Exclusive: Justin Madson discusses his prescient series Breathers


Even when our own planet can no longer sustain us, humanity clings to life in this thoughtful dystopia where a single breath of “fresh” air can kill. Follow the lives of a small cast of survivors as they struggle to keep going in a world where the air carries a fatal virus. Justin Madson‘s Breathers, recently released by Dark Horse Comics, is eerily familiar and unsettling in the age of COVID… but its creation began in 2006 and was completed in 2011!

We got a chance to talk to Madson about this and more!

Graphic Policy: So, let’s just dive into the meat of it. Breathers was started in 2006 and completed in 2011, well ahead of our current reality of COVID, among other things, reflecting on it all, how does it feel to have a comic that’s rather prescient?

Justin Madson: When I set out to create this story set in a world where humans could no longer safely breathe the air, I thought of it as pure science fiction. I wanted the deadly air to be this element that would tether all the characters together, give them a unifying, shared experience that they all had to live with and endure. Years after completing the story, when inklings of a global pandemic began to creep into our reality and wearing masks started to become a necessary part of our daily lives, it was a very surreal feeling. Things were starting to look very familiar to how I had drawn them in Breathers. Fortunately, things in the real world did not get as bad as they did in Breathers, but, if they had, I imagine the world would look and feel a lot like how they did in Breathers.

GP: The comic is amazingly accurate for how people react to the pandemic within. We have our own “Breathe Free” movement, and in many ways with a similar result as to theirs? What are your thoughts in getting the reactions so right in a lot of ways?

JM: In Breathers, the characters we follow have been living in this world for years, some their entire lives, so wearing a gas mask is just a part of their lives. They have adapted to the world they live, just as the world itself has adapted to surviving with the deadly air outside. Houses and businesses have ventilation systems in place to keep the air clean and breathable. Gas mask salesmen go door to door to sell their latest products. People still go out and get coffee and live normal lives. The only difference is they have to remember to wear their mask when they leave the house or they’ll die.

I just really tried to look at their situation in a very realistic manner, drawing on my characters’ motivations and drives. Of course, there will be those who are skeptical of everything and seek to prove or disprove any and all currently accepted ideologies. It’s just human nature to question everything, right? So, I figured there would have to be some sort of underground movement questioning the validity of this so-called “deadly air.”

GP: It was interesting reading it, the comic with its “Breathe Free” movement feels very rightwing/conspiracy/antivax until the very end. That’s based on what’s happened in reality but obviously none of that was really a thing, beyond the antivax movement, back when this was written. Where did that part of the comic spin out of?

JM: Yeah, clearly I had no idea there would be such a swirl of rightwing/conspiracy theories surrounding a real life pandemic. I was coming at it from more of a sociological point of view. I wondered if people in this world would begin questioning the legitimacy of the virus, given the opportunity. I figured that a good number of people might go along with such a radical idea as I introduced with the “Breathe Free” movement, since they were so desperate to change their bleak outlooks on life.

GP: The thing that’s really intriguing is the comic’s depiction of misinformation, the rise of opportunistic businesses, the lottery at the end, and just a general malaise and draining feeling. It’s so hard to believe this was completed almost a decade before our experiences.

JM: Life is a struggle for these characters, with or without living in a pandemic state of mind. On top of their dealings with deadly air, they have money problems, drug addictions, memories that endlessly haunt them. This is all very real-life stuff. Ultimately, though, despite it all, I wanted there to be a sense of hope and perseverance that comes through. Even with all the crap that these characters have had to deal with, they still come out at the end, having grown a bit and, at the very least, survived another day.

Again, I just really tried to think about this world in a very realistic sense. There’s nothing too fantastical about this dystopian existence. There would be misinformation because there always is. There would be opportunistic businesses because there always is. How could a vaccine get distributed? A lottery makes sense, only further delaying some people from getting it.

GP: The comic’s narrative structure is really interesting. It reminds me a bit of early Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Did you have any influences as far as that?

JM: My comics work is very inspired by film and, absolutely, those two by Tarantino are definitely up there. I really liked the idea of working with vignettes, treating them as their own unique story and yet connecting them to create a bigger story. It gave me a chance to live in the moment of each part of the story and let it sort of be what it wanted to be. In addition to that, it was also made working on the story more manageable, where I could work on 8-12 page segments of the story at a time.

GP: What are some of the other influences of the story? There’s an interesting underlying theme about the environment and climate change that’s now overshadowed by recent events.

JM: Yes, when I set out to work on Breathers, I didn’t want anyone to have a car. The idea was that car emissions had only added to the problems with air. If characters want to go anywhere, they have to take a bus. I wanted to convey the idea that this ecosystem is especially fragile, in addition to having this deadly virus in the air. It’s sort of like, if this one threat doesn’t kill everybody, there’s another one waiting just around the corner. Cheery stuff, I know.

GP: With our new reality and what we’ve experienced these past years, are there things you’d change if you did it today with how things have really shaken out?

JM: I really never imagined that living through a global pandemic would be so very political in nature. And I never would have thought that it would create such a divide between people. Now, I know there’s more to it that just that. The groundwork was already there, but still, it would’ve been impossible to see it all playing out like it did. That said, I’m glad I was able to create this story before COVID. It gave me the opportunity to look at the situation from an unbiased perspective, kind of like a documentarian, just reporting on these characters’ live as they happened. I definitely couldn’t write the same story today.

GP: Reflecting back on the series, what really stands out to you and how it’s perceived will have changed
from the original release to now?

JM: I imagine (and hope) that a wider audience may be interested in reading this tale, now that we have all lived through a version of it. When it was first released, it was viewed as more of a high concept story than anything else. It was about these bleak, downtrodden characters living in this bleak, dystopian world that seemed so very different from our own. But now, I imagine, the story and those downtrodden characters in it may just be a bit more relatable.

GP: I know the release of it all has been a rough experience. I don’t want to rehash the specifics, but any
lessons you’d impart of those starting out in comics?

JM: It was definitely a long road to get Breathers to where it is now. I initially self-published the comic in black and white and sold them on my own at cons and online. Some years later, I colored the book and they were rereleased as a series from a small publisher. There were many issues with this publisher, leaving a lot of uncertainty about the future of Breathers. Ultimately, though, Dark Horse agreed to publish the full color trade, which I am beyond happy about. It only took 12 years after I had finished Breathers to get it published! So, to those starting out in comics, I would just say perseverance is the key. You need to just stick with what you’re doing and good things will happen…eventually.

GP: What can we look forward to? Any chance of more Breathers post-COVID experiences?

JM: I have a Breathers sequel that I have been tinkering around with. It’s just in the plotting stage right now, but it takes place 20 years after the events in Breathers and involves some of the characters from the first book and some new characters as well. This time, there is the threat of virus mutation; the Filter K drug has made its resurgence and “Breathe Free” posters are starting to pop up once again.