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Where Ellie's journey began
on 26 December 2013
Over the last few years I've read quite a few comic book tie-ins for films, TV and games, as more creators increasingly look to use the medium as a distinctive and cheaper way of telling new stories (especially prequel tales, like TLoU: American Dreams) from a fictional universe rather than simply adapting the story we already know (a practice referred to as transmedia storytelling by the industry and 'aca-fan' Henry Jenkins). The problem with a lot of these additional stories (whether produced in comics, books, games or webseries) is that they often feel restricted by the stories of the major films/games/TV series they're attached to: few add much to our understanding of the characters, seem to carry much consequence for the 'main' story, or keep enough of what we love about that story whilst establishing their own identity and going in novel directions. In the worst cases, there seems to be little point to them beyond providing promotion for the main release.
The Last of Us: American Dreams doesn't entirely escape the difficulties that come with creating a new story that adds something to our experience of the game whilst not being unrealistically touted as 'required reading' before we pick up the PS controller (no doubt Naughty Dog knows that only a small fraction of people who play TLoU will ever read the comic). For one thing, anyone who's completed the game and knows how things turn out between the comic's main characters, Ellie and her friend Riley, may be surprised and perhaps disappointed at where the comic's story ends and may find it all a bit slight (although I'm sure the game's first single-player DLC will pick up this thread). At the same time, though, American Dreams is one of the strongest and most interesting comic tie-ins I've read, and it definitely establishes a distinct identity. If the game left you wanting to know more of Ellie's story (and I don't know why it wouldn't!), you could do much worse ahead of the DLC's release than give this comic a go. It's only 4 issues long, pacey but not especially complex story-wise, and not as dialogue-heavy as, say, the similarly post-apocalyptic Y: The Last Man, so it's a quick read and is not worth paying over the odds for. It probably goes without saying, but this story also does not feature Joel, so anyone looking to see more of Joel and Ellie's relationship would be disappointed in this instance.
Without spoiling too much, American Dreams is essentially a teen story (it starts out as Ellie arrives at a new [military] school and endures bullies, punishments and the tough business of finding a friend, but thankfully moves out of this setting by the second issue), dealing with teen rebellion, anger, and the two girls' desire to carve out meaningful identities and future adult lives for themselves. These familiar themes gain added poignancy from the post-apocalyptic setting, where life is usually brutal and short and truly caring adults and mentors are hard to come by. As the short story unfolds over the course of one night, Ellie's friendship with the seemingly more self-assured and streetwise Riley provides a nice way of exploring these ideas, especially when the story takes a turn that is admittedly predictable but also credible and well-executed.
Stylistically it will not be everyone's cup of tea, but Faith Erin Hicks' artwork suits the story well: she's done teen stories before and her style is quite similar to fellow Canadian comics creator Bryan Lee O'Malley's art (Scott Pilgrim, Lost at Sea). She handles the quiet and haunting moments of the story effectively, and even though the vibrant visions of nature reclaiming the streets that were so memorable in the game are disappointingly substituted for images of grey desolation and emptiness, the backgrounds are generally decent and their spareness makes the action easier to follow. The one place where the comic's style does really fall down for me is the inevitable encounter with the infected. The Runners and Stalker lose their menace in the transition from the game's realistic visuals to Hicks' cartoonish images - the more gruesome Clickers would have been a more effective choice.
Hicks and Neil Druckmann, the game's creative director and writer, handle the writing, preserving Ellie's spiky personality whilst understandably writing her as a more inexperienced character than we see in the game. There are a couple of moments that don't quite work for me from a logical standpoint, but nothing too jarring. Julian Totino Tedesco's cover artwork is an absolute treat, and he captures Ellie's appearance really well.
I imagine that the comic could be comfortably read before, during or after playing the main game. It doesn't spoil anything in the game's story (or, more importantly, contradict it), but instead enhances it, albeit in understandably pretty modest ways. The upcoming DLC is likely to have a far greater impact on how well it feeds into and complements the game, but for the moment it feels like a solid extension of the story and much less like a redundant cash-in than many comic book tie-ins. Big fans of the game may well want to check this one out.