Breathers by Justin Madson is a series of self-published comics that I first found out about at SPX. It's up to Issue #5 now and it remains an intriguing premise with some great characters and story arcs. (There are actually six books as there is an Issue #0) From what I can tell jumping around the web, it's criminal how few mentions of it there are, considering how good it is. Some of that is simply due to its minimal presence on the web (which it would be well suited to as each book's chapters are episodic in nature) but it's also just another reminder that simply producing good work isn't always enough to connect with a big audience.
The world of Breathers is one where a virus has rendered the air unfit for humans to breathe without the assistance of a breather — a mask to filter out the virus. The world is fairly well-adapted to this new status quo when the story starts although people do remember the world before. Madson does a nice job of thinking through the implications of this situation, but this is not a hard core science fiction type story; it seems more interested in its characters and is even prone to bits of magical realism.
Breathers tells its tale through several different plot threads which have run their own courses so far, sometimes overlapping at points. The heart of the books feels like the tale of Easter who is the only character who can breathe without the aid of a breather and is determined to find out answers to mysteries in her past. The issue of whether or not she is special in someway or whether the virus is real is an ongoing part of the story that remains, in my mind, as of yet unresolved. Easter's brother Tobey, is also a major character in the books, who is more of a passive character than Easter. Intrigued and frightened by his sister's actions, he struggles with the question of whether the virus is real too, but also spends time starting a relationship with a waitress. An entirely separate storyline concerns a girl named Mara and her stuffed doll Dragon who may or may not be "real" (there's one of those magical realism parts). Mara's mother is a woman in trouble and her story seems to spiral out of control throughout the books. Finally two other prominent characters are a seedy cop named Detective Marsh and a traveling breather salesman named Jacob Jaunter.
There's a lot going on and I hate spoilers so I won't give too much away. A major part of Breathers is the presence of "K" a drug that is delivered by a special filter for the breathers everyone wears. It seems to be a particularly nasty and addictive drug too. While Easter's story feels like the overall arc of the books (what the virus is or isn't and the breathability of the air is after all the major question created by the premise Madson has cooked up), the separate storylines and their odd overlaps and intersections makes this feel a bit like Robert Altman directed a science fiction movie. These are interesting people, often broken, but not boring.
And I haven't gotten to the art yet. Breathers is in black and white (although the covers do add a soft palette of colors) which is a great artistic choice. Madson uses a lot of contrast in the books which adds to the stark, often claustrophobic sense of this world. And if anything in looking over the series again, I think he's getting better — which isn't to say the first books are bad (far from it) but is nice to see that he's pushing himself to do more each time.
The books do have a decidedly handmade feel to them, while they are printed on nice enough paper, they're bound with three regular old staples and the covers are on the same kind of paper as the rest of the production. Book 5 was just released, I bought it from Madson's site for $6.00 plus $2.00 for shipping (I bought books 0 – 4 from Madson in a package at SPX but I can't remember what I paid for it) which for 96 pages of comics, I consider a pretty good deal. Still, I would love to see Madson get a chance at some point to reprint the whole series in a big-time production of the book someday. I think that the next one, Book Six, will be the last one in the Breathers series, but Madson hasn't given any clues other than a note in Book Five that the next issue is "The epilogue…" I'm eagerly awaiting it's release which although Madson hasn't made any announcements for yet, will probably be sometime in the Spring of 2011.