Forgotten Gems

I’m still trying to work out the format for these posts. So far the plan is to update on Thursday with reviews of new books, and on Monday with “something else.” For my first “something else”, I’d like to share my love for a book that’s never really seemed to get the recognition it deserves.

The year was 1987. It was a simpler time when the worst thing we had to worry about was global thermonuclear war. Comic books were going through an amazingly fertile period, with the classics WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS still a recent memory, and people like Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman starting to get their first American work published. The excesses of the ’90s were still a few years away, and “grim ‘n’ gritty” hadn’t yet completely devolved into self-parody. It was a good time to be reading comics, when the experimentation that came along with the rise of the independents had spread to the mainstream, and any new title held the promise of showing you something you’d never seen before.

Such as…

WASTELAND was a horror anthology title written by the always under-appreciated John Ostrander and comedian Del Close. Although the stories weren’t the kind that the word “horror” usually signifies. There were no vampires, no zombies, and only one werewolf (possibly). Which was good, because, frankly, none of those things are remotely frightening. Oh, sure, in a “jump out and say ‘boo'” kinda way, they can be. But past a certain age,you’re no longer truly afraid of being attacked by Dracula, so there’s no connection past the intial rush.

However, there are many things in this world to legitimately fear. And those are what the stories in WASTELAND were about. The scariest monsters looked just like you or I, and most of the haunting was done by the living.

Which is not to say that the book didn’t have its lighter or more fantastic moments. Like the strangely touching father and son tale, “Dissecting Mr.Fleming.” Or the recurring character of the Dead Detective. Killed offscreen before his first appearance, he spent the entirety of his existence trying to figure out why he could still think. And why no one seemed to notice his lack of movement or the bullet hole through his forehead.

Of course, I guess “lighter” is a relative thing. Even the funny ones had an unnerving quality that tended to worm its way into the part of your brain that keeps thinking about things that you try not to think about. The Harvey Pekar homage, “American Squalor”, for instance, is a truly dangerous little mind-bomb. Be warned.

As for the art, it was handled by a regular crew, who’d usually get one story per issue (with the occasional guest artist). David Lloyd (V FOR VENDETTA), William Messner Loebs (JOURNEY, THE FLASH), and Don Simpson (MEGATON MAN) each brought their own individual styles to the stories they illustrated.Lloyd usually did the darker ones, where his moody shadows had the most effect. Simpson used his gift for comedy and expression to bring some of the more absurd tales to life. And Messner-Loebs tended to fall in the middle ground.The kind of stories that seemed funny at first until they came back to you while trying to fall asleep at two in the morning.

All in all, from the writers to the artists to the bizarre printing errors around issues five and six, everything worked on the book. So, why didn’t it sell?

Three reasons, as far as I can tell.

1) There are certain axioms in the comics industry that seem to be true simply because we keep saying they’re true. “Funny comics don’t sell” is one. “Anthology comics realy don’t sell” is another. And after awhile that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
2) John Ostrander was involved. I love the guy’s writing, and I know a lot of other people that do too, but he always seems to get forgotten. I have no idea why.

3) Bad timing. If it had come along about four or five years later, it would have been a Vertigo title and would have gotten much more exposure.Although FLINCH, another anthology title and spiritual descendant of WASTELAND,only lasted 16 issues under the Vertigo banner, so that might not mean anything.

WASTELAND, unfortunately, has never been collected in trade. However, it does seem to be a permanent resident in quarter bins throughout the nation, and the entire run can be picked up for a song if you look around a bit.

Neal Bohl