1983-1995 (the Copper Age) was the height of my comic book collecting, and a great time to discover the medium. Starting with Larry Hama’s GI JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO for Marvel and gradually segueing into TRANSFORMERS and GROO THE WANDERER, I started frequenting comic shops and began to pick up anything that caught my eye. The mid 80′s saw the release, in rapid succession, of Frank Miller’s WOLVERINE (with Chris Claremont), DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Alan Moore’s V FOR VENDETTA, THE WATCHMEN, and THE KILLING JOKE, and other positively seminal works in the field.
But I don’t wanna talk about them. I’m by no means a scholar or expert. I got out of comics for the most part when I started college, only popping in now and then since to pick up the occasional trade collection, LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, SIN CITY, THE WALKING DEAD, a couple CAPTAIN AMERICAs, THE ULTIMATES, stuff like that. All those books have been written up and dissected by far more qualified people than me, and you can look them up anywhere on the internet.
I’ve decided I’d like to revisit comics I’ve kept in the long white boxes in the back of my closet, titles that for whatever reason may not have been the most popular, and indeed, were likely forgotten for the most part, or mostly went underappreciated. I don’t know that I’m talking about rarities, or anything. I wasn’t really an underground comics guy. I’m talking more about mainstream gold that for whatever reason floated off down the creek. Stuff like Andy Helfer’s SHADOW, MARSHAL LAW, Steve Gerber’s FOOLKILLER miniseries from the 90’s, John Wagner’s BUTTON MAN, and Evan Dorkin’s MILK AND CHEESE.
In 1999, a disgraced, imprisoned Army captain, Ulysses Pilgrim, is approached in his cell by the President of the United States, who informs him that global thermonuclear war is imminent. The United States possesses a prototype single person cryogenic freezer constructed beneath a fallout bunker for the use of the President. Except he doesn’t want to use it. Instead, he offers Pilgrim one last chance to see his wife and son before going into deep freeze and waiting out the holocaust.
“You will lie in wait until the major effects of the disaster are over. If chaos reigns, you will restore order. If an enemy is in control, you will exact retribution. Your rank will be APOCALYPSE COMMANDER – – your powers, ABSOLUTE. You will be the last alive vested with the authority of the United States Government.”
Except that of course, the duck and cover movies are all a lie.
Pilgrim is awakened on schedule twenty years after the nukes fly, and sets out in a Damnation Alley Landmaster style ATV, intermittently broadcasting to anyone left alive to listen. His only companions are a pair of bulky combat/heavy load robots named Abel and Baker, and a smaller ‘bot, Charlie, whose programming seems to include first aid, psychiatry, television, and generally acting as comic relief to keep Pilgrim sane with Hill Street Blues references, a jack of whiskey, and innocuous general encouragement.
Pilgrim and the bots traverse a blasted, allegorical landscape in an episodic manner, encountering little more than ants and at one point, a mutated bald eagle. There is plenty of evidence that humans at least survived the initial strike, but none of it very encouraging. Pilgrim finds a maximum security prison where the warden ordered all the inmates executed. He finds highways choked with cars, each one jammed with old skeletons, and at one point, a pile of skulls with a grisly handwritten placard from a confessed cannibal professing his innocence of murder.
By the time the crew reaches the irradiated remains of New York, which has taken a direct hit, Pilgrim begins hallucinating. The weak point of the series for me comes with issue two’s prolonged delusional sequence in which skeletons dance and sing a macabre Broadway musical with lyrics like
“When you’re flying through the air, think what you’ll save on taxi fare!”
It crosses over dark satire a bit into maudlin silliness at times.
By the end, Pilgrim has given up hope and is suicidal, having already imagined the deaths of his wife and child over and over. But before he pulls the trigger on himself, the radio crackles with a cryptic, thrill inducing message addressed to Pilgrim’s US Deep Reserve Unit. Pilgrim heads out with renewed vigor in search of the source of the signal, somewhere among the eternally burning fires of the Virginia coal seams. In restless sleep, he dreams of an American heaven populated with a boy’s club of former US Presidents nudging each other about the inevitability of Armageddon.
When a crumbling roadway gives way, flipping the ATV, Pilgrim flees out into a pouring toxic thunderstorm, desperate to continue his search, to validate his existence and find proof he’s not alone. At that point Charlie admits the message was a fake he was programmed to deliver should Pilgrim become suicidal.
This would be a crushing Twilight Zone style ending, but in the final issue Pilgrim and company plod on, and come across an automated defense system protecting an underground laboratory, the blast doors cluttered with skeletons of those who died trying to get in. Blasting their way in, they find a nursery, and Charlie deduces the test subjects, pregnant women, fled into the lower levels. Despite the robots’ assurance that no life forms or signals are detected, Pilgrim insists on following their trail, and discovers a handwritten, badly misspelled journal of one of the autistic test subjects, who were undergoing an unspecified procedure when the war happened.
The woman, Melinda, tells a depressing story of herself and her unborn daughter Hope (because she hopes she will be smarter than she is). When one of the scientists opens the blast doors to check on the world post attack, he is dissolved in the chemically blazing air. This induces Melinda’s labor and she has her child. But she doesn’t name her Hope because –
“The doctors said something bad had happened and all hope was gone. They said it was the twilight of the world. So I called her Twilight.”
After eating all the food stores, the doctors resort to cannibalizing a baby and presumably each other. Twilight dies and Melinda leads the rest of the women down into the caverns beneath the facility with her prize zippo lighter. Pilgrim finds a half dozen skeletons out of the twenty test subjects, and finds a subterranean spring with evidence of past human habitation, along with Melinda’s zippo and the word AMERICA scrawled in the dirt, with an arrow pointing to a cave mouth. He posits that some of the women may have survived, that their children may have grown up somewhere out there, but wonders if he’s the one to go on looking for them.
He orders Charlie and the bots to douse their external lights and flicks Melinda’s old zippo lighter, thinking Hope, or Twilight?
When a flame jumps out, it illuminates Pilgrim’s thin, hopeful smile.
And that’s the end.
Artist Mike McMahon’s distorted, almost geometric human figures and the bold stars and stripes iconography on Pilgrim’s uniform remind me of Kevin O’Neal’s work on MARSHAL LAW, and the predominately gray and blue tones are effective if not very eyecatching at a glance. The inking however is superb and really pops on close inspection. Please click on the scans and get a good look at the wonderful detail. It really is a visually beautiful comic.
The John Wagner (who, with Arthur Ransom, did another of my favorite comics, BUTTON MAN) and Alan Grant script is pretty compelling, carrying what’s basically a one man stage show for four admittedly depressing issues and then managing to inject the dour subject matter with an undeniable and literal spark of humanistic hope in the end. This was 1990 and the Cold War that had inspired 99 Red Balloons, WAR GAMES, and MAD MAX 2 and a culture of perennial dread was ending. THE LAST AMERICAN perhaps came a little too late to seize the attention of the nuke fearing public, but only just. Comic books were just starting to become accepted in the greater whole of pop culture and were still for the main part sporting spandex so it’s possible the audience just wasn’t there for a serious comic about the futility of nuclear war. However, it’s a harrowing depiction of the true post-apocalypse, in the tradition of THE DAY AFTER and ON THE BEACH, and definitely deserves a second look if even as a sobering time capsule of the insanity of late eighties Soviet-American nuclear paranoia and Rocky IV flag waving.
Apparently the collaborative team of Wagner and Grant suffered a breakup during the writing of THE LAST AMERICAN, and Wagner wrote issues 1 and 2, while Grant wrote 3 and 4. Comic.X put out a trade paperback edition collecting the whole series. I have the original issues so I can’t speak for the quality, but it seems like a good way to track this down if you’re having trouble. It’s worth a look.