A single survivor climbs up out of his bunker after an apocalyptic event. Clad from head-to-toe in his radiation suit, he climbs atop a shattered mass of rock and fallen trees. He sits. Opens up his sketchbook. And begins to draw.
That’s a page from the first half of Brian “Box” Brown’s The Survivalist, a 42-page, magazine-sized graphic novel published by the U.K.’s Blank Slate Books in late 2011. The book was supposed to make its American debut at the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival last December, but printing and shipping delays didn’t allow that to happen, so Box Brown was left standing behind his festival table with only his vast array of self-published minicomics and his entire Retrofit Comics line to console him. As always, he was in good spirits, and he enthusiastically pointed out his newest, hand-stapled endeavor: the first chapter of Roussimoff, a planned longform comic book biography of wrestling legend Andre the Giant, presented warts-and-all.
I’d never met Brown until that 2011 comics festival, but I was one of the original backers for the launch of the Retrofit line (billed as “The Return of the Alt-comic Floppy”) when it hit Kickstarter back in the late spring of last year, mostly because I liked its philosophy and what little I had already seen from some of the creators involved. And once I started receiving the books in the mail, later that year, I liked them so much I interviewed Brown about his work as a writer and artist and publisher.
Still, I wasn’t prepared for how good The Survivalist would turn out to be.
Since it never landed on American shores until earlier this year, I’m going to declare that it qualifies for the inevitable Best of This Year lists, and as we wrap up the first quarter of the year, it’s certainly a contender for Best Comic I’ve Read So Far in 2012 (and I’ve read a lot of comics).
What separates The Survivor from other end-of-the-world comics is that Brown doesn’t turn it into an obvious horror show though there is an understated terror throughout and he balances a density of storytelling moments with an openness of expression. It’s also bleak without being hopeless, and the comic is full of heart yet unsentimental.
If the label of “New Sincerity” ever took hold, which it didn’t, though it’s been used to describe everything from the films of Wes Anderson and the novels of David Foster Wallace, it would apply to Box Brown’s work overall and The Survivalist would be its paragon.
Noah, the protagonist of the comic, isn’t likable in any traditional sense, but he is clearly defined and vulnerable. When we first meet him, he scowls his way to work, listening to Dick March podcast episodes. In the world of The Survivalist, Dick March is a conspiracy theorist in the mold of our world’s Alex Jones. Noah is a faithful follower of March’s brand of paranoia, but that serves him well when a giant meteorite smashes into the Earth and destroys everything around Noah’s old, but reliable, fallout shelter.
When the global tragedy occurs, Brown doesn’t present it in a sensationalistic fashion. It’s as understated as possible. It just happens. The giant rock smashes into the landscape. And Noah, underground, just hanging out in his bunker, doesn’t even notice that the world has ended until he realizes his internet is down and he goes up to the surface to investigate.
It’s as mundane as that, but the matter-of-fact unspooling makes it all the more potent and grounded.
This is no work of stark realism, though, as Noah retreats into his world of comics heading up to sketch the giant billowing clouds of destruction for the lackluster zombie epic he’s working on for an audience that no longer exists and stumbles into an unexpected romance with another survivor. Box Brown is no Hollywood director, and the romance between Noah and Fatima is nothing that you’d see at the Cineplex. Instead, it’s more of a reluctant companionship, with surprising depths of joy and pain. And it’s what pushes The Survivalist to the top of the Best So Far calculations. Brown gives the book its soul in those scenes of two humans trying to connect in a lonely, devastated world.
The Survivalist still isn’t easily available in the United States, though it’s worth the effort to track down. Check out more information about the book at Blank Slate’s website. And check out the book itself if you get a chance. It’s a good one. Maybe one of the best.
Tim Callahan takes weekly breaks from rereading Alan Moore comics to read dozens of other comics and graphic novels just so he can find things as interesting as The Survivalist. It doesn’t happen very often.