Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing The Last Fall 1, originally released July 16th, 2014.
Patrick: You know what’s wrong with the narrative in the Star Wars prequels? I mean, beyond “everything” — if you had to pin-point what’s so awful about the story itself, what overarching storytelling philosophy leads that series astray? I’m sure everyone has their own answer to this, but for me, the biggest culprit is Lucas’ refusal to make the interstellar conflict personal. All the motivating factors for going to war are tariffs and alliances — which could be effective if only our characters had some sort of relationship to how futile and trivial their efforts are. That’s a damn shame: there’s a lot of compelling mileage to mine from the futility of war. Tom Waltz and Casey Malone’s The Last Fall is set to explore just that thematic territory.
The issue opens with a wearing history of two planets at war with each other. It’s six paragraphs of characterless back-story that essentially amounts to “Merkona and Krovin are fighting each other.” Waltz characterizes the conflict as sort of a pastiche of conflicts from the last 1000 years or so, with notes of Imperialism, the Slave Trade, the Crusades, and modern war in the Middle East. The hook — and what breaks the whole thing away from a ripped-from-the-(albeit-ancient)-headlines story — is that both planets will be swallowed by the exploding sun if they don’t resolve their conflict, mine the resources from Krovin, and escape the solar system.
But, blah blah blah, that background hardly matters once the storytelling kicks in. Meet Sergeant Marcus Fall.
We’re introduced to the Sergeant on the battlefield, where he’s belligerent, reckless, and disobeys orders in the heat of combat. He’s also an unrepentant bad-ass, seemingly single-handedly turning the tide in favor of the Merkonians. He’s acting against orders, and his voice over during his kill-a-thon makes it clear that he doesn’t give a shit about the causes for which his military is fighting. It’s a rough introduction to the series and its main character. Fall is an asshole to his commanding officer and then continues to be a violent dick to Priest-Major Roland, despite their implied shared history. I was about ready to throw in the towel and give up on Fall as a sympathetic character when Roland seemed to address my concerns directly by saying:
I will forgive you for your blasphemy and your cynicism, Marcus. You are battle-weary, after all.
He’s not referring to the specific battle we just spent the last 15 pages reading, but to the toll war has taken on Fall’s life. It’s only at this point that the story snaps back to Fall’s life in peace-time. It’s a little cute story that manages a perfect balance between Marcus’ current attitude toward religion with the happier man he must have been before he lost everything. Especially after being inundated with religious rhetoric throughout the first section of the issue, we can see an instant bond between father and son as they both quietly agree that church is boring.
Fall wakes with a start before we get any resolution on that memory, but we all come to this series with enough cultural baggage to draw our own conclusions about what happened. The dream ends with an evocative set of images, refusing to elucidate the specific tragedy that befalls the Falls that afternoon, but letting our own paranoia inform our expectations.
Nothing here is too explicit: small details like the stranger’s hood, or his beard, or those decorative rings on his boots all call to mind modern extremist terrorists. The stranger’s face is all the more unnerving for that thing coming out of his nose — is it medical? is it jewelry? — giving the overriding impression that this man is alien, and should not be there.
Which finally leads us back to the present, and the kind of anti-motivation that drives Marcus Fall to make idiotic decisions like charging headlong into an enemy base. Fall is a man who has already lost everything, and he participates in the war, not because he believes in the right god or the right planet, but because he has nothing left to lose.
This isn’t a story about a war, but a story about a soldier. By those terms, this issue is successful, but not until the final pages where we’re introduced to what makes Fall tick. Drew, you and I have gone back and forth about which is more compelling storytelling: showing action and then revealing motivation; or showing motivation and then revealing how the character acts upon it. In a way, this issue shoots first and asks questions later, which allows the issue’s final panel a genuinely heartfelt moment.
As beautiful as those last couple pages are, I can’t say that I’m totally in love with Malone’s art in this issue. I can’t get over how big and crazy Fall’s eyes are, and he always sorta looks like he’s 16 years old (or however old Hank Venture is supposed to be). Additionally, I found the battle sequences hard to follow, but that might also be because we weren’t very familiar with the character we were following beforehand. That’s the tradeoff, I guess, of getting that introduction at the end of the issue.
Drew: Boy, for me, when that backstory lands doesn’t matter even a little — I was so bored with both the Top Gun rogue soldier-iness and the Punisher absurd revenge-iness that I don’t think learning about one before the other would have made even the slightest difference. I know I can be over-sensitive to tropiness from time to time (especially when it comes to first issues), but man, I really feel like I’ve seen the rogue soldier/cop stories to last a lifetime, and I’m kind of at a loss for modern heroes who aren’t motivated by the death of their wife and children. The Gladiator from Gladiator? Braveheart from Braveheart? The Patriot from The Patriot? Heck, even heroes that used to be motivated by, you know, heroism, are now inexplicably motivated by vengeance. My point is, Fall slides right into the intersection of two incredibly popular tropes, but that fails to really distinguish him from any of those other heroes I mentioned.
Sure, the background that the cultures are in a race against time to make peace is a novel detail, but that expository opening crawl explicitly states that this is Fall’s story. On the one hand, I can see why that personal focus would invest us in the characters — as Patrick mentioned, this series certainly isn’t going to fall into the same traps as The Phantom Menace. For me, though, that assertion that this is Fall’s story only denies me the actual interesting aspects in play here. That is, the situation is intriguingly unfamiliar, where the vengeance-seeking loose cannon is about as overdone as heroes can get. I think I would actually prefer the “all politics, no characters” approach to this story than the tight character focus we’re getting.
BUT, I will admit that I tend to be a little too quick to dismiss tropiness. First issues tend to lean a little bit more on archetypes to sketch out their characters, and I do anticipate that subsequent issues will give us a much better sense of who this character is and what writer Tom Waltz hopes to do with him. Still, this issue fails to find even interesting archetypes to start from, mashing up Frank Castle and Hal Jordan to effectively manifest all of today’s trends in hero affects in one extra-boring non-hero. Actually, he’s the biggest jerk in the whole issue, recklessly ignoring orders and acting for wholly selfish reasons. That he’s effective at killing is his only virtue, which is particularly monstrous given that he doesn’t even believe in the holy war he’s fighting. Indeed, the fact that he doesn’t buy into the religious reasons for this war isn’t remarkable in any intellectual way — we understand them to be made up nonsense even without the introduction explicitly detailing that the “holy war” is a front for a war over resources — but it does suggest that he might have a better idea what the war is about…only his actions fail to acknowledge the importance of peace. This is a strictly racist vendetta that he’s acting out, working against the best interests of both planets as laid out in the introduction.
So what do you do when you don’t like the character at the center of a character-driven work? I know and trust Waltz’s work enough to give this series another shot, but man, it’s going to be hard to approach it with a neutral attitude. Patrick, I’m with you on not loving the art — beyond the cartoony faces, I’m extra bored by cookie-cutter space armor. You want to make me zone out of your comic quickly? Dress everyone up like they’re a character in a videogame. Dusty Yee knocks the coloring out of the park (seriously, take another look at the last image Patrick posted), but I could take or leave the pencils.
Ick. I’d be ready to say that I should be taken off of first issues altogether, but there’s enough that I’ve liked to know that it is possible. Just not with the kinds of tropes writers tend to lean on in most first issues. I look forward to seeing how Waltz makes this a bit less generic next month.
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