Thursday, April 30, 2015

Last Man, Book 1: The Stranger

Last Man is a combination of European and Japanese comics sensibilities. The art style is a combination of highly detailed and also sketchy, spare imagery. Just check out this gorgeous splash page that opens the book:
And then look at the scene below as a teacher talks to his student in the fighting school.
There is much detail in the backgrounds and settings, but the characters themselves are depicting in simple, elegant lines. I enjoyed the economy used with the figures, as it makes them more open and accessible. Also, even though they appear rather like simple types, they convey lots of different emotions and feelings. And as you can see below, depending on the scene, the artwork also uses manga conventions where the backgrounds suddenly become unnecessary in telling the story:
I think this is a beautifully rendered book, easily accessible for many readers. The story was exactly like that for me as well. The basic plot follows a young boy named Adrian who is finally old enough to compete in the Games, an annual gladiatorial tournament. He is not that skilled a fighter, but he has spirit. In order to compete, each fighter must have a partner, and when Adrian's has to bow out it leaves him unable to register. Coincidentally, a large, rough and tumble guy named Richard Aldana has rolled into town to also compete, and a very unlikely partnership is cast.

Adrian and Richard are very different. Adrian is young and rather innocent, and he wants nothing more than to make life better for him and his single mother, Marianne. Richard is a brute who drinks hard, smokes a lot, and carouses rather than trains. Still, his confrontational fighting style appears to work well in this tournament where all the other fighters use fighting magic to compete.

Aside from the tournament and fighting, both of which I found very engaging and entertaining, there are also a good number of intriguing elements at work here. There is a romantic triangle where Aldana is drawn to Adrian's mom, but Adrian's teacher Mr. Jensen seems to have her attention. There is also the local lord who has a keen interest in the tournament and spies on the players of interest. And not to mention all of the strong personalities of the fighters themselves, as they try to psyche their opponents out as much as physically defeat them.

There is just enough information about the characters, setting, and plot that the story hums along and works cohesively. But what I ended up liking more when I was finished with the book was being able to wonder about a good many interesting questions yet to be answered: What's the point behind the Games? Where is Adrian's father? Where is Richard Aldana from? Why is he so familiar yet unfamiliar with how the Games work? What is Lord Ignacio Cudna's angle on everything?

The three creators behind this book all come from different fields. Balak is a noted animator who also does some digital comics work. Michaël Sanlaville is a video game designer, and Bastien Vivès is an award winning comics artist. All three creators speak about making this book in this interview and also tease about where the series might be heading.

Last Man is already pretty celebrated overseas, awarded the Prix de la Serie at Angoulême this past year. All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly called this volume "swift and addictive." Jess Costello found some faults within the book but concluded that "for anyone looking for an entertaining book with a vibrant cast and unique outlook on fantasy, this book is an excellent start, and builds the promise that the entire series will follow." Seth T. Hahne added that it is "a vibrant beginning to what I hope will continue to be a vibrant series."

The Stranger is the first in a proposed series of 12 books, 6 of which have already been published in France. The next installment will be out in the US this June. There is also a video game in development to accompany this series that should be out in September.

Because of the situations and very rare strong language (nothing you could not find in a typical YA book) I would recommend this book for upper elementary or middle school readers at the youngest. But I can also say as an adult, I loved reading it, and I am eager for the next in the series.

A preview and much more is available here from Last Man's publisher, First Second.

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