There's a moment midway through the first issue of "The Last of Us: American Dreams" where Ellie, who seems a while away from meeting Joel, makes a grisly discovery in the frame of a truck she's been assigned to clean. That moment illustrates so many things about the character and her world: the ease of violence beyond the secure walls of the military-fortified compounds and more importantly, how quickly the young are forced to get used to it.
Based on the work in this Neil Druckman/Faith Erin Hicks-penned miniseries, not only will we be getting some background teen survivor Ellie, but also a broad look at the plague-afflicted United States in the upcoming Naughty Dog game. As far as first issues go, it works, giving us a first glimpse at a prickly, motivated young heroine and the precarious state of survival in this dying version of America.
We first meet Ellie when she's being dropped off at a facility for orphaned children by what we can assume is the latest in a line of temporary parental surrogates. Coming into town by bus, she sees the jackboot-wearing soldiers patrolling the high-walled, fenced-in community, earphones jammed into her ears keeping the world at a distance (the old school Walkman she keeps with her has some emotional significance, we'll learn). Hicks and Druckman (the former also illustrated the book while the latter is writing the game for Naughty Dog) are admirably restrained in the first issue: Ellie speaks in mostly short bursts, so closed off and angry that the only times she'll give you a strong response is if you've found your way on her bad side.
As far as the plot goes, "American Dreams" follows Ellie's first days at the military-run facility for orphaned kids. The place is a blend of juvvie and the schoolyard and Ellie carries herself like an old con--head low, and she'll scrap if she needs to. It's here that she meets Riley, a girl who might become a friend (or at least ally). It's too early to say how these two will get mixed up, but Riley knows how to escape the camp and Ellie wants out of the camp so for the moment, it looks like they might have some common ground.
Hicks' illustration, along with Rachelle Rosenberg's clean, but dark colors, give this post-apocalyptic landscape a surprising amount of vibrancy. America's dead (or dying) but its people aren't. Details like a fully-armored soldier on horseback or a civilian arrest through a bus window remind us of that. Likewise, Ellie (and really all of the characters on display) are deeply expressive, from our heroine's attempt at disaffected cool, to the struggle to find the right emotions in the aforementioned truck scene.
At this point, Druckman and Hicks are playing the central mystery of the story pretty close to their vests. Obviously, the anti-goverment group the Fireflies will figure into things somehow, but for the moment, it's just interesting walking with these characters and exploring their world.
"The Last of Us: American Dreams" #1 is available now from Dark Horse Comics.
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