...reading comics from the year i was born!
Wasteland #1 (DC)
by Del Close, John Ostrander, David Lloyd, William Messner-Loebs, Donald Simpson, Lovern Kindzierski
Horror in fiction tends to involve the jumpy, the gory, the hideous, and/or the monstrous. As a genre, horror often aims to shock its audience, to have us screaming and leaping out of our seats and staying up at night to avoid the inevitable nightmares. That said, being scared is not necessarily the same thing as being horrified, is it? The sudden thrill of a masked psycho killer lunging out from the shadows might startle me and get my heart racing, but I don’t feel any deep-seated disgust, displeasure, or discomfort because of it. There is no true horror there, only cheap fear, and though some may argue that this is a subtle, even needless distinction, it is nevertheless a significant one when it comes to talking about 'Wasteland' #1.
There is nothing in in this debut issue to be scared of directly. No ghosts, no demons, no murderers, none of the most classic and obvious tropes of the horror genre. Instead of trying to instill quick, fleeting fear in it's readers, 'Wasteland' #1 offers an examination of the fears and flaws of its characters. In doing so, it becomes a lesson on or reminder of the power that our own emotions have over us, their ability to influence our decisions and shape our lives in ways we cannot control or understand. This is a comic book that wants us to be afraid not of its content but of its implications, uneasy at the thought our own internal processes. The three narratives contained in this issue work together to paint a portrait of humanity as slaves to our own curiosities, anxieties, biology, and desires. They fill the reader with a creeping, lasting dread, a purer and more personalized kind of horror, not shaken off quite so easily as your average monster or slasher story.
Of course this is speculation on my part. For all I know it was Ostrander who had the outlandish concepts and Close who handled the pacing, and I am sure they both did handled each to one degree or another. But if you read the credits for each story and compare them to how those stories read, it seems clear to me that for the most part Close was the broad idea man while Ostrander filled in the details. Whatever the case, it is a duo that clicks right away, as all three of the tales told in this debut are original, successful, and whole. Each one is also paired with the artist most suited to it stylistically (out of the four that 'Wasteland' used for every issue), a decision that would have been easy to mess up. So this is a creative team firing on all cylinders immediately, which is an essential part of what makes 'Wasteland' #1 so effectively eerie.
Is it an anti-drug story? Arguably, but I think of it more as a warning about the edges of human curiosity and exploration. Some stones are best left unturned, no matter how grand the revelation they might be covering. It is distinct from yet not dissimilar to the message of the next story, "R. Ab." which we learn stands for “retroactive abortion.”
"R. Ab." is more on the sci-fi side of the spectrum than horror, but it is no less disturbing for it. A more overtly cautionary tale, it takes place in a not-all-that-distant future. People get married over the course of a single video chat in this world, and babies are commodities that get delivered and can just as easily be disposed of. After conversing for only a few minutes, Sal and Hal decide to get hitched. Then, in rapid succession, he gets her a cushy CEO position, their baby arrives, and both parents neglect the child in pursuit of their careers and ignore his crying for six months until they just can’t stand it anymore. So Sal and Hal opt for a retroactive abortion, which amounts to backdating some paperwork to make it so their son legally never existed and then tossing him out a window. This decision gives them a renewed sense of happiness and relief, and so, in a warped yet predictable ending, they decide to give parenthood another try.
The final third of 'Wasteland' #1, however, does not address this concept of external influence, nor does it examine the outliers of the human experience in the same way as the two preceding stories. Instead, "Sewer Rat" is an autobiographical narrative from Del Close about a time in the 60’s when he took too many drugs and got temporarily lost in the sewer. Rather than try to further shake up or scare the reader with a third example of the worst in people, the issue wraps up with Close providing an honest, open look into a time when he wrestled with his own fears. In his willingness to reveal and embarrass himself, there is an implicit invitation for the reader to do the same, to think back on a time we were confused or frightened like the man about whom we are reading. It’s less a warning of what could happen to us and more a reminder of what has and, more importantly, will happen to us down the line. Nobody can avoid fear altogether, but Close’s adventure shows us that if you ride out the terrifying times, they too shall pass.