America the Beautiful?

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The turbulent decade of the 60s is explored through the prism of some very human superhumans in John Ridley’s The American Way.

Detractors of the comic book medium like to talk about how childish superheroes are, how they’re little more than adolescent power fantasies. But comics fans know that behind the flashy costumes and codenames, there’s far more to superheroes than people give them credit for. At its heart, the superhero is a metaphor, a modern myth. They can represent and comment on virtually any concept or idea through the veil of fantasy and exaggeration.

We’ve seen this storytelling potential in the racial allegory of the X-Men, the deconstructionist works of Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and others. And we’re seeing it again with John Ridley’s The American Way, released in collected form by DC/WildStorm this month.

Ridley’s story is set in one of the most chaotic times in American history, the 1960s, an era of revolutionary changes and lingering fears. To address the serious issues of the day (many of which remain potent and relevant decades later), Ridley focuses on a team of government-sponsored superheroes, the Civil Defense Corps, and their counterparts, the Southern Defense Corps. Working in tandem, these brave men and women defend the world from powerful madmen and alien invaders. There’s just one catch—none of it’s real.

The CDC and their Southern neighbors use their powers to put on an elaborate show with hired actors. Ostensibly, their goal is to provide Americans with hope and unity during a time of racial and civil strife and the looming threat of nuclear war. But are the heroes truly beacons of hope or merely fancy distractions from what’s really going on? Can former ad-man Wesley Catham keep this house of cards from collapsing? And how will the people—not to mention the heroes—react to the fact that the CDC’s latest member, the New American, is black?

Ridley’s story is multi-layered and gripping, a sharp political thriller with numerous twists and turns. He cleverly blends actual historical people and events into his narrative, creating a graphic novel that is as much an alternate history as it is a superhero adventure. As his tapestry unfolds, we see the CDC struggle with issues of race and prejudice, the threat of an actual super-powered menace who sees through the lie, and the danger of the world discovering the truth.

Most fascinating is the writer’s take on the heroes themselves. In them, we see a colorfully garbed microcosm of the American people during the 60s, with all the faults, foibles, and prejudices that our nation is capable of in its darker moments. On the surface, the CDC have names and costumes so inspiring and optimistic (Old Glory, The Mighty Delta, Amber Waves), they could only have been cooked up by a P.R. campaign. Yet each of these larger-than-life figures is all too human and prone to as much casual racism and territorial rivalry as they are to true heroism and selflessness.

As in Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, many of these characters are cut from a familiar iconic cloth with a few twists. The squeaky-clean naiveté of Pharos, the Superman of the group, seems to stem from inexperience with being human and the character’s evolving alien abilities are an ominous subplot. The warrior woman Freya, a cross between Wonder Woman and Marvel’s Thor, considers herself above the mere mortals except when it comes to her own sexual needs. Most disturbing is Southern Cross, a pyrokinetic who dresses like a white supremacist version of the Human Torch (and even has his own double entendre catchphrase, “Let’s get burnin’!”).

Not all the characters are unsettling or without redeeming qualities however. Ridley’s handling of the New American is a wonderful character study of a man torn between loyalties to his country, his people, and to who he is. Other CDC members manage to rise above the petty differences of their teammates as well, preventing the story from becoming a simplistic North vs. South slugfest.

The miniseries is ably illustrated by Georges Jeanty (with inks by Karl Story and Ray Snyder). Jeanty’s style delivers just the right mix of realism and stylized cartooning, with particular strength displayed in the characters’ expressions and eyes. He also manages to capture the look and feel of the era in every little detail, immersing us in Ridley’s alternate America.

If I have any criticism of The American Way, it’s the somewhat confused censoring that goes on within its pages. In standard comic book fashion, curse words are replaced by symbols in the dialogue. However, racial slurs flow freely within the context of the troubled times. One would presume that an audience mature enough to handle the violence, the serious themes, and the offensive epithets in this story would be able to handle a few naughty words as well.

Overall though, this is an astoundingly good graphic novel with a lot to say about history and human nature. Superheroes may be childish but they’re also a reflection of us. As Wes observes, “in creating super-people we [thought we] were making a better class of people. We were just making humans to the extreme.”

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