What makes a good post-apocalyptic story? What does the complete collapse of civilization need to really grip the imagination? What makes a dystopia compelling? What makes you say, “It’s the end of the world as I know it and I feel fine.”
The answer, of course, is all in how believable the story is, and how well it speaks to the generation reading it. Dystopian fiction, more so than any other genre, really gets to the heart of what we as a society both fear will happen and fear we’ll lose. The Time Machine dealt with Victorian-era fears of the cost of industrialization and society splitting between the haves and the have-nots. 1984 dealt with the post-WWII fear of totalitarian dictatorships, such as the one Orwell saw in the USSR. Mad Max dealt with a loss of control over civilization brought about by an energy crisis and a hunt for fuel. And Idiocracy deals with the legitimate fears of anyone who has taken the time to watch the news recently. But I digress.
Like a lot of Americans, I love a good post-apocalyptic story, and for decades comic producers, especially indie comic producers, have been happy to grant my wish for more. Oh sure, Marvel and DC have dabbled in destruction, but some of the best indie comics ever produced specifically dealt with the end of the world, and the civilization that would come after. From popular titles like Y: The Last Man and Descender to indie staples like Judge Dredd and The Walking Dead, small press comics have led the way in crafting compelling end of the world scenarios, and this trend shows no sign of slowing down. Books such as The Dark Age from Red 5 comics, Orphan Age and Join the Future from Aftershock, and Undiscovered Country and Family Tree from Image Comics have all explored what the world could look like after everything we have come to rely on has collapsed. When done well, these stories can serve to not only warn us of where our current path is taking us, but also serve as a real exploration of the things we value now compared to what we may value in the future.
This brings us to Vault Comic’s newest title No One’s Rose, written by industry vet Zach Thompson and newcomer Emily Horn, with art by Alberto Jimenez Alburquerque.
Here’s the blurb: Centuries after the fall of the Anthropocene, the last vestiges of human civilization are housed in a massive domed city powered by renewable energy, known as The Green Zone. Inside lives teenager Tenn Gavrilo, a brilliant bio-engineer who could rebuild the planet. But there’s one problem: her resentful brother Seren is eager to dismantle the precarious utopia.
A gorgeous and green solar-punk world filled with strange biotechnology, harsh superstorms, and divisive ideologies-ideologies that will tear Tenn and Seren down to their roots as they fight for a better Earth.
The best way to describe this book is to pause a minute and explain why I love the novel 1984. It seems like an odd thing to interject, but I am doing so for a reason so stick with me. One of the reasons I love 1984 so much is that it is a novel with no wasted language. Everything in the novel has importance and significance to the larger message, and there is nothing that feels forced. It feels like a real-world and not just a thin premise slapped together to make a blatantly obvious and ultimately hollow point.
See, this is one of the many pitfalls of writing dystopian, post-apocalyptic fiction. When you write a story like this you always start with the message, and the characters and plot must constantly give up their freedom and agency to fit that message. It’s rare for those stories to allow things to happen organically like they would in a different genre because the message is the most important thing. This leads to characters that can be poorly developed, with a character only existing as stand-ins for a single point of view. Characters rarely are allowed to change their minds or grow, because the message, and what they represent about that message, matters more than producing realistic characterization. Everything about the characters, from the way they dress to the food they eat to how they die, must have symbolic meaning. Even in the hands of the greatest writer, true dystopian fiction is hard, and the urge to soapbox is always lingering around the edges of the work.
A great example of this is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Now, I love Fahrenheit, and I love Bradbury, but I am the first to admit that pretty much every character in the book is just a stand-in to allow Bradbury to rant about how much better books are than TV. Characters think and do things because Bradbury has a message he wants to get across, but ironically even with all of the characters in the book speechifying back and forth for hundred-plus pages about how terrible television is, readers walked away from the novel thinking it was about censorship instead, a fact that caused Bradbury no end of frustration. Because the actions of the book are ultimately meaningless to the message, the message gets lost in the actions, and the characters become straw-men with no agency of their own.
And that’s the line post-apocalyptic stories have to walk. They need to be on message enough that the reader understands what they are saying, but not so slavishly devoted to that message that the story itself suffers in telling it. The actions of the plot need to occur organically and feel real, or the reader will walk away feeling that they have spent their time being lectured instead of educated and spoken down to instead of being made a partner in the creation of this new world. It’s a difficult line to walk, and one that a lot of stories like this struggle with, which brings us back to our topic at hand.
No One’s Rose feels like it is a series that not only understands this balance but also will get it right. This work is a warning, but instead of just slapping you over the head with that message we are allowed to see different points of view and make up our own mind about what the message we take away will be. In issue 1 we meet two characters, Tenn and Seren, siblings whose father clearly did something in the past to upset the ruling class of the domed city the two reside in. Seren, the brother, deeply resents the way the upper class of this world treats those who live below them, and I mean literally live below them. Their entire civilization is set inside a giant dome that has a single, master tree at the heart of it that provides all the oxygen that the people need. Those in the upper class live high in the dome, near the top of the branches, while the lower class of the city live near the roots and do the hard work of keeping everything running correctly.
This world feels real. Bad dystopian lit tends to focus on a single issue and beat the reader over the head with it like that one problem is the root of everything else. This book is already set up to tackle multiple issues. Class issues, environment issues, and generational issues are all set up to be discussed, and that serves to help really flesh out the characters as more than just stand-ins.
The world-building also feels natural. Issue 1 opens with a science lecture for young kids, but the visuals, and the way the lecture is delivered, feels like it would actually be something a teacher really said. The characters have real motivations, and while the plot is obviously pushing them in a certain direction, it feels like they are choosing to walk the path themselves and are not being shoved down it by the author.
It’s clear that this is a passion project for both of the writers. In interviews about the book, they share how the two of them have been bouncing the ideas for this comic around for years, fueled by their deep concerns about the way that our planet is being mistreated. The world of No One’s Rose is a toxic wasteland, devoid of most signs of life, and deadly to anyone exposed to it. It’s a hyperbolic representation of what could happen to our own world, but it has enough believability to it that it doesn’t feel impossible. We’ve only got one issue so far, but this world already feels like it’s one that the readers are going to really enjoy exploring.
So if you didn’t pick this up before everything shut down, hit up your LCS and see if they have any copies No One’s Rose left. This is a great first issue and feels like it going to be part of a really epic story. Check it out if you can, and see if you feel the same way about it I do!
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