Wednesday, November 21, 2018

American Carnage #1 Review and Spoilers

Right Here, Right Now

Written by: Bryan Hill
Art by: Leandro Fernandez
Colours by: Dean White
Letters by: Pat Brosseau
Price: $3.99
Release Date: November 20, 2018

When the new wave of Vertigo titles was announced to great fanfare earlier this year, there was only one that really caught my eye. Since first encountering his writing in The Wild Storm: Michael Cray, I've come to appreciate Bryan Hill as a thoughtful writer of action comics and a refreshingly calm and personable presence on Twitter. And here he was being announced as the writer of a six-part mini-series dealing with themes of racial tension and violence in the age of Trump, an increasingly vocal pushback against the perceived excesses of political correctness and the social justice movement, and the reemergence of white supremacy exemplified by the tragic events of Charlottesville. I was intrigued and a little worried. The potential for American Carnage to be a simplistic anti-Trump spleen-venting (the title is lifted from arguably the most controversial section of Trump's inauguration speech) or a jeremiad on the dangers of white (gun) violence was certainly there, but Hill is a writer I've begun to trust, so I approached this first issue with more hope than trepidation. Let's find out if I was right, eh?

Before I start, I should say a couple of things about politics and comics. As regular readers of this site may have noticed, my politics are somewhat to the right. That does not, however, make me someone who hankers for a golden age when comics were somehow apolitical and simply escapist fantasy. Comics have always been political and, like any artist, comic creators have a right to explore whatever they wish in the medium through which they've chosen to express themselves. And more power to them. I only ask for a comic story rather than a sermon, characters rather than caricatures and dialogue rather than diatribe.

The opening to this issue is hard-hitting and sets the tone for what follows. An unseen FBI supervisor is debriefing Agent Curry, a black female agent whose arm is in a sling and whose forehead sports a prominent dressing. The page has a tight nine-panel layout which works well in conveying a fair amount of information economically. Curry and her partner Bernard Watson had been investigating a white supremacist group and Watson ended up being strung up from a tree with a sign around his neck, a gruesome fate rendered in darkly lurid tones by artist Leandro Fernandez and colorist Dean White. Having decided to interview the suspects for this crime (husband and wife Ross and Alyssa Johnston) in their own home, Curry makes the mistake of allowing Johnston to use the bathroom during the interview only to realize that he's locked himself in his bedroom with his wife and baby. He then blows himself and his family up with a suicide vest. Her supervisor seems to believe that, with their deaths, the case is closed, but Curry doesn't believe this. Her partner was investigating white 'philanthropist' Wynn Allen Morgan before he died, and Johnston had his books on prominent display in his house. The suspicion is that Morgan persuaded Johnston to kill Watson (and later himself) in order to close down the FBI man's investigation.

This is already, then, a fairly complex and absorbing plot, but we've got one more ingredient to add to the mix. Richard Wright is a former Fed who quit three years ago when he shot and killed a black kid who he thought was going for a gun but was actually reaching for his iPhone. Curry goes to him to ask him to help investigate Morgan's organization. Wright is, in the time-honored tradition of noir and detective fiction, a bit frayed around the edges. Prior to Curry's appearance, we see him spending time with a prostitute and snorting a line of coke. A square-jawed boy scout he is not. He is, however, a black man who can pass as white and is, therefore, ideal for infiltrating Morgan's organization, which, to a large extent, the rest of the comic is about.

A couple of points are worth making here. The first is that Hill's presentation of the Johnstons' demise is both ugly and tragic. The killer image for me is the baby smiling under the swastika blanket – as potent and direct a symbol of the corruption of innocence as you're likely to see in a comic book. The sight of Johnston's wife cradling the child in her arms, cowering in the corner of the couple's bedroom while her husband straps on the suicide vest is powerful, too. 

The second point is that Hill, for the most part, makes some very astute observations. When, for example, King points out that Watson, lynched by white supremacists, was himself white, Curry's reply is that "[i]f he weren't, it would have been on the news", which is an understated way of pointing out some of the ways race, violence, and the insatiable appetite of the media (for ratings, income, and the sensationalism that brings them) intersect.

For the most part, Hill's dialogue is on point. King uses a complaint about "white privilege" in his meeting with Morgan's daughter that will be familiar to most blue-collar working-class white men in the US. Introducing Morgan in a scene in which he is speaking to a congregation in a black church was a clever touch. While there's little doubt that there's something very shady about this man (something that the final page makes very clear), he's not a caricature. Hill portrays him as a charismatic – and canny – operator, and his anti-government pitch, although perhaps a little anemic, cuts across racial divides satisfactorily enough.

Leandro Fernandez' art comes from the Mike Mignola/Ben Stenbeck school and I mean that as a compliment. There are lots of shadowed eyes and sketchy facial features but the expressions on those faces are varied and recognizable and convey emotion appropriately and compellingly. (The quizzical and skeptical faces of some of the members of the black congregation to whom Morgan is speaking are particularly good.) Fernandez is capable of portraying the big moments effectively too, though, and the issue's final page is a particularly impressive – and unsettling – mix of community socializing and raw macho power. Throughout, Hill's dialogue is similarly effective. Characters feel real, damaged and driven. There are one or two very minor issues with vocabulary, but other than these, the writing is generally excellent.

Bits and Pieces:

A well-paced introductory issue, this is a book that has already provided some memorable – and unsettling – moments. If you were expecting an excoriating railing against Trump's America, you might be disappointed. With well-drawn characters and an involving set-up, this is more subtle – and considerably better – than that.


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