When DC relaunched the Vertigo imprint they let it be known it would stay true to the original. Stories would be more mature and take on real world issues that are not seen as much in mainstream comics. American Carnage may have gone beyond those expectations. The comic has quickly shown that it is willing to take its readers places that they may not want to go.
American Carnage is an undercover crime story. Former FBI agent Richard Wright is contacted by an old colleague named Shelia Curry. Curry’s former partner was murdered in gruesome fashion and she believes a white supremacist group is responsible. The FBI considers the matter closed, so Curry reaches out to Wright to infiltrate the group and find out what happened.
American Carnage will absorb you into its terrifying world. Written by Bryan Hill, the engaging story keeps readers on edge from beginning to end. The mystery alone is enough to draw interest. The murder appears to be a racially motivated act that is unfortunately reminiscent of modern society.
Where Hill’s writing shines is in the characters and the setting. American Carnage almost plays out like a modern noir. Richard stands in as the hard boiled detective who is down on his luck, while Jennifer Morgan looks, acts, and speaks like a femme fatale. There are plenty of seedy characters and even the good guys are not all that good.
Instead of being silly or coming off as caricatures, the characterizations work. In particular, Jennifer stands out. There is a constant sense of danger and cynicism around her. She knows what she wants, is not afraid to get it, and clearly will not let anyone stand in her way. Any interactions she has are incredibly interesting and give insight into her character. Jennifer is able to say the right things at the right moments without ever compromising herself. She may be the most intriguing character in American Carnage.
The same cannot be said for Richard, unfortunately. Richard has come off as a police story trope. The disgraced former FBI agent is a brooding, drug abusing, walking cliche. He does not lose fights, makes witty comebacks, and even knows sign language. That being said, American Carnage is only two issues old. As of right now, Richard is doing well in his role, but time will tell how this works in the grand scheme of the story.
The settings may seem innocuous (a mansion, a school) but American Carnage never lets the reader feel safe. The opening pages are a frightening look at modern society, and the book never lets this feeling go. The tone is filled with an incredible tension that will make readers uncomfortable. Reading American Carnage is like navigating a minefield.
What makes American Carnage so engrossing is how well it’s able to accurately capture the real world. Obviously, racism is an issue, but it’s also in the way the characters speak and handle themselves. Richard may not be the most original character, but he sounds like any other person you may meet on the street. Jennifer is cold and calculating, but what she also speaks with a dispassionate logic. American Carnage does not work because it paints a picture of America; it works because it is America.
American Carnage is one of the most uncomfortable comics out there. Don’t get me wrong, though: this is definitely the comic’s greatest strength. It never insults the reader’s intelligence or sugarcoats any of its themes. This is a powerful book that will make you think even though you may not like what you find.