Breathers #1

Cartoonist: Justin Madson
Publisher: It’s Alive

Breathers is a post-apocalyptic series about a world in which the air outside is so contaminated that people have to wear breathing masks outside to survive the poisonous environment. Or more accurately, it’s a virus that was released into the air that makes it deadly to humans. In spite of how miserable life becomes, people adapt, they wear breathing masks outside (hence the “breathers” moniker). It’s a grim way to show the decay of our planet, we just accept that the space we live in is simply inhospitable, toxic, dangerous and we keep going about our daily life without making any change. 

In Breathers #1, we follow three different groups of people in short stories set in that world. We follow a mother and her daughter as they desperately try to keep their family together through this mad new world. A detective who’s addicted to a substance called Filter K, a sort of nasal drug you can add to your breathing mask. We also follow the story of two young men at a coffee shop as one of them is trying to find a way to ask the waitress he’s been talking to for weeks for her phone number.

The stories feel at first to be a bit disjointed. There doesn’t appear to be a connection between the stories, nor is there any introduction to that world. While we understand that the detective is an addict, we don’t really know what he’s addicted to, and how the filters he puts in his mask are different from the one other people use. The comic focus on such a micro-level on the characters but doesn’t take the time to establish them properly. We learn the mother is conflicted about something, the daughter is worried about her mom. How that relates to the world Justin Madson is building isn’t clear. Still, the stories are intriguing enough to keep you interested. It’s sparse, but not shallow. 

What struck me was how casual this post-apocalyptic world felt. People still talk on the phone, kids still play outside, parents still cook mac & cheese, there’s still line up for the bus. Life goes on and people are pretty much resigned to it. There’s a real feeling of despair and hopelessness permeating the comic. Part of it is on how the story is told, but it’s also amplified by the colours used. Everything is grey, laurel green or brown. It creates an oppressive visual environment for the character to evolve in. They’re just there, in a gloomy world, living their life. It also struck a real chord with what is likely to happen to us in the future. We’re in the middle of a radical shift in our environment. There’s no way to ignore it. Yet, we’re continuing to live as if everything is fine. As individuals, it sometimes feels like there is little we can do to change the situation. I suspect that if we were forced to wear masks permanently like the characters in Breathers, we too would do it.

I was surprised to pick this up at my local comic store right before the Holidays. For one, it’s distributed by It’s Alive Press, a small press in New York that I mostly associate with the Sam Glanzman World War II comics they’ve been reprinting. Breathers appears to be their first foray into modern genre comics. Secondly, I felt that Madson’s style reminded me of Jeff Lemire’s work. Madson’s work is a bit straighter, less kinetic, but also, a bit more assured. Lemire is the closest analog I could think of when reading Breathers. Lemire also contributed a variant cover for this book so I think it’s a fair comparison. 

My main and extremely small caveat with the comic is that it was printed on glossy paper in the style of modern Image comics. I thought a thicker matte paper would have been preferable considering the story. It would have added a bit more weight to the content of the story.

Overall, Breathers #1 is an intriguing start to this short series. I believe there is only another issue that is due out this February. I’m looking forward to revisiting this world.