natural planetary collapse, and then man-made nuclear holocaust from the human response to Adam. Am I clear on the chain of events? “The Big Wet“ is essentially the end result of all this?
Johnston: Yes, that’s the correct order. And I’m glad it was unexpected. That was the idea!
CB: You made a map for Umbral. Please tell me you have an unpublished map of America after The Big Wet somewhere, and how do I get access to it?
Johnston: I most certainly do. Both the main story and Walking the Dust would have been impossible to write without it. I’m considering publishing it, along with other background stuff, in the final Apocalyptic Edition.
CB: Yes, please!
How do you want Wasteland to be remembered?
Johnston: As a vast, epic story that makes people think, and contemplate their values.
With some kick-ass fight scenes.
Thanks for joining us for our retrospective look at Wasteland, a series which exits stage left as one of the great modern epics. The final issue, #60, is on sale March 18th. Special thanks to Antony Johnston, Chris Mitten, Justin Greenwood, and Shy Allott at Oni Press for all of their work behind the scenes in putting this project together. I leave you with one of my favorite lines from the series. It‘s about the very essence of storytelling, and certainly speaks to me as a critic:
“What matters is that we have his story, set down forever, so everyone can make up their own mind. And that‘s when I remember what I‘m doing this for.” – Ankya Ofsteen.