“Your rank will be Apocalypse Commander. Your powers will be absolute.”
I heard about this story after Garth Ennis praised it in an interview with Brian K. Vaughn. Lo and behold, Ennis’ quote adorns the front cover: “one of the very best comic books ever published”.
And it is really something. Anti-war, anti-America, anti-religion, utterly bleak and nihilistic – this is definitely a British comic. It follows in the wake of the nuclear apocalypse, in which a cryogenically frozen US soldier is awakened to restore order and reinstate the American way of life.
His name is Ulysses S. Pilgrim and his official rank is ‘Apocalypse Commander’.
Originally published under Marvel’s ‘Epic’ imprint back in 1990, the book might promise an action-packed ride but it’s anything but. Pilgrim struggles to find any other life out in the wastes, to fire bullets at or otherwise, and the majority of the book follows him and three robots in their massive tank/command center as they search the ruins of America.
As he goes along, his mental state deteriorates and we’re treated to visions, dreams, dancing zombies singing songs from the Great American Songbook, and all sorts of madness. The man is utterly alone, and it slowly dawns on the reader just how insanely terrifying that would be. Promises of survivors, of voices on the wind, keep him going. But it’s not long before all hope is lost and Pilgrim finally snaps. It forces you to wonder how far you’d go, how long you’d last all alone.
And McMahon’s art is absolutely insane. It’s weirder than anything I’ve read in a long time, and definitely reflects a world of underground comics that I’m only passingly familiar with. Pilgrim is all hard edges and chiseled features, feeling at odds with his perfect, round companions – but right at home in the rubble of the American Dream.
We might not be living under the shadow of nuclear annihilation (or it’s so constant that we’re used to it) but the book still resonates. Especially in a post-Trump era, where America seems to be turning into a twisted mirror version of its former self every day. Or perhaps the myth of America just used to be easier to swallow. But whatever the case, the idea that in the event of nuclear annihilation of their own making, a warrior of God and the ol’ US of A would be the ideal candidate to save us all, I don’t think it could feel more timely.
In one particular dream sequence, Pilgrim finds himself face to face with US Presidents of eras past in heaven. (“Heaven is–American?” he asks. “As Mom’s apple pie.“) And he notes that ultimately, they’re just men. Some might be courageous, some evil, but they’re only men. They’re not chosen by God, they’re just a bunch of ordinary men. Most of them are villains, more concerned with pre-emptive strikes and saving face than actually trying to avert disaster.
The themes are timeless and the story is fantastic. I couldn’t recommend it more. In the wake of nukes and bombs in the name of freedom, America will come and save us all.