2.15.2013

Post York State of Mind

Post York (Uncivilized Books): James Romberger’s tale of foraging survivors in New York City after the polar ice caps have melted operates within a genre that’s very near and dear to my heart. Yeah, you can classify this story as post-apocalyptic. Anecdotally, I was interviewing colorist Jeromy Cox once about his work on Brian Wood’s DC/Vertigo series DMZ, and together we stumbled onto this theory about why people are so drawn to post-apocalyptic storytelling in their pop culture diet. Cox said that “everyone has a post-apocalyptic story in their head.” We all believe we’re fairly resourceful and like to imagine how we’d fare, what we’d do, how the stragglers of society might be able to restart civilization. I countered with the fact that our survival instinct is programmed into our DNA, so perhaps we respond and gravitate to these stories subconsciously in a primal, intuitive, visceral way.
Romberger fashions his protagonist after his son Crosby, explicitly concerned with the world we’ll be leaving our children. The very nature of that idea is a nice gateway to the type of tension that the book explores, considering the optimal balance of the natural world and the man-made world, of selfless altruism with that pragmatically selfish survival instinct I mentioned before. In short, if either of these dynamic relationships becomes imbalanced, bad things happen.
Romberger introduces us to his engaging world in an impressive 16-page wordless sequence that really forces the reader to study the eerie silence of New York City. The only thing you can really hear in your mind’s ear is the quiet sputter of the small boat as it trolls the streets of submerged Manhattan, or the wake gently lapping up against the overgrowth now intertwined with rubble, the man-made and natural worlds once again trying to find a symbiotic arrangement that actually works. Artistically, there’s a terrific balance between Romberger’s line being structured enough to form buildings and man-made objects, but sketchy and erratic enough to denote the dilapidated state of things and the imprecision of natural objects encroaching on the crumbling metropolis. The cats and crabs and birds and plant life now inhabiting Post York similarly make for a perfect tonal balance. One of my favorite shots, or layouts, might be the spread on page 6 and 7, where the panel borders just stop and recede under the weight of the water taking over the city. It lends a sense of everything truly breaking down; we understand it conceptually with what we’re shown, but now the very vessel delivering that message is also distressed and fading. It’s a clever choice.
The world of Post York is obviously a pretty bleak place, one where birds pick at the skeletal remains of dead bodies. I found it interesting that our protagonist takes the time to shoo those birds away with his oar. I found it interesting that he restrains himself and decides not to take the entire cache of food he finds. I find it interesting that the aforementioned food is actually cat food for his adopted pet, something he seems more concerned with than his own sustenance. The question you can extrapolate from this mess is whether or not there is a place for that level of humanity or altruism in this world. Is that “smart” for survival? It’s either the worst time for it, or the best time for it, with really no room for the gray area in the middle. I think Romberger leans into suggesting the latter, that in this Post York universe, long term survival will require a fundamental shift of mindset and paradigms of existence, that acting for the greater good rather than with the culpability of the “Me Generation” will be the key for establishing a healthy balance with Mother Nature relevant to the impending environmental apocalypse.
 
Now, I don’t want to spoil too much, but everything changes when the protagonist stumbles into a movie theatre projection booth that appears to be occupied. I love the way Romberger silhouettes much of the action in order to emphasize the rarity of actually finding another human in the city. Post York delivers an innovative binary choice of alternate outcomes for this story. In one scenario, base instincts largely take over, clinging desperately to the old world “Pre York” paradigm of survival. One party is left dead, and it’s a fairly chilling dead-end outcome considering the genial nature of what we’ve witnessed up to that point. It makes a strong case for avoiding this particular route. In the scenario that ultimately supplants the first, the conflict is resolved with a more territorial exchange of food for gear, in an almost playful or flirtatious manner, which isn’t guided by greedy instinct, but by mutual aid. It fully embraces the new Post York paradigm likely required for successful navigation of the new world.
The latter scenario leads to the audience discovery of a small settlement within the movie theatre, it leads to life rather than death, and ultimately sees our protagonist freeing a trapped sea creature in order to avoid bringing down the building he’s squatting in. It’s a large animal that punctuates the grand point that this symbiotic relationship can be achieved. My only minor complaint with the book is that the end can feel a bit truncated, like an abrupt denouement to what was such a rich journey. However, I’ll admit that comes with a pretty superficial read of the narrative. If you accept the underlying thematic message about the dance between man and nature and what it takes to either prevent or endure the impending environmental apocalypse, it’s a very satisfying and poignant conclusion. Thanks to Tom Kaczynski for sending over what will likely be one of the best small press books I read this year. Post York is an utterly recommendable work. Grade A.

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