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‘The American Way: Those Above and Those Below’ review: A meditation on U.S. and them

A superhero-sized exploration of race, politics, morality, personal duty, and building a better future.

John Ridley
Price: $11.06
Was: $16.99

You don’t have to be a screaming pundit to realize we’re living in troubled times (read: a political hellscape one white pony shy of true Armageddon). Yet amid the fear and uncertainty, one bright spot — no matter how minor its glimmer — shines on: great art emerges from chaos, acting as both a reflection and healing salve.

One such piece of literature is The American Way: Those Above and Those Below. Across 146 pages, writer John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) revisits his 2006 limited series (soon to be a movie, too), shifting the main characters from the idyllic 1960s to the uber turbulent 1970s. It’s at once a profound reflection of the here and now and an untethered exploration of frayed friendships, damaged idealism, the agony and ecstasy of change, and why we fight for what comes next.

A decade finds the bulk of Ridley’s Civil Defense Corps/Southern Defense Corps in very different places. The New American (Jason Fisher) remains an active hero for the government. Amber Waves (Amber Patton) is a freedom fighter and a terrorist. Ole Miss (Missy Devereaux) is running for governor of Mississippi. The rest of the team is dead or re-employed. It’s their interactions (physical and ideological) that Ridley uses to cultivate a powerful narrative.

Even 40-plus years apart, the 1972 depicted in this book feels painfully familiar to 2018. A population divided, struggling over issues like race and American heritage. One group clinging desperately to values of the past while the other kicks and screams for change. Inevitably, these issues cross all sorts of racial and gender lines, and the true drama rests in how the main characters operate in a world that’s brimming with hate and promise, power and nihilism.

Fisher is most clearly the protagonist of the story, and a perfect one at that. He’s very much in the thick of the story’s existential back-and-forth, stuck between trying to be good and being labeled as an Uncle Tom by the very neighborhoods he’s trying to clean up. A man of two worlds who recognizes he doesn’t truly fit in either. An endless wealth of physical power stunted by that unshakable sense of uncertainty. Fisher is the everyman, our ever-battlin’ hearts and minds as we try to make a difference in a world that doesn’t always care. He’s by no means perfect, and the book takes time to show his reluctance and failings. But his power comes not via jetpacks, but in how he carries a spirit of perseverance and (albeit rusty) optimism.

If Fisher is the back-and-forth we all endure, then Amber Patton is who we are amid that journey. The team’s Green Lantern equivalent, Patton now uses her powers to bomb government facilities, a blonde All-American version of Che Guevara. Yet Patton’s past (namely the death of her lover Muscle Shoals) haunts her deeply, and she turns to drugs to numb the pain. It’s this unique dynamic that feels very human. A struggle to engage with the world amid pain, and the natural instinct to pull back. People want to believe they’d fight for a cause, but Amber shows that it’s not always something that makes you better. By having the most idyllic character also be the most destructive, Ridley shows us how progress is simply a barrage of 10,000 shades of grey.

On the flipside, it’s Ole Miss, the team’s time-manipulating southern belle, that shows the complex nature of certainty. As she attempts to transition from first lady to governor, Ole Miss adopts a slogan of heritage over hate, readily embracing the regressive politics of the day. Only when she’s faced with her own mortality and the effects of her campaign does Ole Miss make a change, coming clean about her past and her true beliefs, embarking on a doomed campaign of hope. Ole Miss is a hero, and to run on something as racism and xenophobia would be to deny the sliver of good from her SDC days.

Even if she knows she’s bound to lose, she accepts who she truly is, and that’s a victory if only because it’s her truth. Choosing a side is difficult given the complexity of the issues, but at the heart of every debate comes a simple question of right and wrong and how you’ll face yourself given a choice. That realization plays out beautifully for Ole Miss, and its arrival feels like a central victory of the whole book.

Yet this is more than a book that feels painfully relevant. Ridley spends as much time providing hope for the future as he does dredging through our shared past of hate and bigotry. It’s not until the characters come together (either mostly tangentially but also directly) that they begin to affect any real changes. Namely, in the form of Nikki Lau, who is gifted Amber Waves’ powers (in a most awesome sequence), and Samuel, a Human Torch-ian mutate saved from a lynch mob by Fisher and Ole Miss. On the one hand, that’s a fairly powerful meditation on the endless hope we have for tomorrow and the optimistic glow of youth.

There’s something more here, a powerful exploration of the magic that happens when people communicate even the simplest ideas and notions. An idea at the very heart of most team-centric books: collaboration is the most powerful tool we have, and it happens when we bash our worldviews together. Fisher, Ole Miss, and Amber discover some of that lost hope by questioning their own values and understanding the workings of the other. In this way, we understand the value of collaboration and conflict in promoting unity. That the world’s full of moments where we crash our lives and morals politics together, and the end result can be rather beautiful. The book builds slowly to these big moments, and the tension plays wonderfully through art and dialogue brimming with anxious energy.

Ultimately, Those Above and Those Below exists outside time and individual cultures. A book that shows us who we are, how we landed at this stage, the value that dynamic holds, and what we’ll do for a brighter future. In this instance, it’s recognizing the heroic qualities in every one. That the true American Way is less about flags and streamers and more so this great, enlightened struggle we all share.

The American Way: Those Above and Those Below
Is it good?
A superhero-sized exploration of race, politics, morality, personal duty, and building a better future.
A profound meditation on American race relations.
A hopeful narrative without being needlessly saccharine.
A great balance between politics and superhero fun.
The politics can be overwhelming to more casual fans.

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