Friday, February 22, 2019

American Carnage #4 Review And Spoilers

Challenges and Hardships

Written by: Bryan Hill
Art by: Leandro Fernandez
Colours by: Dean White
Letters by: Pat Brosseau
Published by: DC Comics
Cover Price: $3.99

Last month's issue of American Carnage was pretty much a masterclass in how to ratchet up the tension, and make an already terrible situation near-apocalyptic for Richard Wright, our undercover FBI agent and hero (or perhaps anti-hero) of the series. And that tension didn't really let up. The issue ended with Richard present in Jennifer Morgan's home while it was being shot up by unknown gunmen who left a burning cross on the front lawn. Which, as Jennifer is herself a white supremacist, is a bit odd…

This issue opens the following morning and the local police department are out in force clearing away the debris and measuring bullet holes or whatever it is the police do in situations like this. The conversation between Jennifer and the black Trump-voting detective is instructive. Hill's writing for this book has fastidiously avoided clich̩s so far and manages to sidestep a couple of obvious ones here. It would have been easy to make the detective black and dismissive or cold towards Morgan or, heading in the other direction, make him white and overly chummy if not outright racist. Hill instead makes him extremely likable, extraordinarily professional and very perceptive. His dialogue is naturalistic but conveys information in a satisfyingly economical way. By the time he arrives at the (not unreasonable) conclusion that the burning cross might be a "label" Рa sign from members of a militant anti-racist group that they know who Jennifer 'really' is Рthe feeling that we're dealing with a thoughtful and sophisticated narrative is both palpable and very welcome.

While Jennifer and the detective are having their conversation, Richard is trying his best to reassure Amy, Jennifer's deaf daughter, that all will be well. He does so through the use of a simplistic fairy tale to which we'll return later. The extent to which Richard genuinely cares for her is simply unknowable at this point. Although there's nothing overt in this scene to suggest that he's only befriending her to get closer to Jennifer, previous issues have featured scenes in which Richard and his handler, Sheila Murray, have been quite explicit to do whatever it takes to solve the murder of Sheila's former partner. 

Jennifer's interview finishes at roughly the same time as Richard's heart to heart. Fernandez' art is really rather excellent here. Wright has his finger pointed at Amy's face to make his point, while Amy is looking up at Richard with the kind of look on her face that small children have when they are totally focused on whoever's talking to them. Jennifer is standing alone in the background, physically excluded from their conversation, an exclusion that is emphasized by her face being obscured by shadows. We've already seen Jennifer act very protectively over her daughter and her "We're finished" undoubtedly refers to her conversation with the detective but could also suggest that having seen Richard engage in behavior with her daughter that she has explicitly forbidden, her relationship with Richard is over too.

And so it proves. On the journey away from the police station, Richard tries to press for more information on who attacked them, identifying racist thug Sheldon Toole as the most likely perpetrator and pushing her on just what the guy in the Obama mask turning up was all about. This is too much for Jennifer and she kicks him out of the car, leaving Wright with a lead that he thought was solid suddenly evaporating before his eyes.

The rest of the middle section of the issue is taken up with two conversations. The first is between Wynn Morgan and Sheldon Toole. Toole blames Richard for the death of one of his men and, interestingly enough, identifies Richard as one of Morgan's men. The conversation does not end in the violence one might expect, but rather with Morgan's enigmatic pronouncement that "we're winning" and a plea to Sheldon to "let us win". What that means exactly is unclear, but what is clear is that Morgan, unlike Toole, is not a racist knuckle-dragging stereotype.

Wright and his handler have another conversation in which she urges him to "cross the lines". The only warning she gives him is "just don't become what they are" and Richard's somewhat muted "Sheila… that's not how it works" reminds us that he is putting himself in harm's way psychologically as well as physically. It's a nicely compact but subtly unsettling piece of writing and art.

That leaves us with the final scene which I'm not going to spoil here. What I will say is that Hill uses very effectively the conversation between Jennifer and her father as narration over what happens to Richard. The truth about Jennifer and Richard is that she wants to trust him, but that desire itself is something that causes her to be suspicious of him. Again, a subtle and convincing bit of writing from Hill. The issue's final page makes me extremely eager to read more. And that's all I'm going to say about that.


Bits and Pieces:

This issue continues to offer sophisticated storytelling that is clever but not smug and raw but not gratuitous. Hill and Fernandez bring their characters to life with rare skill and the narrative fails to drag despite the necessary emphasis on a conversation for much of the comic. Put bluntly, this is shaping up to be one of the best titles of the year so far. I recommend it.


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