“This Mutant Dreamtime” – Language in Australian Post-Apocalypse Horror Broken Line

Broken Line, available digitally from Perth-based Australian publisher Gestalt Comics, is set after a typical Cold War-era nuclear war. In the familiar nightmare image of a man-made apocalypse, artist Emily K. Smith renders the mushroom cloud so large it could be towering over a distant horizon, or in an exaggerated cartoonish fashion have exploded out of the surface of the Earth.

In that first page the art establishes the book as taking place in an era when the image of the looming mushroom cloud was a source of anxiety to ordinary people on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Popular culture responded with titles like When The Wind Blows, the enduring cult novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, the Mad Max series (an immediate point for reference for writer Andrew Constant’s Ozploitation riffs here), and Threads.

Smith conjures up the same wasteland vistas and decaying homes familiar from this period. The lonely desolation, and isolation of the few characters featured in this story, is used by her to describe a world slipping away from any trace of humanity. Smith depicts a vision of Australia that has truly become that colonial category of ‘terra nullius’. It is a land of rusting cars and rotting corpses.

Post-nuclear holocaust fiction thrives on its visuals, on the disturbing barrenness of a world that continues on after human civilization has been wiped away. Readers latch on to whatever few survivors are left in the rubble, to guide them through these stories of the immanent disappearance of humanity itself. In this setting, the use of language is basic and simple prose or dialogue is adequate. The imagery is the powerful hook of the story, whether it be a film, book, or indeed a comic.

Think of Jamie Hewlett’s iconic visuals from Tank Girl, or Jack Kirby’s Kamandi – though to be fair to the King, his art was often sufficient as a storytelling tool. Romantically Apolcayptic by Vitaly S. Alexius is perhaps the ne plus ultra of the trend, featuring ornate, heavily detailed photo-montage artwork all in the service of short, humorous vignettes that link together into a scattershot narrative.

What sets Broken Line apart from the trend, indeed what places it in the honourable company of David Lloyd and Alan Moore’s post-nuclear dystopia V For Vendetta, is that there is a stronger than usual emphasis on the use of language. Constant’s script acts as a counterpoint to the panelled art, creating a frisson between the word and the image that makes it feel like a true ‘graphic novel’. Instead of simply leading the story through the setting of a world guttered in a nuclear fire, the script competes with the art to create a sense of dissonance. Like Jeff Noon’s Falling Out of Cars, where the breakdown in language is the result of the human brain reacting to it like a virus, here words signify a psychotic break from reality.

The title, Broken Line, refers to this state, because without anyone to hear, language is without purpose, broken, meaningless. The comic itself presents a different break, the lettered words elliptical as they are independent of the images cohabitating the same panels.

The lead character is introduced mourning not the end of the world following the nuclear disaster depicted by Smith, but that he himself did not die also. The mushroom cloud is accompanied by a single word – ‘release’ – suggesting that the countless lives snuffed out were lucky. They escaped, were released, from the prison of a world after the end. The lack of any background noise of human voices, of basic interaction with another individual, has driven this protagonist mad –

No silence for the remnants of the bombs and the screams…screaming screaming never stop screaming. Please God another noise another noise besides the screamscreamscreamscream –“

He is nameless, without a remaining connection to a life-with-others and credits his continuing existence to being too afraid to kill himself. Instead he is left in a state of complete meaninglessness. Constant’s use of narration draws this out. The man – yes, there’s a parallel with The Road here that can easily be drawn – is trapped in a “mutant dreamtime”, the Indigenous Australian concept of a formless world that predated our arrival as a species.

The introduction of a second character, another male survivor in a commandeered police car, not only kickstarts the plot of this first issue, it brings the first man out of his depression. Up until this point the reader has only seen the character appearing for the first time on the third page as an anonymous person dressed in black leather and wearing shades. The second man in a stolen police car uses the radio to bellow abuse -

“I said, are any of you pigs fucking out here?”

Therefore the first man is identified as a police man. His actions are the result of that persona snapping into place, conjured up by the car-thief’s ‘pigs’ insult. Both now have an identity due to their interaction over the radio, sight unseen – one is a cop, the other a robber. Our police-man protagonist also happens to resemble in his attire Mel Gibson from the first Mad Max, a context the reader brings to the story given what is learned from this dialogue exchange.

From this point on the story becomes a race, with the two drivers playing a game of chicken. Both also express a desire to die in the attempt – suicide by cop car – making it clear that they had each reached the same state of nihilistic despair due to their isolation. While the action on the pages illustrated by Smith shows this contest between fast-moving vehicles as weapons, Constant’s script has the two men begin speaking furiously, unburdening themselves. Neither has seen or met another person for an unknown time, so a mutual confessional over police radio is staged.

Even as these men attempt to kill one another, they are desperate to establish a connection with another person, someone they can pass on the horrible things they have witnessed before this story began.

“I see you both…lying in your beds, mouths used up by rivers of black, red and green.”

Language in Broken Line is a barely articulate wail, a scream of rage and frustration, or a lonely soliloquy.  It marks a departure from the authorial voice of comics. The division of labour between writers and artists in commercial comics pitches the art as a secondary backdrop to the words in dialogue balloons that tell the story, like stock footage seen behind film actors in the rear window of a car.

In critical reviews of comics, the contribution of the writer is framed in a way that they are granted ownership of the overall product. Artists are credited with particularly notable innovations, but the nature of comic industry output means that their work is required to fit a narrower consensus than the script they interpret visually. This is as much due to the nature of the comic industry itself in how it produces its content, as it is the lack of a popularly defined formalist language within comics criticism.

This didacticism of the author above the artist is rejected by the provocative nature of Broken Line. The dialogue of the script by Andrew Constant inhabits the decaying mental state of these characters, while the art of Emily K. Smith personifies the post-nuclear world that will outlive them. In that respect the text and the images are on two separate tracks. The gulf between them informs the reader’s understanding of the story. There is playfulness in this creative partnership’s deconstruction of nuclear holocaust tropes, as well as the storytelling techniques of the comic book itself.

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Emmet O’Cuana is a freelance writer, critic, and podcaster based in Melbourne.

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