Less than a year into his presidency, Donald Trump has repeatedly defended white supremacists and self-identified Nazis, toyed with the idea of going to war with North Korea, and stood by cluelessly as the Republican congress fought to rob millions of Americans of their healthcare. Objectively, these are dark times.
When we talk about how America under Donald Trump feels dystopian, what we’re talking about is how, if left entirely unchecked and allowed to be codified, many of the Trump administration’s draconian policies and stances would transform our society into a warped, nightmarish version of itself. As a thought exercise, envisioning a world in which Trump and his supporters are able to achieve all of their goals is an important way for his political opponents to keep sight of why the protest and resist.
In Matteo Pizzolo and Amancay Nahuelpan’s Calexit from Black Mask Studios, the future where Trump’s regime has reshaped the country in its own image isn’t a matter of “what if,” but rather “what now?” In this world, the darkest timeline, everything we’ve feared about Trump has come to pass and in an act of defiance, a number of key cities throughout the state of California have said: “fuck this; I’m out.”
The version of America that Calexit presents us is meant to be interpreted as a realistic one quite similar to our own save for a few key differences. In this world, one of the new American president’s first orders of business after coming into office was to deport each and every single immigrant regardless of whether or not they were documented. The then governor of California, seeing the president’s executive order an an abhorrent abuse of power, declares the entire state as a place of sanctuary that will not recognize or abide by the new law.
In an ideal world, California would metaphorically pull out of the US and become a shining, self-sufficient beacon of acceptance and welcoming, shaming the rest of the US by simply doing the truly American thing. But Pizzolo keenly understands that, realistically, California seceding would be a destabilizing event within the state itself, causing factions to rise up on both sides: those in support of the US government and those opposed.
As Calexit opens, the state is in a tense, bloody holding pattern illustrated helpfully by a map. Multiple major coastal cities like San Francisco and Oakland are controlled by the Pacific Coast Sister Cities Alliance, the group who refuse to comply with the president’s executive order. The Sovereign Citizens Coalition, those aligned with the US Federal Government, control a larger portion of the state, but given the way that resources like food, water, and power are created in California, they aren’t necessarily in an advantageous position.
Skirmishes between the Federal Government-aligned Bunkerville Militants, and the Mulholland Resistance, Calexit’s freedom fighters, happen throughout the entire state, but as the story picks up, we zoom in on Zora McNulty, a woman on the run from the authorities somewhere in Los Angeles, an occupied city caught between Resistance and Sovereign territories.
As Zora breathlessly rushes to her parents’ home in the dead of the evening, we see that she isn’t just a regular person, but an important member of the resistance being targeted by a particular government agent. Moments after she and her father are briefly reunited, Zora’s forced to flee into the night because she knows that the man who’s after her will soon be upon her family.
Right on cue, the agent and his men make their way into the McNulty family’s home and begin to do what every super villain who’s ever hunted for a hero does: menacingly threaten everyone in sight as a gross showing of power that demonstrates to us just how sinister they are. Though there is much about the bespectacled villain that feels very standard-issue, it’s the parallels between the things he says and the coded, racist language that’s become a hallmark of the Trump administration that makes him uniquely terrifying. Just before fatally stabbing Zora’s adoptive father, the man points out that because her adoption took place in California, a place whose laws are no longer recognized, the adoption is considered invalid, making her an immigrant. Or, rather, a refugee.
Elsewhere in the city, Jamil, a well-known (and liked) drug smuggler is making the best of his life by staying neutral in the ongoing conflicts and making illegal deliveries for both sides. When we first meet Jamil, he’s in the process of bringing a National Guardsman anti-depressants that, if he were caught trying to buy legally, would likely have him fired.
When Jamil rhetorically asks the guard why he posted to protect a statue of an elephant erected in downtown Hollywood, his drone assistant Livermore begins to describe the symbol’s historic relationship to Birth of a Nation creator D.W. Griffith and the Ku Klux Klan. As the two men debate whether something like a statue can simultaneously be a callback to a film and a monument to a man who fought for white supremacy, the guardsman is shot through the head by an unseen sniper who spares Jamil. Outmatched as Calexit’s resistance may be, they’re still very much a threat to those in positions of power.
Though there is an overarching plot about the disenfranchised rising up to strike back against their autocratic oppressors, Calexit is not a feel-good story and it doesn’t make any attempts at pretending that it is. It’s bloody and violent in a way that doesn’t glorify combat as so many comics do, but is frank in the reality it’s trying to present.
Were the US ever to fall into another Civil War, senseless, brutal deaths would fundamentally change the ways that we moved through and conceived of the world. But the thing that makes Calexit such a difficult book to grapple with (in a good way!) isn’t really even the violence, which quickly becomes the everyday backdrop to the characters’ lives. It’s the fact that the authoritarian powers-that-be who gleefully participate in said violence are darker, but not entirely unfamiliar versions of people that we already know.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated to accurately describe which areas within California are controlled by which sides of the conflict.