The Last of Us has proven itself to be a darling of this generation. The gritty survival horror tale has been one of the biggest hits of 2013 and the entire Playstation 3 lineup. While not as common as comic adaptations and tie-ins to movies and television series, the genre of video game tie-in comic books has provided some of its own greats in recent years, including Tom Taylor’s Injustice: Gods Among Us series to provide backstory for the game of the same name. Dark Horse Comics, meanwhile, has provided players with a four-issue prequel to The Last of Us, entitled The Last of Us: American Dreams. Does this mini-series live up to the game it leads into or the high bar set for video game comics with Injustice?
Nope. Not unless you really enjoy foul-mouthed and/or unlikable characters. With those, American Dreams abounds.
An Unlikable Ellie and Her Streetwise Pal
American Dreams is written by Neil Druckmann and Faith Erin Hicks, the latter of whom is also the artist for the series. Druckmann and Hicks draw upon elements of Ellie’s background, hinted at through her conversations with Joel in the game, to provide us with a glimpse into Ellie’s time in a military school and her first face-to-face encounter with the Fireflies.
A large portion of the emotional impact of The Last of Us comes from the player’s ability to form attachments to both Joel and Ellie. In particular, Ellie is characterized as both a fighter and a victim, strong and vulnerable – she is the kid that is tough enough to survive the apocalypse but fragile enough to remember that she is still in many ways just a kid. Naughty Dog balances her childlike qualities, such as difficulties in defending herself against an adult and how Joel views her use of firearms, with more “adult” qualities like being able to take the lead when Joel is injured or her prolific swearing. Somehow, in the game, Ellie’s use of profanity is endearing – an amusing reminder of how this child has had to grow up in such a harsh reality. Players have been brought to tears by moments in the game, particularly in the last hour or so of the tale. We care about Ellie.
Thank goodness we did not form our opinions of Ellie from the comic book. Praise be to the powers that be that Dark Horse Comics did not manage to release all four issues of The Last of Us: American Dreams before the game’s release. Otherwise, we would loathe Ellie.
Naughty Dog, Dark Horse Comics “broke” your character.
Ellie spends the first of these four issues arriving at the military school that she is required to attend upon turning thirteen. She is to stay there until she turns sixteen, at which point she will be required to become a soldier to help fight the Infected (who, by the way, barely appear in this mini-series). Within that first issue, Ellie meets equally-unlikable teen Riley. Along the way, those 22 pages rack up 15 uses of profanity, 5 of which are from Ellie, and a full third of which are constant repeats of the phrase, “I should stomp your f***ing balls.” (No, I’m not kidding.) In comic form, rather than game form, the non-stop searing does nothing to endear us to the characters and instead drives a wedge between the reader and Ellie over and over again.
The second issue sees Ellie and Riley sneaking away from the supposedly secure facility to seek out the Fireflies, the rebel group that Joel and Ellie are working with in the game. (During this excursion, we rack up another 13 profanities, 3 of which are Ellie’s.) After a little bit of clumsy bonding (on the writer’s behalf, not the characters’) between Ellie and Riley in an old mall, we move on to the third issue, still feeling as though little to nothing has happened yet. (Oh, and we still haven’t seen a single Infected, unless you count a guy who is being held for possibly being infected.)
The third issue finally introduces some action into the tale, sending Riley and Ellie out to watch and then assist in a clash between the soldiers and the Fireflies, resulting in them finally meeting the Fireflies that they have been seeking. This action-heavy, dialogue-low issue only brings 8.5 profanities (one cut off), 2.5 of which are Ellie’s. This issue also finally brings us three Infected, all of whom appear to be Runners (despite one being called a Stalker in the next issue), which means that they basically look like any generic zombie from any generic zombie franchise, rather than the more elaborate forms we see in the game that make The Last of Us‘ Infected so unusual and interesting.
Having spent two issues to set up what could have perhaps been the first half or less of a single issue, and with much of the action in the mini-series concluded in the third issue, the fourth installment attempts to cram in enough backstory and game tie-ins to make you forget that you have just spent good money on three (now four) issues in a sub-par attempt at a video game tie-in series.
In The Last of Us, your primary contact within the Fireflies in a woman named Marlene, their leader. Through a rushed issue with the series’ highest profanity count (around 18 total with 8 being from Ellie), we witness Ellie and Riley’s first encounter with Marlene, but it is not as one might expect. Rather than setting up the game by leaving Ellie bitten by an Infected and staying with Marlene until she can be sent across the country in hopes of finding a cure, we learn a bit of Riley’s backstory (a brief blurt about one of her more traumatic moments, which would have hit us hard if we had any reason to actually care about the Riley character) and see how Ellie gets a weapon she uses in the game and learns a tiny bit about a personal connection that shows up in the game in a late-story audio recording. We then see Ellie and Riley put right back where they started.
As American Dreams ends, are we ready for the events of The Last of Us? Do we feel as though we know more about Ellie in a way that gives us new insight or interest in the character beyond what we experience in the game? Failing either of those, have we at least been provided with a solid adventure in world-building to make the setting for The Last of Us all the more “real” to gamers?
The answer in an emphatic no on all counts.
I really wanted to like The Last of Us: American Dreams. I greatly enjoyed the game and Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series. I am an avid reader of some of Dark Horse’s comics and even wrote for them briefly in 2004, which was a true thrill. No amount of wishing, however, can make American Dreams anything more than it turned out to be: a poorly written, dull, cash-in that all but the most die-hard The Last of Us completists should simply avoid reading. At $3.99 each, there simply isn’t nearly $16 worth of enjoyment to be had here.