After much anticipation, the first volume of hit French fighting series Last Man (First Second) comes to English this month in an effusively fun and entertaining introduction. Inspired by their love for shounen manga and American pop culture, award-winning cartoonist Bastien Vivès, along with co-authors Michael Sanlaville and Balak, conceived the adventure/fight/magic mash-up series as an homage to these creative influences, and this first volume fairly rollicks along, hitting a great balance in establishing a myriad of distinct characters in a dynamic, intriguing story with lots going on, while leaving plenty to chew over and later be elaborated upon.
Nestled in a beautiful mountainous kingdom, a determined young Adrian Velba struggles to keep up the pace at his fighting school, not aided by the fact that his slimy drip of a teacher, the bearded and flaxen-haired Master Jansen, doesn’t seem particularly interested in imparting knowledge, but there’s the annual Royal Cup tournament approaching and Adrian’s eager to participate. The tournament’s a partnered contest, however, and when his allotted choice gets sick, Adrian finds himself being approached by a strange man—an outsider—who is in the same boat as Adrian.
Last Man’s humor and narrative tension derives from the odd-couple pairing of the young, innocent Adrian and outsider Richard Aldana’s brash, burly brawler. Aldana reads like he’s been dropped in from another book entirely. On one side you have the quaint, proper, beholden-to-tradition-and-custom mindset of the townsfolk, and on the other: Aldana’s gun-slinging interloper, who pooh-poohs magical wind and earth summonings to instead sock people on the jaw. He doesn’t seem to understand where he’s come, and yet is aware of the cup and tournament, so must have traveled here specifically… His language is modern, dotted with colloquialisms like “dude” and “back in a flash”; theirs is more formal, archaic—both sides playing parts from specific genres and scenarios. There’s an Eastern-spirituality guff versus Western brute-force effectiveness sentiment threaded in here; nobody comes out of it smelling of roses.
Mystery may swirl around Aldana, but the fogs of mystery swell thickly up in the mountains in general: What is the significance of the Royal Cup? Who are the people attempting to sabotage and fix it? What are their motives? Are there any male figures apart from Adrian who aren’t sinister creeps? There are one too many leery, male-gaze close-up shots of Marianne’s (Adrian’s mom) boobs and arse; you could hold those dated values up as evidence of a system unfriendly to women, yet both Marianne and Elorna are independently capable; a single mother working and raising her son, and an excellent fighter respectively, though constantly undermined by the men around them. The scene is which Marianne agrees to a dinner with Jansen only to have him declare his undying love while clawing at the door of her house, sobbing, is a doozy, pathetic and oddly real, and strangely gratifying to read.
Vivès and Sanlaville do a superb job on the art. It’s vivacious, yet sharper and defined, less expressionistic than you’d expect of Vivès, but still with a loose elasticity, imbuing the fight scenes with a fizzy, floating movement, as panels slot in from all angles and directions, amping up pace and action. It switches from simple shapes and lines to beautifully suggested detail. Exuberant, and irresistibly engaging. [Zainab Akhtar]
It’s easy to come to the conclusion that Jeff Lemire doesn’t sleep. For the last few years, he’s been pumping out books like we’re running out of paper. But of all of the titles he’s contributed to lately, Descender #1 (Image) is easily one of the best. Lemire has teamed up with artist Dustin Nguyen of Li’l Gotham fame to deliver something that feels both heartbreakingly familiar and entirely new.
If this book was by any other artist, some pages would look unbalanced and perhaps even unfinished: There are wide swaths of white space that in another comic would look strange, but the attention to detail makes it clear this was a choice rather than the product of too little time. The panels with full backgrounds become all the more weighty and immersive in contrast. Because Nguyen does a lot of his work in watercolor, even the texture of the paper becomes a storytelling element. There are a few panels that, were they drawn more conventionally, would be pretty boring, but with watercolors and a keen understanding of the importance of palate cleansers, Nguyen manages to make them impactful.
All that being said, if he didn’t have the talented eye of letterer Steve Wands at his back, the panels wouldn’t be nearly as compelling. Lettering and design in general often feel like add-ons, elements that were largely forgotten until it was time to add some dialogue. But Wands uses color and font and space to great effect in Descender. When combined with sweeping outer space vistas and cramped futuristic interiors, the lettering makes pages feel cinematic; characters are afforded unique voices of their own to speak with, without distracting from what they’re actually saying.
If the art alone isn’t enough to get you to pick up this book, Lemire’s skilled hand at the helm definitely should be. There’s been a sense, lately, that he’s been retreading familiar ground. Underwater Welder, Trillium, and Animal Man all have similar themes and overlapping crises of faith to contend with. The interviews he’s given about his new run on Hawkeye sound like much of the same, with the added familiarity of his recent work on Green Arrow. But Descender is different, and it feels like a love letter to so many pop culture touchstones that it’s hard not to fall for its charms.
Intentional or not, there’s a healthy dose of both Akira and Iron Giant in Descender, with bits of Alien thrown in for flavor. There might even be a little of The Matrix and there’s certainly some Ghost In The Shell. But even while Descender evokes memories and emotions attached to all those, it’s a different story entirely, standing all on its own with a lot of promise and even more unanswered questions at the end of the first issue. In any case, it’s no surprise that the book has already been optioned by Sony. We better get a Telsa action figure. [Caitlin Rosberg]
Last week, Valiant Entertainment announced that Beijing-based DMG Entertainment has made a nine-figure investment in the company for feature and television financing, a big move that once again shows that the new Valiant is committed to becoming a legitimate competitor with Marvel and DC. Establishing Hollywood interest is a proven way of boosting sales in the comics marketplace, and hopefully this news will mean more people checking out Valiant Comics, because the publisher has put out consistently exciting superhero titles over the last two and a half years.
The current Valiant Next initiative has seen the publisher explore more ambitious narrative territory in books like Divinity and Imperium, and while the new Ninjak (Valiant) ongoing doesn’t move outside the superhero box like those other series, it’s an immensely entertaining comic that would make one hell of an action movie. Written by Matt Kindt, a major force behind the Valiant line with three ongoings (Unity, Rai, Ninjak) and two miniseries (The Valiant, Divinity), with art by Clay Mann, inker Seth Mann, and colorist Ulises Arreola, the main story in Ninjak #1 doesn’t waste time on backstory, throwing the reader into the action with an explosive opening sequence that would be right at home in a James Bond film.
Ninjak’s history does get some attention in the main story through flashbacks to Colin King as a child with absentee parents, sneaking away from home to watch martial arts films in a theater on the bad side of town. His caretaker would regularly deliver corporal punishment with a belt when Colin’s disobedience was discovered, and the personal impact of that abuse is chronicled in the “Ninjak Specifications & Insights” page. Drawn by Kindt, this first page details some of Ninjak’s weapons and tools, but also features notes from his psychological evaluation, which inform the flashbacks that appear later.
Clay and Seth Mann have worked primarily at Marvel during the course of their careers, and their hiring at Valiant is a major coup for the publisher. There’s a lot of precise detail in Mann’s characters and environments, but he also has a sharp eye for kinetic action sequences, drawing athletic, but not overly exaggerated, bodies that fluidly move through layouts that steadily build momentum. The opening sequence is the big action set piece for the issue, and Ninjak’s fight with the razor-haired, nearly naked assassin Roku sets an exhilarating tone for the series.
One of the big selling point of Ninjak is that each issue also contains an eight-page back-up story by Kindt with art by industry legend Butch Guice, exploring the period in Colin’s life when he first became a field agent for MI6. Offered at no extra price, these back-ups deliver the type of tense, atmospheric storytelling that Kindt is known for in his creator-owned work, and Guice’s gritty artwork gives the back-ups a weight that isn’t found in the flashier, lighter main story. Arreola adjusts his color palette accordingly for the artist shift, employing brighter, more varied shades for Mann’s artwork but turning down the intensity considerably for Guice’s moodier visuals. It shouldn’t take Ninjak becoming a movie for people to pay attention to this title, but if that’s what it takes to get people to check out yet another strong superhero debut from Valiant, hurry up and get that option in the works. [Oliver Sava]
A sensation of profound ennui overcame the reviewer’s mind while contemplating Green Lantern #40 (DC Comics). For almost 10 years, Green Lantern was one of the most popular franchises in comics, able at its peak to support four spin-off books as well as launching the quite successful Blackest Day crossover. Just this fact was nothing short of miraculous, since Green Lantern had spent most of the previous few decades permanently languishing on the B-list. This miracle was the doing of Geoff Johns, who resurrected the franchise in 2004 by also resurrecting the disgraced hero Hal Jordan. Despite decades of evidence to the contrary, Johns was convinced that Hal was an interesting character with plenty of stories left to be told, and through sheer force of will he convinced the rest of the world he was right. That there was an ill-fated Green Lantern film in 2011 can partially be explained by the fact that Johns made the character DC’s number two franchise for almost 10 years.
But that was then, and this is 2015. Johns left the title in 2013. As much as DC may have wanted to believe that Johns left the franchise sturdy enough to stand on its own feet, the facts proved otherwise. Johns left, sales fell dramatically, and so the company is now relying on the smoke-screen of Convergence to cover the fact that three out of five Green Lantern books are being canceled, with only one new Lantern spin-off emerging from the post-Convergence restructuring (Green Lantern: Lost Army, to be written by Sinestro’s Cullen Bunn).
Based on the evidence of Green Lantern #40, the franchise could probably do with a longer time-out. Hats off to Robert Venditti and Billy Tan: They’ve done the best they could with the unenviable task of following Johns’ run. Johns made Hal Jordan seem interesting, but it’s obvious now that this was smoke and mirrors, because without Johns’ hyper-kinetic plotting to steer the ship, Jordan is once again boring. The Corps has been dragged down to its lowest ebb through consecutive dreary wars and rebellions, and with the original Guardians gone Jordan has done a miserable job filling in as boss. This issue shows Jordan dealing with the consequences of recent conflicts by accepting the blame (even if unearned) for the Corps’ recent failures, faking a dishonorable exit, and leaving as a scapegoat for the universe to blame while the Corps rehabilitates its image.
But the fight between Jordan and his best friend Kilowog is just sad. There’s a meta-textual acknowledgment here that something drastic needed to change in the book’s premise in order to arrest the downward spiral. If that change was Hal Jordan faking a heel turn in order to juice the book’s post-Convergence status quo, so be it. Sure, it might bear fruit down the line. But it also might be evidence in the case that DC has done a remarkable job, in just a little over a year, of once again obscuring the simple appeal of space cops slinging magic wishing rings. It’s a dead-simple high concept that Johns fought long and hard to restore to its luster. [Tim O’Neil]