Missy Deveraux used to be Ole Miss, part of a government super-team used to make people believe heroes were protecting America. Now she’s running for political office on a platform of old Southern values, during a time of great anger and change.
Note: For each issue of The American Way: Those Above and Those Below, I’ll be talking to author/screenwriter John Ridley about the events of the latest installment. The series is set during the 1970s, as members of a defunct federal superhero program try to figure out how to change the world for the better. The American Way: Those Above and Those Below features art by Georges Jeanty, Danny Miki, and Nick Filardi. The interview that follows discusses events in issue #3.
In issue #2 of The American Way: Those Above and Those Below, Jason Fisher—once known as helmeted government super-symbol the New American—went to court to stand trial after stopping a killer hiding behind black militant activism. The not-guilty verdict got Jason called a sellout, set off civil unrest, and made him doubt his crime-fighting efforts. Meanwhile Amber Eaton, a former teammate of Jason’s, has been using her energy powers to destroy government property as part of a underground radical movement in Oakland. Some of her fellow radicals died in a police raid and her latest bombing has tragic consequences when someone dies in a building that was supposed to be empty. The series’ other major character, time manipulator Missy Devereaux, decides to run for public office after finding out she’s dying of cancer.
io9: The thing that strikes me about Missy is her gradual movement to advocating a return to the values that she grew up on, which are also the values that informed Jim Crow and segregation. In the first issue, she was reluctant to enter politics.
Then her cancer diagnosis leads to her announcing her candidacy. It’s very clear she thinks she’s right. Talk to me about getting into the headspace of writing a character who doesn’t necessarily believe that black people are deserving of a full slate of human rights.
Ridley: I don’t want to say that it was easy. But it’s not that hard, in the sense that, you know, we see folks like that every single day? There’s people on the far end of the spectrum who arrive with anger and bitterness and all that kind of thing... The people who throw around words like “traditional values” and say “Where’s the tradition?” You know, people say, “traditional family values,” and up through 1967, you couldn’t even have interracial marriage. And then, apparently, society fell apart [for them] in the ‘70s, so where’s that tradition? To me, the balance is having somebody who by all other measures seems like a decent person—they seem like a good person, like somebody that should understand certain things. But they’re constantly the people that you see, who don’t see themselves in others, and see how they’re hurting people.
In this case, it’s Missy. I don’t think it would service the story if we got people in this space who were extremists. I wanted to have somebody in it that feels they represent normality. But that normality allows the extremism to exist. It’s the normalization. Even in this day and age, when we see extremism, it gets to a point where it’s so extreme that even extremists have to go, “Okay, well, that one crossed a line.” As opposed to other people who, day-in and day-out, normalize certain things because it’s palatable and soothing to people of their station.
io9: On the other opposite pole is Amber, and we see dissension in her movement over tactics. Again, it feels like something that’s happening on the left in present day. There’s an obvious, existential threat coming from the opposite side but people disagree as how to engage it.
Ridley: This series was written and done well before the election and subsequent developments happened. But I’ve been watching the Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War—I’m a child of that era—and it fascinates me how we’ve talked about all this before, collectively. Like with the SDS [Students for Democratic Society]. There were people in it who felt like they weren’t going far enough, and that’s where the Weather Underground came from. In that time in the 1970s, you know there was almost a bombing a day—these symbolic bombings.
io9: It’s hard for those who came after to think of that kind of reality...
Ridley: Obviously, any extreme act, people pay attention to it. Most people, wherever it’s coming from, are obviously supporting that. There was a time when New York City was evacuated on a regular basis. That was part of life. Now it’s part of life to get your bag checked at New York Comic Con. Back in the 1970s, people really believed they could take symbolic action. [The thinking was] “We can take a bomb, it will be at the women’s bathroom at the Pentagon, nobody’s going to get hurt, but we will make a statement.”
Well, you put enough bombs out there, someone’s going to get hurt. And that balance between, “Well, somebody got hurt but it wasn’t our fault,” or “We didn’t intend it,” or “They’re a functionary,” or “That’s what needs to happen,” versus “We’re dropping bombs in Vietnam every day, people are getting killed... how are we worse? How are we better?” “Well, that’s happening but that’s not quite my fault.” Who’s taking responsibility for all these things, then? In this series, Jason is the one person taking responsibility but he’s eating a lot of shit in trying to do so.
Again, trying to compartmentalize these ideologies has been happening for decades. I did two other interviews this morning. People are going, “Oh, you’re commenting on...” I’m really not trying to comment on what’s going on. We, as a people, continue to go through these things. Why?
io9: Reading this comic and living in the present day serves as reminder that we’re in these cycles that keep on repeating. I think one of the reasons they repeat is because various forces make the means by which we can break these cycles elusive. To be kind of reductive and blunt, if the Democrats can’t get their shit together, Trump’s going to get re-elected. The Democrats can’t get their shit together because we have various factions on the left fighting among themselves about how best to mount effective opposition to Trump and his cronies. So, do you feel like the cycles in the universe that you set up are going to continue, politically?
Ridley: Unfortunately, yes. And I think you make a very good point. Because part of the problem in the late ‘60's, early ‘70s was that you had a whole lot of people who were unified against the establishment, against the war, against our repressive and regressive nature. They were unified ideologically in what they wanted to accomplish, but they were so factionalized overall. There was, as Nixon called them, “the silent majority” who were on the other side. In ‘68, there were riots in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic convention and there were bombs going off. It became “Well, that side doesn’t have their thing together” and the Nixonian representation—what Missy in our comic stands in for—landed the narrative of “at least, they’ve got their stuff together. So, [people go] “Maybe I don’t agree with everything, but that’s stability.” And that, I think, is the issue. You look at the John McCains of the world and the conservatives and the Jeff Flakes, and they’re going, “I don’t like that.” They may not be necessarily politicians that I would agree with issue-by-issue, but they’re looking at it and going, “We don’t agree with that.” Then, look at the left. Is it going to be the more Bernie Sanders socialistic left? Is it going to be the centrists? The Kamala Harrises of the world? Who’s that person going to be? And if they can’t figure it out, then the other side is going to have that opportunity. Then, factor in the Roy Moores of the world. What is that going to do? How is that going to explode things?
The lack of cohesion of politics on any side just leaves everybody with real hurt. People do need some kind of healthcare. We need some kind of tax reform. We need some kind of gun control. We need some kind of mental healthcare. So how do we get to it? That’s what we deal with in real life. That’s what these folks are dealing with in The American Way.
io9: Back to Jason, his brother Evan, once again, is being the voice of caution and skepticism. Erskine Wells, Jason’s old government handler, comes to try and get Jason more involved and raise his profile in fighting this threat. It seems like Jason is trying to stay neutral in a time when the act of staying neutral compromises what he’s able to do.
Ridley: Yes, and that is exactly what he’s trying to do. Jason was, in the first series, a very emotional guy. He came in with anger and fire and he went through things. There’s a moment at the end where he literally explains to everyone else, “You’ve got to be your better self.” So now Jason is in this place where he’s trying to intellectualize certain things.
io9: It seems he’s trying to hold onto his idealism, still.
Ridley: I think he’s trying to hold onto that, too. That sense that goes, “We went though a certain trauma, and I represent something.” I find myself talking to young people, and young people look at me [a certain way] because I’ve done certain things. I talk to them and they’re receptive to me but, at the same time, things are different. The stakes are different for me and for them. By the same token, Jason is trying to hold on to that statesman position, by virtue of being neutral. And, neutrality—as we see at the end of the third issue—neutrality doesn’t work. You got to get in and do something.
What I’m working towards, without giving anything away, is that there’s yet another perspective that he’s got to reckon with. You got to step in and break these cycles. That’s what he’s got to figure out. I got the luxury of just talking about these things. I don’t know how to break cycles. All three characters—Jason, Amber, Missy—have to figure out how you break that cycle.
io9: Let’s go back to Missy, because it feels of all the characters, she’s the most convinced her political ideology is right. That ideology is adjacent to and implicated in institutional racism, yet she doesn’t think she’s wrong. What is her reputation in the world? In the fiction?
Ridley: I believe that her reputation in this world is similar to many people who would say, “You—even though you may be in the prevailing culture—you’re being ignored.” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with saying that there was a Lost Cause, that folks in the Confederacy fought with honor during the Civil War. It’s that desire to maintain the prevailing culture, whether it’s individualized or collective. With Missy, the people in her environment go, “Great, you’re celebrating that which needs to be upheld, and we’re proud of you for doing that.” They’re not reckoning with the full history and that perpetuates a myth that their way of life is being eroded. It’s not being crushed. But people go out of their way to feel like they need to elevate their “traditional values.”