When I think of British comics set in a post-apocalyptic world, I tend to imagine the likes of Judge Dredd and Halo Jones, seminal titles in the 2000 AD sci-fi series in which violence and greed are the only constants in a consumer purgatory gone hopelssly mad. But with the millennial milestone having come and gone, ushering the Western world into a state not unlike that depicted in the above-mentioned titles, dreaming of such futures has lost some of its lighthearted and playful (if antagonistic) charm. Minus the ray guns and body armor, we’re more or less living in the 2000 AD universe, and it isn’t as much fun as Dredd and Jones promised it would be. Actually, it’s kind of crummy. Maybe that’s why Unico Comics‘ The Legend Known As… by Michael Burness and Steven Howard telescopes us out of our current gloom and into what might be best termed as a post-post apocalyptic world.
Despite the dull gray cityscape depicted on its cover, the comic opens in the relative brightness of an idyllic seaside community that looks more Lord of the Rings than Judge Dredd–the Shire as opposed to Mega-City One. Yet the narrative quickly shifts into flashback as its denizens recall a time not too long ago when the world was in chaos and criminals of every variety ruled the streets. Thus it’s from somewhat of a remove that we get the story of the Crimson Arrow, the book’s eponymous “Legend.” That is, Burness and Howard are projecting a future that looks back on a past that is, roughly, our world (minus law and order, plus an environmental disaster or two — in other words, the world we’re on the brink of slipping into at this very moment!) and placing a much needed hero in our collective midst. In so doing, they bring a degree of optimism to the world of post-apocalyptic comics that the 2000 AD universe may have lacked: the future is bleak, The Legend Known As… seems to say, but the future of the future isn’t so bad.
Throughout the book, Burness and Howard prove themselves as masters of contrast: darkness and light, hopelessness and hope, industry and agriculture, even rain and sunshine are the poles that hold the narrative together. Howard’s art, moreover, is evocative in some instances of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, and, in other instances, his bleak urban landscapes evoke the Gotham of David Mazucelli’s work on Batman comics. Likewise, the book’s themes are reminiscent of the work of Gaiman and comic book legend Alan Moore, particularly given its focus not just on the adventures of the “legend known as” the Crimson Arrow but on how this legend (and, by extension, legends in general) came to assume legend status. In this sense, it’s also an intelligent book that taps into the current zeitgeist of investigating the very nature of heroes and how they fit into our culture. In other words, The Legend Known As… isn’t just about a hero; like recent film adaptations of Batman, Spider-Man, and Moore’s Watchmen, it’s about where heroes come from, why we need them, and where we’d be without them. Which is to say that The Legend Known As… is about hoping for hope in an otherwise hopeless world.