The Last American was originally published in 1990 by Marvel’s Epic Comics imprint as a response to the Cold War and Ronald Reagan administration. Inspired by a collective consciousness wary of the growth of nuclear arms and the potential extermination they could spell, the post-apocalyptic mini-series from co-writers John Wagner and Alan Grant, along with artist Mick McMahon, portrayed a world in which mankind had been wiped out by an atomic blast. Now here we are in 2017 – months after American President, Donald Trump, tweeted his desire to strengthen the country’s nuclear capability, and a day after Russian Vladimir Putin threatened war with the United States following their attack on Syria – and the re-release of the series, courtesy of 2000 AD and publisher Rebellion, couldn’t be timelier. The Last American is as poignant and relevant today as it was when it was initially printed.
The reissue opens with a foreword by Mick McMahon recalling memories of a speech by former Russian Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, that terrified him as a child growing up in the 1960s. He also discusses how his school organised a showing of Peter Watkins 1965 drama, The War Game, and the disturbing effect its depiction of a Britain following nuclear war had on his young, impressionable mind. Reading McMahon’s testimony provides an insightful commentary of what it was like growing up during the height of nuclear paranoia; yet it’s also quite an upsetting reminder that there are children watching the news as we speak and experiencing similar fears.
The Last American tells the story of Captain Ulysses S. Pilgrim who, after waking from suspended animation, finds that a global nuclear war has annihilated the world he once knew. The only signs of life comes in the form of three robots, and with them, he sets out on a journey across the wasteland to find other survivors. However, as his search progresses, he soon realises that he might be, in fact, The Last American. What ensues is a story examining the bleakness of an existence devoid of life and hope for a future, which is a notion even more terrifying than a world plagued by murderous scavengers you often find in stories of this ilk.
Instead of action and carnage what we get is a portrait of a dead world in which our protagonist only has to deal with loneliness, haunting memories and the harsh reality of a pointless trek. The only humanity Pilgrim encounters are hallucinations conjured by his imagination, which are an extension of his broken psyche. While The Last American is not without moments of humour, it succeeds through its effective, despairing portrayal of a world that now only serves to rot. McMahon’s artwork captures this rather brilliantly, with every panel filled beautifully illustrated with gloom, drear and desolation.
The Last American was a commercial bomb during its original run – and it didn’t fare much better in 2004 either when it was republished by Com. X. It’s a bold feat of storytelling; immersed in psychology and philosophy as opposed to the conventional action-orientated entertainment commonly associated with post-apocalyptic fare. It remains to be seen how well it’ll do this time round, though the story’s themes are bound to resonate with readers currently fearing the worst possible outcomes of contemporary political tensions reaching breaking point.
The series marked the end of the partnership between the series’ co-writers, whose in-fighting resulted in them parting ways. Grant went on to find critical and commercial success working on various Batman stories for DC’s Detective Comics, while Wagner wrote 1997s A History of Violence, which David Cronenberg adapted in 2005. The Last American might not be the series any of these creators will be most remembered for, but it exemplifies their ability to weave socio-political commentary and original storytelling with aplomb. It’s just a shame that, nearly 30 years after its original release, the issues which inspired its creation still exist.