The Last American
By John Wagner, Alan Grant, and Mick McMahon.
Early in the year, 2000 AD announced their line-up of new graphic novel releases for 2017, featuring many existing 2000 AD titles as well as a range that were not originally 2000 AD publications. In fact, 2000 AD’s publishers, Rebellion, have negotiated the rights for many classic titles, including 70s comic Misty and a swath of other non-2000 AD comics. Welcome then, The Last American, which has been out of print for over a decade and could not have been resurrected at a more suitable time.
It’s never healthy to scaremonger, but to many out there, the prospect of Donald Trump as President of the USA has been pretty scary. Now that he’s in the White House (or playing golf), more and more people are also finding things pretty scary. Back in the 60s during the Cold-War era, things were tangibly frightening and the prospect of nuclear war was actually in the forefront of many individuals minds. One such individual was Mike McMahon who explains more about his experience back then (when he was 9 years-old) as a foreword within the book.
Things aren’t that bad right now, but there are many individuals who are more than a little concerned that ol’ Donnie has access to the ‘big red button’. The Last American is a ‘what if?’ story and takes place 20 years after a global nuclear Armageddon. It follows U.S. Army Captain Ulysses Pilgrim as he awakens from cryogenic sleep to begin his role as ‘Apocalypse Commander’, to restore order and begin rebuilding the USA. He has back-up from three robots; Able, Baker and Charlie, all of whom have been waiting the past 20 years for him to wake and have passed the time watching re-runs and recordings of American TV. Suffice to say, when Pilgrim does wake and is greeted by Charlie, he is met with a stream of TV influenced dialogue – perhaps not what he was expecting.
Pilgrim is a character that could easily be pure bravado and arrogance, a cliché of many action heroes; the title and cover may even give you that impression. What you get, however, is a very human account of the empty and bleak existence after nuclear war. Pilgrim is a complex individual who reacts to the horrors he encounters in a very realistic and terrifying way. His mental health is monitored by the three robots, with Charlie being responsible for his well-being and is constantly concerned for his psychological welfare.
As Pilgrim experiences the emptiness and scale of the aftermath, the reader is exposed to a dark view of the future, but it is counter-balanced by the incredibly funny dialogue that Charlie delivers. At one moment, Pilgrim is coming to terms with the prospect of the annihilation of the USA (and in particular his family) and the next, Charlie is offering him coffee while quoting something he heard on a TV commercial: “Mm-mm! That real coffee taste – at a price you can afford!” This not only adds humor to the mix, but is in itself a commentary on Western culture – the fact that Charlie has latched onto commercial messages in order to better reassure Pilgrim in such a bleak time suggests an almost shallow existence pre-nuclear war.
The title was originally published by Epic Comics as a four-part story with the first two written by Wagner and the last two written by Grant. The encounters Pilgim has throughout the story are overlayed with his own thoughts and feelings on his situation, ranging from desperation and suicidal thoughts, to hope and a sense of determination. As an example, the frayed nature of his mind is brought to life with a humorous yet disturbing dream where he meets the historic line of presidents of the USA, in heaven where America also happens to be heaven. This devolves into a rap performed by George Washington and the Founding Fathers. As he wakes, he realizes that despite the power and superiority of America, the presidents have always only ever been human and are therefore susceptible to human nature and mistakes – regardless of how superior a country may appear, a chain is only ever as strong as its weakest link (humans).
There are shock moments throughout the story and each have varying impacts on Pilgrim and the way in which he deals with them. The entire story is given an often surreal and abstract illustration style by Mick McMahon. Whilst his artwork on other titles are distinctive, The Last American really stands out. Facial features are often abstract enough to make Picasso look twice and the coloring is at once bright and vivid with Pilgrim dressed in Red, White and Blue with garish gold trim, but is almost always set against the dull backdrop of nuked America. This ‘uniform’ in itself is a ridiculous notion and depicts America as being loud, brash, and full of confidence/arrogance, but for all it’s worth, a nuclear apocalypse will bring that curtain down pretty fast. What we have, therefore, is a lesson in futility and both the writing and artwork delivers this to the reader in abundance.
If any criticism can be found, it is in the length of the story and the way in which the title ends. The point of The Last American was to be a one-off mini-series, so it was always going to be finite. That said, the ending felt abrupt and failed to answer many questions the reader will form throughout the journey. This may be frustrating to some who will be expecting a much more coherent end with a picture of what might happen next for Pilgrim, Able, Baker and Charlie. As it stands, there is little closure and may leave you feeling somewhat empty.
The flip-side to this is that others who read it will most likely come away with a very strong and fittingly satirical message, summed up beautifully in the final panel of the story. With the USA effectively destroyed by Nuclear war, is there any happy ending that can truly be expected?
The Last American is ambitious to take on such a huge subject and scale it back from the run-of-the-mill action comic to present a poignant and introspective story. It is at once gripping to read, harrowing to see, and yet in places is funny to the point of laughing out loud. The artwork is wacky at times, but delivers a very sobering look at a post-nuclear Armageddon.
There are titles and story arcs out there that could be called ‘Essential Reading’ and this is perhaps one of those titles. If you are even remotely interested in The Last American, you should simply buy it and experience it for yourself, provided you know what you are getting into. This is not a light action comic to offer you some escapism, nor is it an epic. It is a bleak look at the futility of war, but you will be well rewarded with the wonderful balance of humor, impressive and original artwork as well as a compelling and genuinely interesting read.
The Last American is available Wednesday 5th April 2017 in store, online and digitally via www.2000adonline.com