White supremacists, a tense and divisive election season, right-wing talking heads, and sudden acts of violence: this the jumble of elements we have witnessed in the most recent news-cycle. And these are plot points for "Right State," a new Vertigo graphic novel from Mat Johnson ("Incognegro," "Dark Rain") and Andrea Mutti (soon-to-be artist on "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo").
I read all of "Right State" the night before the tragic mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin -- and boy did the book give me some (eerie) perspective on that news story! Like "Right State's" protagonist Ted Akers, gunman Wade Michael Page found himself immersed in the shadowy world of white supremacist groups. While the similarities between the two men end there -- and the story takes place in a future timeline --"Right State" captures perfectly the zeitgeist of the times Americans live in, with some conservative pundits and politicians riling up citizens to turn on those who are "different" and blaming them for the nation's problems.
At the same time, Johnson doesn't go for the overly-simplified, "low-hanging fruit" of "the Right is bad, the Left is good" dichotomy in his storytelling -- because the author knows it's not that cut-and-dry. And that's one of the reasons I like "Right State." It affords these topics the sort of textured, nuanced treatment it deserves.
In the book, the United States has a second African-American president seeing re-election, challenged by a "wishy-washy" Republican candidate with his ultra-conservative female VP (keep your eye on her). When the Secret Service gets wind of a possible presidential assassination plot cooked up by an extremist militia group, they turn to" Hero Of The Right" Akers to infiltrate the organization and get the scoop. But Akers -- who is definitely conservative, but far from fringe -- goes a bit too deep undercover. Add a messianic racist militia leader Ezekiel Dutton and some LSD, then stir.
There's a lot of twists and turns in "Right State," and to say any more would spoil the ending. But the best parts of the graphic novel are those quieter moments when we learn a bit more about the characters and their motivations, such as the plight of Akers's troubled military grandfather and the various militia members talking over a campfire. I feel like Johnson gives every side their chance to talk about where they're coming from:
"They come for your guns, then they come for your liberty. My father taught me that. Right after the election. You couldn't even buy ammo. Everybody was stocking up before a crackdown, they said. But I knew the truth. They want your guns, first they come for your ammo. That woke me up. Drink!"
Read almost any message board attached to the news story about the killings at Oak Creek, and you will read variations of the above sentiment from some commenters. That's how spot-on -- and spookily prescient -- Johnson's work is here.
With moody black-and-white art from Mutti that perfectly captures the paranoid mood, "Right State" is a tense, tight and smart read that's of interest to both newshounds and fans of "conspiracy" type thrillers from 1970s cinema such as 'The Conversation" and "The Parallax View." It's available at comic book shops starting today, 8/8, and at booksellers next week on 8/14.