Bastien Vivès, Michaël Sanlaville, Balak
First Second (January 2013)
The Games are already underway when Richard Aldana arrives in town. This mysterious stranger seems to have more in common with our world than the world where the Games are held. He smokes cigarettes and wears a leather jacket while everyone else in this medieval realm is casting spells and weaving tapestries. Nobody knows what to make of him, but when Aldana enrolls in the games he quickly becomes a top contender. Eschewing magic and using only his martial arts prowess, Aldana also befriends and protects a small boy for reasons as mysterious as his origins.
Who will win the games? Who is Richard Aldana, really? And what is the ultimate purpose of this gruelling gladiatorial contest?
I really enjoyed the first two books in the Last Man series—The Stranger & The Royal Cup—and recently did an interview with the creators as part of a blog tour. It’s a comic book series that was originally published in French before being acquired by First Second and translated into English. The art is loose, fluid, and energetic, especially when it comes to the fights. Of course, it made me think of the anime I loved watching as a kid; I was a fan of Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z, and Dragon Ball GT, as well as Card Captor, Digimon, etc. (I was a 90s baby).
The art just leaps off the page and helps govern a pace that makes you hungry for more. I devoured these books within days, but another contributing factor to that was the relationship between Marianne and Adrian. I don’t often get the chance to read a story that features a single mom and her son in such a compelling manner. It freshens up a character like Richard Aldana—playboy, gruff, and lone fighter—who I’ve seen plenty of in media, and by the end of the second book, my instincts were right. There was way more to Marianne’s character than met the eye and that sold me on reading the next installment.
With that said, there were a handful of moments that gave me pause while reading and have stayed with me long after. I’ve thought about them a lot, in the form of an internal back-and-forth debate while I read. In the first book, I noticed the male gaze, especially in regards to Richard Aldana’s relationship with Marianne. I dismissed my feelings on the issue after getting a couple of pages of Richard showering naked in the second book. I thought, “Well, there you go. The female gaze!” But I noticed how different the characters were treated under the gazes. In Richard’s case, his nakedness was depicted with his expressed invitation through the comments he made to the woman—but also to us, the readers—on being bold in not only the viewing of him, but also the participation. Nothing is taken away from his character, but when the same is done for Marianne, I can’t help but feel the character diminish, and it doesn’t help when she isn’t given more to do outside the men in her life.
This battle inside me happened as I read, and by the end, I decided to give the second book a chance. I told myself that I was enjoying it for the most part and nothing drastic enough happened to prevent me from picking up The Royal Cup. Well, I have to say that book two accomplished something I haven’t seen a comic do: it made me gasp in a WTF? kind of way.
Zainab from Comics & Cola breaks down the scene down beautifully:
“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.”
This entire scene is a punchline in poor taste. Alyssa is one of two female fighters that we see fight, and she literally goes insane for Aldana. The second young female fighter, Elorna, forfeited the match to Adrian who she could have beaten. In the context of her character, it made sense, but in the backdrop of very few well crafted female characters, it can be seen as weak as Zainab has mentioned as well.
Now with these issues laid out in front of me, why am I conflicted on whether or not I should continue? Well, the last few pages offered a promise that Marianne will be getting a bigger and more interesting role, so that was a big incentive. The other side to it is simpler: it’s a fun book. We all engage with problematic media, because we’re constantly negotiating the entertainment value against the issues themselves. I feel guilty in doing this sometimes, but, in reality, I shouldn’t. It’s okay to consume questionable media just like it’s okay for someone to decide they won’t because of those issues. I do believe it’s very important to be aware of these issues and voice your concerns, because how else will it get better?