Undiscovered Country and Art from Trump’s America – A Comic Book Essay

A Note from Your Author: Greetings Fellow Travelers, I wrote this back in June and just sort of left it to sit. I’m publishing it now because the school year is starting and I want to say I wrote something in the last two months. I hope you enjoy.

I’m a fan of pro wrestling, as many of you know. In pro wrestling there’s a term that’s bandied about a lot called “The Mid-Card.” Mid-card wrestling matches are…exactly what you think they might be. They’re wrestling matches that take place in the middle of an event. These matches are usually put on by lower tier or journeyman wrestlers who aren’t involved in the biggest storylines. The mid-card is the place for the has-beens, the almost-was’es and the up and comers. But I don’t want to undersell it. The mid-card is a really important part of any pro-wrestling promotions, because it can demonstrate that your company has a strong depth of performers. Often times, a solid mid-card is the secret to an entire company’s success. I bring this up because I think Image Comics might have the strongest mid-card in the modern comic book industry. In addition to huge names like The Walking Dead, and Saga, they have a lot of talented creators working on books that aren’t quite as high profile but which nonetheless stand as excellent examples of comics, especially if you aren’t in superheroes. Today’s subject is one of those: Undiscovered Country, written by Scott Snyder and Charles Soule, with art by primarily by Giuseppe Camuncoli and colors by Matt Wilson. Undiscovered Country is a fascinating book that has been chugging along since late 2019, and having just released its third story arc, Possibility, as a trade paperback, I think it’s high time we talk about it. Because Undiscovered Country is a bit of a rarity in modern comics, and in modern sci-fi in general. It’s an allegorical sci-fi series about the “idea” of America.

First a brief digression and a bit of background. In my junior year of college, I took a course that was in fact titled The Idea of America. In practice, it was one of those higher level Liberal Arts classes that are less like a structured course and more like a book club where the host grades you every so often. Still, it was an interesting class. It’s the first place where I read Rabbit, Run by John Updike and where I encountered Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a book I hated at the time but which I’ve come around to in recent years. Anyway, that class was about how artists, primarily writers, had depicted America throughout the years, from the Captivity Narratives of Puritan colonists to novels grappling with the aftermath of 9/11. And while it was a little bit too high class to be a course where we might’ve read The Undiscovered Country, this comic would’ve fit right into the syllabus. Especially because it’s all about how Americans might conceptualize themselves in a distant future.

The set up is really solid: sometime in the not too distant future, America completely seals itself off from the rest of the world. And I mean total isolation. Not only does the US close all of its overseas military bases and give all expatriates a strict deadline to return, but they construct a massive wall that completely encircles the continental US. This wall is hundreds of feet high, and ringed with Anti-Aircraft weaponry and Electronic Warfare systems designed to jam any listening or surveillance equipment. America has effectively become a gigantic black hole in the world: nothing goes in, but nothing comes out either. Cut to about 30 years later, and things aren’t doing great in the rest of the world. A plague called Sky has been sweeping through the world with devastating lethality (it’s worth remembering, this book was first published in November 2019). The two major superpowers are trying desperately to keep everyone alive, but the world is months away from total societal collapse. Our main character, Charlotte Graves, is a former American working as a doctor. She’s approached by a delegation from the UN. It seems there might be a cure for Sky, but it has come from the most unlikely of places – the Old United States. A broadcast has announced that the US has a cure for Sky and they’re willing to give it to a delegation. The team will include Dr. Graves, her brother Daniel, a former spec ops operator who is technically wanted by most of the governments outside of the US, a pair of delegates from the two greatest powers in the world, the Alliance Euro-Afrique and the Pan-Asian Prosperity Zone, as well as a journalist and an expert on American culture. As you might expect, things go badly and the team is almost immediately stranded in the new United States. Specifically they find themselves in a hellish Mad Max-esque desert full of genetically modified monsters and being hounded by a group of nearly feral libertarians. Their pursuers are being lead by a monstrous individual in the remains of an old NASA space suit calling himself The Destiny Man. Welcome to Zone Destiny, and welcome back to the Good Ole US of A.

So that’s one hell of a premise and opening set up. But here’s where I need to talk about allegory, worldbuilding, and the problem of the two intersecting like this. See, if that basic set up didn’t spoil it for you, Undiscovered Country is a book with a lot of ideas about America and uses a lot of imagery and ideas from the past, both recent and more historical. Take for example, Zone Destiny. Destiny is based in what was once the American Southwest, implied to be everything from Central California to about as far east as Texas. It’s populated by technologically advanced cowboys and their genetically modified herds. They recognize no centralized government and believe in the simple law that only the strong survive, a law which they enforce with violence if necessary. They’re basically a bunch of highly advanced LARPers playing out a pioneer fantasy in a zone they literally named after Manifest Destiny. Subtlety is not in this comic’s wheelhouse. But in the context of this “New America,” Destiny still provides a valuable service in that they supply the meat and animal-based agricultural products to the twelve other zones across the reorganized United States. Just north of Destiny is Zone Unity, based out of the Pacific Northwest. Unity is what would happen if Steve Jobs and Jon Ives designed a technological utopia (at first glance). So far we’ve gotten a full exploration of three zones: Destiny, Unity and most recently Possibility. We’ve also seen glimpses of six other zones like History, Hegemony, Valor, Bounty, Capital and Conquest. Each Zone we’ve been told was built to embody what its inhabitants felt was the most important part of the American experience. They were also meant to support one another using fantastical technology provided by the Aurora Group, a mysterious think tank with close ties to the government. Aurora was seemingly lead by a man name Dr. Samuel Elgin, a tall, severe looking man with shocks of white hair, including a trimmed beard. When he is first introduced, he calls himself Uncle Sam and different versions of him keeps showing up in every zone the group visits. Oh, and before I forget, it’s actually been about 125 years inside of the American Wall while only 30 years passed outside. Time travels at different speeds all around the nation. It’s…complicated.

So here we have a setting wherein every aspects is meant to embody something in a long running allegory about America. But it’s also a fully realized sci-fi setting where a lot of thought has been put into how this bizarro version of America would operate. This might be a good time to discuss our two creators. I’ve spoken at length about Scott Snyder on this blog before, but it’s safe to assume that a lot of the themes and allegory at work in Undiscovered Country are his doing. This isn’t even the first book that Snyder has written that’s “about” the American Experience. His best comic is still American Vampire, a series that has a lot of the same DNA as Undiscovered Country and which I should really talk about one of these days. That said, while I love Snyder as a writer I feel like he sometimes plays a bit fast and loose with his own worldbuilding. In contrast, Charles Soule is one of the preeminent loremongers in modern comics. Marvel has entrusted him to build an entire franchise not once, but twice. Most recently he was given the mandate of establishing the High Republic era for Star Wars, an entirely new historical period in the Star Wars canon that has had comics, young adult novels and more focused on it. As a mark of its quality, The High Republic is is slated to eventually come to streaming in the form of a show on Disney+ called The Acolyte in the near future. Soule’s handprints are all over the little worldbuilding details in this comic, from how each zone dresses itself to elements outside of the US like the Lafayette Group, a faction of academics, historians and conspiracy theorists who present themselves as simply being curious about what happened to the USA but are in practice a bunch of highly funded Yankophiles. As one small example, literally the only thing we’ve seen of Zone Capital is a man and a woman at a conference wearing dark business suits and sunglasses. That, combined with a pin in a map that reads “Knox (Money Fort)” and we already know pretty much everything we need to know about Capital as a setting and as a people.

The challenge when reading Undiscovered Country is parsing between the allegory and the lore. It’s in wondering at what point a plot point centered around the new America’s impossible, reality-shaping technology becomes a plot point that’s actually about some deeper meaning. Because there are a lot of deeper themes in this comic, and I think those are worth talking about. Way back in my first ever book review, I talked about how we would eventually be analyzing the art that Americans produced from 2016 and through the end of 2020. And while it came out at the tail end of those years, Undiscovered Country is definitely a product of America under President Trump. Because it’s really hard to imagine this book being dreamed up in Obama’s America or even the America of George W Bush.

The America of Undiscovered Country is a nation with little to no central governance. It’s also quite literally, a nation divided along political and ideological lines. What was supposed to be a technological utopia has instead devolved into thirteen isolated zones, some of which seem to be doing alright (Unity) while others are literally drowning (Possibility). What’s more this current situation came about because people couldn’t agree on what America was to them. And instead of trying to unify these disparate views, the Powers that Be decided to just let everyone have their own little fiefdom. Meanwhile, the heroes are all non-Americans who have been influenced by their own ideas of what America used to mean. Oh and the main villain is a literal personification of Manifest Destiny, perhaps one of the worst original sins in American history. Plus, there’s the whole “wall around the continental United States” thing. That imagery alone is immediately reminiscent of one of the first promises from Trump’s 2016 Presidential Campaign. It’s worth nothing that Trump himself was also an isolationist, claiming that he wanted to close military bases overseas and criticizing the role that the US played in NATO. Even progressive candidate Bernie Sanders discussed a stance of isolationist foreign policy in his 2016 and 2020 campaigns. Undiscovered Country seems to be arguing that an isolationist America is bad for the entire world. Without us, the world looses a country full of luminaries and idealists. But left to our own devices we fracture, and splinter into tribalism and eventually devour one another. At first that seems like a really optimistic view of America. The book even uses phrases like “beacon” or “Shining City on a Hill,” to describe what the country used to be. But it’s also very well aware of its foibles. Because all three of the zones we’ve seen so far have been wrong, since it turns out that building an entire nation around one theme is a really bad idea. Part of the thrill of reading Undiscovered Country is learning more about these doomed concepts of America. None of which is to say that this is series with centrist political leanings. None of the zones we’ve seen so far have been what you might call forward thinking and many of them are enamored of an American past. Even the techno-utopia of Unity, which seems to be the most progressive and is based out of the notoriously liberal PNW, is hiding some really dark secrets. I also like that Aurora, the mysterious think tank seemingly responsible for all of this are themselves seen as amoral and distant. When their agents appear, they refer to the individual zones as experiments, assessing them with a cold and clinical distance. This feels like a shot at the idea of American Exceptionalism and maybe also a criticism of how lobbyists and think tanks have so much sway over American politics. Aurora was assembled from the best and brightest minds in America and without oversight they essentially become distant gods, silently judging their charges. All of this might feel like this is a long way to go for a simple “America has never been just one thing, and we should embrace a variety of viewpoints” message but sometimes we need to learn and relearn the simplest lessons first. After all, E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One) is the motto of this country.

With three story arcs behind it, and with a long story seemingly planned out ahead, Undiscovered Country doesn’t really seem like its slowing down. While it might not be essential reading, I still find this comic book to be an interesting and even necessary piece of art. I don’t think it’s the best work of anyone involved, though Matt Wilson’s colors on Giuseppe Camuncoli’s art is routinely exceptional, striking that perfect balance between naturalism and the heightened reality of an America Gone Mad setting. But I think it’s still a really fun odyssey through a lot of ideas to chew on while reading a book that stars a fun cast of characters (and probably literally a baker’s dozen Uncle Sams). What’s more, I’m fairly certain that both Scott Snyder and Charles Soule are smart writers and that they won’t leave us with a simple, pat answer about what this country is. Either way I look forward to finding out exactly what this team has in store. If teasers from the last issue as of writing are anything to go by, we’ll be seeing Zones History and Hegemony next. So if you’re looking for some non-standard Fourth of July reading, you could do a whole lot worse than Undiscovered Country. If you’re looking to get started, the first issue is completely free online at the Image Comics website. Undiscovered Country is bold, it’s weird and I think it’s an oddly relevant time capsule of the modern age.

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