In Phillip Kennedy Johnson and Matthew Dow Smith’s “Last Sons of America” #1, all American women have become infertile. Attention-grabbing as this is, it’s not a new dystopian concept; most famously, Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” features a less drastic infertility epidemic, but her solution was more biblical and less business-oriented. I find it hard to believe both traditional and gestational surrogacy wouldn’t skyrocket along with adoption. Mail-order brides and polygamy might logically resurface, too, along with perhaps a push in R&D for uterine transplants.
If one accepts the solitary focus on adoption, though, the idea has a lot of promise, and Johnson immediately attaches relatable human faces to the consequences of this buying and selling of children. He also leads the reader to reflect on how market pressures not only stimulate resourcefulness, but also desperation and greed, both of which can lead to weakening moral codes. The first scene does a great job of dropping the reader into the middle of a scene, but this effect is lost because the exposition feels slightly contrived. The reader only enters the story through the vantage point of the Mr. and Mrs. Gutierrez to allow for Jack and Julian’s buyer’s pitch, which is a thinly disguised information dump. The debriefing itself is believable enough, though, and the pale Spanish translated text for Julian’s word balloons adds verisimilitude and justifies the extra space it takes.
The visual storytelling is better in the second scene, which introduces another character and has several silent panels that show Smith’s knack for composition, facial expressions and body language. The daytime scene at the bus stop also has colorist Doug Garbark’s best palette, a mix of warm, matte hues. Unfortunately, most of the issue is colored in the first scene’s limited range of drab, monotonous and unimaginative purples and grays.
Smith’s perspective and composition choices often cut off figures mid-arm or mid-torso. It adds some interest in dialogue-heavy scenes, especially if there’s a good reason for it in the story, but — in the one fight scene — the flow of action suffers. His figures appear stiff, too, and the written sound effects can’t cover that up.
The weakest part of “Last Sons of America” #1 is Jack’s voiceover in sixteen captions over eleven panels in the middle of the issue. It just feels like lazy exposition. The saving grace is that Jack’s internal dialogue has strong, natural-feeling rhythms, and the overload of captions is followed by the strongest scene in the book. An unexpected encounter for Jack has humor, sharp dialogue and well-considered panel composition. The pop culture reference is a surprise and hints at the runaway girl’s motivations without spelling them out in words. Julian’s dwarfism is handled with similar subtlety and lack of hand-waving, too, with only a passing reference in the dialogue to confirm the visual impressions. It’s a pity that more of the exposition isn’t like this.
“Last Sons of America” #1 has uneven storytelling and the tropes are well-worn. Don Carlo sounds like a stereotypical mob boss and the contrast between the more impulsive Jack and the bookish idealistic Julian is also cookie-cutter (just like the Hardy Boys, actually). Despite this, I’m looking forward to the next issue. The emotions of the characters come across strongly, and the ending cliffhanger — though predictable in retrospect — is well-executed enough for the last page reveal to pack some punch.