Few comics have managed to shine a spotlight quite as bright at one of our country’s darkest periods as THE AMERICAN WAY, the acclaimed super hero drama set during the Civil Rights Movement. Ten years after its publication, it remains more relevant than ever…
Anyone who’s read the news over the past year knows that our country is pretty deeply divided right now. That’s a troubling situation regardless of what side you happen to fall on, but reading John Ridley, Georges Jeanty and Karl Story’s THE AMERICAN WAY, I was reminded that this isn’t the first time our nation has seen this. Of course, whether that makes it less or more worrying probably depends a lot on what you choose to focus on. We got through it and became a much better nation as a result… but that progress came with a cost.
Originally published by the WildStorm imprint back in 2006, The American Way is an eight-issue miniseries that is now available in a 10th Anniversary Collection through Vertigo. Written by Ripley, well before he’d go on to win an Academy Award for writing 12 Years a Slave, it’s an alternate history story in which the United States government creates a team of super-powered heroes as a way of maintaining hope and patriotism among its citizens.
It’s also a comic that I’m ashamed to admit I knew very little about prior to last week, when I read it for the first time to prepare for its soon-to-be-released sequel, THE AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW.
To say that the series remains relevant today is an understatement— it’s actually gained relevance since 2006. Set in the 1960s during John F. Kennedy’s presidency, The American Way takes place in a volatile and frightening period of our country’s history. The Cold War was at its peak and the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union was in full force. Everyone was on edge about the bomb, particularly during the thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Americans felt vulnerable and unsafe… some much more so than others. As we’re quickly reminded, this was also the era of segregation in the South and the Civil Rights Movement. Groups like the Freedom Riders and more radical outfits like the Black Panthers had brought the South to a boiling point.
One of the things that The American Way does most effectively is take its time in reminding us of all of this. The book begins largely as sort of a super hero conspiracy tale. We see our nation’s heroes, who operate in two teams known as the Civil Defense Corps (CDC) and the Southern Defense Corps (SDC), stop an alien invasion from the point of view of Wes Chatham, an advertising executive for a car company. Unfortunately, as a result of the invasion, Wes loses his job and soon finds his career completely turned on its head when he’s later invited by his old college pal Robert Kennedy to help guide the CDC.
Why would Bobby Kennedy want an ad man to help run a team of government super heroes? Because the whole thing is a sham and they need Wes’ help to sell it. While most of the super heroes have legitimate powers, every major battle they’ve engaged in has been faked from the ground up. The aliens that attacked New York and cost Wes his job? Fake. The super-villains the CDC and SDC have taken down time and time again? Turns out they work for the government as well. It’s all one big pageant to give Americans hope at a time when hope is severely lacking.
Is this a bad thing? Well, that’s for you to decide. Wes certainly has some problems with lying to his family and the public at large, and it becomes clear that at least some of the heroes are only motivated by money and fame. But at the same time, the CDC is doing what it was designed to do—it’s lifting people’s spirits. Plus, many of the heroes do fight crime and help people on a small scale. While the large battles are fake, when a member of the CDC or SDC stops a mugging or helps a family from a burning house—that’s real. The world Ridley is bringing to life here isn’t so black and white.
Except it’s very much black and white when it comes to how we view ourselves.
At the end of the first chapter, one of the most important heroes of the CDC, a stars-and-stripes wielding patriot who symbolizes American spirit, has a heart attack during a staged battle and dies in front of millions of people. Suddenly, everything people believe about their nation’s heroes is called into question. Uncertainty prevails, and Wes does what he was hired to do. He thinks boldly and outside the box. With the issue of civil rights for black Americans driving a wedge through our country, one of the best things the CDC could do for the health of the nation is to give them a black hero.
They find that hero in the guise of a radical young man named Jason Fisher, who’s given super strength and invulnerability and rebranded as a super hero called the New American. The problem is that America isn’t quite ready for a black super hero yet, so the New American is given a full face mask to hide his identity until the country has seen him in action long enough to trust him. When that mask breaks much sooner than expected and his identity is discovered, things quickly spiral out of control. Several of the Southern Defense Corps members refuse to work alongside “a colored.” One member in particular, a pyrokinetic known as Southern Cross, proves to be a full-on racist, and his rhetoric sways most of his colleagues in the SDC until the President decrees that the CDC and the SDC should no longer work together.
So, much like the wedge that has developed within the United States over Civil Rights, a wedge also develops between our nation’s heroes. And much like a good portion of our country has segregated whites and blacks, our two defense corps find themselves segregated.
I don’t want to spoil too much of the story. Trust me when I say that there’s a lot more in it than what I’ve outlined here. But comics are often at their best when they tell our story filtered through a super hero lens. Think WATCHMEN or DC: THE NEW FRONTIER. They can give us a new way of looking at real world issues. The American Way did that for me. Things get pretty bad for our characters and our country near the end of the story, but ultimately, it’s not our government or any of the people calling the shots who prove to be the solution. It’s heroes from both of the corps, the CDC and SDC, who come together and ultimately save the day.
True, not all the heroes help, and even the ones who do have their differences. I also appreciated that their solution proves to be pretty messy. In real life, victories are never perfect and some people just can’t be saved. Yet, in spite of this, the ending reminded me that while it may take getting to the brink for it to happen, since the Civil War, we Americans have proven capable of overcoming every division that’s grown between us. It starts with something as simple as a few people on both sides agreeing to work together and showing the rest of us that it can be done.
I’m not sure if that’s strictly the American way, but it’s a really good one.
THE AMERICAN WAY by John Ridley, Georges Jeanty and Karl Story is now available in print and as a digital download. Look for issue #1 of THE AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW in stores on July 12, 2017.