Have you ever wondered what it was like to be only human in a world with superheroes and villains? Wes Chatham found out. He was in Atlanta, top marketing executive on the day they rolled out the new model that was going to save the company. The car was a winner through and through with style and performance and the looks that would make Mr. and Mrs. America step up and embrace the tailfins.
This was going to be his day.
And then the aliens struck. Tentacle-eyed aliens firing energy beams shattered the convention hall. People were screaming and running for their lives. But when all hope was lost the Civilian Defense Corps arrived to save the day. America's superheroes had come to do battle. Rallied by Old Glory himself they drove off the alien invaders and saved the day. Once again America's heroes have saved the day.
Or did they?
That is the opening premise of the The American Way, a graphic novel written by John Ridley and drawn by George Jeanty. Ridley is best known for his screen work (writer on Three Kings, writer and creator of Undercover Brother). Ridley's a long time comic book fan who has written in the genre, including a story line for The Authority). The viewpoint character changes, but the story's heart is Chatham. The attack soils the name of his new car and he's fired, but one day Bobby Kennedy shows up and offers him a job as the publicity director for the CDC.
You’d think he’d be excited at the opportunity to rub elbows with all those famous heroes. But then he discovers it’s a lie. Sure the heroes save lives and catch villains. But the big fights, including the alien invasion that ruined his automotive career are all publicity stunts designed to keep the Reds running scared and the American people feeling secure. The federal government has been running this scam for over a decade now, genegineering new heroes as needed. The supervillains are all actors playing a part.
Except for Hellbent. Hellbent is a nihilistic villain who anticipated Heath Ledger's Joker in the film The Dark Knight. Helbent just likes to watch people die. He dreams of the endtimes, and has attracted a dangerous following.
Wes is appalled, but sees that exposing the scam would lead to a horrendous loss in public morale. And he sees a big problem over the horizon. It’s 1961. The Civil Rights movement is gaining steam. The Freedom Riders are coming as negroes step up to assert their rights. Crosses are burning throughout Dixie and the bodies of activists are being pulled from lakes. Wes sees a possibility. A black man can be made into a hero. In secret he could establish himself until the public is ready for the revelation that coloreds too can be heroes. He picks an army lieutenant named Jason Fisher to be The New American, who flies by jet pack, is super strong and eventually will be revealed as a black man, once he has shown his mettle in combat.
That’s the way it’s supposed to work. Naturally, everything goes wrong, but in a very interesting way. The characters are well thought out. The represent stereotypes but Ridley manages to give them depth with very few words and panels. There is growth, death and tragedy.
This is one fine graphic novel, comparable to the Astro City tales or V for Vendetta, with whom it shares much. Hellbent is a worthy villain, but even his psychopathic brutality is nothing but an overture to the real villain, a man operating for purposes all his own. A man clearly determined to break up the CDC.
The members of the Civilian Defense Corps:
Mighty Delta is the strongest of them all. He is, essentially, Superman.
Pharos is a close second, and growing more powerful every day. He seems incorruptible and almost above human emotion. He lives for his role as hero.
Freya as Wes' partner Chet puts it “might actually be some kind of superior being.” She claims to be a Goddess, can fly, is super strong a and her battleaxe was blessed by Odin himself.
Old Glory represents the American Way itself. Dressed like a minuteman and wielding the flag and a pistol, he is the glue that holds the team together and symbolizes its spirit.
X-15 is the fastest man alive, by far.
The Captain is quite a character. He looks and acts like Mark Twain, he might even be Sam Clemmons himself. At least he thinks he is. He is a storyteller whose stories seem to come true. He can see into the future.
The Secret Agent is dressed like one, complete with the dark glasses. He is a genetically enhanced super-shooter, who never, ever misses.
The East Coast Intellectual is his closest friend, and the smartest man in America. Darned handy in a fight too, rushing into battle at the wheel of his stylish Pontiac Tempest with his pipe held at a jaunty angle.
Amber Waves is a sweet Midwestern girl, just 21 who wields force shields, energy beams and can fly.
Muscle Shoals looks and acts a lot like Al Capp's Lil’ Abner. He looks strong and he’s stronger, plus he has the ability to manipulate water.
Southern Cross is the their equivalent to the Human Torch.
Mr. Lucky is just plain lucky. Dressed lik a riverboat gambler, he wields charged energy cards like X-man Gambit.
Ole Miss controls the rivers of time itself. Dressed like Scarlett O'Hara she can age things instantly and can even turn back time itself, at a cost to herself.
The Wanderer is an alien from the 8th Dimension, come to defend America with his alien abilities and technology.
Jason Fisher is The New American, superstrong, invulnerable and his jet pack allows him to fly. He is an ex-Army officer chosen by the team to become the first negro superhero.