I’ve often thought of Alan Moore as the creepy, twisted Santa Claus of the comic book world—and not just because of the beard. He’s given the industry many gifts to the industry over the years. One great boon to comics that can be traced back to Mr. Moore is the origination of DC’s Vertigo imprint, one of the finest mature audience comic book publishers in American comics today.
In 1983, Alan Moore was recruited by DC to write SWAMP THING. Moore took what was essential a B-list formulaic horror comic and transformed it into high art, pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable in mainstream American comic books. Instead of censoring the adult content Moore was introducing into the book, DC took the high road and made history by dropping the Comics Code Authority seal of approval and embracing the idea that the comic was intended for mature audiences. The success of SWAMP THING lead to other mature audience books such as DOOM PATROL, ANIMAL MAN, HELLBLAZER, and SANDMAN, arguably the most critically acclaimed mature audience comic book of all time. The critical and commercial success of SANDMAN directly resulted in DC launching Vertigo as an independent imprint for adult content comic books in 1993.
Throughout the years Vertigo has continued to push the envelope, experimenting with form and content. But some experiments are destine to fail, financially speaking anyway, and many Vertigo miniseries come and go without making much impact and they often launch ongoing series and them cancel them within a couple of years. So invariably the bargain bins in comic stores are stocked with Vertigo titles that, for what ever reason, didn’t catch on with readers. One quality Vertigo title that got the axe before its time is OUTLAW NATION.
I suspect OUTLAW NATION owes its origin to the success of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s PREACHER. PREACHER was Vertigo’s second big success following SANDMAN. While both series could be described as epic, they couldn’t be more different. SANDMAN is a refined intellectual odyssey built on an exploration of myth and humanity. PREACHER is more of a shotgun blast to the face of extreme violence, outrageous sex, piercing social commentary, and savage humor. In 2001, as PREACHER wrapped up its acclaimed run, Vertigo reloaded the shotgun and took aim at another hit with OUTLAW NATION.
OUTLAW NATION is written by veteran comic scribe Jamie Delano, best know for his work on HELLBLAZER, and features art by Goran Parlov and Goran Sudzuka. The series is generously peppered with PREACHER-sized portions of violence, sex, social commentary, and humor. The covers also boast striking paintings by Glen Fabry, the same man who graced the covers of PREACHER for its entire 66-issue run. And while all this may make it sound like a carbon copy of PREACHER, OUTLAW NATION is actually something completely unique.
Originally titled THE GREAT SATAN, OUTLAW NATION is the saga of the Johnson family, an American dynasty of near-immortal outlaw heroes. The series is a meandering but captivating road trip of a story that exposes the dark side of the American dream through an exploration of the myths and pulp legends of this nation.
At the heart of the story is the appropriately named “Story” Johnson. He’s a pulp novelist who returns to the US after a self-imposed exile of 25 years only to discover his mad father, the powerful but frail Asa Arizona, is hunting down the Johnson kin to drain them of their blood and the precious longevity it contains.
Delano keeps the plot moving forward at a very satisfying pace from issue to issue, introducing a host of interesting characters in entertaining situations. We are just given shreds of flashbacks scattered here and there to explain the back story. But over the course of several issues we come to know the Johnson family and the prominent role they have played in this country’s folk history, from frontiersmen days, through the Wild West, to the counter-culture of the 1960’s and the modern militia movements of today.
The Johnsons become a metaphor for integrity and righteousness in the face of a world of greed and cowardice. The character John Law sums it up when he’s giving advice to a troubled young man. “Son, there’s only two kinds of people in the world: Johnsons and shits. You have to ask yourself, which kind’re you?”
OUTLAW NATION was probably intended to have a PREACHER length run of about 66 issues to tell its full story. But it was not to be. OUTLAW NATION is a sophisticated and entertaining story that ranks among the best Vertigo has ever published and it boasts consistent clean, competent art throughout. However, the series sales did not justify continuation and it was capped at 19 issues. The writing must have been on the wall a few months prior, because starting with issue 17, the intricate plot threads are either dropped or conveniently tied up in short order. The final issue is a mad dash to reach an ending that is so clumsy and unsatisfying that it’s almost laughable. But thinking back on how incredible this comic was, I’m more incline to weep at its untimely demise.
It’s almost a betrayal to read something so good that ends so poorly. Story Johnson perhaps put it best himself in one of his meta riffs on storytelling: “Stories are bad medicine. They suck you in with plot and character only to disappoint you at the end.”