I love a good post-apocalypse story. Back in high school in the 70s, I eagerly read the post-nuclear war novels like Alas Babylon by Pat Frank, Maleval by Richard Merle. In grad school, I loved George Stewart’s Earth Abides, about a world where 98% of the population dies in an epidemic. I’ve always been intrigued with the stories of the survivors. How do they cope with the end of our world? What are the challenges they face? How do they overcome them to build a new society?
So I was interested when I saw the preview issue of The Dark Age at my local comics store. (Phantom of the Attic, on Craig Street in Pittsburgh). The Dark Age, written by Don Handfield with art by Leonard Rodrigues, starts with an intriguing apocalyptic event: in a sudden cataclysm all metal vanishes. A family is having lunch when, in a sudden roar and rush like a great gust of wind, all metal devices and structures around them crumble to dust and blow away. It is an exciting sequence, but one that immediately raised a lot of questions even as I read it. What exactly just happened? Did the metals just vanish from the world? Or did metallic items disintegrate into individual atoms? Is it only large items, or does this extend down to the molecular level? Obviously there was some limit, because our bodies rely on metal (like the iron that allows hemoglobin to carry oxygen to all our organs) and the people did not suddenly all drop down dead. (Not a very interesting story if they did.) The story does not answer any of these questions. Thank goodness. All that information all at once would bog the story down. I want to stick with the story of people reacting to this cataclysm. As long as the creators give me some hints, some indication that they have thought through the questions and will eventually reveal the answers, then I am willing to trust them and settle to enjoy the tale.
Unfortunately, almost at once I began to doubt that Handfield and Rodrigues had done much thinking about their apocalypse. After that exciting, but short scene of the metal-destroying event, the story jumps over the immediate aftermath, ignoring what most intrigued me about this premise: the tale of people figuring out what happened and how to live in a world that has radically changed. Of figuring out how much of life depends on metal, and how to rethink and redesign it all. Instead, after the opening sequence, the story jumps ahead 13 years, opening with a picture of the ruined skyline of New York City: crumbling high rise buildings in the back ground, a defaced billboard in the foreground. Wait! High rise buildings are built on steel frames. Billboards are held up by metal supports – or wood supports held together by metal bolts. Take away the metal and it all collapses into heaps of rubble. There would be no deserted, ruined cities, just vast stretches of crushed concrete and glass. Someone has not clearly thought through what the disappearance of metal would mean.
I kept reading. The main characters appear, hunting deer with bow and arrow and stone knives. That fit with the main concept. But then they encounter vicious, crazed cannibals (who struck me as this story’s version of mutants and zombies). Our protagonists spy on an army outfitted in perfect replicas of Star Wars’ Imperial Storm Trooper armor (how does anyone manufacture high-quality plastic armor without using any metal in the process?). They also see some Cherokee warriors clad in 18th century buckskins. By the time our main characters ride into a perfectly constructed medieval village complete with properly subservient peasants bowing before them, I realize that this really is not a post-apocalypse story of people surviving the sudden disappearance of metal. This is actually a story of the battle for survival in a post-apocalyptic world filled with improbable, but visually cool, tribes and kingdoms.
The vanishing metal event was never really meant to be part of the story. It is just a handy plot device. Handfield and Rodrigues want to tell a Mad Max-esqe story of a battle between medieval-ish knights, mutant-zombie-cannibals, oppressive Empire and others amongst something resembling the ruins of our world. They obviously needed some way to explain how their world came to be and hit on the idea of the sudden disappearance of metal as a cool and unique starting point. And it is a great idea, an apocalypse unlike any other. It provoked all those questions that I wanted to see answered. I would love to spend time exploring the effects of that disappearance on real societies and people. But Handfield and Rodriguez, with another type of story in mind, never seem to have stopped to think about the possibilities inherent in their starting point. They skip over the implications of their unique apocalypse so that they can get to their more conventional post-apocalyptic world of battles and strife. Disappointed, I put the comic away. Such a waste of a good apocalypse.