The Last West Vol. 1
Writers: Evan Young & Lou Iovino
Artist: Novo Malgapo
In his introduction to the first volume of The Last West, paranormal fantasy writer Jonathan Wood complains about superhero stasis in contemporary mainstream comics and heaps mighty praise upon The Last West, comparing it favourably to Vertigo classics of the 1990s like Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. Whilst there’s a touch of “Get off my lawn Spider-Man!!” to Wood’s introduction, based upon this first volume I’d concur that The Last West, scripted by Evan Young and Lou Iovino with art by Novo Malgapo, is pretty darn good.
The story opens in 1945 in New Mexico, where the first nuclear bomb is about to be detonated and J. Robert Oppenheimer is about to “become Death, the destroyer of worlds”, as he famously remarked. However, at countdown’s end something goes wrong and the bomb does not work, much to the disappointment of Whittenheimer (the story’s alternate version of Oppenheimer, likely for legal reasons) and company. The story then cuts to the present, where Whittenheimer’s grandson struggles to advance his grandfather’s research but is thwarted by governmental and military interventions. The young Whittenheimer investigates and the trail leads to the elusive Sergeant West, one of the military personnel stationed at his grandfather’s base of operations back in 1945. However, powerbrokers are invested in keeping West and his family’s secrets private, and will go to great lengths to ensure they remain hidden.
Young and Iovino’s script for The Last West is ambitious: it alternates between past and present and spans over 170 years of American history, depicting the young Whittenheimer’s struggles in the present whilst simultaneously chronicling the chequered and eventful history of the West family. This history encompasses the great fire of New York, the Great Depression, the bombing of Pearl Harbour, and the first (and in this case failed) testing of the nuclear bomb, with members of the West family accounted for at each of these key historical junctures. These historical episodes enable Young & Iovino and artist Malgapo to dabble in different genres, incorporate fun details of each period (Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, and Henry James all cameo), and depict the major traumas that have shaped American history.
Equally interesting are the incidents set in the present day, in an America (and, by extension, a world) where a nuclear bomb was never detonated. Young and Iovino never explain (at least not in this volume) the war’s outcome, nor its victors. Nor are they overt in rendering an alternate history or world of today, ala Frank Spotnitz’s TV adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. It is only gradually that it dawns on the reader that something is “off”, so to speak, about the present world as seen in the comic: it’s seemingly functional, but less technologized, slightly raggedy around the edges. This teasing of an alternate history is subtle, almost imperceptible at times, and I tip my hat to the authors for their careful plotting and slow reveal, and for bypassing the easy temptation to spell things out. Kudos also to Malgapo’s art for playing along, tangibly recreating the world of today with the subtlest burnish of old-timey.
I suspect details will crystallise in the next volume of the series, and events are sure to escalate, as signalled by the work’s structure. The Last West opens with the countdown to detonation and the
story itself is structured around ten chapters, with this first volume featuring chapters 10 through 6 and volume 2 likely covering 5 through 1. Is this countdown leading, potentially, to catastrophic ends? Is there a touch of Watchmen to proceedings? Consider this appetite whetted...