This week, I bring you a somewhat forgotten deconstruction of superheroes that was meant to be the first book in a trilogy before three deaths (one of a person, the other two of publishers — only one of which is actually important, of course) got in the way. But, it’s a good read and I’ll tell you why below the break where, of course, there will be spoilers.
The Last Heroes by Steven Grant and Gil Kane was originally published as Edge by Malibu Comics under their Bravura imprint where it only lasted for three of its planned four issues before the imprint folded (and eventually the publisher itself when it was purchased by Marvel). In 2004, the entire four issues were published again as The Last Heroes in hardcover form, planned as the first book in a trilogy, though Gil Kane would not be providing the art since he died in 2000. The following two books would be written by Steven Grant based on the ideas that he and Kane came up with, but no more of the story came out because the publisher, iBooks, went bankrupt in 2006. This book has a bit of cursed history, don’t you think?
But, to the work itself…
I can’t remember what I thought of The Last Heroes when I read it shortly after it came out in the fall of 2004. I bought it from my university’s bookstore on a Tuesday in between my modern drama and international relations classes… my two-hour supper break since modern drama ended at 5 and IR was from 7-10 on Tuesday nights. Tuesday was a long day with seven hours of classes. Actually, Tuesday was always my longest day in university. Weird. But, with that two-hour break between classes, I would go to the University Community Centre, get some supper, and read/do work/whatever. Sometimes, I would read new issues of Rolling Stone, Spin, or Chart; sometimes, I would read books or articles for classes; sometimes, I would write; and, sometimes, I would stop at the bookstore and buy a trade of some kind. That’s how I got The Last Heroes — a book that I bought because I so enjoy Steven Grant’s weekly column. Seriously. I vaguely remember liking it, but it didn’t make a big impression on me. It’s not hard to see why rereading it yesterday.
The Last Heroes is incomplete. It’s also a supposed deconstruction of superheroes that tackles a different approach, but isn’t that different or unique. There’s a sense of ‘been there, read that’ with the book. But, it’s still a good read — and a worthwhile read, because Grant and Kane do approach the concept a little differently and with a different purpose. It’s not entirely divorced from Moore’s Miracleman or Watchmen or any other deconstruction of superheroes, but it does some interesting things, including a more specific deconstruction of Marvel’s conception of mutants as the next evolutionary step.
The basic plot of The Last Heroes is that a scientist, Professor Carnell, created a means by which to give people superpowers, to kickstart evolution as he liked to think of it. We begin years later where the group, the Ultimates (pre-dating Marvel’s group by a decade) are publically adored — but the first thing we see them doing is breaking up a strike where the workers are picketing. Does this seem like the work of heroes? During this time, another costumed person who resembles a dead member of the team, Edge, appears, gets into a fight with one of the Ultimates, shoots him with some tiny needles that shut off his powers, and the hero falls to his death. If the former Edge, Jack Carnell, is dead, who is this? In flashbacks, we find out that it’s Eric, Jack’s brother, the original Edge who quit before the Ultimates were created after initial tests of the procedure involving convicted criminals went wrong. He’s returned to avenge the deaths of his brother and father — and to shut down the Ultimates.
In opposition stands Mr. Ultimate, the leader, and, as we discover, the murderer of Jack and Professor Carnell since they didn’t see the potential of the Ultimates. Carnell created the program to create the next step in evolution, but had finally realised that these superpowered people weren’t the next step in evolution, they were an evolutionary dead end. Their new powers were so limiting in a broader sense, so overwhelming that the possessers become wholly dependent on them. Whereas Mr. Ultimate disagrees, the Ultimates are the next step in evolution, but that doesn’t mean that they protect humanity or co-exist, that means that they replace humanity. So, he killed Jack and Carnell and has been guiding the Ultimates into a position of power and distance from humanity ever since.
Eventually, he and Eric come face to face and fight, and the truth all comes out between them… and Mr. Ultimate kills Eric. This book ends with him still in charge of the Ultimates (though depleted since Eric has removed the powers of a couple more of the group — and destroyed the tanks to create more) and not necessarily bound by the behavioural codes the group has been adhering to until now.
The end is a little unsatisfying since it obviously sets up future stories, but we have never gotten them (and probably never will). That said, there’s a certain amount of satisfaction/logic in the supposed next evolutionary step killing a human who argues that they’re not the next step, but a misstep. If the two represent differing philosophies, what does Mr. Ultimate’s victory mean?
I’ve been thinking about what his victory means and while it doesn’t necessarily mean that he is right, the Ultimates are the next step in evolution… it certainly provides an initial indication that that’s where the story would go. Grant, in his afterword, mentions that something that’s forgotten is that even with superpowers, the Ultimates (and all superheroes) are still just people with the same concerns, insecurities, emotions, passions, and hangups. Mr. Ultimate is driven by ego… most of the Ultimates are driven by ego. Are they superior?
I’ve been asking myself what the next step in evolution would look like, too. I think we’re all agreed that this conception (or that of the X-Men) is rather ridiculous… random superpowers that actually pose no direct purpose for survival? Telepathy has always been the power that’s made the most sense, but most of the others just seem inane. While optic energy blasts or wings may be cool, I highly doubt that’s where humanity is heading… and that’s what Grant and Kane are suggesting here. I don’t mean to suggest that this story is aimed directly at the X-Men, it’s broader, the idea that superhumanity is the next step in humanity or divorced from humanity — which it isn’t.
When fighting a member of the Ultimates, Eric raises the point that they haven’t really done much good:
TILL ANY FIELDS LATELY? CURE ANY FATAL DISEASES? YOU’RE A BIG BOY, I BET YOU WOULDN’T BE HALF BAD AT BUILDING HOUSES FOR THE HOMELESS?
HAVE YOU GIVEN ONE SINGLE HUNGRY CHILD ONE SINGLE CRUMB?
MY FATHER DREAMED OF A GROUP WITH THE TALENT AND POWER TO CURE THE ILLS OF THE WORLD!
BENNETT HAS YOU RIDING FLOATS IN PARADES — FRATERNIZING WITH POLITICIANS — BREAKING UP PROTESTS AND CALLING THEM RIOTS —
THAT WHAT YOU WANTED, TO GET YOUR PICTURE TAKEN WITH MOVIE STARS?!
Since Mr. Ultimate (Bennett) views the group as above humanity, it doesn’t need to worry about the actual problems of humanity, it just needs to be visible and on display for all to see. Of course, Eric recognises that the Ultimates are an evolutionary dead-end, all so locked into their singular ability that there’s no room to change beyond it that they’re really just failed humans, in a way. While they can do certain things no one else can, they’re limited, inflexible, unable to adapt — they’re missteps. As such, they cannot see themselves as superior to humanity, but on par with humanity, as members of the human race, not the next race. As I said before, these are interesting ideas, ones that have been explored in other works, but never quite in this direct of fashion.
Where the story falls down a bit is that it doesn’t really get into the problem as deeply as it could. That’s, of course, a limit of space four issues provide… and that it’s meant to be a larger story. If you look at it as only the first part of a trilogy, it works a lot better — but, in a way, how can you? There are no second and third parts, this is all there is with this story.
It’s notable for containing some late period Gil Kane art and there are certain aspects to it that are great and others that are not. He has a habit of giving every character the black make-up around the eyes look, which is odd. It could simply be that he figured that in this world, the superpeople would use that look more — perhaps after one of them used it. Sometimes, his layouts are a little confusing as he will have panels not go in a traditional order. It’s fantastic that he plays around with layouts, trying new things, but that experimentation doesn’t always work. What does work is something that Grant highlights about Kane’s art: his figures are dynamic balls of energy. The man knows how to draw visually stimulating and engaging pages. His figures are almost always in movement — or seem like they could be. There’s nothing boring about his art, even if you find his style a bit too classic or out of date. He also takes advantage of the entire page — which relates to hia layout experiments. Even after being in the business for decades, his work here shows that he was still searching for new ways to convey information and fill pages… and, man, that is fantastic.
You can only find copies of The Last Heroes used, but, if you do see one, pick it up. It’s an interesting read and Steven Grant’s introduction and afterword are both worth reading as he outlines the ideas that went into the story. This is a forgotten decontruction of the superhero, specifically its role in relation to humanity, and definitely worth a read.