Steven T. Seagle, Becky Cloonan, et. al, American Virgin (DC/Vertigo, 2006-). Monthly. $2.99
By Alex Boney
When I first read a description of American Virgin and saw Frank Quitely’s cover to issue #1, I was very much looking forward to the series. With launches of several quality monthly comic books this year (DMZ, Exterminators, Loveless), DC’s Vertigo imprint has been on a roll. And given the following solicitation from the month the first issue shipped, I had no reason to doubt that American Virgin wouldn’t follow Vertigo’s recent upward trend: “A terrorist act casts Adam Chamberlain – 20-year-old minister, best-selling author, and practicing virgin – through a dark quest of carnal desire. Will Adam’s first time be his last?” American Virgin is a book I really wanted to like. Now six issues in, though, the book unfortunately is one whose promise—and premise—look better in solicitations than they do in the final product.
In theory, American Virgin employs a formula that should work. The protagonist, Adam Chamberlain, is a youth minister from Florida who leads a national movement (with the slogan “Save Yourself to Save Yourself”) to encourage abstinence among America’s youth. Adam is “handled” by his parents, who seem to be using him to generate revenues largely for themselves. His siblings are all wayward youth who try to pull him toward sexual gratification, but Adam insists that he’s going to wait until marriage to indulge in desires of the flesh. But when his long-time girlfriend Cassie is executed during a Peace Corps stint in Africa, Adam begins to reconsider everything he’s ever been taught. Youthful disillusionment, religious hypocrisy, and sexual temptation: All of this should add up to something more satisfying.
Surprisingly, American Virgin’s problems hinge on Steven T. Seagle’s writing. Seagle has written several pivotal books for Vertigo since the imprint’s inception, including House of Secrets, Sandman Mystery Theater, and the excellent It’s a Bird. Ordinarily, his dialogue and pacing are crisp and understated. But in American Virgin, Seagle’s treatment of provocative subject matter is often clunky and heavy-handed. The first issue sets up most of the central characters and themes, but too much is rushed into one issue to allow any one scene to make an impact. Adam’s relationships with his family are interesting, though many of the statements that come from the characters’ mouths seem forced and clichéd. In issue #1, Adam’s mother reminds him of his mission in the larger ministry that his parents run: “Keep it clean and the world is ours, Adam. A world we can finally shape in God’s image instead of the liberal pagan hell this country’s becoming” (#1 p. 6). While statements like these are familiar, they’re almost too easy and unbelievable in a book that’s trying to provoke thought and push boundaries.
The strength of American Virgin thus far is the interaction between Adam and his family—especially his half-sister Cyndi—in Florida. Setting is an important part of any book’s effectiveness (especially in periodical literature), and trips away from a character’s home usually occur when an author is trying to add layers to—and an outsider’s perspective of—a character who has already been firmly established in a particular place. Tim Hunter (Books of Magic) and John Constantine (Hellblazer) travel to America only when it’s clear that they’re very much a part of London, just as Jack Knight’s trip into the cosmos occurs only after Opal City has been established as his home in Starman. So it’s disappointing that, in the first six issues of American Virgin, Adam has traveled to two foreign continents (he’s in Australia as of issue #6) and spent minimal time in the American South, which is the most logical setting for this book’s ingredients.
Adam learns that Cassie has been killed at the end of issue #1, and the next three issues follow Adam’s trip to Africa to reclaim her body and exact revenge for her murder. The trip happens too quickly and relies too much on forced, uncomfortable dialogue to provide much of an impact. When the king of Swaziland instructs scores of (already topless) African women to relinquish their virginity so that he can take multiple wives, Adam’s response is absurd: “No! Don’t give up! You should hold on to your virginity! If you were Christians, you would know that God wants—” (#4 p. 10). It’s clear from the first few issues that Seagle is using Adam’s naïvete as a narrative device, but numerous incidents throughout the series push this trope into the realm of the ridiculous. After Adam returns from Africa in issue #5, he loses his composure as he delivers a memorial speech during the most uncomfortable funeral scene I’ve ever seen or read in any medium: “I wanted to be with her—not just with her—I wanted to be…oh, man, uh…inside of her. I’d been waiting my whole life to feel what that was like…with Cassie. I guess I’m not supposed to say things like that, but…I don’t mean it in some pornographic way…I mean it in God’s way. I—I wanted to be married and feel Cassie’s body all around me—my—my cock, you know?” (#5 p. 10). While Adam’s sense of loss is clear, the monologue just strikes all the wrong chords and undercuts the effectiveness of the scene. It’s not interesting or clever; it’s just uncomfortable and unbelievable, much like Cassie’s frequent appearances as a ghost. Cassie shows up in porno magazines, in her coffin, and in a computer monitor and has conversations with Adam. Suspension of disbelief is not unfamiliar to comics readers, but clumsy narrative tests the limits of even the most willing belief.
Oddly, the most interesting moments in the book come when Adam encounters people one-on-one and proselytizes. He isn’t as harsh and as abrasive as ordinary televangelists and convention-circuit speakers, presumably because of his age. Rather, he talks to people in a way that—while occasionally self-righteous and condescending—doesn’t come across as hateful or malicious. When a transvestite news reporter tries to bait Adam before a convention in Australia, Adam replies by asking “Alex? Honestly, is this really the life you want? Are you happy?” (#6 p.11). Later, after Adam delivers his speech, Alex seems to have been affected by Adam’s approach: “I don’t like your type….Holier than thou. ‘God’s my friend not yours.’ And so it makes me very—troubled to see that you have some kind of real human compassion. What you said about me to that group in there, I-I’ve thought that m’self lately” (#6 p. 15). Adam genuinely seems to change the lives of those he encounters, even while his own life is crumbling all around him. Adam becomes a Christ figure for the modern world. It’s not exactly new, but Seagle’s interpretation of the story of Jesus is about the most understated and well-handled aspect of the story thus far.
While Seagle’s dialogue and pacing aren’t as solid as I’d expected, the art has been consistently good. Becky Cloonan, who collaborated with Brian Wood on DEMO, provides pencils that look much like those of Philip Bond (a frequent Vertigo artist). Bodies are semi-naturalistic and faces are angular and distinctive. Frank Quitely departed as cover artist after the third issue, but Joshua Middleton’s covers since then—while not nearly as brazen as Quitely’s—have been similarly bold and compelling. If only the story inside could convey these same qualities…. The book does have the potential that the solicitations promised, and it might yet pick up once Adam returns from his latest round of globetrotting. But for now, the series feels hurried and chaotic. American Virgin is not the worst book I’ve read this year, but it’s certainly a far cry from the best. I was just hoping something better would come from this seemingly rich mix of elements.