“The U.S.A., the U.S.S.R. with their six guns to their sides”
Ok, so in this book, more than one person dies, many kids are threatened, there’s post-traumatic stress due to Korea, there’s a mob threatening violence on a family, and the main character has polio. There’s nothing here that’s necessarily “adult,” but Walsh doesn’t pull any punches, and I’m a bit impressed that it’s from Graphix, which is usually a bit more on the “young” side of the “young adult” divide. Good for them!
Walsh sets the story in 1953, in Anytown, USA, which seems to be at least near Washington, DC. FBI agents chase a mysterious dude wearing a trench coat and carrying a briefcase through a building until said dude jumps out a sixth-floor window and disappears. Then, we meet Peggy, a typical young teenager who happens to have polio. Her twin brother wants nothing to do with her, her teacher is a jerk, the neighborhood bullies pick on her, something is going on with her father that they’re embarrassed about, and she has a bad attitude about polio rehab. She gets a new neighbor, a girl her age, but even then she has a bad attitude about the girl and gets off on the wrong foot. Her mother works as a cleaning lady at a motel, and she sometimes takes Peggy with her, and on one of those days, Peggy falls asleep in a room and wouldn’t you know it, the trench coat dude comes in, bleeding profusely from where the FBI guys shot him. He knows he’s not long for the world, so he hides a glowing red stick he’s carrying in the briefcase inside Peggy’s crutch (which she accidentally left where he could find it), and then he dies. The next day, Peggy has another miserable day at school, but she does team up with the neighbor to escape the bullies, which she does by … flying away. The glowing red stick gives her the ability, apparently. That’s kind of cool, she thinks.
There’s a lot going on in this book, in other words, but Walsh does a very good job keeping the focus on Peggy as the plot revolves around her (“Peggy” is such a great 1950s name, too, which is keen). He makes her a bit irascible, which is understandable given the fact that she has polio and her family is falling apart, but she’s not unlikable, and her attitude toward her life lets her change throughout the book, as she meets people worse off than she is and people who are being menaced more than she is. Walsh never forgets that it’s 1953, so even as Peggy learns more about the strange artifact she has, we still get people being paranoid about Communism and lashing out, leading to a corny moment that Walsh definitely earns, because he’s done the work laying the foundation. The end of the book is very exciting – Walsh takes a character who perhaps isn’t truly evil and shows how paranoia can make someone do horrible things, and it’s a sad commentary on where we were as a nation and, unfortunately, where we still are. I don’t want to give too much away, but Walsh does a really nice job evoking the 1950s while also showing how things haven’t changed all that much since then.
His art is terrific, too. There’s something about this kind of character design, with mostly round heads, Little Orphan Annie eyes, and few facial features, that, when combined with the detailed surroundings, heightens the “innocence” of everything – as if these are people newly born into a rich and amazing world, so every disappointment they feel affects them deep in their souls. That’s how I feel, anyway, as Walsh is clearly a skilled artist, so the fact that his characters’ faces are less detailed means it’s a choice, and it feels like he wants to show an innocence in America that is being eroded by events (I know America was never “innocent,” but Peggy is learning how dark things can get, so it becomes a metaphor, to a degree). The divide between the ground, where Peggy is trapped in a body that has betrayed her and the world is crushing her, and the air, where she is free, isn’t subtle, but Walsh does a superb job showing how gravity drags Peggy down (gravity in both a literal and metaphorical sense) and how flying uplifts her, from the change in her expression to the way he shifts her body language. He does a nice job linking the child and adult bullies in the book, as they both share a hard edge and a confused rage at a world that doesn’t make sense to them. Peggy’s dad is another terrific character, as Walsh usually uses more blacks to shadow him, even when he decides to rejoin society, as he’s always going to be haunted by what happened to him in Korea. The colors in the book are excellent, too, as Walsh keeps things pretty bright but uses blacks judiciously to hint around at the darkness lurking in the American psyche. The red stick obviously evokes Communism, and Walsh uses red throughout the book in interesting ways, linking it to rage, of course, but not just rage about Communists, but also, for instance, Peggy’s anger at her situation. All the colors are nice, but Walsh’s use of red is fairly clever.
Red Scare is a very good comic, one that is, I guess, ostensibly for “young adults,” but which delves deeply into a lot of “adult” topics, both political and personal, and ties them all together very nicely. It’s depressing, sure, at times, but it’s also exciting and ultimately uplifting and hopeful. It tells us a lot about the States of the 1950s, but it also tells us a lot about our current world, and that’s not bad. Plus, there’s cow manure, and you can’t go wrong with cow manure!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆