By Michel Fiffe
Originally pitched as a modern horror comic anthology for the 80s, the tone of Wasteland was quickly established as morbidly absurd and existentially frustrated. Wasteland pushed the levels of comfort by examining murder, memoir, and Krishna, by questioning the validity of romance, black magic, and cole slaw, and by unnervingly tackling topics such as suicide, child abuse and apartheid. Even guys like H.P. Lovecraft and L. Ron Hubbard make respective appearances. Anything and everything was fair game to writers John Ostrander and Del Close, who used the real estate of an eight page comic story to test these boundaries.
Up to that point, Ostrander had been writing DC’s own Suicide Squad and Firestorm comics, but was also working on his co-creator owned futuristic noir, Grimjack. Del Close was already an icon of comedy and improv, having been the House Director for the Committee and Second City and the teacher of many accomplished comedian/actors. Wasteland was the one time Ostrander and Close were given the opportunity to take control of an entire title and do whatever they saw fit. In the process, they managed to intrigue, amuse and offend in equal parts, all in the service of telling a good, modern horror story.
John Ostrander was kind enough to shed some light on Wasteland’s origin, its process, the way the title was perceived in light of a company re-imagining itself, and his collaboration with Del Close.
JOHN OSTRANDER: I’d known of Del for a number of years (who in Chicago didn’t?) but I’d never actually met him until we were cast in A Christmas Carol together at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. We were given a dressing room together and, to be honest, I was more than a little intimidated. Del had this wild rep and was said to be a witch or Satanist or some such and I was this Recovering Catholic boyo. However, Del was a big fan of Science Fiction and of comic books, extremely knowledgeable, and already knew of my work so he was actually very easy to get along with. He then invited me to attend his Improv classes that he taught at Second City. Improv wasn’t my strong point and at first I demurred, telling Del I wasn’t really interested in being in Second City or Saturday Night Live. Del said that was perfect – he was sick of people looking at the classes as a stepping stone to Saturday Night Live. He wanted people who could get into the art form of Improv – he wanted writers, lawyers, accountants, doctors, plumbers and so on. So I took the classes and they were the most liberating experience I had as a writer.
JOHN OSTRANDER: Del and I began our collaboration in the Munden’s Bar back-up stories that appeared in Grimjack and, in many ways, were the precursors to Wasteland. In fact, getting Del as a co-writer helped sell the concept of an anthology of eight page stories to my editor, Mike Gold. Munden’s Bar is the place that the title character worked out of, his base. I knew there was going to be a series of back-up stories and I wanted to keep it all related to the title character. Mike wasn’t sure; anthologies were more work and a difficult sell. Then I mentioned the possibility I could get Del to co-write some of them with me. Mike’s eyes gleamed. That excited him – having Del Close writing comics. I put it to Del and he was really interested. That’s how our writing collaboration began.
I was cool to it at the start. It was Mike’s concept. He had moved over to DC and had brought me and a few others with him and he wanted to get Del in on the mix as well. I went to visit him in Connecticut and we had a walk around a duck pond in a drizzle and Mike gave me the basic concept – horror but for our time. More psychological horror than zombies and such. I wasn’t real sold on the idea at first – despite everything, I’m not a real horror fan – but we got Del on board and then the thing took on a life of its own. Specifically – it developed it’s own sense of humor. Not every story was “funny” but there was a thick streak of black humor running through the book. Mike called it “black hole humor” – so dark no laughs escaped.
OSTRANDER: It was a difficult book to write. With the exception of Del in his autobiographical pieces (the only place that I know of that Del ever set down any part of his biography) and The Dead Detective, there were no continuing characters or stories. Every eight pages we were starting all over and every issue had three stories. That’s tough, especially on a monthly schedule.
We also upped the ante is story after story. How far could we push it? Did we get away with things in this story? Well, let’s see if we can push it farther on the next one.
“Insofar as I can determine, the events in this story are true.” –Del Close
A substantial portion of Wasteland is made up of Del Close’s stab at autobiographical comics. These stories never explicitly state that they’re cut from the honest-to-god fabric of confession comix, a credit box decision that undermines the main tenet of autobio: truth telling. By claiming that these yarns were half true -- and a screw it, figure it out for yourselves attitude -- Close was hilariously and somewhat inadvertently criticizing the genre. Taking a grain of salt when reading a “true story” is par for the course because after all, if perception is the driving force of autobio, readers have to make allowance for any discrepancy between being honest and bullshittin’. True or not, Close crafted some great stories.
OSTRANDER: Del was always interested in stories and the facts were adaptable. If changing the facts on a true story made it a better story, so be it. I added percentages of what was true in each of those stories but Del wasn’t crazy about those. He felt they should just be allowed to stand as they were and, in retrospect, I think he was right. That said, each story had something that was “real”; I felt they were all “true” but not all of them were real.
We actually did a story about us trying to write a story and aside from the fantastical elements, it’s pretty close. We had several ways of working. We might spitball an idea back and forth or Del would come in with something of a script written on a yellow lined pad. I’d then do an “adaptation”, working it into a comic’s script form. He might come in with a list of ideas or concepts, which I would then develop. Sometimes I had to go ahead without Del. We had no one way of working.
Taking no small part in the distinctiveness of Wasteland were the artists. For the first half of the run, there was a set of four cartoonists who would play musical chairs per issue (1 for the cover, 3 for each story). This method took disparate art styles and made them seem cohesive while giving order to a potentially chaotic schedule.
Among the first roster of cartoonists you had David Lloyd, who was almost a year away from completing the resurrected V For Vendetta series. Another artist, and Alan Moore collaborator, was Megaton Man creator Donald Simpson, who was also one of the few who lasted to the very last issue. George Freeman found the most consistent post-Captain Canuck stint of his career (as an artist firing on all cylinders) within the pages of Wasteland. And somewhere between ending his run on Journey and writing the Flash for several years, William Messner-Loebs became an integral part of the creative team.
Not to be forgotten is Lovern Kindzierski and his fantastic color palette. It was one of the few times a colorist used the advantage of the Deluxe Format to make unusually bold decisions. Other cameos, fill ins, or tail end additions to the art team include Grimjack co-creator Timothy Truman, Ty Templeton (artist on the controversial “Dissecting Mister Fleming”), Joe Orlando, Tom Artis, Michael Davis, Rick Magyar, and Bill Wray (with assist from Tony Salmons, as seen below).
THIS TIME WE WIN!
Wasteland, in its defiance of neat classification, is easily one of the riskier things DC Comics has ever published. Trying to sell product while remaining true to a personal vision is a time-honored struggle, but the truth is that Wasteland was a non-commercial commodity that wouldn’t have existed without a commercial company to produce it. The talent involved, coupled with the production value, monthly output and distribution would require the overhead that only a company of Warner Bros.' stature can provide. A book like this would never be made today under such conditions. The ultra conservative sameness of mainstream comics would dare not allow for Wasteland-level work, as the bottlenecked work force struggles to maintain mere employment; there’s simply no room, or interest, for experimentation.
It’s worth mentioning that Wasteland has never been collected and may very well remain out of print. I’m not sure if the world of comics would be any more inviting to such a series today than it was back in 1987, but don’t let public taste deprive you of these great comics. Every page is worth seeking out and with minimal effort, you’ll discover that I’m not wrong.
I’m still fascinated by the fact that this comic was made on Company Time. It’s a far cry from a vanity project, but it’s so off model that the idea must’ve been accepted based on the sheer talent involved. Getting the concept approved is the obvious victory, but sustaining the green light for 18 issues is a feat unto itself. I got the sense that everyone worked on each issue as if it was the last.
OSTRANDER: Mike used to tell me that other editors or artists would read what we did and then come up and demand, “How did you get away with that?” As for the fan base – I think that was pretty well represented by the letter columns, which for my money were some of the best letter cols being published at the time.
OSTRANDER: My biggest problem was coming up with each issue on a monthly basis. Mike has noted elsewhere that it probably took me as long to do one story in Wasteland as it took me to write a full issue of something else. Towards the end, I was just giving out. Mike has told me that we could have gotten another six issues out of Wasteland before the numbers demanded we stop but he didn’t think I could keep doing it that long. I am surprised that they let us keep doing the book as long as we did it.
I’ll note for the record that we weren’t trying to make each story more disturbing than the last – at least, that wasn’t our only goal. We wanted to test the parameters of what could be done in the format.
OSTRANDER: By that point, Del was experimenting with a long form improv concept, which was known as the Harold over at the Improv Olympics (Del and Second City had parted ways). Part of the format was, at the end, to find ways to re-incorporate all the scenes that went on before and our final issue of Wasteland became, by design, a Harold. We wanted to work in as many aspects of the different stories as we could in what would be a book-length issue. We knew it was the last issue but that was alright — it was time.
I think Wasteland was of its time but also stands up to time. I think they’re still readable and still have a jolt, an impact. And I’m very, very proud of it.
It’s not a stretch to suggest that John Ostrander and Del Close applied elements of improv thinking to comic book storytelling. As it stands, Wasteland is compelling not only because of its portrayal of violence, drug use, and sexual lucidity, but because it dealt with adult psychological concerns in subversive shots of fiction - under a corporate umbrella yet. Wasteland remains solid in its identity, and while it struggles with itself at times, it’s an unforgiving read that reached transcendent fruition.
--Michel Fiffe 2012