"The Last of Us: American Dreams" #2 by Neil Druckmann and Faith Erin Hicks follows Ellie as she leaves the quarantine zone, following Riley out of the grounds of their military boarding school and into the decaying urban landscape of Boston, Massachusetts.
"The Last of Us: American Dreams" #1 was set almost entirely in the closed world of the boarding school, and shared a lot more in common with stereotypical boarding school stories than a typical post-apocalyptic horror or survival story. In this second issue, Druckmann and Hicks reveal a little more of how America has changed in the wake of the fungal pandemic. However, it's still a very small part of the canvas of the world that Ellie lives in, because "The Last of Us" #2 is set almost entirely in an abandoned mall. Like a repeat of "The Last of Us" #1, only the last scene shows a path out of a closed environment. So far, the structure of "The Last of Us" is about showing Ellie breaking out of successively larger boxes.
Halfway through "The Last of Us" #2, Druckmann and Hicks write a moody scene in which Ellie imagines or sees into the past of an arcade. For two panels, Rachelle Rosenberg's colors shift from faded purple and grayish blue-green into vivid magenta and teal, to indicate happier, earlier time.
This kind of plotting works, but it's also a very slow build. I like how Druckmann and Hicks avoid information dumping, but they sacrifice too much space. This issue brings readers to the halfway point, and very little about the specifics of the setting have been filled in.
Characterization has also been slow. At the end of "Last of Us" #2, none of the major characters, including Ellie (the stereotypical tough new girl), Riley (the canny, independent rebel) or Winston (the wise, grumpy veteran) have broken out of stereotype.
For a post-apocalyptic tale, "The Last of Us" also lacks suspense from action. Thematically, Druckmann and Hicks have shifted Ellie's coming of age from a school story about finding one's place to a quest/journey story about freedom and destiny. At this point, the dramatic tension hangs on two things (1) if, when and how Ellie will encounter one of the zombie-like "infected" people (2) how Druckmann and Hicks will move Ellie across the American landscape to the place and time that the videogame begins.
Hicks is a skilled artist, but her style serves the young adult, bildungsroman aspect of "The Last of Us" much better than it suits the horror aspect. Her style is unchanged from her artwork in her excellent graphic novel "Friends with Boys" or the more recent "Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong." There's something about her bouncy line and character design that is at odds with the bleak setting. It's an obvious comparison, but something closer to Charlie Adlard's work for "The Walking Dead" would have given the story a much darker edge without necessarily upping the body count or gore.
Due to Hicks' panel composition and facial expressions, the last page of "The Last of Us" #2 has the feel of a cliffhanger, but the plot point revealed is so heavily foreshadowed that it's not a genuine surprise to the reader.
As a video tie-in comic, "The Last of Us: American Dreams" #2 does the job of filling in more of Ellie's backstory for gamers who want more immersion in the world. However, with its decompressed pacing and lack of deeper characterization, it doesn't stand on its own.