Today, Drew and Ryan D. are discussing Last Sons of America 1, originally released November 11th, 2015.
As a distant planet was destroyed by old age, a scientist placed his infant son within a hastily devised space-ship, launching it toward Earth!
Action Comics 1, Jerry Siegel
Drew: I’m tempted to make the argument that world-building is an inherent aspect of comics storytelling — the environment that the characters inhabit literally needs to be created, line by line — but whatever the reason, world-building has been an integral part of comics at least as far back as Action Comics 1. Indeed, world-building has become increasingly important in modern comics, as characters are spun off into multi-platform franchises. It’s also become increasingly important for certain segments of comics readers, who catalogue every piece of continuity and police every perceived contradiction. Those readers tend to forget that the world is the setting, not the story, and that even the most intriguing worlds are nothing without compelling characters and an actual narrative. Sometimes that means a brilliant setting is relegated to the background, but when the story itself grabs you, as it does in Last Sons of America 1, that’s the right choice.
But the setting really is brilliant. In the wake of some kind of chemical or biological attack, the population of the United States is rendered infertile. It’s a premise that might seem familiar to anyone who has seen Children of Men (or read J.P. James’s novel of the same name), but the wrinkle here is that infertility is not a global pandemic. The rest of the world has carried on having babies, so the world is less about humanity’s mortality than it is about a deformed global economy where children are the most valuable commodity.
Enter our heroes, the “adoption agent” brothers Jack and Julian Carver. Those scare quotes don’t come from the issue itself, but their jobs more closely resemble what we might think of as child traffickers than adoption agents — they effectively buy children from hard-up families in Nicaragua and ship them to the highest bidder in the states. Jack argues that it’s a win for everyone — an American couple gets a kid, the kid gets a loving home with every amenity they could dream of, and the Nicaraguan parents get a hefty payday to take care of whatever family is left — but the reality of taking a three-year-old from her family tells a different story.
That little aside to the girl (who doesn’t speak a word of English) tells you everything you need to know about Jack — he’s a callous dick, sure, but he actually believes he’s giving these kids a better life. That becomes essential as the story develops.
You see, the Carvers are working on some kind of quota system with their agency and they have to pay off a local crime boss in order to continue their work. Jack is feeling the pressure to perform even if it means violating some of Julian’s ethics. Particularly when it comes to kidnapping kids. It turns out buying children is actually the most ethical way to fulfill the demand for babies in the states, and Jack is tempted to start kidnapping “street kids,” using the same “better life” argument he makes when trying to persuade families. Julian won’t have it, so Jack decides to try it in secret. Jack is successful, in that he manages to get a sedated child in the trunk of his car, but he soon discovers that that child is actually the daughter of the crime boss they’re so afraid of.
And suddenly, the premise of accidentally kidnapping a crime boss’s kid has me even more hooked than the premise of an infertile America. Part of that might be the urgency of it — the issue ends with Don Carlo’s men searching the Carvers’ apartment, with only Jack knowing that he kidnapped the girl they’re looking for. I’m a sucker for stories where criminals find themselves at the center of a much bigger crime than they anticipated, and the fact that his would-be co-conspirator actually has no knowledge of the crime just gooses the tension. They’re going to have a hell of a falling out while they’re on the run.
Writer Phillip Kennedy Johnson has crafted a nested series of killer premises, but it’s really the relationship between the brothers that makes it work. Julian is principled where Jack is unscrupulous, and their co-dependence is subtly developed throughout the issue — Julian is the only one who speaks Spanish, yet Jack feels like he has to take responsibility for his brother. I can’t wait to see how Julian reacts in the next issue.
Ryan! I completely neglected to mention Matthew Dow Smith’s chunky linework, which manages to capture the atmosphere of every setting perfectly, from the crowded, cluttered streets to the quiet emptiness of the Carvers’ apartment. Hopefully you can offer more than that inadequate sentence in praise of Smith’s art here.
Ryan: The art really ties this issue together. From the gritty clutter of the Gutierrez household at the top of the issue to the apartment shared by the brothers, Smith’s art soaks characters in hard shadows and displays the wear that living in a city run by a mob boss and going through economic hardships gives to people and their surroundings. Perhaps my favorite page of the comic shows that this art style works just as well outdoors:
Wow. This may be the best I have ever seen a city street conveyed in a comic: the anachronistic satellite dishes on old, suffering buildings, the daily chaos of foot and automobile traffic, the miasma of cables spiderwebbing above the street, all in front of a backdrop of squiggles and lines which proves to the eye that this tangle of a city block goes on and on. Maybe I am the only one blown to bits by the page, but I can almost feel the abating heat from the setting sun and hear music playing on the street from those panels. Smith breathes some deep life into facial expression:
Without completely abandoning realism for stylization, Smith nails very organic reactions, plainly speaking the emotions involved, while still keeping his exaggerated line style. I find his use of shadows and choices of when to not show faces reminiscent of Sean Phillips’ work in The Fade Out, without the late 1940’s color palette. The action scenes in this issue stood out as the one weak link in the art; I did not fancy the quick succession of jarring close-ups and monochrome backgrounds that accompanied them. These departures from the established aesthetic took me out of the world instead of bringing me closer to it.
And, as Drew so eloquently established, it is quite an interesting world. The obvious parallel to draw with this concept is with that of Brian K. Vaughn’s Y: The Last Man; however, wherein Y’s “what if” is predicated upon gender dynamics even in the absence of males, LSoA1 seems poised to explore the economic shift in power from the western empire of America, as much of its resources shift to procuring children as its birthrates grind to a standstill. This commodification of children raises some interesting long-term questions, ones which tobacco industries and Departments of Transportation have been trying to answer, regarding the price of a human life. While many would argue that it is impossible to assign worth to something so invaluable, fiscal pragmatists have valued a human life anywhere from $50,000 to $9.1 million, depending upon the physical condition of a person and a litany of extenuating factors. According to the US Department of Education, every student in the public school system is worth roughly $12,401, which, as a teacher, I find terrifying. In the world of the comic, “a healthy ten-year-old goes for upward of $200k. Healthy five-year-old? Double it.” Now what happens to the American society when something as simple as having a child becomes a luxury item for the privileged few who can afford it? What happens to the economy when this generation’s crop of blue collar workers — who cannot afford progeny — die?
All of these questions are the bed onto which a cool, human story is nestled involving two brothers, a mob boss, and his daughter. I look forward to getting some answers to some of my previous questions and, simply, finding out what happens next. Along the way, I am excited to see the rich location of Nicaragua and Latin America utilized, fraternal dynamics explored, and patriotism pursued at any cost. And that feeling of anticipation I feel for the next issue is simply priceless.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?