by Andy Wolverton
A 12-year-old boy named Adrian can’t wait to compete in the upcoming fighting tournament, an annual event in his medieval-looking village. Adrian’s slight, but he’s determined to win the competition for himself and his single mom. If he wins, he tells his mom, “Then we’ll get the big cup filled with gold coins and we can go to the market and buy all the food we need. Forever.”
The rules stipulate that every fighter must have a partner, so when Adrian’s partner Vlad gets sick, he is forced to find a new partner, and quickly. He finds one — or I should say, one finds him — a mysterious, hulking man named Richard Aldana, who fits into Adrian’s village about as well as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson would fit into an elementary school playground. There’s much more to Aldana than meets the eye and part of the fun of Last Man: The Stranger is in determining just who he is and what are his motives. He doesn’t just want to fight; we feel as if something huge is at stake and he must fight.
One of the elements I always look for in comics is how artists convey information without dialogue or narration. In Last Man: The Stranger, the creators — Balak, Michaël Sanlauille, and Bastien Vivès — often show us much more than words ever could. For instance, just after Aldana agrees to partner with Adrian, he meets Adrian’s mother in an omniscient point-of-view panel that seamlessly focuses on an additional, closer image of Adrian’s mom. Her expression is blank, but clearly sizing up this man, wondering (as the reader does also) why this stranger would want to team up with a boy. Aldana is clearly stricken by Adrian’s mom, but we don’t need to see his entire face to know this, just a part of expression. This panel also shows us that, while we don’t see all of Aldana’s face, we (and Adrian’s mom) also don’t see all of his character. Yet we do see Adrian’s mom’s face full-on. She’s hiding nothing, but she is carefully scrutinizing Aldana, wondering just how far she can trust her son with him. Last Man: The Stranger is filled with such panels.
The fight scenes themselves are more than enough to intrigue us. Although there’s a lot about the games and the rules we don’t yet understand, it’s clear they involve a combination of athletic ability and magic. The games clearly have rules, but they may not be clear. There’s a scene where a combatant is scored “Counter-attack: -2. Blocking advantage: -1. Contact: 3.” The positive and negative numbers don’t add up in a way that we understand, but the people in this world understand them. However, we feel confident that we’ll get what information we need when we need it. In the meantime, we can soak up this world and enjoy a good story.
The method and role of each of the three creators are a bit hard to define. In an interview with Geek Dad, the creators state:
Very roughly speaking, Bastien gives the main directions of the story, then the three of us discuss it. Then, Balak starts to draw the storyboard, cutting the 200 pages in 10 “chapters,” making sure there is a “cliffhanger” of some sort at the end of each 20 pages. He puts in dialogue, creates situations and events, and submits the pages to Mic and Bastien, who take 10 pages each of the chapter and start to draw their page from A to Z, while Balak is working on the next chapter. And it goes on like that until the book is done. We have to draw 20 pages a week, and this is the way of working that works the best for us.
The amount of energy and tension created and sustained by Balak, Sanlauille, and Vivès (A Taste of Chlorine, Polina) is impressive, and when the volume is over, you’ll want the next one immediately. Rest assured, the second and third volumes, The Royal Cup and The Chase, will be available in June and October 2015, respectively. (The French graphic novels are now up to six volumes with a projected twelve. First Second has committed to publish at least the first six.) Time will tell whether American readers will gravitate to the title as have French audiences, but for anyone looking for an action/adventure series with elements of humor and intrigue, the Last Man series is a must-buy.
Get your copy of Last Man: The Stranger as well as other titles mentioned in the review: