An especially timely story, American Carnage is a nine-issue miniseries about alt-right politics. Businessman/philanthropist Wynn Morgan is at the center of it. His books (with titles like The Essence of America) and public speaking engagements have made him a hero to white supremacists. While he has managed to keep his hands clean, followers have engaged in violent acts, including lynching an FBI agent who was investigating them. That agent’s partner is ordered to stop the investigation, but she can’t let it go.
So she goes to a former FBI agent she mentored named Richard Wright. He left the Bureau in disgrace, and has been trying unsuccessfully to make a living as a private investigator. She offers him a chance at redemption, asking him to infiltrate the organization to discover who was responsible for the murder (unofficially, of course). They are both African American, but Wright is a light-skinned biracial man, uniquely qualified for the assignment.
He is successful in blending in, befriending Morgan and becoming his daughter Jennifer’s confidant and lover. Maybe too successful: killing someone and being potentially framed for another murder, to start. That’s before he and a Morgan loyalist in an Obama mask massacre a group of white supremacists who kidnapped one of Jennifer’s friends. Jennifer hates her father, but she shares his racist views. Those views become much more dangerous when Morgan starts a Senatorial run as an independent–with an eye on the Presidency. Wright feels he has to do something, and makes an unexpected choice.
A powerful story, full of contemporary references that still resonate. Apart from that it’s also an effective thriller, and one of the best of the latter Vertigo miniseries. Artist Leandro Fernández is especially impressive. Great storytelling and character design, as earlier on the Vertigo miniseries The Names with writer Peter Milligan and an arc in Brian Woods’ Northlanders.
The creative team is a big draw on this series. Writer Zoë Quinn is mainly known as a video game developer. She made the news after a blog post by her ex-boyfriend sparked the Gamergate controversy (which resulted in widespread recognition of sexism in the gaming world), and during which Quinn was subjected to extensive harassment. Artistic team Robbi Rodriguez and Rico Renzi worked together previously on the Vertigo series FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics.
The story revolves around Artificial Intelligence. It’s a bad sign when a graphic novel begins with an extensive text narrative explaining the setting, but that is what happens here. It is a welcoming message to users in the Analog World from Psyche, your personal digital assistant and guide to the Azoth Network. It’s all very Matrix like. The network is run by a huge corporation called Hermeticorp–a nearly all-powerful company which has nonetheless been unable to find a cure for Tucker Brady Syndrome, a disease that causes brain damage and coma.
Cassandra Price is on Azoth tech support, and her father is a Tucker Brady victim, so she has an intimate connection with the whole system. It becomes even more intimate when she suddenly finds herself pulled into the digital realm of Azoth in the form of a digital avatar, where she must do battle with digital demons to survive. Fortunately she is joined by three other young women also there in a transformed state, and possessing what appear to be magical powers. Apparently there is a secret digital world beneath our own, combining magic and metadata–and she is now part of a continuing battle for dominance.
The story gets stranger and twistier from here. It’s hard to follow, especially when the Azoth battles are visually almost psychedelic. By the end I was just going with the flow, although I have to say the trope of using text messages to tell the story got really old after awhile. In the end Cassandra sacrifices the chance to save her father in exchange for unifying the analog and digital worlds. So now there will be magic in the real world, and maybe daemons too, but the comatose people will wake up. And Cassandra goes on fighting with her friends, so it is kind of an open-ended conclusion.
It’s hard not to see this story as autobiographical in some sense. Quinn is certainly drawing on her video game development experience. Gamergate is not referenced directly, but surely the preponderance of empowered female characters says something. It’s a shame that her story telling skills are not quite up to the task. Rodriguez and Renzi make the best of it with kinetic, expressive art and a bold, sometimes lurid color scheme.