The best crime fiction stories tell tales about America, or more specifically, stories about the American Dream. The dark recesses of obsession and greed, betrayal and deception rooted in the nation's very foundation are the perfect specimens to be placed under a microscope, giving readers a look at the horrific power they can evoke and the madness those who seek to wield that power behave when they received too much. Often times, these stories have plot elements that are ripped from headlines, making them all the more visceral. Despite them being sensational to a degree, they tend too bare a lot of truth -- and that truth is ugly.
American Carnage #1 is a comic that viciously digs into the underbelly of what makes social division such a hot-button topic, and crushes the silly argument of there being "bad people on both sides" of an issue as justification for reprehensible actions. This book knows two wrongs never make a right, and despite its central characters not exactly holding themselves up as pillars of the community, "bad people" will sometimes fight for good when the chips are down, even if it means wallowing in the dirt to do so.
The set up of this first issue is simple: An FBI agent by the name of Shelia Curry is working a case that has the potential to out a billionaire philanthropist who might be behind an extremist group. Agent Curry does so by recruiting Richard Wright, a disgraced, former federal agent who is now moonlighting as a private detective when he isn't wooing call girls or inhaling heaps of the devil's dandruff. Despite Wright's rough edges, he quickly proves to be the man for the job and begins to navigate the world of the right-wing fringe group that may be responsible for the slaying of another FBI agent, as well as the activation of a recent suicide bomber.
There isn't much to spoil in American Carnage #1 since it's basically one big introduction to the key players of the story, but the lack of stunning reveals isn't a negative. Not by a long shot. Simply put, American Carnage has all the trappings of becoming Vertigo's next big crime comic. The writing is tight and believable, the art is dour and drowned in shadows, and the characters are well-defined and likable (when they're supposed to be). Most of all, the stakes feel horribly real, a fact that sets this aside from the Vertigo crime comics that have come before it, with a story that is nuanced and tailored to the current social climate in the United States. Sure, it's a version of our reality that that takes things to their logical extreme, but while it's leaning into the realm of fantasy, it doesn't take much to imagine it happening in the real world.
Writer Bryan Hill (Cyber Force) is doing some of his best, most mature work to date. Some of the conversations between the characters feel so real, they can make your stomach churn. There is a sense of desperation to his writing, and not in a "please like me" sort of way. No, Hill's writing is desperately trying to tell you, "This isn't crazy." What happens on the page may sound hamfisted or far-fetched if described out loud, but when you read the comic, it's all too believable. Hill has one hell of an ear for dialogue. His characters speak naturally and are quick to change their cadence when they interact with certain people, but they never betray themselves or feel out of place.
Artist Leandro Fernández (Punisher MAX) was born to draw this comic. His use of shadows and hard lines help build the world and how dire things are. His panel structure is simple and easy to follow, even when there are massive dialogue balloons filling the page. He never tries to get out ahead of the writing, unless the script calls for it. There's a splash page early in on that is horrific, telling a genuinely upsetting story that sets the tone for the rest of the series.
It's hard to say whether American Carnage will become a success on the level of 100 Bullets or Scalped, though all the components seem to be here. I certainly hope it is, though, as Hill and Fernandez have started a story that feels like it might just be up for the task of pulling those boots on and stopping across a legacy of hate.