Adam Chamberlain, the lead of Vertigo Comic's bluntly titled American Virgin, is a 21st-century phenomenon: professionally chaste, he's developed a rep as a youth minister and even has a best-selling religious manifesto (Save Yourself to Save Yourself) devoted to preaching the values of saving yourself 'til marriage. His toad-faced mother and oily evangelist stepfather see Adam as the great white hope who’ll increase the family fortunes (though each parent has a different idea of what that specifically entails), and at first Adam seems willing to go along with this plan.
He has a gorgeous fiancé safely out of reach, working for the Peace Corps in Africa; he has a growing audience of wide-eyed kids eager to sign his Virginity Pledge Cards and a hidden cache of cards and notes handed to him by sweet young things just as eager to get him to give it up. Self-assured in his Christian certainty, he's just ripe for the kind of belief-shaking catastrophe that God and storytellers love to create.
The first four issues of this process of Adam's soul-searching, courtesy of writer Steven T. Seagle and artist Becky Cloonan, have recently been printed in trade paperback format under the title of American Virgin: Head. The subheading has more than one meaning, of course, and, if you're thinking of the risqué one, well, rest assured that Seagle will have one of his characters make the inevitable joke about it. But the real Head in question is that of Adams' fiancé Cassandra, who has been raped and beheaded by members of a terrorist cell attacking American workers.
Having gotten by for years telling audiences and himself that God has decreed Cassie is the only woman for him, Adam is totally thrown off-keel by this news. With jaded half-sis Cindy tagging along for support, our hero flies to Mozambique to retrieve his love's body, only to learn that her head is missing. Enlisting the aid of a New Zealand mercenary known only as "Mel," Adam seeks the terrorists behind Cassie's assassination. As he does, he continually bumps up against a culture that challenges his Americanized Christian world-view. Additionally, the young minister begins having visions of a naked Cassandra gently prodding him to reconsider his dogmatic anti-sex stance. She first appears to him with her face affixed to photos of naked models in a skin mag that an airline passenger has dropped on his lap, then as a large angelic image hovering over a crowd of half-clothed villager women. Yup, our hero's being tested pretty hard.
Seagle's script runs the gamut from heartfelt considerations of religious faith to racy, rather obvious satire. It's not easy taking characters from a movement that itself often reads like it came out of one of Phillip Roth's lesser novels and making them more than caricatures – and Seagle doesn't always succeed. I bought the idea that Adam would, when confronted by an alien culture as he still wrestles with the fact of his girlfriend's death, retreat to knee-jerk evangelicalism more than once (even if Seagle does overplay it). I was less convinced by his depictions of Mom and Step-Dad – and a pair of snaggle-toothed jealous cousins who kidnap Adam so they can subject him to a virginity-tempting lap dance – who seem to've wandered in from a broader comic book altogether.
What frequently saves this ragged, but engaging series for me is Sister Cindy. Short and zaftig, with bright red hair, a stud under her lower lip and a big rose tat, she's just the type of comic irritant that artist Becky (Demo) Cloonan excels at drawing. A hedonistic foil to Adam (when we first see her, she's getting ready to bug out on some undefined shady deal), she nonetheless provides the voice of moral normalcy just before Adam gets ready to confront one of Cassie's killers. As rendered by Cloonan, Cindy is the closest to a manga-figure in the series (she moves around and smirks like a young kid mischief-maker), and you can see the pleasure the artist gets whenever she comes on-panel. If her brother doesn't have the same amount of graphic energy, it's largely because neither self-pitying mopery nor self-righteous indignation are as much fun to visually sustain in the pages of a comic . . .