Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
American Terrorist was published back in 2011 (this collection is the “black and white edition,” so I assume it was once in color; there’s only one place in the comic where it makes a small difference) by A Wave Blue World, and it costs $16.95 (it’s 200 pages, in case you’re interested). It is written Tyler Chin-Tanner and Wendy Chin-Tanner, drawn by Andy MacDonald, and lettered by Fabio Redivo.
American Terrorist isn’t a metaphor; this is a story about four people who are accused of terrorism by the United States government and are forced to go on the run. That they’re not actually terrorists doesn’t really matter, and once they are on the lam, they actually engage in some acts that could be considered “terrorism” (although they don’t hurt any people, just property). The comic is a manifesto about the overwhelming power the government has and uses, the way people have had their senses dulled to the point where the rich can get away with anything they like, and even how the powers-that-be turn us against each other when we ought to be turning on them. It’s a fairly standard liberal screed in that regard, but the Chin-Tanners do some very good things that make it less of a rant and more of a story. As with a lot of stories like this (and, to be fair, ones that aren’t like this at all), the plot slowly begins to overwhelm all, so by the end, the book isn’t quite as strong as the beginning, because the Chin-Tanners had to, you know, end the book. It’s too bad, but it shouldn’t negate all the good stuff that comes before it.
When you’re writing a story in which you want to espouse an agenda, you need to figure out to make the actual story interesting so it doesn’t just become a rant, and the Chin-Tanners do a nice job with that. In the first chapter (the book has four chapters), they introduce the four principal characters and show how a series of unfortunate events turn them into “terrorists.” This is by far the best part of the book, because they do a nice job establishing each character and how their activities, which are fairly benign (except for one character, who ends up being perhaps the most passive of the four), can attract the attention of the authorities and then used against them. The nominal star of the book, Owen Graham, is a journalist who writes scathing attacks on the powers-that-be, but he’s essentially harmless because no one reads his work. His boyhood friend, Michael, is a lawyer who’s representing a family whose brother was arrested as a terrorist and who is being held somewhere, but no one knows where. Michael is black and used to call himself Malik (whether that’s his birth name or if he’s gone back to his birth name is never revealed, but it doesn’t really matter), so of course he’ll draw the suspicions of the government, especially given his line of work. Hannah Bloom is a school teacher with bipolar disorder, but she doesn’t want to be on her old medication and the new medication isn’t covered by her insurance. So she has a grudge against her insurance company, which is a fairly important plot point. Shannon Lin is a scientist working for the EPA who doesn’t agree with their new standards of “not rocking the boat,” and she contacts Owen about the suppression of a report she wrote on water quality. She’s the person who poses the biggest threat to the power structure, but it’s not her fault that everyone has to go on the run. Hannah goes to her insurance company to complain about her coverage, and they overreact to something she says and everyone freaks out because they think she has a bomb. Owen happens to show up, things escalate, and the four people have to make a run for it because everyone thinks Hannah is a crazy bomber and Owen is a murderer. A bad day all around!
The Chin-Tanners take their time setting this all up, so the reader can see how a series of relatively unconnected events can paint a false picture that the government can nevertheless sell to the public. When they go on the lam, the group decides to start committing “terrorist” acts and putting them on the Internet as a way to show that they’re just exposing what goes on while everyone is distracted. They hope that they can prove that they’ve been accused of something that has been manufactured in the same way that the government has manufactured other results that bear no relation to reality. The Chin-Tanners early on make a reference to the pen being mightier than the sword, as it seems like they must in a story about a journalist, but the interesting thing is how they deftly show this is true in two different ways. They also show that the government keeps coming up with ways to track the quartet, and how chillingly the director of the National Counterterrorism Center blithely talks about doing things that are ridiculously illegal to keep track of American citizens. In a very good move, the Chin-Tanners don’t make overt the irony of the government basically creating these terrorists – as I noted above, Owen is pretty much harmless before the government begins paying attention to him, and then his message becomes much more widespread. The two agents who are in charge of the case, Keller and Paz, are a good team – Keller was in Special Forces, so he’s naturally very concerned about this kind of thing, while Paz is still a company woman but also wants to government to be more careful about how the prosecute the case. As with all fiction of this kind (Enemy of the State – the movie – and the current comic Think Tank leap to my mind), it’s hard to figure out what’s real and what’s in the mind of the writers (in Think Tank, Matt Hawkins provides links to some of the stuff he writes about, which is helpful), but the Chin-Tanners present it very well, so it’s believable even if it’s not actually factual. As the book becomes more about the foursome and the manhunt, it loses a bit of the disturbing nature of the early pages, because it turns into more of an action movie. It’s not a bad action movie, but about the time one of the quartet is killed by a sniper’s errant bullet, it morphs into a slightly less interesting high-octane adventure. Obviously, the Chin-Tanners had to end it, so I understand why it happens, but it’s a bit too bad. From that point on, the reader knows that it won’t end well, and we’re just waiting for the hammer to fall. How it falls is a bit problematic, as it becomes a bit too vague to really figure out what actually happens. I know I’m being vague, but I don’t want to give too much away. It’s a bit of a frustrating ending, though.
For the most part, though, the book works quite well. Each character is an interesting creation, and the way they react to situations make sense given what we know about them. This is why the book works for as long as it does – the Chin-Tanners spend a good amount of time showing that Hannah is a bit impulsive when she’s off her medication, for instance, so some of the things she does later don’t seem too odd. There’s also a nice subtext in the book – the director of the NCTC makes the point that people want to feel safe, and they’re willing to give up a lot to feel that way, but the writers do a nice job showing that this safety comes at a price – not freedom, as the standard line goes, but peace of mind. The atmosphere created by the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the governmental policies after that have, according to the comic, made us scared of our own shadows, and that paranoia turns innocuous comments into threats. The government, of course, uses underhanded tricks to get people to give up the four, but we get some nice scenes where those tactics just don’t work. The Chin-Tanners also show how dialogue has been overwhelmed by vitriol, especially on the Internet, where we are trained to disbelieve (or believe utterly) everything we see. The messages aren’t terribly subtle, but they’re still nicely done. Despite the action movie vibe of the second half of the book, the writers have some interesting stuff on their minds.
I’m not sure why Andy MacDonald isn’t a bigger star; his artwork seems tailor-made for a superhero comic – it’s distinctive but not abstract, and he has a good grasp of action (this is, of course, assuming that he hasn’t been approached about it; perhaps it’s just not where his interests lie). His work on American Terrorist is excellent, as he creates a richly detailed world that helps set the story in a very realistic setting, making it all the more plausible when he deviates from that (which happens at one point; I suppose a certain community the fugitives reach could easily and may actually exist, but it feels more “science fiction” than everything else in the book). The scene of Hannah’s encounter at the insurance company is handled really well, showing graphically the way things become fragmented both in her mind and in the others’ reactions to her, and MacDonald does a very good job showing how the posts on Owen’s website begin to change opinions. Obviously, the scenes inside the government buildings are going to be darker, but MacDonald does a nice job making them feel more oppressive, too, in contrast to the new “freedom” Owen, Hannah, Michael, and Shannon are experiencing once they go off the grid. During a riot in New York, MacDonald gives us a good sense of the calamity unfolding – while an earlier action scene is choreographed a bit more “classically,” the riot is a bit more chaotic, as befits the situation. MacDonald also does a nice job with the little things, like the clothes and shoes the characters wear, which reflects both their personalities and the jobs they have. He’s quite good at changing the characters subtly as they move through the story, too. This is best shown with Hannah, who begins the book as a bit of a nervous, twitchy, slightly obsessed individual. While she doesn’t lose those qualities, the script implies that getting her out of New York and living off the grid is a good thing (as it is for all the cast members), and MacDonald shows this by drawing her less haunted and terrified as the book moves on, even as her actual life becomes more dangerous. She becomes a more confident, radiant person, and by the final scenes, she’s positively glowing. The Chin-Tanners wisely don’t push this too much, allowing the way MacDonald draws her to show it to us. All the characters go through changes in one way or another (it seems like the book takes place over about a year), but Hannah’s is the most fascinating.
While American Terrorist stumbles a bit at the end, for the most part it’s a good psychological thriller about what can happen when a populace starts allowing the government to accrue extra-legal power to itself. The Chin-Tanners do a nice job showing how paranoid a society can become when the threat of terror becomes more of a political tool than any actual terror attack may be. While the book occasionally veers a bit too far into the realm of incredibility (which is another reason why the ending doesn’t quite work), it still presents the reader with a conundrum that we haven’t solved yet and which is more important now than it was back in the days when the Postmaster General read everyone’s mail: How do we control a government but, at the same time, allow it to govern us? The book doesn’t offer any answers, but it does show us that it’s something we should probably address. That it’s also a pretty exciting comic doesn’t hurt, either.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Comics Should Be Good accepts review copies. Anything sent to us will (for better or for worse) end up reviewed on the blog. See where to send the review copies.