Review: Last Man: The
Stranger
by Balak, Michaël Sanlaville, and Bastien Vivès

As manga continues to become a larger part of comics in the
West, it’s no surprise to see manga-influenced comics becoming more and more
the norm. We’re starting to see this already as manga-reading kids are growing
into comics-making adults. Last Man
is the perfect example of this type of comic, originally published in France by
Editions KSTR. Vivès is well known in the Anglosphere as the author of Polina and A Taste of Chlorine, and this comic series from First Second has
had a bit of fanfare associated with its release. A full 12 volumes are
planned, and First Second looks to be releasing a new volume every three months.

Within the first volume, we meet Adrian Velba, a 12-year old
boy training to take part in his first Games, a fighting competition reminiscent
of Dragonball’s World Martial Arts Tournament. When his partner, a goofy
looking kid, gets food poisoning from seafood gumbo, it looks like it’s all
over. But when Richard Aldana, a mysterious stranger with a knack for a punch
and without much regard for the rules shows up, Adrian is back in the Games,
and ready for action.

Like most martial arts/fight manga, Last Man is a
combination of character building and training, the verbal sparing before the
actual match, and then finally actual fighting. In this sense, Last Man is doing well in the first
volume; Aldana is a strange character, clearly a man out of time wearing a
v-neck t-shirt and smoking cigarettes while using phrases like “back in a flash,”
when all of the other characters are dressed in an almost medieval way and use
much more formal language. Combine Aldana’s worldliness with Velba’s naiveté and
you have a lot of dynamic team interaction, especially when Velba’s mother gets
involved.

There’s something to be said about the mysteries inherent in
the series thus far – we don’t understand Aldana’s motives or why he’s an
anachronism; we don’t really even understand the rules of the Games! By keeping
things vague, Balak, Sanlaville, and Vivès keep the reader guessing, learning
as you go. It’s a fun way to stretch the intrigue on what could be a pretty
humdrum series otherwise.

I am loath to not mention the beautiful black and white art
of this series. I’m not certain what role each of the three creators of this
book plays, but the art is fluid and feels effortless. Floating between
stylized and detailed, Last Man focuses
on showing readers the movement of each moment. Of note, the series (unlike
most battle manga) has very simple page layouts, emphasizing what is likely more
of the French tradition.

Perhaps, more importantly, the team behind Last Man understands the flaws of some
of the biggest shonen battle manga and attempt to avoid them here – Velba’s
mother Marianne is an impressive background figure, and while we see plenty of
bombshell moments, we also get to see her turn down Master Jansen, Adrian Velba’s
martial arts teacher, in likely one of the best possible ways. The other main
female character Elorna, is similarly adept. It’s a nice change from books
where women are often there to be ogled and not much else. Adrian Velba is
earnest and guileless, and has all the makings of a great shonen hero… but
Richard Aldana messes with formula. The fighting is enjoyable, but it’s the
strong characters and sense of place that make Last Man a must read this
Spring. Recommended.

—-

Last Man is published by firstsecondbooks. The second volume of the series will be published in June of 2015.

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