2001-03-21

American CenturyThe 1950s weren’t all poodle skirts and hula-hoops. McCarthyism, radioactive medical tests on unknowing citizens, the Korean War–these were some of the monsters living in the basement of the Happy Days house. Now, American Century (from Vertigo/DC Comics) promises to take us well past the basement and into the cesspool seething beneath the lawn.

This new ongoing series is co-written by David Tischman and Howard Chaykin–the guy behind the popular 1980s series American Flagg. I never read Flagg, but I know fans who think that the sun rises behind Chaykin every day and frames his head like a halo. I’m beginning to see why. American Century is wonderfully perverse–like a disgruntled adolescent, it never misses a chance to revel in adult hypocrisy.

Here’s how we meet our hero, Harry Block. He’s working as an airline pilot, popping pills in the bathroom just before landing. As he enters the cockpit, he thinks “I’d like to take this ship into a power dive and kill everyone on board.”

What’s Harry’s problem? Well, his wife is sleeping around on him, but he doesn’t seem too concerned about that. He was a fighter pilot in WWII, but he doesn’t seem to be haunted by lost comrades or dreams of carnage. No, Harry’s problem is in the present: like an adolescent he finds grief in everything and everyone. His alcoholic friends annoy him, his philandering wife disgusts him, his racist boss inspires violent rage. He just wants to read his highbrow books, but nobody will give him a minute of peace.

When the military summons him to do his duty in Korea, Harry goes AWOL. But before he steals a getaway plane, Harry pays his boss a visit. Beating the crippled man with the butt of his pistol, Harry warns him not to harass his black secretary or else Harry will be “coming back here and shoving those leg braces up your ass so far, they’ll come out your ears and pick up Milton Berle on Tuesday night.”

You never heard Fonzy say anything like that, did ya? No, Harry is one angry, self-righteous man/boy. After he crashes his stolen plane, everyone thinks he’s dead. (There’s even a funeral, a la Tom Sawyer, though it’s not clear who’s in the box.) Meanwhile, Harry’s really in Guatemala applying for a job as a smuggler and getting ready for what looks like interesting geopolitical shenanigans. We won’t know just what these are until issue 2.

Want to get in touch with your sulky inner teenager and stick it to the man? American Century just may be your ticket to ride. The press release that came with issue 1 says that in upcoming issues Harry will travel to blacklist-era Hollywood and the Bohemian underground of the Midwest. It’ll be fun to see if these adventures inspire Harry to make a stand for his beliefs, or if he’ll remain a brooding runaway.

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