It’s difficult to conceive of a world laid waste by eco-catastrophe as being beautiful, but, equally, it’s difficult to conceive of a James Romberger comic as being anything but beautiful. Long one of the most purely skilled artists to grace our oft-beleaguered medium with his efforts, Romberger brings an entirely unforced “fine art” sensibility to the page matched with a visionary approach to the utilization of space and an innate sense of sequential storytelling rhythms and progressions. His teaching and gallery commitments have apparently at times precluded him from being able to make as many comics as those of us who admire his work would probably like to see, but, on the plus side, that means that when we are graced with a new release bearing his name, it’s cause for celebration — even when said “new” release is, in fact, an older one.
Which brings us to Post York, recently released in an expanded “graphic novella” format by editor Karen Berger’s Dark Horse imprint, Berger Books, after having earlier seen the light of day in, as it now turns out, a considerably scaled-back form courtesy of Uncivilized Books. The idea of “double-dipping” is old hat to the comics mainstream, of course — almost every trade paperback or hardcover these days is comprised of “chapters” that were originally released as single issues, and certain books like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns have been through more printings and format iterations than one can count — but in the usually-more-ethical world of small press and otherwise-independent comics, publishers can still usually be counted on to include enough by way of extra goodies to make a second purchase worthwhile on the part of prospective consumers, and such is certainly the case here: from more pages of story and art to exhaustive “process” materials to scientific evidence buttressing Romberger’s premise, there’s plenty on offer to both entice and ultimately reward anyone who’s adding this new volume to their library despite owning the first. Which is all well and good, of course — but what about the folks who are coming at this with a fresh set of eyes?
Well, in a pinch I’m tempted to call them “lucky,” because Romberger’s comic stands as one of the singular visions of post-apocalypse committed to paper, and holds something of a largely-unacknowledged place in comics history as the creative progenitor to such celebrated later works such as Connor Willumsen’s Anti-Gone and Gipi’s Land Of the Sons. Granted, apocalypse hangs pretty heavy in the air right now over year into the deadliest pandemic the world has seen in over a century. Yet, it’s still worth noting that climate change probably represents a greater threat to our survival as a species than anything else, and that Romberger was one of the first to actively explore a scenario where it has come to pass (outside the Hollywood action-adventure exploitation machine, which served up pablum such as The Day After Tomorrow, Waterworld, and other big-budget nonsense cynically marketed as “movies with a message” that in reality amounted to little more than nominally “environmentalist” takes on, say, The Towering Inferno).
It might be fair to say, then, that this represents an early entry into the still-shallow waters of the “post-apocalypse with a brain” subgenre, but its innate intelligence is equaled, and perhaps even surpassed, by a fair amount of heart, especially when one considers that the scavenger protagonist Crosby is actually modeled, both physically and in terms of mannerisms and overall affect, on Romberger’s own son, making this entire project something of an inter-generational forewarning and, when viewed from a certain vantage point, an apology from a dad to his kid for the mess handed down to him. What it is most assuredly (and refreshingly) not, however, is a pure “gloom-and-doom” scenario.
That’s because Romberger ingeniously utilizes a fairly simple altercation in the book’s early going as a springboard from which to explore no less than three potential timelines emanating forth from it, each with not only its own outcome, but its own utterly unique sense of tone, tempo, and pacing, from one that hews fairly closely to the loose, atmospheric, and visually immersive flavor of the comic’s opening pages to one undercut with violence and brutality to one suffused with the kind of class-based political viewpoint that resonates deeply and accurately with Marxist-leaning individuals such as this critic. They all offer their own rewards, narratively and visually, to be sure, but, just as importantly, they all offer their own ideas, both in terms of story and formal structure. Romberger’s use of shading and page layouts and, especially, his rich, thick, black brush line are so uniformly gorgeous that one could be forgiven for getting lost in each image, but this is also art with a purpose, and that purpose is to posit a number of different ways that a story can be structured and executed with pictures just as surely and as eloquently as it can with words.
Ironically, however — and this is where my earlier designation of Romberger as a “visionary” artist is borne out — this is a comic that was not structured or plotted in advance. It was, in fact, improvised directly onto art boards, in a manner not entirely unlike that of one of Romberger’s artistic heroes, Jack Kirby (who, along with Hugo Pratt, comes in for the occasional stylistic hat-tip in these pages). The end result is a comic that is both free-wheeling and precise in equal measure, as well as being both innovative and steeped in tradition. Like the numerous potential futures that spring forth from it at crucial junctures (the aforementioned altercation not being the only road that forks off in multiple directions), Post York offers a heady mix of different ways of looking at and even approaching the creation of comics themselves. It’s a lot to take in, but taking it in is at the very least a pleasure and frequently a pure joy, so go ahead — submerge yourself in one of the most inspired comics of this still-young century and who knows? If we’re all lucky enough to somehow manage to avoid an actual eco-catastrophe, you may even want to share this story with future generations of your family just as the artist who created it did with his.