When FBI special agent Sheila Curry’s partner is killed by a neo-Nazi, she enlists biracial ex-agent Richard Wright to go undercover and gather evidence on a white supremacist organization led by the enigmatic and charismatic Wynn Morgan, who’s running for US Senator in California. Half-black, half-white, and able to pass for white for his undercover identity, Richard quickly finds himself swept up in violent loyalty pledges and attracted to Wynn’s daughter, Jennifer. What is Richard’s identity going into this investigation, and what will happen to it as he soaks in malevolent influences?
American Carnage could not exist as a children’s or YA title, and not just because of its bloodshed and language. It is a crime story that looks at the broken means people use to navigate broken systems. White supremacists and fringe political groups are the antagonists of the story, but the book’s message goes deeper than decrying racism and lionizing good cops. A left-leaning politician cynically leverages race relations to wrap up an election. Wynn gives two speeches, one to a black church and another to Richard, each time listing off the common ground between him and his listeners—and perhaps some readers, too. “When the police kill you and get away with it—that’s government… White civilization is the mother and father of the world. They know it. And they can’t bear the weight of knowing it… Supremacy is just another word for order. And order is what keeps us from chaos.” These musings and several others represent the slippery slope from reluctantly agreeing with a single shaky premise to orienting one’s worldview against entire races.
Characters constantly encounter racially and historically charged images. The aforementioned neo-Nazi’s baby is wrapped in a swastika blanket. A hitman who enacts a lot of violence against Richard wears a smiling Obama mask. Sheila, who is black, gets pulled over by a white cop who blinds her with his flashlight, leaving only his watch, badge, and white teeth visible in his silhouette. Two different scenes involve burning crosses. Richard has a nightmare based on his shooting of a black teen who was holding a cell phone. In these and less dramatic scenes, Leandro Fernandez’s art does an excellent job depicting a variety of realistic body types and outfits for the cast. Characters regularly switch between detailed and silhouette portrayals, suggesting matters of identity, concealment, trust, and highlighting specific colors and features of those characters. Dean White’s colors enhance the book’s many nighttime and shadow-drenched scenes, in moody blues and burning reds. Daytime scenes use lots of sickly green and yellow, a visual cue I interpret as Wynn’s secret empire seeming more palatable in the secrecy of night and being difficult to stomach in broad daylight.
The lack of a happy ending to this story is less of a spoiler and more like a reassurance that it doesn’t end in a cop-out. Nobody introduced in this story comes out the other side any nicer except maybe for Jennifer’s deaf daughter, Amy. Jennifer and Richard use sign language with her, and all of their gestures are subtitled. If Wynn is the propaganda barker, his daughter Jennifer is the shiny picture of white privilege: tall, blond, and against her father’s business in spirit (if not in action), her feelings are centered in all of her scenes. Wynn’s stooges, including Richard, want to sleep with her. She fields matters of life and death by her pool and on her smartwatch while running. She moves freely throughout the story, and the only time she is truly afraid, she genuinely looks like a sympathetic victim before slipping back into her calculating, spiteful mode. In a story that references Proud Boys, Crips, and Latin Kings, Jennifer is the most dangerous type of gangster: completely comfortable with the dealings and bloodshed happening around her.
“What’s it like to be black?” Jennifer asks Richard, who replies, “It’s different for everyone. And it’s hard for all of us. You want more than that, read a book.” That reply could also stand in for a couple of Wynn’s white foot soldiers in scenes where they complain of respectability and optics separating them from Wynn’s richer, more influential partners. The book never justifies white supremacy but does present enough of Wynn’s halfway-cohesive argument that particularly entitled or delusional readers could conceivably crib it for themselves. American Carnage is for mature readers, both in graphic content (bloody visuals, language using swear words and racial epithets) as well as carefully considering the nuances depicted. My hat’s off to Bryan Hill for packing so much into a nine-issue story. By the end of Sheila’s investigation, she and the reader will have some heavy moral quandaries to ponder.
By Bryan Hill
Art by Leandro Fernandez
DC / Vertigo, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: M (Mature)
Series Reading Order: (Wikipedia or Goodreads)
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NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Black, Multiracial, White
Creator Highlights: BIPOC Creator