Apocalypse Week: Column: Retronomicon: Just A Pilgrim

By J. Keith Haney

Ennis, Garth; Ezquerra, Carlos. Just A Pilgrim. Black Bull Entertainment (November, 2001). USD $16.49. ISBN-13: 978-1606900079.

Postapocalyptic sagas have become cliché in the latter half of the 20th century. However, contrary to popular belief, the genre predates the nuclear age by almost a century. Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley of Frankenstein fame penned a follow-up novel called “The Last Man”, where the last, lone human survives a worldwide plague that wipes out the rest of his species. H.G. Wells gave us an unforgettable possible future in the Morlocks and the Eloi courtesy of his novel, The Time Machine. Even Lovecraft had one of his shortest stories ever written about how the last few survivors of the human race manage to go mad from the experience, to the point of killing each other off. Still, the idea of the human race being annihilated gained new cachet in the Nuclear Age. Stories like On the Beach and Alas, Babylon picked up where Shelley, Wells and Lovecraft had left off. But the Mad Max films truly popularised the idea of a barren landscape that only the hearty can survive…and maybe not even then. Given that these films also fused the sensibilities of the American Western to the genre, it may explain why Garth Ennis, a self-confessed admirer of Westerns from John Wayne to Sam Peckinpah, wound up writing Just A Pilgrim.

 

Ennis deserves extra credit for an unusual apocalypse scenario. In the near future, the sun has begun to die, swallowing up Mercury and Venus as it begins the long process of going supernova. Earth is still in one piece (for now) but scorched beyond recognition by “the Burn”, as survivors call the resulting heat wave. The world’s oceans have been vaporised, leaving a vast wasteland of valleys and canyons in their wake. The requisite mutants have thrived in this environment, while humans seem to come in two flavours: settlers and raiders. One party of settlers, led by John Shepherd, are on the verge of getting wiped out by a group of raiders called “Buckers” as the story begins. Then a mysterious man who calls himself “the Pilgrim” singlehandedly beats them back with his carbine. At first glance, the Pilgrim fulfills a lot of Western stereotypes: polite, taciturn, no real name, and absolutely lethal to cross. He is also a proud, unapologetic Christian, with the scar of a cross over his left eye and a habit of quoting Bible verses verbatim. But Shepherd’s wife, Carla, has a creeping suspicion that this man may be just as much a monster as the very things he’s protecting them from. She has no idea how right she is.

 

The horrors of the setting are given the same amount of extra thought that Ennis applied to the idea of the Burn. As Mark Waid’s introduction points out, the horrors start out as simple, sophomoric gags that Ennis bludgeons the whimsy out of to create unique, and uniquely disturbing, horrors. A former would-be tough guy, turned into a flesh balloon, seems funny…until you add the twist that his body has been turned into a breeding nest for mutant larvae. The Buckers’ leader, Castenada, sounds like the ultimate joke, a pirate with two peg legs, two hook hands, and no eyes. You stop laughing after you see him massacre his own men, and are told that his remaining senses are so sharp that he can hear a pin drop from a mile away. Then there’s the story of the Pilgrim’s life before the Burn, which I’ll not spoil here. All I’ll say is that it sounds like a National Enquirer headline, but winds up being a vicious-but-thoughtful dissection of the human condition.

Another unique touch is that the story is told from the POV of ten-and-a-half-years-old Billy Shepherd, John and Carla’s only child. His spelling throughout the text is what you would expect from a boy who has never gone to school, but so are his heartfelt descriptions of what’s going on in his head and out in the Atlantic canyons. In a nod to the classic western, Shane, Billy finds himself drawn to the Pilgrim as both teacher and protector, much to the dismay of his parents.

However, John and Carla are hamstrung in their ability to do anything about it by their own impotence in the face of the Buckers. Then there’s the matter of the Pilgrim’s faith, which is rock solid in comparison to the people he is escorting. All his talk of Christianity, coupled with his brutal actions, make many of them wonder if they have any future worth talking about.

Carlos Ezquierra, a veteran of such sci-fi dystopias as Strontium Dog and Bloody Mary, is an able match to Ennis’ brutal story. His artwork seems to have the consistency of sandpaper, grit worked into every inch of the page. His humans are typically thin (though hardly supermodel or anorexic), with angular features overlayed by various amounts of flesh, depending on gender, age, body type, and so forth. The few mutant creatures that are highlighted in this story show a certain amount of Lovecraftian ickiness that you would expect from creatures that had been living on the bottom of the ocean floor, only to adapt to the unforgiving desert caused by the Burn. The landscape is appropriately desolate, nothing but rock and mountain and dust as far as the eye can see. But remnants of the old world have survived here, mostly in the form of vehicles and guns. There is even one famous ship that becomes the focus of the climax (Hint: They called her “unsinkable”).

Ennis and Ezqueirra followed up this series with Garden of Eden, which brought the Pilgrim’s story to a conclusion, but also became a bit more shrill in its atheist leanings against Christianity in general. For all the nightmarish sights that are seen in the original series, the real horror of Just A Pilgrim is in its troubling conclusions about what it would take to survive the end of the world.

You can buy Just A Pilgrim from Amazon.com.

About JHaney

J. Keith Haney was born in Misawa, Japan, but has lived most of his life in the state of Tennessee. His favourite all-time film is the original Clash of the Titans, mainly for the Ray Harryhausen monsters. Due to that film, he got a college-level book on World Mythology when he was nine, of which he memorized the Greek section by age 12. His first encounter with Lovecraft (though he didn't know it at the time) was the original Ghostbusters, which he saw in its original theatrical release. In addition to all things Lovecraft, he is an old-school gamer, history buff and fierce advocate for the steampunk genre. He enjoyed his first professional sale and publication in 2010 with his steampunk short story, "Grand Guginol", which can be found at Short Story Me!. His favourite all-time Lovecraft story is "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath", which he considers an important, forgotten forerunner to Tolkein's Lord of the Rings saga.

JHaneyApocalypse Week: Column: Retronomicon: Just A Pilgrim