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'Undiscovered Country' treads deeply familiar ground

Comic Books

‘Undiscovered Country’ treads deeply familiar ground

Or, what the Image series misses on identity and inclusivity.

What is America? After the last month, it’d be pretty irresponsible to describe the country without some reference to the systemic racism that’s plagued its society since its inception. People are killed by police officers for no reason other than the color of their skin, peaceful protests are getting violently disrupted by those who claim to be working to protect people, and the government is doing its best to de-legitimize any media that criticizes its leadership. There are clear favorites chosen by the ruling class, and it’s become very clear that the Civil Rights movement still has more work to do. In the midst of a global pandemic, the nation’s foundation of racism has been laid bare for all to see.

With everything that’s been going on, it’s a little bit eerie that just last year Image Comics started publishing a comic about America closing its borders to the outside world during a global pandemic. With Undiscovered Country, Scott Snyder, Charles Soule, Giuseppe Camuncoli, Daniele Orlandini, and Crank claimed to be creating a book about the dangers of isolation, and what America at its core truly was when it had severed all ties with the rest of the world. It’s been incredibly successful up to this point—it’s popular and selling incredibly well, and was just nominated for an Eisner award. It’s hard to view this as anything but an unmitigated success for the creative team and the publisher. But honestly, I just don’t get it.

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A page from Undiscovered Country.

Courtesy of Image Comics.

Undiscovered Country is a book that claims to be digging into the nation’s identity and the reality underneath the facade we’ve created for the rest of the world, but it’s just a generic adventure through a wasteland with cartoonish American aesthetics. Rather than actually take a look at the history of the country, or even what’s been happening regularly in the past decade, Snyder and Soule come up with silly, wacky fun characteristics for each location they visit. Maine has lobster people! Kentucky has horse racing! Louisiana has zombie Mardi Gras! The Destiny Man is the imposing villain of the series, but his desires are nothing more than vague platitudes, with his goal of “Live Free or Die” sitting there as the most meaningless motivation for a villain.

The Silent Minority have a name that feels like it should be a riff on Richard Nixon, but instead there’s just a boring explanation for why those are the two words they picked — they’re silent because they’re hiding from the government, and they’re a minority because there’s not a lot of them. That’s it, nothing beyond the literal definitions of the words.

There’s so much talk about what America is and the spirit of America, but nothing’s being said. There’s nothing about the fact that our police kill people in their custody at a rate of more than double most other developed nations, or how our own government spread drugs in black neighborhoods to criminalize opposition to the president’s party. There’s nothing about how the entire country’s legal system exists to keep vulnerable minorities powerless. This America we see doesn’t feel like a reasonable extension from the world we live in — it feels cartoonish and sheltered.

The reason that this book’s view of America clashes so hard with the reality that so many of us have been experiencing for decades isn’t just because of a fascination with American aesthetics. It’s because the creators aren’t the people living that reality. America’s a country separated by race — even if Segregation ended in the ’60s, people of color have never been treated the same as white people. Undiscovered Country is a look at the America that white men have lived in — the South is the place with Mardi Gras, not the place where people like me feel nervous going outside to fill up gas. Kentucky’s all horse racing, not the place where my car got a slur spray-painted on it while staying at a hotel overnight on a road trip.

The transformations the various regions are depicted having gone through all seem to be turning the harmless (horse races, lobster catching) into the threatening and the alien, but there’s nothing indicating any sort of understanding of how all these areas were threatening in their own ways. The creators spend so much time trying to turn something slightly abnormal into something they consider terrifying, missing that what they consider normal is what the rest of us find fearsome.

A page from Undiscovered Country.

Courtesy of Image Comics.

There’s an attempt to be inclusive in the book, but it falls pretty flat on its face when juxtaposed with the actual contents of the story. The cast of the series is diverse in terms of gender and race, but everyone’s written like a white person. It’s hard to describe in detail what I mean by that, but when there’s a Black man who’s left on his own in this monstrous version of America, there’s no attention given to the fact that he’s Black in America. There’s no additional sense of danger that any person of color would feel in this situation, because the writers don’t understand that feeling. The white experience in America is wholly different from the black experience, or the Hispanic experience, or the Asian experience. One would think that in this flanderized version of America these differences would increase exponentially, but it seems like they’ve gone away altogether.

Inclusivity isn’t assuming everyone has the same experiences regardless of their race, gender, sexuality, etc.; it’s understanding how one’s background inherently shapes their perspective in a different way from those who do not share that background. I wish it felt like there was any consideration thrown into how this twisted America would treat people of different backgrounds. Instead, it seems like the creators have gone with the assumption that everyone will be treated equally poorly, a belief born from privilege.

It’s 2020. A dystopian America isn’t a fantasy anymore, and isn’t a place to go adventuring for anyone who’s had to live as a minority here. A book that claims to be about America becoming a twisted caricature of itself has already failed in its goal if it doesn’t draw any attention to the exploitative foundations of the nation, and in 2020 with the recent jump in engagement of the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests around the world, the book isn’t saying anything at all. While it’s not necessary that every piece of art needs to comment on modern times, it is for this book by virtue of its subject matter.

It’s such a massive waste to take this premise that’s loaded with potential and not turn it into anything poignant or meaningful. This could have been a fantastic way for two prolific white writers to explore the insidious nature of systemic racism and white privilege, but has instead turned into a rather untimely illustration of how that privilege shapes one’s worldview. Snyder and Soule are far from bigots — both of them have put in a lot of work to help the underprivileged and oppressed minorities. It’s just incredibly disheartening to see them show us all how they see the world, and have it end up this whitewashed and irrelevant, and for them to get nearly universally lauded for it. This book still has a long way to go, the creators mentioned that it might hit 50 issues – so there’s plenty of time for them to actually delve into something more interesting as the story goes on.

There’s seeds for Uncle Sam (a supporting character who looks like the famous one) being less benevolent than he’s been presented as so far and there’s definitely something sinister being teased at, but as an introduction to this book – as a way to get someone hooked in 2020 this is not a very strong showing, let alone an award-worthy one.

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