AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW BY JOHN RIDLEY, GEORGES JEANTY, AND NICK FILARDI
Art
Characterization
Plot
Summary
AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW, by John Ridley and Georges Jeanty, is a fantastic book. It feels like a spiritual successor to WATCHMEN with its use of superheroes to convey its themes. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who loves superhero books with some realism. Now I can't wait for the movie!
94 %
Beautifully Realistic

AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW, the sequel to John Ridley’s acclaimed AMERICAN WAY, picks up ten years after the end of the original miniseries. Ridley tells the story of an America in turmoil, plagued by riots, racism, and radical bombings. Set upon this backdrop of social upheaval are three separate current or former superheroes who all followed very disparate paths after their government-mandated superhero teams disbanded. Ridley tells an incredibly engaging story thanks to its 1970s backdrop. The reader feels like they’re there in the decade while the events occur. I applaud Ridley’s use of superheroes to tell a very real story about such important topics as racism and going to extreme measures to encourage change. In this way, it almost feels like a spiritual successor to WATCHMEN.

Artist Georges Jeanty portrays the time period perfectly with his visuals. The clothes, buildings, and people look like they jumped right out of the decade. Overall, this book tells a truly captivating story with only a few flaws throughout. Plus, none of the flaws are enough to take away from the narrative. Warning, there are potential spoiler below!

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The New American in AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW

Ridley shifts the narrative of AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW among three main characters. While their stories intersect by the end, I’ll go over each of their plotlines individually.

The first hero, and arguably most prominent, is the New American. In the 1960s-based original miniseries, he was placed on a government-created faux-superhero team that fought staged battles in public. When his helmet was knocked off in a battle, it was revealed that the New American was actually African American. This led to a superhero civil war that resulted in the deaths of nearly every combatant. Only three remained. Ten years later, in the 1970s, the New American is the only superhero still active. He changed his costume so that his skin color isn’t obscured by a helmet. The New America fights low-level crime in Baltimore and abhors anyone who inflicts violence on others, even if it’s in the name of good. He also shows emotional scars from when he beat his brother’s abuser and violator to death in the prior miniseries.

AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW
AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW page 38. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

The first person he takes down in the book is Willie, a sadist who kills drug dealers under the pretense that he’s helping the community, but it’s really just so he can hurt others. Unfortunately, the city isn’t aware of his true intentions. They think he was helping clean up the community. So when New American leaves Willie to die in an explosion in order to save a white cop, he’s branded a race-traitor. This leads to riots erupting across Baltimore, with the New American caught in the middle.

The New American’s Portrayal

Ridley does a fantastic job writing the New American. While we’ve seen somewhat similar sentiments in Nick Spencer’s SAM WILSON: CAPTAIN AMERICA series, it’s refreshing to see it written by a person of color. We have an African American superhero struggling to keep his city safe, and the outcry that comes from the very people he’s trying to save. They see him as an authority figure, working for “the man” and selling out his people to save his own skin from those who subjugate them. I really like this take on superheroics. It’s definitely possible that something like that would happen, even nowadays, if the hero was real. It would be a major controversy, especially with our current administration. It’s understandable to be wary of a hero who, essentially, used to be a government stooge.

AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW
AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW page 28. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

At the same time, the New American isn’t the perfect hero. He’s flawed, like any other human. He’s not Superman. Later in the book, he has to track down a scared and superpowered African American teenager who tried to assassinate a gubernatorial candidate. When his brother tries to tell him the boy’s tragic backstory, the New American, at first, says that he doesn’t care. For much of the book, he’s too focused on justice, and not enough on the turmoil that leads to these supposed criminals. Despite being a newer character who’s only showed up in one other miniseries, his backstory and intentions are incredibly fleshed out. I like seeing this from a superhero who wasn’t created an upwards of 50-100 years ago. I’d certainly seek out more stories about the New American after reading AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW.

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Amber Waves in AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW

The second hero used to be Amber Waves, a young, Star-Spangled Kid-esque vigilante whose boyfriend sacrificed his life to save hers at the end of the original miniseries. Now, a young adult, she goes by Amber Eaton and is the head of a radical anti-war and anti-cop group called the People’s Liberation Front, similar to the real-life Weather Underground and Symbionese Liberation Front. She spends her days bombing government buildings to make a statement and getting high on a varied number of drugs in order to numb the physical and mental pain of her prior life. When the police kill her new boyfriend, she teams up with a fellow member, Nikki Lau. Nikki’s father killed himself after being branded a communist for dressing like a supervillain and starting staged fights with superheroes in the ‘60s, even though he was employed by the US government to do it.

AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW
AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW page 74. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Amber starts fomenting a revolution by broadcasting her anti-establishment message over the radio. She gears up for a final battle. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Amber, Nikki turns out to be a spy, and plots with her government supervisor on how to take down Amber.

Amber Waves’ Portrayal

In AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW, Amber is my favorite character. I have a soft spot for stories about radical ‘60s-‘70s underground movements. They’re fascinating. I loved Ridley’s portrayal of the group as less of a family and more of a paranoid mess of accusations and fears over being caught. Amber herself is very kindly portrayed. It would be easy to characterize her as just a drug addict who was acting out because of her lost stardom, much like how former child stars are generally portrayed in the media. Instead, you feel for Amber. I may disapprove of her drug use, but I understand why she does it. Her life really is so tragic that she feels like she needs some release. It especially fits with the time period of the book.

Amber is a sympathetic character. The only time that she does kill someone in the book is by accident when she blows up a room at a police precinct, unaware that people were about to enter it. Her meeting with the New American midway through the book was genuinely touching. It’s two old friends reminiscing and speaking honestly to each other, and it’s my favorite scene in the comic. Ridley did a fantastic job.

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Ole Miss in AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW

The last former hero in the book is Ole Miss, now going by Missy Deveraux. She was a member of the southern splinter group in the original miniseries, who opposed the idea of an African American superhero. At the end of the series, though, she saved the New American’s life. Now, she’s the First Lady of Mississippi. As her husband’s term runs out, she runs for governor so his ultra-conservative grip on the state won’t be loosened. She runs on a platform of “Heritage, not Hate,” where she badmouths all the radicals and protestors who want to make social change, singling out her former teammate, Amber. It’s very reminiscent of a certain Commander in Chief’s platform.

However, Missy learns she has terminal cancer. Her superpower, turning back time, promised to take years off her life whenever she used it. This, combined with an assassination attempt, may lead Missy to rethink some of her ideals.

Ole Miss’ Portrayal

At the start of the book, Ole Miss is a sympathetic character. Her husband is forcing her to run for governor whether she wants to or not. She then learns she has terminal cancer. It isn’t until she makes her first campaign speech when the reader’s sympathies change. She’s the closest thing to a villain in this book. Her political ideology is painfully regressive, but it makes sense in the context of the book. Unfortunately, it also makes sense as an analogue to today’s political landscape. The parallels to our President may be a little too on the nose, but it still works as effective satire.

The more interesting part of her character, to me, is her cancer diagnosis. Unfortunately, we forget about it for a good chunk of the book, up until near the end. I would have liked to see more about how she coped with this. Did she consider going back in time to somehow affect the diagnosis? It’s never revealed. Also, while I wasn’t really a fan of the characters’ narration boxes, since they all seemed to convey information we would have gleaned from subtext, I think my least favorite was Ole Miss’ when she first got the diagnosis. She mocks the doctor’s words while thinking that she has the power to stop it, before finally succumbing to the idea that she’s mortal.

AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW
AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW page 31. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

I think this page would have been way more effective without any text. The idea is still there, she looks grimly determined until she finally makes the realization and breaks down. I feel like the words just bogged down the page, which is sort of how I felt about most of the narration boxes in general.

Georges Jeanty Takes Us Back

I loved Jeanty’s art in AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW. It really fits the time period perfectly. Everyone is wearing ‘70s-appropriate clothing without it looking like some bad, Austin Powers-esque parody. The hairstyles also portray the decade flawlessly.

AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW
AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW page 92. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

On top of the time period aspect, Jeanty also draws some amazing fight scenes, with help from Nick Filardi’s color work. There’s a solid five-page textless fight scene between the New American and the superpowered teen that looks just beautiful. The darkness of the abandoned warehouse and the New American’s costume contrasts with the teen’s bright, combusted body. Throughout the battle, you can feel the motion. The teenager knocks New American out of the warehouse. New American bursts back in with his jetpack in a very dynamic, while also oddly-serene, page. It shows just how talented Jeanty really is.

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Final Thoughts: AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW

This book is fantastic. It’s no wonder that Blumhouse just announced that they’ll be adapting it into a film with Ridley as the writer and director. It already looks cinematic on the pages. It tells a very engaging story about these serious political and social issues. I recommend this book to anyone who loves gritty, realistic superhero stories in the vein of WATCHMEN. You won’t regret it.

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