For a lot of comic fans, a video game tie-in represents an instant ‘don’t ask, don’t buy it.’ Leave it to Dark Horse and Naughty Dog, two companies pretty well synonymous with creating stories of a higher artistic calibre than that of their peers, to show us how wrong we all can be.
THE LAST OF US: AMERICAN DREAMS is not only a moving and violent story of apathy and loneliness, but also one more fantastic example of that symbol of the great comic movement of the 2010’s: the era of the creator. Faith Erin Hicks’ tells a story that feels very much her own, first and foremost, and by coming from a place of personal introspection, of telling a very human story about the painful time when you’re no longer a kid but not quite a teen, THE LAST OF US is everything right about the creator first trend of modern comics, and why we should grip onto it for our own benefit.
“I didn’t just want to hand this over to some writer and artist and then say it wasn’t canon. I wanted to do this right.” So says Neil Druckmann, creative director behind the highly anticipated dystopian video game. His passion for getting talented artists actually bent on telling good stories is clear, because Hicks is the perfect choice for this title. The specific details of the game’s universe are left largely ambigious – the world lay in ruin after a mysterious virus wipes out most of the human race, a New Age cult known as the Fireflies promise salvation, and a small troop of rather violent and sadistic soldiers protect what little is left of the world.
But Faith Erin Hicks, who so expertly showed us her understanding of female adolescence in ADVENTURES OF SUPERHERO GIRL, uses this bleak backdrop to tell a fascinating story of solitude, of how friendship is pretty well the only thing we have to hold on to when we’ve got nothing else. Ellie is violent, moody and rare to answer any question you direct at her. Forever plugged into her walkman, she shows no desire to face the reality of the depressing world that surrounds her.
And why would you want to? Authority figures screaming at you, young men on the street bent on robbing you of your possessions, everyone on edge at how much longer any one has. However, no matter how awful things get, no matter how hard the world crushes down on you, there’s no shutting the world off. Ellie may cling to her walkmen as she struggles to sleep at night, but it’s the friendship she makes with another broken and violent young woman that sees Ellie crack her first smile.
Of course, Hicks isn’t just telling the story along with Druckmann – she’s drawing it, too. Her manga influence is impossible to ignore in several expertly portrayed rough and tumble fight scenes, but it’s the way she seems to have crept completely into the skin of Ellie that I find most magical. Ellie’s downward glances when anyone speaks to her, her apathetic slack-jaw when anyone tries to order her around, and most unforgetable, a haunting and repeated image of her hands on her cheeks and her eyes staring straight at us, where we most feel that Ellie is aware, is present in her world and horrified because of it.
THE LAST OF US: AMERICAN DREAMS is not only an incredible story about adolescent despair, the lonely futility of trying to fight against the world all by yourself, it’s also a reminder of how incredible any comic book material becomes when we place it with confidence in the hands of a talented artist with a clear creative vision. Faith Erin Hicks, along with Rachelle Rosenberg’s wonderful muted colour work, have a told a story worth reading, regardless of it’s connection to other media. Trust me, as somebody who got off the Naughty Dog train the minute they abandoned colourful cartoon mascots in their games, THE LAST OF US is enjoyable even if you’re completely removed from video games. It’s a tie-in book that’s idiosyncratic, moving and perfectly executed – and we’re all better for it.