A Colder War
♦Tripwire’s Contributing Writer Tim Hayes took a look at Rebellion’s collection of The Last American…
The Last American
Writers: Alan Grant & John Wagner
Artist: Mick McMahon
Comics capture the moment of their own creation all the time, but few of them freeze as much anger into the panels as The Last American does while distilling the final period of Cold War anxiety into its anti-nuclear protest. Published in 1990 as a four-issue series by Marvel’s Epic Comics imprint, it ranks high among the last wave of pop-cultural howls against US and Soviet mutually assured destruction, and like the rest of that cycle can’t know that the era giving it nightmares is already coming to a close. Other anxieties have since taken the place of the ones involving Russian nuclear fire, but that’s the story’s point too. There will always be wars, and they will always provoke anguish like this.
The series is written by John Wagner and Alan Grant, and catches another significant cultural event: the exact moment of rupture for their prolific partnership. According to Grant, they wrote two issues each, but any change in style is imperceptible against the consistent collapsing morale of its main character, Captain Ulysses S Pilgrim of the US Army. Thawed from cryogenic freeze 20 years after a nuclear war and with only three droids for company, Pilgrim sets out across the scorched United States in search of other survivors and any remnants of his country. What he finds out there makes grim reading, as intended.
Mick McMahon had been great before 1990 and great since, but his art in The Last American is so striking and idiosyncratic that it animates this particular story with a profound disquiet. The angular figures and splayed joints and underground-comix caricature anticipate the territory Frank Miller arrived at a decade later, and the faces look like they’ve been sanded out of pine and varnished. The art follows Pilgrim’s collapsing psyche into manic delusions, like a dream of dead Presidents bickering in heaven, or the vision of death as a skeletal song and dance man on Broadway directed more at the reader than the characters, but the blocky power of McMahon’s cartooning suits them both equally. It also suits the final chapter, when Pilgrim enters a compound where scientists once corralled autistic pregnant women. Three and a half issues of story lead to a panel of Pilgrim opening a box and looking inside, finding for both himself and the reader the oldest definition of tragedy there is: pity and terror.
Mentioning Miller is a reminder that he and Dave Gibbons made Give Me Liberty at exactly the same time, another vivid complaint about political self-interest and a threat of apocalypse. But Give Me Liberty was a mutation of established war comics, and the hope that an individual’s true character would survive the worst degradations. The Last American is much less certain, and knows that external events can snap an individual like a twig. This is also a very British anguish, rooted in the trans-Atlantic trepidation of the era and the ripples from the high-point of CND in the previous decade – McMahon’s introduction mentions the bleak 1984 BBC drama Threads, and the line from there to The Last American is straight and true. The comic ends on the most tentative, flickering note of hope imaginable; the fact that it finds one at all is its most meaningful statement.