Review: The American trade paperback (Dark Horse)

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

[Kicking off Doug Glassman's "Indie-Pendence Month"; Doug also Tumblrs at Hell Yeah '80s Marvel!]

It’s no surprise that American comics are dominated by a co-monopoly of DC and Marvel; they even have a trademark on the word “superhero.”

One publisher has survived the market’s ups and downs like no other: Dark Horse Comics. Founded over twenty-five years ago, the company has put out beloved original books like Hellboy and The Goon along with key licenses like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, of course, Aliens vs. Predator. They’ve published hundreds of Star Wars comics after gaining the license in the late eighties, and even if Marvel takes the license now that Disney owns the franchise, Dark Horse has shown an incredible resilience. One of Dark Horse’s earliest titles and hits was The American by Aliens scribe Mark Verheiden.

Actually, that credit should be reversed: The American was Verheiden’s first work in comic books. It’s similar in tone to contemporaries such as The Dark Knight Returns, Daredevil: Born Again and Watchmen. But while many comics of this era imitated the darker tone of those books without the content, The American keeps a strong edge of satire. Verheiden is primarily a screenwriter, and much like his work on Aliens, his writing analyzes the changing state of media, although The American is more concerned with truth than media speed. He echoes what Frank Miller was trying to say about talking heads and media vapidity in The Dark Knight Returns without the confusing story interruptions.

So who is the American? The answer contains major spoilers.

There is no singular American; the superhero protecting America since the 1950s has actually been hundreds of anonymous individuals, trained and surgically modified to look and sound identical. His popularity has been bolstered by extensive media campaigns and stunts like the “Kid America” promotion, giving him a Bucky-style sidekick. We encounter at least three Americans throughout the course of the collected storyline. Chronologically, the first to appear is one in a flashback short story set in Vietnam, where we see just how powerful -- and crazy -- an augmented person can be. A second is defeated during an airport hostage rescue, kicking off coarse reporter Dennis Hough’s investigation into the secrecy behind the superhero. This iteration turns out to be the son of the grown and disgruntled Kid America, who is now a paramilitary operative ready to expose the scam.

The man who appears throughout the rest of the book as “The American” is never named; this is on purpose, as he later gains an identity, “Adam,” when he joins a New Age cult in the last story in the book, “Lost in America.” He was actually a friend of Kid America’s son, disillusioned by the cover-up and the emphasis the others in the “American Corps” place on toy rights and distribution deals. His actual superpower levels are debatable; while he clearly has super-strength, his power is emphasized by pre-planted explosives that detonate walls when he throws his enemies through walls. This backfires when the American accidentally kills three boys committing a robbery, not knowing his own strength.

Also debatable is who the hero of the story is. Dennis Hough is certainly the protagonist, but as the story goes on, his friend is murdered, his career is destroyed, and his life is ruined by his investigation. He falls into alcoholism and hits his girlfriend, Candice, before having a full-on psychotic break while discussing selling the rights to the “true story” of the American. To Mark Verheiden’s credit, while the physical abuse is shocking, it’s never gratuitous; Dennis immediately knows that he’s made a huge mistake and it changes the relationship entirely. I was sort of amazed that the entire thing had a happy ending with all three main characters alive -- and moreover, all three had earned said happy ending.

Candice is part of some of the story’s weirder elements: she’s the daughter of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who is actually alive and secretly running the American program. This, along with a climax of the investigation story involving a gorilla, seem to come from Verheiden’s newness to the medium. I think if he were given the chance to redo the story, they would be removed. I also think that Kid America is taken out of the narrative too soon, although his final tale, involving avenging the death of his girlfriend, is one of the strongest in the book. “Lost in America” gets a little preachy and could probably use some subtlety, but it's still fun.

The art in the initial series is split between Chris Warner and Grant Miehm, and as with Dark Horse’s other omnibus-style books, shrinking down the artwork has brought out the detail in the black-and-white artwork. Chris Warner in particular has an excellent sense of panel layout. “Lost in America,” penciled by Chris Marrinan, is equally good, but the backgrounds seem a bit sparse. This may be a function of switching from color to black-and-white.

The short stories from Dark Horse Presents and other anthology series, also collected here and set between the two main series, are by Brandon Peterson and Doug Braithwaite. You can definitely see the roundedness in the faces in Braithwaite’s work, forming a recognizable style despite being so early in his career.

The end of the book features some interesting backstory about the comic-within-the-comic which established The American. Written by comics historian Jim Vadeboncoeur, it establishes that the “original publisher,” Watchfob Comics, was actually Canadian, and it seemed to keep finding the defeat in any success. Three art excerpts show a primitive The American comic from the 1950s; Kid America taking heroin in a parody of Speedy; and a spoof of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing with overblown narration and painted art.

Just from the perspective of cost, $15 gets you over 350 pages, making The American a no-brainer. Mark Verheiden wrote it before the idea of “Captain America questioning the American Dream” was a cliché. It’s an unheralded classic and evidence of what Dark Horse Comics can do at its best.
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