"The Last of Us: American Dreams" tells the story of thirteen year old Ellie, a defiant young woman newly enrolled in a military boarding school, which just happens to be located on a world ravaged by a poorly understood fungal epidemic. Dark Horse Comics' four issue miniseries serves as a prequel to Naughty Dog Games' upcoming PS3 game "The Last of Us" and features art by Faith Erin Hicks, who also co-wrote the comic with the game's lead writer, Neil Druckmann. The series, its first issue hitting stand on April 24 with a cover by Julian Totino Tedesco, takes place a year before the events of the game.
"Ellie is being transferred from a feeder school to a restrictive military academy, where eventually she will be forced into the army," Hicks said. "She's rebellious but pretty resigned to her fate -- until she meets an older girl at the academy who thinks she knows of a way out. The comic follows Ellie and the other girl, Riley, over the course of a single night."
The story serves, on one hand, as an introduction to the characters and world of "The Last of Us," the game. Hicks, however, was quick to jump on the opportunity to tell a complete, stand-alone story through Ellie and her supporting cast.
"In the first issue, Ellie meets up with Riley, a tougher, older girl at the military school they've both been dumped in," Hicks said. "They clash, some mutual admiration arises out of the conflict and then spoilers happen. Riley is a lot of fun, I think. She's snarky and cool and she's got a plan for escaping the horrible school she and Ellie are trapped in. Ellie is awesome. She's tough and funny and vulnerable, a well-rounded, three-dimensional character, and I love her. She's what attracted me to this project, initially: I saw several previews of the game before I was even approached about pitching for this comic, and was really excited that Naughty Dog was doing a game with a tough teenage girl as a main character. It's unusual in games, especially action type games."
The very attributes that make Ellie an uncommon character in gaming are those that also make her relatable. Ellie is, despite coming of age in an apocalyptic wasteland, not so very different from any other teenage boy or girl.
"It's a classic innocence-to-experience story, where Ellie, who is perhaps a little sheltered (or as sheltered as one can be in the 'Last of Us' environment) and thinks she's got stuff figured out, gets exposed to certain things and discovers that the world's a lot harsher than she expected," Hicks said. "She's going through a very common experience, one we all go through in our teenage years: She's figuring out just how crappy the world is, and trying to find her own special niche. I think that's everyone's experience when they're 13. Just growing up and learning to deal with shit. It's a very relatable journey."
The world that Ellie finds herself in is, however, starkly different from our own. An outbreak has drastically culled the population, and survivors are living under military rule. The world outside the fences is a world in shambles, reduced to rubble and operating by extreme Darwinism. But despite the obvious bleakness of her environment, Ellie's world is not entirely a hhborrible, hopeless wasteland.
"The 'Last of Us' world still has a bit of wonder in it," Hicks said. "Humanity is horribly ravaged, but the world outside is still as beautiful as it ever was. Buildings and cities are falling into decay, but they're falling apart in such a beautiful way. I really like that. I don't like the world being portrayed as a desolate wasteland, which is very common in post-apocalyptic fiction. I like to think that even if humanity did have something horrible happen to it, the world would be able to survive and thrive without us."
Hicks, who is primarily known for her creator-owned work, has embraced the challenge of telling a story in someone else's world, of a character dreamed into existence by another. While working within the constraints of the "Last of Us" setting provided a challenge, it was welcome one that led to unexpected outcomes.
"When I was writing and drawing 'Friends With Boys,' it was me and my editor making that comic the best it could be, and that was it," Hicks said. "I didn't have to take into consideration this whole world that had been created by someone other than me. It's a unique challenge trying to be respectful of the world Naughty Dog has created in 'The Last of Us,' but at the same time trying to put my own artistic stamp on the comic. Personally, I think we're succeeding; I've been very happy with the comic we've produced so far. It can be great fun to be invited into someone else's sandbox to play with their characters and world-build. Potentially, you end up with something very different than if you'd created a random post-apocalyptic story on your own."
In stepping into the "Last of Us" to pen "American Dreams," Hicks worked closely with series co-writer Neil Druckmann, the game's lead writer. The team of Hicks and Druckmann worked hand-in-hand on the comics, resulting in a partnership which allowed both to contribute to the story while retaining each writer's personal touches.
"[Neil]'s really good at ratcheting up the tension, and I like bringing humor and character moments to the story, so I think we complement each other pretty well," Hicks said. "I honestly have no idea how he has the time to work on the game and the comic, but I appreciate the attention he's given the comic. It truly feels like a proper prequel to the game, something I'm pretty thrilled about. I like video games a lot, and used to want to work in that industry when I was a teenager. It's so cool I get to contribute to 'The Last of Us' world as a comic book artist."