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Review time! with The Last West

by  in Comic News Comment
Review time! with <i>The Last West</i>

“Let me feel once more the arms of love surround me telling me the danger’s past, I need not fear the icy blast again”

The Last West is a ten-chapter comic split into two volumes (boy, it would be nice if one big volume came out!), one of which came out in 2014 and the other of which came out a few months ago. That’s how far behind I am!!!! Honestly, I didn’t review volume 1 because I knew volume 2 would be coming out, so I figured I could wait until the entire thing was out. Volume 1 was quite good, so I had no doubt that volume 2 would be pretty good, too!

The Last West is written by Evan Young and Lou Iovino, drawn by Novo Malgapo, colored by Liezl Buenaventura (with ten pages in volume 2 colored by Dinei Ribero), and lettered by Kel Nuttall. It’s published by Alterna and each volume costs $15.

Young and Iovino come up with a terrific concept, and this would be a great comic but for one aspect of it, which I’ll get to. They begin with the atomic bomb test in 1945, which fails spectacularly (well, not spectacularly, because the bomb is a total dud). As a result of this failure, the world becomes stagnant, and in the present day, the Second World War is still going on (which is not a bad idea, but I wish Iovino and Young had somehow made it so the Nazis lost and the U.S. was only fighting the Japanese, because the idea of the Nazis still running extermination camps for 60 years is depressing to think about), and technology remains pretty much as it was in the 1940s. We’re introduced to Robert Whittenheimer (which you can read as “Oppenheimer,” if you want to), the grandson of the atomic bomb scientist, who remains convinced that his grandfather’s design was perfect and should have worked.

He is given a clue about what happened at the test site by an off-handed comment by a man he meets through his university’s dean, and that leads him to a person who was supposed to be at the test but didn’t show up … a soldier named West. That, naturally, sends him off on a trail to find that soldier, which kicks the plot into overdrive.

I hate to give too much away, but the writers do early on in the book, so I guess I can, as it turns out that the Wests are fairly crucial in American history. In a speech the paterfamilias gives after gathering his clan, the Wests are somehow magical (he brings this up once, and the authors never pursue it, which is for the best), and they show up at flashpoints of history. Arthur, who gives the speech, inadvertently inspired Gavrilo Princip to murder Archduke Franz Ferdinand, for instance. Arthur decides it’s best for the world if the Wests go into seclusion and deliberately allow the family to die out. His grandson, Raymond, will be … the Last West!!!! Hey, that sounds like a good title of a comic!

This magical hand-waving might be ponderous if not handled correctly, but Iovino and Young don’t labor the point, and so it’s just kind of there, in the background.

The book is about a lot more than that, although everything does stem from this idea that the Wests inspire people. Obviously, the stagnation of technology is because the Wests have withdrawn from society, and Whittenheimer and his brilliant student, Sarah, go on a quest to find Raymond West, even if they’re not entirely sure why he’s so important. But Young and Iovino have more on their mind than that. Arthur West might see his and his family’s involvement in life as a negative, but Iovino and Young aren’t as facile as that, as the stagnant society means that there was never a Civil Rights movement, Asians are still treated with distrust because the war with Japan is still going on, and the Soviets are still America’s implacable enemy, having apparently decided that being allies against the Nazis wasn’t doing them any good. Young and Iovino give us a black man, Solomon Green, who owes his life to a West, and that ends up destroying his family even more than the West family is ruined. It’s fascinating that Iovino and Young take the idea of a “white savior” and play it to the hilt – Stephen West, the man who was supposed to be at the atomic bomb test, saves Solomon’s life at Pearl Harbor and then later gets him and his Asian wife out of an interment camp, so he’s literally responsible for their entire future. Green pledges not only his life, but the life of his son and grandchildren, to protecting the Wests, and Iovino and Young do good work with that, as each successive generation becomes more disillusioned with protecting a family they’ve never met, while implicit in that is that the Wests are white and the Greens are decidedly not.

The Green/West relationship is fascinating, because Arthur (Stephen’s father) can’t see that his “magick” works both ways – Stephen was in the right place at the right time twice to give the Greens a future, even as he and his family were influencing events in negative ways. Meanwhile, the most intriguing aspect of the book is the idea that the atomic bomb is what’s holding humanity back. The invention of the atomic bomb (not to mention its use) is a controversial topic, and it’s not necessarily seen as a universal “good” these days, but Iovino and Young make the point that technology to develop the bomb was so advanced that it opened up many other avenues that led to our current world, and the fact that Stephen West left the project before the test date was enough to put the kibosh on it. It’s a bit of a reach, but Young and Iovino commit to it, and it’s a pretty interesting idea. Whittenheimer uses his grandfather’s notes to try to figure out what went wrong, and it turns out he’s not doing anything wrong, but whatever spark the Wests provided is gone. The idea that technological advancement doesn’t necessarily depend on improving what’s already in existence but coming up with something new that no one knew they needed is not a new one, but it’s a good one on which to base a story. It makes Whittenheimer’s efforts – which destroy his marriage (not a lot of happy families in this comic) – more depressing, because the implication is that he’s just not a genius (even though in this case the “genius” is an external trigger, the metaphor still works) and therefore won’t be able to make that leap.

Whittenheimer is stubborn, focused, and tenacious, qualities which serve him well as he unravels the mystery of the Wests, but he lacks the genius that the world needs. Young and Iovino also use Whittenheimer to examine the idea of what sacrifices are necessary to push technology forward. What is worth losing? The Wests lose their place in the world, but they go into it with open eyes (which makes Raymond’s predicament more tragic). Robert Whittenheimer doesn’t have much of a place in the world, but Iovino and Young do a good job bringing up the moral quandary of someone who knows what they need to do to make the world better, but might not be able to handle the human cost.

The idea of family that we get from the comic is interesting, too. The Wests, the Greens, and even the Whittenheimers are ruined during the course of the book, and Young and Iovino give different reasons for that destruction. The West genius can’t live among “lesser” humans, and in the end, Raymond West is burdened by a family legacy he knows too little about. The Greens are indentured to a family they’ve never met, and Jeremiah (Solomon’s son) and his children can’t escape their destiny even as they try to extricate themselves from the Wests. Whittenheimer wrecks his marriage because he’s obsessed with restoring his grandfather’s name. In each of these cases, the families are trapped by the past, even as the world’s technology is trapped in the past, as well.

Young and Iovino make the interesting point that the Wests not only froze the world’s technology in amber, they hindered all these people from moving forward in their own lives. It’s a nice parallel, and it makes the tragedy of the book all the more pointed. As I noted above, everyone makes sacrifices in this comic, and we get a nice look at the ways different people are asked or are forced to sacrifice something.

Malgapo’s art keeps the comic from being truly great, unfortunately. It’s not that it’s bad, but it doesn’t add enough to the story. To be fair, Young and Iovino’s story doesn’t call for much storytelling through the art – the book is fairly text-heavy, and the writers don’t give Malgapo (whose art, from what I can tell, can be quite excellent) a ton to do, as the book doesn’t have a ton of action even in the more action-packed spots – the bombing of Pearl Harbor, for instance. Malgapo and Buenaventura do what’s asked of them – the characters are easily distinguishable (there are quite a few of them, so that’s good), and Buenaventure shifts the palette just enough from the present to the past to show the different time periods well (even though the writers always give us tags about when the action takes place). The colors are a bit too over-rendered, as there’s a lot of thick shading and color gradients on the page, but unlike with some artists, Malgapo’s line seems to work pretty well with the heavy digital coloring we get on the book.

I was a bit disappointed that Young and Iovino didn’t delve into the greater world of the present in this book, as I imagine a 70-year war would have some bigger effect on society (as I noted above, the idea of Nazis still running things is strange, because hasn’t anyone noticed what they were doing in Europe?), but we don’t get much of it from the writing or the art. In one panel, Malgapo draws a war bonds poster that hits the Japanese racism angle pretty hard, but it’s just a tease about how the world works. Young and Iovino limit themselves to 1940s-style cars, which Malgapo does a good job with, and the artist also does a nice job showing that the fashion hasn’t changed very much at all, but it would have been nice if Malgapo – in conjunction with the writers, presumably – had placed some more indications of the way society has stagnated in the background. In the foreword, the book is very, very tangentially compared to Watchmen, but Dave Gibbons (with a lot of input from Moore, I would assume), did a lot on the margins in Watchmen that showed what society was like without interfering with the narrative. I kind of wish Malgapo and the writers had done more of that. Oh well.

Still, The Last West is a cool comic. It’s an intriguing premise, a decent mystery, a solid thriller, and a fairly clever examination of what drives society forward and how the past keeps its grip on the present. It’s a well-plotted, well-written book, and while the art doesn’t make it any better, it certainly doesn’t make it worse. It’s definitely something you should check out!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

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