From everyone who’s shouted “No Taxation Without Representation” to “We Are the 99%”, a prevalent characteristic of American political activists is a sense of powerlessness. For the most radical of these activists, civic protest is thrown out wholesale and destructive, sometimes violent, measures are seen as the only effective moral counterweight to the corrupt influences in government. Forget whether or not they are right, what’s important is that no matter which political movement or activist group you pick in our history, there are generally singular events that these groups can point to to justify their actions. Take how, during the American Revolution, the Patriots were influenced by the Boston Massacre, or in a non-violent example, how the Northwest chapter of ELF could point to federal agents’ actions at Warner Creek.
There are elements in the story that hint that American Terrorist is set in a USA more fascist than our own--independent contractors corral a crowd at Columbus Circle, a judge supports the indefinite detention of a terrorist suspect--however, these are conditions the characters operate peacefully in prior to becoming the titular terrorists.
Unfortunately, the absence of such a defining moment transforms what could have been an exciting political allegory into little more than an action thriller. Less DMZ and more Enemy of the State. Each of the four main characters have strong progressive values and work for the establishment (teacher, public defender, EPA scientist, and investigative reporter). They each confront different stressful situations related to their job but, save for Shannon the EPA scientist, there’s no catalyst in American Terrorist to make these characters change their values.
Instead, Owen the journalist accidentally kills a corrupt FBI agent and his public defender friend, Michael, advises him and his two friends to become fugitives rather than turn themselves in for a trial they would almost certainly win. When Owen travels to his hometown to check in on his parents, he notices the cops have been there, snaps, and decides to become a 21st century version of The Monkey Wrench Gang. If he was worried about their safety, wouldn’t he just turn himself in? For that matter, if the cops are only after Owen, why are the other folks along for the ride? Doesn’t the public defender know the line between legal advisor and accessory?
Because we don’t know what in particular they are fighting against, we’re unable to question the moral legitimacy of their decisions. Even the ELF had internal debates about the practical effects of some of their acts, never mind making sure there were no casualties when they blew up buildings. Where’s the scene where Owen assures Hannah that no one will be in the power plant when they blow it up? Or for that matter, where is the scene where Hannah cares? Instead of discussions about the next target and debate over the consequences of their actions (they are established to be empathetic in the first act, after all), we get romantic splash pages of explosions and scenes where Owen robs a pharmacy and everyone smiles because he’s stealing drugs for them, too. “Finally,” he declares, with no sense of irony, “universal healthcare for everyone!”
To be absolutely clear, this IS an oversight by the authors. There are numerous scenes throughout the novel that the reinforce that the FBI are the bad guys and Owen and Co. are the good guys.
I’d be remiss not to talk about the art. The detail and bombastic action adds a gripping, cinematic effect to the story. My only complaint is that by the fourth act the shading starts to become inconsistent and characters start lacking the detail of previous chapters. There are also a few scenes where photo-tracing is a bit obvious and distracts from the story. These are minor issues, though.
Conceptually, and in the current political climate, American Terrorist could have been an interesting drama about the boiling point of altruism in a corrupt world. In sacrificing the grey area of political debate, even within the activist class itself, it succumbs to being little more than an adventure story, a morality tale no more complex than in superhero comics.
TL;DR American Terrorist: Less DMZ and more Enemy of the State.
American Terrorist is written by Tyler & Wendy Chin-Tanner with art by Andy MacDonald and lettering by Fabio Redivo. It is a self-published comic from Chin-Tanner's studio A Wave Blue World, Inc. You can ask your local comic book shop to order it through Liber Distribution, pick it up digitally at Graphicly or ComiXology, or support Spandexless and buy it in our Amazon web store.
A review copy of American Terrorist was graciously provided to Spandexless by the author, Tyler Chin-Tanner.
Adam Tyrrell is a writer and cartoonist living in New York City.