Euro-Martial Arts Manga Chaos: The Creators Behind The Stranger Discuss Machismo, Honey Badgers & ‘80s Action Movies

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This week sees the state-wide release of The Stranger, the first domino in a 12-book cascade of euro-martial arts chaos otherwise known as the Last Man series. Created by Bastien Vivès, Michaël Sanlaville and Balak and published by First Second, this introductory volume presents the King’s Tournament, a majestic event in which adults and children weld ancient fighting techniques and magics for glory and recognition. One of the entrants, the adolescent Adrian Velba, forms an unconventional bond with an enigmatic vagrant named Richard Aldana. Then things get interesting. The pair competes in the tournament, where Aldana breaks rules and kicks ass, introducing a new action hero informed by the rugged celluloid icons of the late ‘80s. But as the story progresses, the authors explore the hazards of undisciplined machismo and its effect on younger minds. This mix of swift action and deft character development also led to a victory at last year’s Angoulême International Comics Festival, where Last Man won the award for Best Series.

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More than anything, Last Man feels ambitious and accessible in a way few other properties are, inspired by the multimedia international sensation of manga like Dragon Ball. As of the publishing of this article, an arcade game and animated television show are already in the works. Paste emailed with the trio of creators from their home in France—where the seventh volume of Last Man was just released—to discuss cross-cultural influences, Bruce Willis movies and honey badgers.
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Paste: Gentlemen, thank you kindly for taking the time to answer some questions and congratulations on your win at Angoulême. Last Man occupies a nice cross-section of various genres. The setting feels inimitably European, but the concept of a Martial Arts fighting tournament and the romance definitely has a Manga component. What was the initial vision for the title? Was part of that diversity implemented so it would be more accessible on a global scale?
Bastien Vivès: It’s a “manga” made by three French guys who grew up surrounded by American movies in the ‘80s and ‘90s. We just naturally included all this different pop-culture, European, North American, Japanese, without thinking about the international accessibility.

Balak: It was the natural thing to do. It’s everything that filled our imagination and made us want to draw and tell stories in the first place, when you’re a kid. We didn’t have a world domination master plan, we just draw what we would like to read.

Michaël Sanlaville: Wow, that’s an impressive cliché, and it’s only the first question, congrats man.

Balak: Shut up.

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Paste: Bastien—you’re already on the seventh volume. What are some of the visual references or touchstones that inform Last Man’s aesthetic?
Vivès: Michael and I both share the same artistic background. We’ve known each other since school (The Gobelins Animation School in Paris), so it was really natural to find a common aesthetic. It’s the way we’ve drawn since school.

Paste: The book opens in color and then segues to greyscale. What was the thought process behind this design choice?
Vivès: That’s a thing they do in Japanese manga. I like it because it can suggest colors that will stay in the mind of the readers. But when it comes to legibility, I think greyscale is perfect.

Balak: Yeah, plus it’s perfectly FAST to make. When you have to draw 200 pages in three or four months, it helps.

Paste: Speaking of genre, there’s a Western influence in the character of Richard Aldana, focusing on his rugged individualism. He wakes up in the bed of a beautiful woman, pops a cigarette and then proceeds to kick all manner of ass in the tournament. The overarching series is called Last Man—that title hasn’t explicitly been explained (at least here in a U.S. edition), but does it refer to Aldana’s masculinity? Especially when compared to other characters who are less masculine by traditional standards, like Mr. Jansen?
Vivès: Hehe, “Last Action Hero” much? Well, maybe…in the end, everything will make perfect sense about that title.

Balak: Yeah it’s actually a commentary about Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. Richard is coming into this very religious, morally constrained world, and doesn’t play by the rules, he’s beyond good and evil. It will shake this whole world, and eventually change everything.

Sanlaville: You just made that up, right?

Balak: Yup.

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Paste: What are your thoughts on the role of the masculine hero in today’s media? Aldana’s forceful approach works well for him, but it also serves as a liability in the book’s climax.
Vivès: I like to play with “cliché,” you know, a “big strong man” and a “beautiful lady.” Everybody can get it right away, so it’s easier to mess things up later and create surprises, and it gives the opportunity to give birth to great characters. Richard may looks like he’s the boss… but things could change.

Balak: You know that Woody Allen movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona with Javier Bardem? Richard is a bit like that. He looks macho, very confident, very charismatic, but deep inside, he’s a mess. He’s like “punch first, think later,” and he will spend his whole life trying to make up for all the bad choices and mistakes he made.

Sanlaville: And we just love the old school action movie hero type. Riggs in Lethal Weapon, John McClane in Die Hard, Joe Hallenbeck in The Last Boy Scout. It’s a nod to that kind of character.

Balak: The Last Boy Scout, man! Tony Scott and Shane Black, that was the BEST.

Sanlaville: Oddly enough, that’s another LAST-something…. I see a pattern here.

Paste: You also include a pet honey badger named Oni—literally the most badass animal in all biology. It could almost be Richard Aldana’s spirit animal. How did Oni come about? Did the honey badger’s viral videos play a part?
Vivès: Haha, yes, it’s an honey badger. We wanted to make the perfect family. A honey badger is perfect to bring something exotic and fun in here.

Balak: AND that’s the only animal you haven’t see in some CGI animated movie for kids, dancing and talking and farting. So that’s a plus.

Sanlaville: I think you just gave an idea to movie execs all around the world.

Balak: Well, shit.

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Paste: It’s interesting to see Richard fill the role of father figure for Adrian, but I get the general impression that Adrian will have to challenge and instruct Richard as much as he’s being instructed. Did parenthood play a role in inspiring the story?
Vivès: Family is definitely the main theme of our story. We see the world through Adrian’s eyes. If the reader could have the same age as Adrian , it would be perfect …

Paste: Conversely, Adrian’s mother, Marianne, is incredibly resilient, strong and more of a foil to Richard than any fighter. That element makes her seem like more of a protagonist than any other character.
Vivès: For me Marianne is the most badass character of our story. Way more than any honey badger.

Balak: Ah, the mother. That’s a thing Japanese shonen manga tend to slip under the rug. “Who cares about the parents? Let’s go treasure hunting!” And as much as I love Dragon Ball, the mother figure in it is catastrophic. Chichi was a cool and independent character as a child, and as soon as she becomes a mother she’s NOTHING, quietly waiting for Goku’s return like some retarded Penelope. And don’t get me started about Bulma… Screw this, really.

Paste: The tournament initially appears somewhat lighthearted and adventurous, but the more I thought about it, it’s disturbing that children and adults were willingly fighting each other. How much should the reader question that dynamic? Or do you think the fantasy element mitigates it?
Balak: I’m going to quote Dragon Ball again: in the very first tournament, Goku and Krillin are fighting against adults and it doesn’t strike anyone as odd. In Adrian’s world, it’s part of the school’s training to participate in the King’s Tournament. It’s all fun and games. Eventually, later in the story, Adrian will be facing some real violence in the real world, and it will be interesting to see how he’ll react to this.

Paste: One of the most interesting plot seeds was when Mr. Jansen observes that the tournament basically reinvigorates development in the city. What’s the tournament signify? Is it a giant diversion for the masses, comparable to Rome’s Gladiator Battles, or something else? Will its history be addressed in later books?
Balak: I don’t want to spoil anything, but the tournament has a history in King’s Valley that goes way back in time and will be VERY important in the end of the first season. (That’s our fancy way to talk about Volume Six.)

Vivès: It’s a big traditional event, with a lot of rules, very religious. It was a way to contrast the very solemn atmosphere with Aldana’s rude and godless behavior. For him, it’s just a circus joke.

Paste: Do you think there’s going to be any cultural themes that will be harder to translate to an American audience? I almost forgot how long it had been since I saw a (mainstream) comic book character smoke a cigarette.
Vivès: I think they’ll be no problem. I have watched so much movies with that “Daddy will miss Kevin’s baseball game, he couldn’t witness his home run, so Kevin is sad…” scene. That’s a typical American topic we don’t have here; but that’s not a problem. I still enjoy the movie.

Balak: It’s true that no mainstream comic book hero smokes anymore. Does Wolverine still smoke? He shouldn’t give a fuck, with his healing power, he could smoke what I smoke a day and be in a way better shape than me. He could take some very hardcore drugs too. SO MUCH WASTED POTENTIAL!

Sanlaville: Maybe it’s as shocking to us when we watch the beginning of Die Hard, where John McClane is smoking inside the airport. You can’t do that anymore.

Balak: Neither carry a gun in a plane and get away with it by saying “It’s cool, I’m a cop.” Good ol’ days…

Paste: If each of you were fighters in the tournament, what would your powers or fighting styles be?
Vivès: I think I will smother my opponent with my big butt.

Sanlaville: Bastien does have a spectacular butt.

Balak: We’re talking “Nicki Minaj” size butt. Kim KARDASHIANESQUE butt.

Sanlaville: Alright. My power would be . . . to fly.

Balak: AND YOU GAVE ME SHIT ABOUT CLICHES EARLIER? THAT IS SO LAME! Look, my power would be . . . to be able to see people naked. And take pictures of them with my brain and save them in a hidden folder on my hard drive so I could…

Sanlaville: That’s not a fighting style.

Balak: I don’t care. That would be awesome.

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Paste: Last Man has been mentioned as a property designed to branch into animation, movies and videogames as well. Is there any word on development of these other media? Do you construct the story differently knowing that it needs to be appropriated for these other uses?

Vivès: We have currently a videogame in production, and an animated TV show. Each has original stories that expand the comic book universe.

Balak: The videogame is actually an arcade game that you see in the volume four, The Show, where you can play with Richard Aldana amongst other characters. And the TV show is about Richard’s past, ten years before the comic book. We have the very talented Jeremie Périn (see the video clip of DYE— “Fantasy”) directing this. On each, we have a very close involvement on the whole process. The guys making the videogame are in the same studio as us, so we can react and participate to each artistic decision. Bastien is very involved with the gameplay with Khao, the game designer.

Sanlaville: They’re two hardcore Street Fighter fans. We don’t get what they are saying when they’re talking about “frame data” or “freeze stun,” but they seem to know what they’re doing. And Balak is writing episodes for the TV show, with eight others writers.

Paste: You’re already more than halfway into the 12-volume series. Without spoiling anything, were there any directions, characters or themes that surprised you as you’ve progressed? What can readers anticipate for Last Man’s future?

Vivès: We’re at the seventh volume, and we have just finished the first cycle. It was quite a big shock for our French readers: be prepared, USA !

Balak: Characters are coming alive and kind of making their own decisions now, it’s very fun to see them interact and grow. We don’t want to spoil anything but Last Man is not limited to King’s Valley. There is a HUGE world out there.

Sanlaville: All I can say is the way is paved with blood, sweat, laughter and tears.

Balak: That’s beautiful, man.

Sanlaville: Thanks.

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