Reprint, please: the Last American

Published On October 6, 2011 | By Richard Bruton | Comics

Reading Mick McMahon’s blog recently I noticed he was talking at one point about his work on The Last American, a four part mini-series for the Epic imprint he did with Alan Grant and John Wagner back in 1990. Mick was showing some of the art he did for the cover of the collected version Com.x published a number of years back. On his blog he notes that he might consider doing a poster version of it for his Thought Bubble visit this year, in the comments he replies to readers saying yes by confirming he has, so TB folks, there’s something else for you  too look forward to this winter!

(cover of The Last American #1 by and (c) Wagner, Grant and McMahon, scanned from my original issues, hence price sticker still doggedly stuck on there, won’t come off without damaging the book after all this time!)

But it did get me to thinking – the Com.x collected edition was years ago, since when, as far as I know, The Last American has remained out of print, which is such a shame that most readers today can’t get a hold of it. I managed to dig out my original issues of the comic from my four-colour stash and thought I’d post a few up here. The story centres on Captain Ulysses S Pilgrim (US Pilgrim, an apt name choice), the last man on Earth to be invested with the power and authority of the government and president of the United States of America.

(this sequence: Pilgrim’s robotic assistants prepare to awaken him from his atomic Rip Van Winkle slumber in The Last American, by and (c) Wagner, Grant and McMahon)

Except it doesn’t look like there is an America left. Pilgrim, a disgraced army officer (the reason for his disgrace is never made clear) is selected by the president for a special mission. There is war coming – nuclear war. Pilgrim will be subject to a new cryogenic process, frozen into hibernation for two decades, to be awoken on a mission to set out and re-establish civilisation, to assist survivors and a whole lot of other noble sounding reasons that rather pale in the face of nuclea armageddon because, frankly, they are all but pointless considering the level of destruction promised; it’s a plan born of desperation to do something, anything in the face of inevitable annihilation. Pilgrim, married with a young family, is reluctant – to be honest, if it comes down to it he’d rather die with his family than live as the last survivor of a destroyed land, but the choice isn’t his. Awoken, he sets out into a devastated landscape, his only companions three robots.

The story is very much of its time, one of the last of the Cold War era penned tales, perhaps just a post-apocalyptic slice of science fiction now to younger readers, but to those of us who grew up during the years when a strategy called MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) was considered sensible by those in power, it reminds us of a pre-Glasnost time when living with the knowledge that all life on Earth could be pretty much extinguished after a four minute warning siren was part of everyday life, insane as it sounds (although when the Berlin Wall came down it seemed like we had past that dangerous phase of human history and entered an unparalled new era of peace, little did we know the even more complicated War On Terror years were right around the corner, sigh…). And government planning to ‘protect and survive’ was a part and parcel of that because those in power can’t really accept a loss of their authority and all the institutions that go with it, so crazy plans for underground bunkers to sit out the worst of the blasts and radiation then emerge to rebuild were pretty common, so, cryonics and talking robots aside, Last American isn’t that far-fetched for that period.

Understandably Pilgrim soon begins to face pyschological problems. As he starts to explore the wrecked landscape, devoid of life save for a few ants, surveying the irradiated remains of all he once knew and loved, his mood darkens, his morale, never exactly high considering he was forced into this mission to start with, plummets. He has no wish to be the last American and soon Wagner, Grant and McMahon are grimly delighting in executing their own take on one of the great staples of science fiction – the last man in the world. It leads to scenes of Pilgrim trying to drown it out in drink, or, in one memorable scene, venting his fury and bitterness by yelling at God in the ruins of a church for not stopping it, for letting it happen (well before Ennis had Jesse Custer aiming to ask God why He let bad things happen), shooting at the remains of the cross:

This is all your fault! That’s right! You coulda stopped it – why didn’t you, eh? You’re so all-damn powerful, why didn’t you do something? Have You seen what it’s like out there? Have you? Well, I’ll tell you, pal! If there is a God then you gotta be one twisted, evil son of a bitch!

It isn’t all misery and gloom though, as you’d expect from this creative team there is a rich seam of gallows humour laced throughout. As his mindset continues to deteriorate Pilgrim begins to lose it, even the eternally optimistic, cheery Charlie (a robot driven a little eccentric through decades of watching junk TV while taking care of Pilgrim’s stasis booth) can’t keep him going and he begins to hallucinate. His main hallucination takes the form of Bert the turtle, a riff on the incredibly ridiculous (althoug meant seriously at the time) 50s ‘duck and cover’ public information movies that showed cheerful, blonde, all-American children ducking and covering the minute they saw the flash of any pesky atomic blast. Nuclear bomb? No problem, kids, dive down behind a wall, duck and cover, and you’re sorted! Yep, he’s crazy, but he’s got a good reason to be going insane, unlike the people who actually made the old duck and cover films and books to instruct civilians on how to survive an atomic exchange.

Or as he examines a pile of human skulls in the remains of what was once Poughkeepsie he finds a message left by a man who was forced into cannibalism to survive, but he ate only those already dead “I killed no-one, I am innocent, God forgive me…” Looking around the lunar landscape that was once a bustling town Pilgrim yells ‘fresh meat, come and get it’, happy to see any human face, even that of a cannibalistic survivor. No-one can be seen though, our cannibal is long gone as he yells to the ruins “Will the man who ate Poughkeepsie please stand up?”, one of those lines that’s stuck in my head over the years since I first read it (was it really 20 years ago? Really?)

In another darkly humorous sequence Pilgrim imagines that it was only he who was nuked; he dies but everyone else in the world lives as he finds himself ascending out of the grave right through the clouds to Heaven. Which turns out to be American! As he moves among the former great and good of American history he talks about great men, noble men – but in the end they were just men, perhaps they put too much trust, too much responsibility on them. It also allows for some more dark humour as Einstein and Fermi argue at the party over how nuclear knowledge has forever changed humanity. As Einstein complains bitterly that nuclear weapons have changed “everything except the way people think”, Fermi tells him to forget his liberal scruples. After all, he adds, dropping a mini A-bomb into a Martini cocktail glass, “after all, the thing’s superb physics.”

Yes, as I said, it is very much of its time now, but that’s not a bad thing – so is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy and that didn’t stop that remarkable Cold War spy novel being reborn to contemporary audiences as a brilliant thriller, F Scott Fitzgerald and Jane Austen too are very much of their time and yet also deal with issues that remain pertinent to any human society in any era, in addition to their historical elements, which is why they continue to interest readers. That and Wagner, Grant and McMahon’s mixture of commenting on the billion-dollar, decades long insanity of nuclear confrontation, pitch-black humour and often jaundiced look at the darker side of human nature (although leavened by some humour and a little glimmer of possible hope), and Mick’s superb art, say to me that this should be back in print and available to readers again. Meantime I’ll leave you with the artwork Mick posted on his blog and is turning into a print (and Thought Bubble folks, do say hi to Mick!):

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About The Author

Richard Bruton

– Started in comics retail aged 16 at Nostalgia & Comics, Birmingham. Now located in Yorkshire, he’s written for the Forbidden Planet International Blog since 2007. Specialising in UK Comics and All-Ages comics, Richard’s day job in a primary school allowed him to build the best children’s graphic novel library in the country.

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