Friday, January 29, 2016

The Last of Us: American Dreams Comic Review

by The World Weary

Authors: Neil Druckman
Illustrators: Faith Erin Hicks
Publisher: Dark Horse Books
Genre: Video Game Comic
Series: Last of Us Issues 1 - 4

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They Grow Up So Fast…

This review is of the Trade Paperback edition which collects issues 1-4.

It’s a mad world we live in. As an adult, it’s hard not to reminisce about a time not so long ago, when things seemed better and hope was within reach. I look at young people these days and wonder how different it must be for them. To them, the wars in the middle east, the increasing tensions between Russia and the rest of the international community, the oils spills, the invasion of our rights by our own government, Edward Snowden, the internet, and a slew of other red letter issues are as normal as “Say no to drugs”, having either one of the Bush men in office, Monica Lewinski, anthrax and bomb laced packages, and the end of the Soviet Union were to my generation. These are just things that are happening elsewhere in the world while they try to figure out what their purpose in this world is, what they want to do. Amidst so much chaos and uncertainty, these fresh youths manage to somehow still maintain their innocence and lust for fun. You would think that all these crushing realities would bother them, and they certainly do, but in their world the greatest calamity is not figuring out who they are. All too often, youths in media are portrayed as arrogant, self absorbed little snots, and to a certain degree that may be correct. However, most media never explores why kids are the way they are and instead just passes their complexities off.

Now, I’ve only played a little bit of The Last of Us (much to my disdain), but from what I’ve seen, its exploration of youth amidst a tidal wave of uncertainty was absolutely realistic and touching. To prepare myself for the game (which I hope to actually play before 2042) I picked up a copy of the collected edition of the four issue miniseries that serves as a prequel to the game. I was certainly intrigued by the sub title, American Dreams, but all I expected was an advertisement for the game, or another thoughtless adaptation of an “M” rated game, like the Tomb Raider series I’ve been reviewing. What I got astounded me.

Ellie is a thirteen year old girl in a world gone mad. Six years before her birth a fungal parasite began decimating human populations all over the planet and by the time she was born, the world was a shadow of it’s former self. Orphaned from a young age, Ellie has been dragged from school to school in one of the few safe zones in America. Her dark past has left her with a rebellious and troubled outlook on life and she mostly keeps to herself, only interacting with others when she picks fights at school or is apprehended when she tries to run away. Drawing ever closer to the age requirement for mandatory military service, she is sent to a military boarding school within the safe zone. Almost immediately, her brash attitudes land her within the sights of some of the school’s bullies. She almost gets in way over her head, when a fellow student, fifteen year old Riley, saves her from the bullies. Slowly but surely, the two begin to develop a relationship as they learn about the world around them. As they explore and learn, a vicious war rages around them, as the ruthless and somewhat fascist military, a cold hearted and calculating rebel group know as The Fireflies, and the infected tear apart the country around them and force Ellie and Riley to grow up in a world that isn’t safe.

The first thing that struck me about this book was the art, mostly because there was no narration. Typically when you pick up a comic there’s some kind of inner monologue of omnipotent presence explaining the scene and the characters. Even in Alan Moore’s magnum opus Watchmen, the story begins with Rorschach’s dwellings on society. Here however, there is just about two to three pages of imagery with the only visible words being graffiti on the side of a building. The scene perfectly sets up the world with a minimalist approach. There’s no need for lengthy exposition, everything you need to know about the world is told to you visually. Even if you knew nothing about the game’s world going in, you would not have any trouble at all following the story. In a medium that is dominated by exposition and action shots, it was nice to see the work of an artist who could competently get their point across without a single word. If more comics (and especially films) could be like this, I’d be one happy critic. I’ve always found it more interesting when an artist can communicate to their audience using imagery as opposed to bashing their ears or eyes with lengthy diatribes.

Another strength of the art is how it perfectly captures Ellie’s youthfulness and juxtaposes it against bleak, neutral colored backdrops splattered with blood and marred by chaos. My initial reaction to the art style was that it reminded me of some Pixar storyboards I’d seen from Wall-E and Up. The children are large eyed, energetic characters that zip across the panels in bright colors and with wide smiles, and the adults are rough, sharp edged beings that move with purpose and grace. Ellie is obviously the most visually fascinating, and the artist, Faith Erin Hicks, perfectly captures her youthful exuberance. One of the best scenes in the book comes from the second chapter as Ellie and Riley cautiously move through an abandoned shopping mall. One moment, both characters are crouched low, moving slowly, and the next Ellie spots a store mannequin in a ridiculous pose and stops being scared for one moment to stand and do her best impression of the statue for her own amusement. Visually, it is a really powerful moment that shows us that in spite of all the fears lurking around every corner, Ellie is still a fun loving young girl. Things get somewhat darker as the plot moves along, but the art always reflects the scenes perfectly and I applaud Hicks for her fantastic talent and tasteful stylistic choices.

The writing is the perfect compliment to the visuals in each panel. None of the characters ever come off as stereotyped or weak and both Neil Druckmann (the creative director for the game and co-writer of the series) and Hicks (who not only does the art but contributed to the story and characters) masterfully fill their universe with real people who make real decisions and deal with the consequences. Once again, Ellie is the stand out here, but Riley is also a masterfully written character. Her internal struggles and worries are wonderfully characterized in her thoughts and actions. Having become disillusioned with the military, she begins idolizing The Fireflies because they’re different, but soon she suffers a whole new set of doubts as her heroes turn out to be just another morally ambiguous group of killers who don’t have the time or patience for an idealistic youth. The way Druckmann and Hicks portray her struggle makes her as empathetic as Ellie. Even characters that only appear for a few panels in the whole book feel real and react in a way that only makes the world feel more alive.

What do our young ones dream about? How can they go on in the face of such challenges? I feel that this book accurately captures what this new generation must be thinking and feeling about the world around them. Never before have I read a video game tie in of any kind that masterfully dealt with such themes and issues. This is truly something special in the world of comics and I’d recommend this to anyone, whether they’ve played the game or not.

Score: 9.8

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