REVIEW: “The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys: National Anthem”

Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys is my favorite My Chemical Romance album. It’s this wonderful explosion of sound, color, and joy. All of the promotion that surrounded it built up this wildly creative world that was delightful to spend time in. I loved the original True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys comic, too—the one that came out a few years after the album and concluded the story that began in the music videos. Yes, it was a bit abstract, and the ending didn’t make a whole lot of sense. But I loved it anyway. I say all of this because I wish I liked The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys: National Anthem more than I did. It’s a great premise, with some delightfully gritty and horrific artwork. But the story is just… disappointing. (3 out of 5 wands.)

(NOTE: I received an ARC of this book from Edelweiss and Dark Horse. All thoughts are my own.)

The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys: National Anthem
Written by Gerard Way and Shaun Simon
Art by: Leonardo Romero
Colors by: Jordie Bellaire
The Fabulous Killjoys, once a group of teenage exterminators determined to save reality, have lost their way—and their memories. After a period of mental confinement, former Killjoys leader Mike Milligram gets de-programmed and hits the road to bring the gang back together for a final showdown against an evil pharmaceutical corporation, their monstrous hitman, and savage gang rivals.

The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys: National Anthem is based on Gerard Way’s original idea for the Killjoys comic, from before the album changed his plans. As such, it bears very little in common with the My Chemical Romance album or the original comic. National Anthem isn’t a sequel or a prequel or a spinoff. You could probably classify it as a reimagining, but even that doesn’t quite feel right. For better or for worse, National Anthem is its own beast. Some of the ideas are similar to those in the original comic, but the context is entirely different.

National Anthem follows Mike Milligram, the leader of a group of teenage orphans called the “Killjoys.” It’s been years since the end of the Analogue War—an event never properly explained, but which essentially saw groups of orphaned teens fighting against reality-altering creatures at the behest of entities known only as “Mom” and “Dad.” The war ended, and the Killjoys disbanded, grew up, and took their medicine. Until one day when Mike’s TV breaks and he sees the world for what it is—a whitewashed reality controlled by a mysterious organization. It’s up to him to reunite the Killjoys and save the world.

As you can see, there are broad similarities between the original comic and National Anthem. While the original story was a sort of bright, dystopian sci-fi fantasy, National Anthem is a more gritty story, firmly rooted in the present day. Or, rather, a slightly alternate version of the present day. This largely works to National Anthem’s advantage. This comic is darker and focuses more on the psychological horror of having one’s reality reshaped before their eyes. This is firmly Mike’s story, and it’s rooted in his experiences, which gives the whole affair this kind of unreliable quality. At times, he seems crazy. Like he doesn’t know what’s real or what’s not. And so, we’re also in the same boat, unsure if what we’re seeing is actually happening.

This sort of approach makes for an immediately captivating comic. The problem is that Way and Simon don’t commit to the uncertainty for longer than an issue or so. Pretty quickly, everything just sort of turns into another generic story where the underdog rebels try to take down the evil corporation. The uncertainty of whether or not the story is happening evaporates pretty quickly. To be fair, Way and Simon try to keep things fresh by adding a lot of twists and turns and big questions, but few of those pay off in any meaningful way. And some of the twists come so far out of left field that they’re not even fun.

This is a comic with too many ideas thrown in. So, everything feels very vague. The characters’ motivations are difficult to follow. I’ve no idea what the antagonists’ actual plan is or why they’re doing it. There’s a sort of hand-wavey explanation given, but after five issues of buildup, it’s very unsatisfying. Mike is the only character with any real development or traceable motivation. The rest of the Killjoys are just there. They’ve got backstories and whatnot, but none of them are explored. This isn’t their story. And that’s a shame because what little we do know of them is every bit as captivating as what we know about Mike. I wanted to like National Anthem. It started promisingly enough, but as the series went on, it never paid off on any of its ideas. The ending is nice, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, nor does it feel earned.

I did, however, like the artwork. I liked it a lot. Way more than I expected to. Normally, I don’t like this particular style of artwork. But Romero made it work. His gritty, surreal art, combined with Bellaire’s almost-garish colors, created this dark, seedy world that perfectly represented the darkness at the heart of Way and Simon’s script. There’s a grayness to the corporate world, but the colors of the Killjoys’ “more free world” aren’t exactly inviting, either. So, you’re left feeling kind of uncomfortable the whole time, like you’re seeing a world you’re not meant to see. It worked brilliantly and it makes the comic a much easier recommendation.

Ultimately, The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys: National Anthem is a mixed bag. If you don’t like Gerard Way’s comics, this one’s not gonna win you over. It has all the trademarks of his other work. If you’re a big fan of the My Chemical Romance album or the original comic, I’m not sure you’ll love this, either. However, for what it is, it’s still pretty fun. The road trip elements are enjoyable, even if the narrative is disappointing overall. Gerard Way always has big ideas, and they remain compelling here, even if they’re under-explained. The characters are fun, if vague. The universe is intriguing. And, most of all, the artwork is just stellar. The whole book is worth reading solely for the art. If you’re interested, give it a shot. Just be prepared for a weird ride that doesn’t always pay off what it sets up.

3 out of 5 wands

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