With DC/Vertigo’s The American Way: Those Above and Those Below #1, Academy Award-winning writer John Ridley (12 Years a Slave, American Crime) and veteran artist Georges Jeanty (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) return to the world they established with 2006’s WildStorm miniseries The American Way. Documenting the misadventures of mostly fraudulent superheroes created to lull the American public into a false sense of security, the series centered on Jason Fischer, the nigh-invulnerable “New American” and first Black hero on the Civil Defense Corps. The series’ focus zoomed in on race and country in the 1960s — to keep up appearances, Fischer was hidden head to toe by his costume, a modified astronaut suit.
Those Above and Those Below picks up a decade after the original story, and there’s still plenty of injustice to be had. It’s 1972, and the gulf between a radical left and reactionary right is spread wide. The CDC has disbanded, but Fisher is still active as a hero. Only the line between heroes and villains has become even murkier. At the start of the issue, Fisher jet-packs into the Baltimore headquarters of Willie Betts, a radical whose street army has been killing off drug dealers. His problem isn’t with Betts’ rhetoric; it’s with his violent tactics. The confrontation goes poorly, and Fisher ends up on the business end of a shotgun blast to the face. By the time Fisher comes to, he’s surprised to find the gathered onlookers consider him a sellout. In their eyes, Betts is the hero. “Ever think about all you supers getting back together,” a cop asks. Fisher’s response is direct: no, he doesn’t.
Quickly, we get a sense that his former teammates would give a similar answer. We catch up with Amber Eaton, formerly Amber Waves, who’s become a Bay Area radical, reintroduced infiltrating a Department of Defense office in Oakland, using her energy powers to wreak havoc while struggling with a serious drug addiction. Over in Jacksonville, Missy Deveraux, FKA Ole Miss — part of the Southern Defense Corps, a faction which broke from the Civil Defense Force — is considering a run for Mississippi governor, a sham candidacy that would allow her husband and racist backers to control things from behind the scenes. “We live in a country that doesn’t just hate itself,” says the smoking political operative looking to convince her, dog whistling aplenty. “It has come to value radicalism over democracy, and treats thugs and criminals like heroes.”
Though the first issue is heavy on exposition, with Ridley needing to lay down a lot of groundwork, it flows. A lot of credit goes to artist Georges Jeanty, who nails the early ‘70s vibe, rendering Fisher in a black leather jacket, turtle neck, and sideburns, decks Deveraux out in a pantsuit, and plasters peace signs behind radicals spouting off about who’ll die at their hands. Jeanty’s storytelling is dynamic and nuanced. In the issue’s climactic battle between Fisher and Betts at a US Armory, the subtly shaded looks on the characters faces do heavy thematic lifting, conveying internal conflicts in ways no dialogue could.
With The American Way: Those Above and Those Below, Ridley and Jeanty are poised to explore not just the divides between radical and reactionary, black and white, and rich and poor, but the distance between who a hero is and who he wants to be. The heroes are surrounded by reminders of the collateral damage left in the wake of their 1960s, those wounded and those looking to take revenge. Whatever brings the old gang back together won’t be pretty. As our country continues to debate “heritage over hate,” struggles to understand checkered past, and fails to reconcile the concept of justice with police shooting unarmed black men, The American Way: Those Above and Those Below proves a riveting beginning to a story that evokes 2017 as much as 1972.