‘The Last American’ works best as a brutal but beautiful time capsule
Required Reading is DoomRocket’s love chest, where each week one of our contributors goes crazy over a book they just can’t seem to get enough of. Intrigued to find something new? Seeking validation for your secret passions? Required Reading gets you.
By Courtney Ryan. Sometimes, in between all the shouting and scratching that informs our nation’s political discourse, there comes a long enough silence that helps us remember that most of us are just really afraid we’re going to die. It’s not an irrational concern since all of us will die eventually—and there’s no shortage of things that could kill us. But this concern tends to sit most uncomfortably on our psyches when we become aware that such death could be avoided if only we weren’t so helpless to take control ourselves. A number of external challenges can trigger these worries, such as installing a thin-skinned, impulsive buffoon with a revenge deficiency to the so-called highest office in the land, for example, or living in a nation engaged in a nuclear arms race.
Conceived during the Reagan era, The Last American is a bleak dissertation on the uneasy awareness of the impending but perhaps avoidable death that haunted many Americans during the Cold War. It wasn’t simply the cataclysmic mushroom cloud lurking around every corner that set off so many fears, but also the mysterious doom of what would happen after the dust settled. Would it even be worth it to survive?
Originally a four-part series published in 1990 by Marvel’s Epic Comics imprint, The Last American is a dark odyssey that explores the inescapable futility of a nuclear arms race. Twenty years after World War III and nuclear annihilation, Captain Ulysses S. Pilgrim wakes from suspended animation with an assigned mission to scour what’s left of the globe in order to confirm that he is indeed the last American. He’s not completely alone, per se, as three affable robots tag along on his expedition, but it’s not long before the cold reality of isolation sets in and his sanity begins to falter.
Given its re-release during one of the most politically chaotic eras in American history, it’s reasonable to read The Last American with a 2017 context, but that doesn’t make it a timely portrait of current anxiety. Pilgrim serves as the comic’s lone voice and is himself an empty relic of the Cold War psyche. A Rambo without a motive, he’s crass, emotional, and profoundly sentimental about American patriotism. His world view is tightly informed by his own experiences and his emotions never stray to comprehend anything greater than his direct reality. By framing the story around such an idealized character, writers John Wagner and Alan Grant tether their tale to a very specific mindset of 1980s America that most of us in 2017 recognize as long gone.
While Wagner and Grant bring skills they honed authoring icons of darkness such as Judge Dredd and Batman, the series’ most ingenious work comes from Mick McMahon, whose imaginative, mechanical figures and desolate landscapes collide in tightly packed frames. His blocky imagery recalls early cubist artists and his distorted close-ups of Pilgrim’s face reflect the character’s mental stability as he explores the barren wastelands and raw graveyards he once called America.
Rather than a timeless tome with valuable implications for today, The Last American works best as a brutal but beautiful time capsule. It’s reflective of a terrifying fantasy that tormented many Americans after the Bay of Pigs Invasion and until the fall of the Berlin Wall. And for those looking for a analogous read to today’s events, it dovetails with our present concerns that we too might find ourselves in an altogether different crisis.
Written by John Wagner and Alan Grant.
Art and colors by Mick McMahon.
Lettered by Phil Felix.