Tales from the Long Box # 5 – Japer Revisits Wasteland

Every Friday, we’ll be bringing you reviews of meaningful comics found in the collections of our writers. “Long Box” refers to the lengthy, white cardboard boxes most comics find themselves stored within – bagged, alphabetized and numerically ordered.

These reviews, then, are the tales of those collections: illuminating characters, artists, writers – even eras – in addition to the personalities of the very owners of those fine collections.

Wasteland # 1
Writers: Del Close and John Ostrander
Artists: George Freeman, David Lloyd, William Messner-Loebs, Donald Simpson
DC Comics

Now that we’ve entered the October month, I thought it might be an apt time to take a look at some of the more “edgy” titles in the Long Box – the ones that are deemed “sophisticated” or “mature” or “adult”. Really, with Halloween coming up, I just wanted to crack open a good, old fashioned horror title. So, for the rest of the month, horror will be the running theme in this column.

First up, then, is Wasteland from DC Comics.

Released in 1987, Wasteland was one of the first DC books to market the “Suggested For Mature Readers” label. This was before the Vertigo imprint had been created but at a time that the company was moving into making comics for a more adult audience. Swamp Thing, under Alan Moore, had already happened and John Constantine: Hellblazer was about to debut. Wasteland was a harkening back to the old 1950’s horror comic books, even reminiscent of DC’s on House of Mystery and House of Secrets serials.

Long time comic writer John Ostrander, who had tackled everything from superhero stories to creator-owned books teamed up with the strange, funny and always entertaining, Del Close. The prolific Close was foremost an actor, comedian and teacher. He had worked at Second City for a number of years and actually taught improv to a number of regular Saturday Night Live cast members. Close, of the wide, round glasses, actually played the English teacher in everybody’s favourite watch-it-when-you’re-sick movie, Feris Beuller’s Day Off.

Originally titled “Misogynist Tales,” the premise behind Wasteland was simple: the two writers would create three short stories of the horrific and bizarre in every issue, illustrated by a revolving cast of four artists. Each artist would take a turn on the cover. Indeed, the creators of the series wanted to find out what you’d get if Kafka wrote horror. The series, which lasted only eighteen monthly issues, never strayed far from that question.

The first story, entitled “Foo Goo,” tells the tale of two detectives trying to make sense of a series of deaths brought about by a new, mushroom-like drug of the same name that promises the greatest of highs, an ecstasy akin to godhood. One taste, of course, also kills. Ostrander and Close, under the guise of the deaths of a millionaire, a high-profile sports figure, a beautiful socialite and a junkie, make an editorial comment on the use of drugs in all aspects of society. No one, it seems, is immune from the touch of “foo goo.” This point is driven home when one detective states: “You think that, because you can reason, the world makes sense…thinking like that can kill you” – just as the second detective gently places a piece of the mushroom to his lips before the panels fade to black. The art in this story is by David Lloyd, British artist of V for Vendetta, and his strong command of shadows and light and sense of realism add to the creepiness of the tale. Lloyd was perfectly suited the hard-boiled, realist take on drug culture.

The second story, “R. ab.” takes place in the far future and is illustrated by Messner-Loebs in his underground, caricatured style. This is another social commentary piece, with the writers, this time, tackling the easy disposability of parenthood in the 80’s culture of commercialism. In Wasteland’s future, finding a spouse is as easy as making a telephone call. As is the decision to have a baby. When a couple decide, after only a few years, that they are tired of caring for their child, they employ a company man who, strangely, looks a lot like the crypt keeper of the old EC horror comics, to perform a “retroactive abortion”. Although cartoonish in theory, it’s a shocking tale. The “abortion” is, in fact, as simple as tossing the child from the top of a high building. Of course, the commentary wouldn’t be complete unless the two protagonists decided, once again, that they would be ready for a new child in the very near future.

The third and final story, “Sewer Rat,” is a drug-induced hallucination from Del Close’s drug-fueled past. Don Simpson draws the main character, also named Del, exactly as the writer himself appears in real life – with wide, round glasses. This is a bad William Burroughs trip through the sewer systems below downtown Chicago in 1964. Close battles giant rats, is grabbed by floating hands and joins in with a marching band singing “O When dem saints…” before coming face to face with his own mother. Upon exiting the birth canal, or a serer grate, as Simpson draws it, Close picks up a newspaper that reads “Beatles Invade America” (the reality of which refers to the band and not the insect) and states “It’s hard to tell hallucinations from reality in Chicago!” The last treatise on the nature of reality is summed up in the final words on the page where Close tells the reader “Insofar as I can determine, the events in this story are true.”

Weird stuff.

The best horror always has political or sociological reverberations and those ideas were at the heart of Wasteland. Although easily shrugged off by popular culture, horror has a way of looking at our world from a different perspective yet it’s still able to shed light and truth on the human condition. There are critically acclaimed episodes of The Twillight Zone and The Outer Limits, for example, that do this better than any single mainstream drama. Still, lasting less than two years, the audience for Wasteland, at least in the anthology format, was not strong enough to warrant a viable business model.

The times may not have changed that much. There are virtually no anthology format books on the shelves these days – at least none by the bigger publishers – and even fewer that follow in the horror genre.

Perhaps that’s the most frightening thing of all

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