Artist Shawn Richter kindly gave me a peek at the first issue of One Last Song this week; you may recall I’ve mentioned the comic he and CJ Hurtt have been creating a couple of times here before. It’s the near future – 2046 in an America driven to ever more extreme paranoia by the omnipresent War On Terror (or Wot? As I often refer to it) with civil liberties destroyed in the name of ‘protecting the people’. Citizens are encouraged to inform on their neighbours and friends for ‘unpatriotic’ activities while dissidents (which is anyone who criticises the status quo) are shipped off to Guantanamo without trial. Everything is monitored and censored; even live musical performers require a ‘performance card’ approved by the Department of Homeland Security or risk deportation to the ‘terror aversion camps’. Enter musician Amanda Casey and her friend Brian, still defiantly writing their own material, taking news stories the rest of the country didn’t hear gleaned from pirate radio and underground journals and turning them into songs. Naturally this attracts the attention of the DHS, but instead of simply grabbing her off the street and bundling her off – or just killing her on the spot – the head of the department seems to have some scheme in mind which will involve using Amanda.
(detail from the cover of One Last Song #1 by Shawn Richter and CJ Hurtt, published Brain Scan Comics)
Obviously the first issue is the introductory issue, where we meet some of the main characters while Shawn and CJ set up this dystopian near-future for the reader. Sometimes such first issues can be a bit slow, weighed down by the need for too much exposition, but One Last Song fairly zips along, opening with a scene familiar to millions, a singer-songwriter performing in a coffee shop, largely ignored by the clients who are busy with their own converstations (I do hate when people ignore a performer and treat them as if they are background music). A man in a suit approaches Amanda after her set, asking her seemingly innocuous questions about her lyrics and imagery “you sang, l’il blue and gray flowers fallin’ through the air, gonna see my baby at the bottom of the stairs.” What should be a nice scene of a singer being appreciated by someone is really something else; Shawn puts a subtle expression on Amanda’s face of ‘I’m alarmed and trying not to show it’ at this seemingly friendly approach. Intercut into these frames are smaller frames showing riot police dropping from helicopters, taking someone away… The meaning of the lyrics becomes clearer; the seemingly friendly fan’s intent is suddenly chilling. An argument at the counter distracts him and Amanda makes a run for it. Welcome to a world where everyone has to watch every word they say, where the wrong words can betray you. Welcome to One Last Song.
For a first issue this did exactly what a good first part should do – it introduced the scenario and the main characters and did it without relying on large amounts of heavy dialogue or text boxes to explain everything. Instead the art and the relatively brief text are used very effectively to quickly convey a taste of this dark future, with nice little inserts such as adverts from the Homeland Security people like “how well do you know your neighbours?” adding to the feel of this dystopian setting. Sub plots showing pirate radio and an underground journalist being beaten also establish the atmosphere very effectively; the grin Shawn puts on a helmeted goon about to smash a club into the fleeing journalist’s face is quite terrifying (flashes of Orwell’s 1984 and the “think of a boot stamping a human face, that is the future” speech). When we have seen recent reports and video of a student shocked repeatedly by police Taser guns in a college library in case he was a threat this sort of tale seems all the more frightening because it is incorporating elements we already see from today and any reader who watches the news is going to recognise this.
Neighbours and friends being encouraged to inform on one another is a hallmark of many totalitarian regimes and again has sad echoes even now in supposedly free societies due to the climate of fear which hangs over everything (she looks different, she must be dangerous, better report her) and the adverts encouraging this throughout the comic are a nice touch (I kept thinking on the classic Red Dwarf episode Back To Reality where the team find themselves in a fascist land, reading a poster on the wall proclaiming “become a government informer today – fabulous prizes to be won”, or the ads and news clips in RoboCop). Using a singer-songwriter as a central character works very well, I think; obviously there is a long history of such performers writing protest songs and we’ve already seen in recent years how performers who speak out against a jingoistic cry for war can be ostracised (just look at the Dixie Chicks for example, now returned to Grammy glory after much abuse for daring to criticise Bush’s foreign policy). Take it just a little further and instead of being jeered for speaking out (god forbid anyone should hold and express a different opinion in a democracy!) performers and writers are rounded up and killed or disappeared to a Cuban gulag while others are co-opted into creating acceptable performances to keep the masses happy and distracted as their freedoms are removed for their own protection.
After a few fallow years following 9-11 and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan there was, especially in the US, a real reluctance to be seen criticising government policy for fear of being seen to be unpatriotic; One Last Song pushes this sort of behaviour and the attendant harsh new laws and restrictions on freedoms which came with them to an extreme, joining recent comics such as Brian Wood’s excellent DMZ or Anthony Lappe and Dan Goldman’s Shooting War in a growing field of comics which aren’t afraid to comment about current events. This first issue certainly got me hooked and I want to see where this is going to go; given the set-up I don’t think readers can assume there will be a happy ending and that is part of the appeal, not knowing. One Last Song is published by Brain Scan Comics and the first issue should be arriving in stores in April. The guys have a blog set up with more details on One Last Song here and both CJ and Shawn were interviewed recently over on the Horror Library Blog-o-rama; Shawn also has an online porftolio you can check out.