Ken Tucker on ''American Virgin'': Reading Vertigo's original series is a religious experience for EW's editor-at-large

By Ken Tucker
Updated April 07, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

Ken Tucker on ”American Virgin”

In a comic-book landscape dominated by the muscle-bound superheroes of DC and Marvel, and the schlumpy, neurotic, this-is-my-life protagonists on the independent-comics scene, the new series American Virgin (Vertigo) really stands out. Written by a fellow with a foot in both camps I just described — Steven T. Seagle has worked on both Superman and It’s a Bird…, a 2004 indie book about a schlumpy, neurotic Seagle-surrogate who writes SupermanAmerican Virgin is spiritual and grungy, a wholly original piece of work.

It’s about Adam Chamberlain, an intensely religious young man who’s pledged his faith to Jesus and gives lectures to skeptical youths about the pleasures and comfort of giving oneself to a higher power. He gathers crowds because he’s a hottie, with his lanky hair, soulful eyes, rock-star slimness, and cool T-shirt that proclaims ”Save Yourself.” (All courtesy of the vividly expressive artist Becky Cloonan.) When he asks his campus audiences to sign ”virginity pledge cards,” he gets quite a few from winking girls who’ve scribbled their phone numbers and messages like ”Meet me in the locker room” on the back.

There’s never been a comic-book hero quite like Adam (his name is the only heavy-handed touch in the series). Last month, we learned that Adam was saving himself for his girlfriend Cassie, who’s on a Peace Corps-sponsored trip to Mozambique; by the end of that debut issue, a news report revealed that she’d been kidnapped by a terrorist cell. In the second issue, on sale April 12, Cassie’s plight leads Adam into a crisis of faith, but in good comic-book narrative tradition, also throws him into action. He reconnects with his far more secular, profane sister, Cyndi, who’s on the run from some thugs she’s gotten involved wth; together, they journey to Mozambique to reclaim Cassie. Along the way, Seagle mixes suspense and religious debate in a way that leaves your mind spinning, and Cloonan draws in an increasingly impressionistic style that fully conveys Adam’s disintegrating psyche.

Vertigo is DC Comics’ ”mature” publishing imprint; it hasn’t really had a substantial pop phenomenon since Neil Gaiman stopped regularly writing his Sandman series, but American Virgin deserves to be just that. It takes religion, a subject usually approached in pop culture with either bloodless piety or tiresome blasphemy and gives the matter some hard, honest thought. Virgin might give a double meaning to comics fans’ impulse to ”save” — each monthly issue, and their souls. A