Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google+ Share on Reddit Share on Pinterest Share on Linkedin Share on Tumblr Ten pages into THE AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW, and my first thought is, Vietnam-Era America is an odd place and time to talk about modern-day race relations. But when you think about it, maybe not. After all, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that America is an equal opportunity employer where all men are created equal. So, it goes to reason that the problems plaguing the American Dream can be traced back to any time in American history. And when it comes to America’s unique brand of racism and discrimination, there’s no better person to take us down memory lane than creator John Ridley, the writer behind the critically-acclaimed 12 YEARS A SLAVE and AMERICAN CRIME. THE AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW is a daring move for DC Entertainment, boldly going where most other comics are too afraid to go, loudly proclaiming its truth when others tread too softly. Heads up – major spoilers ahead and graphical depictions of sensitive subjects such as violence, self-harm, and substance abuse. A Quick History Lesson The highly-anticipated sequel to the 2006 limited series THE AMERICAN WAY, THE AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW (2018) follows the same unlovable group of faux-superheroes as they try to navigate life after the curtains have closed and the adoring public is no longer quite so adoring. I recommend you read the original eight-part series before picking up the six-part follow up; there’s a lot of history to unravel otherwise. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment. In the meantime, let’s go on a quick run to jog your memory. In THE AMERICAN WAY, readers are introduced to an alternate 1960s America in which the Civil Defense Corps (CDC), a government-sponsored team of “superheroes,” are pitted against government-backed “villains” to the naïve American public, all in the name of patriotism. When Old Glory, a beloved member of the CDC, dies of a sudden heart attack, the New American, aka Jason Fisher, is introduced as his replacement. Racial tensions bubble to the surface once the members of the CDC discover that Jason is African-American, and a fraction of the team splits to form the Southern Defense Corps (SDC). Over the course of THE AMERICAN WAY, the CDC and the SDC must find a way to stop a psychopathic supervillain named Hellbent all while locked in an ideological civil war over the color of America’s past, present, and future. The Counterculture Takes Center Stage Fast-forward to 1972 and a network of homegrown terrorists and a race war that’s gripping the nation from sea to shining sea has the United States in chaos. The counterculture of the 1960s has direct U.S. military involvement in Vietnam on its last legs and has firmly planted an anti-establishment mindset in the hearts of America’s counterculture. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment. This is where THE AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW picks up in issue #1. Jason is operating as a lone agent in Baltimore, taking down two-bit criminals and earning himself a bad reputation in the Black community as the white-man’s puppet. Meanwhile, Missy Deveraux, formerly Ole Miss of the SDC, is running for Governor of Mississippi in a last-ditch effort to cement her legacy after discovering she has terminal pancreatic cancer. Finally, in Oakland, Amber Eaton, formerly Amber Waves of the CDC, has made a name for herself as the leader of the People’s Liberation Front, a radicalized underground network that seeks to liberate the oppressed by dismantling the failed establishment (whatever that means…). Heritage, Not Hate (or So They Say) Although Jason, Missy, and Amber’s stories seem disconnected at first, the common theme connecting their journeys becomes apparent quite quickly, and that is reconciling their past with their present. Color-Blind Justice is Not Justice for All “I trust a black man with a gun more than I trust a white one.” Jason can’t seem to find his footing either as a hero or as a Black man. His quest to administer justice is colored by his status as a Black superhero, and his uneasy friendship with Missy is at direct odds with the Black community. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment. When he apprehends a group of Black men with ties to Willie Betts, a radicalized criminal with an anti-white, anti-cop agenda, Baltimore’s Black community labels him a sellout and a race traitor. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment. Jason’s story is the strongest of the three in no small part because of how modern its conversation about race is. In a bedside chat with his brother, Jason tries to defend himself. He reiterates that even though Willie is Black, he’s still a murderer. He indirectly implies that right and wrong doesn’t change just because of the color of the perpetrator’s skin. Justice is justice is what Jason is essentially saying. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment. I Don’t See Color, I See People But what Jason learns is that color-blind justice is not justice for all. The Justice System is not the judge, jury, and executioner – those roles belong to the people, people not impartial to prejudice. Justice is not justice, not in a system designed by a society built on the backs of the enslaved and the discriminated. This is exemplified when a white army man points his gun and hurls the n-word at both Willlie and Jason, lumping the criminal and the hero into one indistinguishable bin – dangerous Black men. Exemplified with Missy’s successful “Heritage, Not Hate” campaign and an audience full of people eager to lift their signs proclaiming, “Southern Pride”. By the language Missy’s husband uses to refer to Samuel Keener, a young Black man on the run, dehumanizing words like “colored” and “animal” and “thing.” The story of Samuel Keener and his brother, a brother wrongly accused of a crime against a white woman he did not commit, a brother beaten and burned alive by two white men who walk free. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment. Make America Great Again “I hid from the present in nostalgia for a past that never existed.” Missy is having an identity crisis. Having shed her Ole Miss persona at the end of THE AMERICAN WAY, Missy is ready to move forward with her life. Her time with the SDC left a bad taste in her mouth – parading for a racist ideology she was never fully committed to. But the past has a habit of catching up to Missy when her husband urges her to run for Governor of Mississippi. He wants to capitalize on the wave of southern pride sweeping the state. Missy wants nothing to do with it until news she has terminal cancer makes its way to her desk. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment. Missy’s “Heritage, Not Hate” campaign is a direct analog to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign. The ideology is unmistakable and the rhetoric too familiar. The bias, leftist media and corrupt liberals are to blame for America’s moral bankruptcy. Violent, brainwashed youths are terrorizing decent Americans. Minorities are holding white culture and white heritage hostage. Reverse racism is real. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment. Just like now, ignorant and racist ideas are made palatable and pliant by sprinkling in an ounce of truth here and then. Insidious ideology is made pretty with inspiring narratives. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment. The Power of Hate Her newfound purpose instills in her a faux sense of importance after years of living as a fraud. Although her campaign messaging firmly positions in the conservative camp, Missy never seems that convinced of the message. Rather, her desire seems to stem from the guilt of failing her country once before. It’s the chance to save her country after years of pretending to. Desperate to restore the country’s former glory, she is pivoting from one seat of power to another. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment. It’s clear, however, that her personal views don’t exactly align with those of her constituents. While she doesn’t voice this concern, there’s an undercurrent of unease throughout her story as if she is conflicted about exploiting hate to achieve her goals. The parallels to the 2016 election and our own cultural climate is chilling. The Lawless Unknown “Society has elevated the lawless. The fringes romanticize those who try to impose their will with violence.” Amber’s saga feels the most disconnected. It is, in part, a cautionary tale against extremism, and in other part, a farewell letter to the American Dream. After the death of her lover Muscle Shoals by corrupt CDC officials, Amber has lost faith in the U.S. government and spends her days lost in a drug-induced daydream. In Amber’s eyes, America not only failed her, it betrayed her. It sold her the American Dream only to deliver nothing more than illusions and lies. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment. The tract marks littering her arms are the outward manifestation of her fractured spirit and dammed despair. Amber Eaton is but a shell of the Amber Waves of yesteryear. When she’s not riding that sweet nothingness, Amber orchestrates politically-motivated bombings that leads to the death of her current boyfriend, Daniel, and dozens of members of the People’s Liberation Front. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment. While her motives are clear, her goals are not. What exactly is she fighting for, what ‘establishment’ is she hoping to change? Without any clear purpose, her anarchist agenda is just anarchy and doomed to fail. Her radical rhetoric inspires dangerous and violent reaction from the misguided and mistreated seeking purpose. Hate for hate’s sake incites incessant violence that usually leads to nothing in the end. Ridley pulls no punches with depicting this grim reality when Amber is unceremoniously shot dead in her own dilapidated hideout by the government cronies she hated. She dies without accomplishment, fated to be forgotten, an uninspired footnote in the history books. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment. A Dream Deferred Although it only occupies a small space in this story, Nikki Lau’s journey is the most sympathetic in my opinion. Perhaps it’s because she’s Chinese-American and so am I. Regardless, she joins Amber’s battalion to avenge her father’s perceived murder. (Perceived because he committed suicide after being blamed for Old Glory’s death.) Since its inception, minorities and marginalized groups have bought into the American Dream only to be screwed over or tossed aside. Maybe they’re tired of it. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment. The American Way In THE AMERICAN WAY, they failed America, and in THE AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW, America failed them. In each story, our hero is desperately trying to wear a skin, don a cloak, that never quite suits them. They struggle fruitlessly against diametric choices pulling them in opposite directions. In each story, our hero must determine which direction they’ll follow, figure out which path will lead them the right way. Is it black-and-white or black-or-white? A heritage steeped in hate or a future unwritten and unknown? Faith in democracy or freedom in anarchy? These questions speak loudly to our current sociopolitical landscape. Although THE AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW takes place in an alternate Vietnam-Era America, the same questions can still be asked of us in the here and now. Erskine Wells, an unsavory government hellhound, says it best. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment. Because the color of our skin may change. The goals we rally behind may differ. But opposition is at the heart of the American Way. (And, no matter if they’re Red or Blue, politicians will always capitalize on that fear to bring in the votes.)The question is, when the time comes, what will be your American Way? Who will you stand shoulder-to-shoulder with as you march down that path? Like Jason and Missy and Amber, what will be your legacy? How will you make America a better place than when you found it? Image courtesy of DC Entertainment. In THE AMERICAN WAY: THOSE ABOVE AND THOSE BELOW, we find America a house divided. Either America gives into its hate and remains firmly planted in the past, or it sheds its skin and emerges in a brighter, more colorful future. Don’t forget to get your digital copy of THE AMERICAN WAY by John Ridley at ComiXology!