Monday, 22 June 2015

Last Man 2 The Royal Cup: stunningly executed fight scenes, disappointingly problematic portrayals

Book two of Last Man rattles along in pacy, entertaining fashion. Young Adrian and his new-to-town partner, the mysterious and brawny Richard Aldana continue to make their way through the fighting tournament, The Royal Cup, while the purpose and intent behind Aldana's presence remains murky. Is it just the money and reward he's after? It's clear he's hiding something- when his bag gets stolen he goes frantic with worry charging butt naked around the town in pursuit of the thief to no avail. Although the story began as Adrian's, it's increasingly Aldana who takes front and centre. With the tournament done and dusted, and having certainly made an impression in so short a time, he must  now decide whether to stay or move on. 

The fight scenes are simply superb yet again. The drama, the dynamism, the storytelling- it's here where Vives' and Sanlaville's art really takes flight. Already loose and expressive, it seems uniquely suited to compressing and conveying action and the passage of time incredibly effectively, via a range of different panel layouts. The variety in layout and panel sizes: angled up, down, diagonally, here a figure placed in the foreground with a number of reaction panels behind him, a shattered mirror effect splash page with the shards acting as panels, and so forth, maintains the zippiness of the narrative which helps to really ramp up the intensity of the action. It reflects the non-stop onslaught of the tournament- one after another after another, and grips the reader's interest, whilst capturing little moments in between: the sliding of a foot, a tight panel of Aldana's mouth yelling encouragement, sudden doubt in an opponent's eyes, the gritting of teeth. Everything about the art is perfectly pitched in these books: detailed and intricate when required, simply effective at other times, emotionally resonant, and seemingly effortlessly executed- it's a joy to look at.

The relationship between Adrian and Aldana, of master and apprentice- whilst not new, is nicely done, providing the most substantial and engaging emotional core, where previously it was the circumstance of Adrian and his mother. The sudden manifestation of Adrian's summoning powers goes unresolved- perhaps a cheeky nod to the trope of the physically weak underling becoming magically adept at fighting after a training montage, with Sanlaville et al opting to skip the training montage all together. Or it could be a plot point that may be addressed later. The Royal Cup moves past the tournament, as Marianne (Adrian's mother) is brought further to the fore. Questions are presented about the world in which all this is happening: it seems an archaic, semi-magical place where the King and Queen dress in robes of old, but does it exist alongside the modern world, or has there been some form of time travel at play? Anyway, motorbikes are introduced, and Marianne appears to know more than she was letting on, and it's towards the third book we zoom. 

I enjoy Last Man a lot. Both the first and second volumes have simply been an immensely pleasing reading experience; it's a comic that is so good, so unified in writing and art that time slips by, the pages turn unnoticed, and before you know it- it's over. And then you want to read it one more time, to better pore over the lovely art. The only time I find myself jarringly pulled out of the text and pausing, is when it comes to the portrayal of women.  

In my review of the first book I mentioned the lascivious nature of the down-Marianne's-dress and focus-on-her-bum panels- panels from Aldana's point of view. There's an argument that these are celebratory of the womanly form -sexualisation is by no means a negative thing- but objectification is. And when you cut off the rest of a woman's body for a tight shot of her cleavage (unbeknowst to her) and invite readers to side with Aldana's male gaze upon it, it feels pervy and exploitative. More so when you don't afford Marianne the agency and benefit of her gaze- after all, she too, finds him attractive (although in this book at least she does get her own eyeballing in). In The Royal Cup, that problem is taken to a whole other level. 

There's a long scene where Aldana has to fight a character named Alyssa in the ring (along with Elorna, the only other woman shown to participate). They are fighting when they recognise one another as the person they happily spent one casual night with in the first book. Both are surprised. What happens next is really quite ridiculous. Alyssa goes absolutely wild, her eyes rolling back to white as she's overcome with lust, straddling Aldana and literally tearing her clothes off as she scream at him repeatedly to take her. She starts to tear his clothes off, and attempts to undo his belt, as a close up panel shows first her arse pertly astride Aldana, and then her putting her hand down the front of his trousers. She screeches like a banshee and sniffs him- unless I'm missing something very specific, as a non-gamer, it's difficult to take this as a satirical comment on the treatment of female characters in fighting games. She's simply pulled off him and carted away, not to be seen again.

Why does a strong, competent fighter suddenly start behaving in such a way? All I'm left with is that this is played for laughs; it's supposed to be funny. We're supposed to laugh at her, whilst condemning her behaviour: the crazed, sexually ravenous woman. We're offered to compare her bad sexuality vs the good sexuality of the sensuous and virtuous 'mother' Marianne. The implication is that once Aldana recognises her as the woman he bedded, he stops taking her seriously as an opponent. He's already 'conquered' her by having sex with her so now she's reduced and stripped of her strength as a fighter and becomes a vessel for the worst, negative stereotypes of femininity. Not only is it utterly devoid of humour, it's poor writing. Alyssa comes to the ring like so many before and after, why does she behave this way- no explanation, reason, or motivation is given. Why are we being shown this? What purpose does it serve? Is it setting something up for a future volume? As it is, the whole thing just seems utterly unnecessary: you could remove it and it would make no difference. It adds nothing. 

Even the thus-far adequate characterisation of Elorna, who refuses to fight and quits out of a mixture of revenge at Gregorio for being a dickhead, and compassion and sympathy for Adrian - neither of which are bad qualities or motivations- could potentially be misconstrued as weak and emotional due to existing in this landscape where the characterisiation of women is so poor. Marianne and Elorna's characters have potential, but Last Man's treatment of women and sex feels familiarly, patronisngly 'European,' or what is daubed as such: casual sexism decreed as a bit of fun, don't get your tighty whities in twist. All that's needed is a little more care and consideration in writing these women as wholler characters, not defined by one or two superficial traits and their interactions with men .

And the reason this gives me further pause is because to all intents and purposes, Last Man seems to be a series aimed at kids. It's (apparent) main protagonist is a child. A 9 year old could happily read it. But then not only does that 9 year old receive the propagation of afore-mentioned ideologies, but they also get to see Aldana having sex with Marianne up against a wall, her legs wrapped around him, and then later in an extended sex scene in bed. It's tough to gauge when and how kids should be exposed to this- perhaps this is as good way as any? I guess that's something for parents and children to gauge and negotiate, but I find it confusing because the book seems to swing from being very young and kid-friendly to those graphic scenes; it seems unsure of its audience. Exacerbating this uneven reading is a narration presumably aiming for omniscience. What ostensibly begins as 10 year old Adrian's story now sees him as essentially a side character, and the manner in which point of view shifts from person to person offers varying degrees of success for each character. 

Hugely enjoyable still, and beautifully drawn, but with increasingly disappointing elements.


  1. I don't think Lastman is a comic for kids and i don't think has been written for a certain target. It's only for the pleasure of the authors and the readers of the same age who grew up reading the same stuff, mostly mangas, so they have the legacy of a whole culture of woman objectification. I read until book 6 and without spoil nothing you will see a lot of influences from comics an pop culture of the last 30 years and the story go in a lot of different unexpected ways every book. So i agree with your point but i cannot blame the authors for telling and drawing what they like the most, guys fighting, women with beautiful bodies and supernaturals powers.

    1. The authors have actually said in interviews that the books are for kids.

      That aside, as I've written in the piece above, there's a difference between sexualisatiion and objectification. You can make art and comics which include nude women, sex, etc., and it can be great. The problem arises in the way it's done: the treatment of those women characters, the way they're portrayed, whether it's exploitative, how much agency they have, and so forth. Which, yes, lies very much at the doors of the author(s).

    2. Thanks for the great review, it's really interesting to read your point of view of our work. I totally understand that some stuff can be taken in a "wrong" way. I would totally plead guilty to occasinal bad writing; but sexist we are certainly not. We are playing with many tropes of different genres, the main one being the action hero from the 80s, the womanizer, very macho, and have fun with it. Later in the serie, you see what kind of a mess he is, what it costs to be that man, he's not as cool as the entertainment industry leads you to think.
      I was kind of surprised to read that you find the scene where Richard is looking at Marianne's breast sexist? It's quite baffling, because if we had to plead quilty for the objectification, fan-service-y use of one's body, it's Richard's! We had a full splash page of him showering naked, then randomly running around naked and yes, it was pure eye candy for us. I won't say gratuitous, because it talks volumes about what kind of a character is Richard, but that splash page of him butt naked was certainly a nod to the female and gay readers out there :)
      About Alyssa, it was a way to show how richard it winning fights not playing by the rules, in a surprising manner. It kind of foreshadows how his simple presence in the King's Valley is gonna turn everything upside down. We were not very clear on how Alyssa is actually very sensitive to smells and pheromones (she's wearing a mask covering here nose, and once she removes it she can't help herself because of Richard's so very masculine musk! It was a little joke, played again on the macho guy/womanizer trope, but i agree it was not very well displayed. In any case, it shouldn't paint all of our female characters black! Elorna is a very important character later on the serie. Many of our strongest characters are female, and males are for the most part clueless and kind of grotesque. And even saying that is wrong, because we don't think of them as male/female, just people, honestly.

      About the "too sexy for children", i totally get it. We made the comic book we loved to read as children, based on the movies we loved as children, and they were filled with sexy stuff. It tells a lot about today's society, how prude it is, where showing violence is ok, but two adults having sex is disturbing (the scenes are not pornographic).
      We actually liked as kids when we were reading something a tad bit sexier as we were supposed to watch/read. It's a whole part of the fascination we had for the films and books we enjoyed back then.
      We"ve spent a lot of time working in an industry that sanitized, over protect children: the animation industry. Every single drawing has to be proofchecked by an army of psychologists, parents associations, etc etc. In the end you have bland stories, no drama, god forbid nothing close to a sexy situation. Comic book is a place of freedom to us, we can adress things we actually enjoyed as kids. Some parents and children will be ok with that, some won't, and that's ok.

      Anyway, thanks again for the great review and the nice (and even the not so nice) words you said! I hope you'll enjoy the rest of the serie.

    3. "I would totally plead guilty to occasinal bad writing; but sexist we are certainly not."

      Am I supposed to just take your word for it then? Anyone can say they're not. It's your word over mine, Zainab's, and every woman reading this' lifetime of having to listen to sexists in our industry draw some sexist comics and then say 'well I'm not sexist because I say so." We fucking know sexism when we see it, because it's the stuff of our every day lives. Sexism to you is just a fun intellectual game you get to play in the comments section when you feel defensive. Don't condescend to the women reading and reviewing your comics; we are the ones who get to make that judgement, not you.

      I really love the art of this comic, and think there's a lot of cleverness in it. But I and many others are deeply unimpressed when male creators attempt to correct female reviewers because they didn't jerk them off gently enough. Zainab gave you an incredibly fair, well thought out review. Don't spoil it with this amateur hour chauvinism.

    4. You are basically telling me to shut up, then.
      I think you are right.

      Thanks again for the great review, Zainab.

  2. Last Man is weird. Like you said, it's basically a comic for children; but it's a comic for children where literally every character is named after an actual large-breasted adult model/porn star. It's insane. I guess it's just those guys doing their thing and makin' what they like; but when you put the things they like together, really uncomfortable contexts start to emerge. Hm.

  3. ''she can't help herself because of Richard's so very masculine musk!'' *Face Palm/Puke* also ''It was a little joke, played again on the macho guy/womanizer trope'' errm, that's rubbish. The classic Star Wars Trilogy managed to portray Han Solo brilliantly in this trope without having a woman strip down next to nothing and beg him to 'Take Her'. You got none of that stuff in 'Dragonball' either

    1. My, i can't believe how this scene is suddenly becoming such a polarizing issue. If you want to find an ofensive portrayal of women in dragon ball, just look how Chichi is portrayed. Just look at how Bulma is portrayed. They are mere supportive characters, as soon as Chichi is becoming a mother, she's left to nothing. When it come to save the world, leave it to guys. This is way more offensive to me.
      the "very masculine musk" was a humourous way to describe the wacky atmosphere of the scene, for god's sake.
      If this is making you puke, you have a very sensitive stomach :)

    2. @Ramsey if you puked at that please don't read Sanlaville's Le Fleau Vert or you will quit with comics forever. c'mon guys there is humor in that, you cannot take everything so serious. comics are entertainment we are not suppose to take them as bible to raise our childrens, that is the real life and it's up to our own intellect to understand they are separate worlds.

    3. hey, I enjoyed the comic as a whole but I found that scene jolting.

      As for the Women of 'Dragonball' yes, they were infantized, sexualized and shunted off to the sidelines but when it came to fighting they fought like actual fighters in tournaments and don't lose their heads due to male musk lol I found the humour of that scene to be in stupendously bad taste BUT despite that it's a fab series so far

    4. Hi Balak! I loved the two books I've read so far (in English). Really impressed. But yeah that scene with the.. musk.. was pretty coconuts. I get what you're saying about playing with tropes, but where there's smoke there's usually fire: someone being put off by the use of an off-putting trope shouldn't be so surprising to you. And referencing another (great) story's (disappointing) treatment of women doesn't help: if you're aware of how throwaway women are in action stories, why perpetuate it? It's true, women are almost always dumb breasts with legs in this kind of story. It seems hard to "play" with that trope without reversing it in some way. Which maybe you think you've done, but I sure missed it.

      I'd say listen to these people who like your book but find your handling of women characters lazy and trite, and improve going forward. OR ignore us all! But you don't seem to be ignoring us here, so I hope you'll think about it. Looking forward to the next volume!

    5. Of course I would certainly not ignore anything anyone would have to say about the books!... Actually... I simply can't! :)
      This is why I wanted to reply to this review in the first place, to talk and discuss what seemed to be an issue to some, figure out why.
      You know, what's bugging me is that this one scene seems to be a testimony on how we portray "women". Alyssa is one character amongst others. No one talked about how Marianne is taking shit from no one, about her little talk with Richard in the bar, and how (spoilers) she goes after him after he runs away... It's really surprising. So far there are Elorna, Marianne, Queen Efira, and Alyssa. Does all this characters display this"lazy and trite" writing Dustin talked about? I don't know. There will be many other female characters in the following books, and nowadays it feels a bit like walking on a landmine when creating "female" characters, it's really strange. Kind of making me think about the whole Avengers 2 brouhaha about Black Widow. Whedon was crushed and cursed at because of this, it seemed everybody suddenly forgot Buffy, Faith, Enora, etc, all the fantastic female characters he created, how Buffy is a feminist manifesto. Jeez, the last episode still bring tears to my eyes to this day. And the guy write Black Widow in a certain way, and boom, there you go. Brouhaha. (pardon my french)
      If we make Master Jansen react like a pathetic loser with Marianne, is this a statement on Men as a whole? No, it's a way to show his personality.
      I tend to believe that the issue is more sex than sexism in the kneejerk reaction some could have with the Alyssa scene. But again, I'm also aware that this scene could have been written better.

    6. In my experience, where there is smoke there is fire. Using words like "kneejerk" just makes it sound like it's my--and others, people who actually feel the consequences of sexism all the time, which I do not except observationally--fault for noticing how you wrote things. Don't bristle, just listen to people who obviously like your book and want to enjoy future issues.