Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Last of Us: American Dreams (Comic)

Two months ago, The Last of Us was released. It's an amazing game that represents the best of Naughty Dog's development skill and managed to repeatedly push the "Father" button in me despite me not being a father; the imagery and storytelling is that powerful. Right before the release date, Dark Horse started publishing a four-issue prequel comic titled The Last of Us: American Dreams, which focuses on a point in Ellie's life before the events of the game begin. I was intrigued just by its existence, but I became more curious about the story as it came out, wondering what would happen next. Now that all four issues have been released, I think that this tie-in comic manages to retain the atmosphere and level of writing really well, but is much better when read within some proximity to playing the game.

After getting kicked out of several schools, Ellie arrives at yet another and is told by a familiar guard to stay out of trouble. Very quickly however, she gets into a fight with bullies who were trying to take her stuff. Another girl, Riley, helps her out and chases the bullies away, but Ellie still gets in trouble for her actions. During her punishment, she finds that Riley managed to steal her Walkman, causing her to find the girl to retrieve it the next day. On that night however, Ellie finds that Riley, a supporter of a rebel group known as the Fireflies, is about to sneak out of the school (again). Riley allows Ellie to join her and the two set off into the night, unaware of what they're about to encounter.

The story of American Dreams is done very well. What helps is that the writer, Neil Druckmann, also wrote the game the comic is based on, which helps with consistency of characters and atmosphere, which he nails. Ellie's story explores how the world has changed around her and gives us a better idea of how things work in a world where the Infected are the major threat. For instance, there's a part where she and Riley go to an abandoned mall and come across an empty arcade. Ellie is genuinely excited to see the machines, having read about them before but never growing up in an environment where she would've been able to play one. Riley talks about another machine in particular, describing a character who is hinted to be one she'd like to be more similar to. As they leave, Ellie imagines what the arcade must have been like when it was full of life, only to then imagine the crowd of happy children to be extinguished by the arrival of the Infected. This one moment is especially powerful, as it shows how the world took a turn for the worse years ago and how people have lost their childlike innocence to the new reality they live in; they can no longer enjoy themselves and just have fun because now survival is key. The story is very good even until the end, with moments that continue to put the new world on display and give us more insight into Ellie's past, which I feel ties into the story and themes of The Last of Us incredibly well.

Concept art for Ellie in The Last of Us: American Dreams.

Faith Erin Hicks, who co-wrote American Dreams, also shows her talent as an artist. Her style is unique, but I think it suits the tone of The Last of Us well. The characters are very expressive and their body language helps communicate how they're saying their dialogue. I'll admit that I found Ellie's reactions to things to be cute at times based on how she was depicted. However, I'll also admit that there's only one thing about the art that's just a little odd, which would be Ellie's lips. In close-up shots, we are more likely to see more realistic lips, which is a bit of contrast with the more cartoonish design (for lack of better words) she, and other characters, exhibit at times. It's a minor thing that doesn't take away too much from the art, I just found it to be a little jarring.

I'd also like to commend Rachelle Rosenberg's colors, which smartly utilize a darker palette to showcase how dismal the world is. More specifically, I'm glad that there aren't very many browns and that a good variety of colors are represented, but the selection is very fitting and the excellent lighting helps, especially in the daytime. I also like the covers done by Julián Totino Tedesco, which are darker than the book, at least color-wise, but give a good idea of what happens and are very eye-catching. The more paint-like style works and the compositions are top-notch.

Like the Uncharted comic, The Last of Us: American Dreams is a comic worth reading. It gives us more insight into Ellie and the world around her while introducing other characters from the game and filling people in on some background with the things she tells Joel in the game. However, it's best read by someone who is either about to play the game or has already played the game. You could read it by itself, but this is a tie-in that's more about going together with the game instead of being a stand-alone story.

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