Fight to the Last Man — Interview With the Creative Team Behind ‘The Stranger’

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Maybe I’ve just started noticing it for some reason, but it seems like there’s been an uptick in the number (and popularity) of graphic novels by French creators making their way States-side recently.

Toon Books has begun publishing the first English-language translations of the Philémon series, Snowpiercer made quite a splash thanks to its big-screen adaptation with Chris Evans, and now First Second Books is publishing English-language versions of the massively popular Last Man series.

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The first book in the series, The Stranger, is out today, and First Second is planning to release Books 2 and 3 later this year. Books 4-6 will hopefully follow in 2016, which will bring us more or less in line with the French releases. There are a total of 12 volumes planned for the entire story.

The Stranger focuses on a gladiatorial contest–the Games–in what seems to be a medieval world in which magic is not only possible but also the very soul of the Games. Teams compete and wield elemental powers against one another in the ring (think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Ultimate Fighting).

Richard Aldana (the titular stranger) wanders into town and is the proverbial duck out of water. He’s a cigarette-smoking tough guy who doesn’t seem to know the rules of the Games or the magical, medieval ways of the world in which he lives, yet he’s desperate to fight… and to win the Games.

Forced to take a partner, he teams up with young Adrian Velba who is competing in his first tournament. The book is unique in that it owes allegiance to both high fantasy and shonen manga equally. It’s an intriguing mix of styles, and there are more than enough mysteries to go around.

This being the first book of an extended series, it sets up a lot more questions than it answers. But the questions it poses are tantalizing ones, and I’m certainly looking forward to the ride.

I had a chance to chat with creators Balak, Michaël Sanlaville, and Bastien Vivès about Last Man, its evolution, and how it’s going to invade America.

Balak

GeekDad: How do the three of you divide the work, and what is your process for working together?

Balak/Sanlaville/Vivès: Very roughly speaking, Bastien gives the main directions of the story, then the three of us discuss it. Then, Balak starts to draw the storyboard, cutting the 200 pages in 10 “chapters,” making sure there is a “cliffhanger” of some sort at the end of each 20 pages. He puts in dialogue, creates situations and events, and submits the pages to Mic and Bastien, who take 10 pages each of the chapter and start to draw their page from A to Z, while Balak is working on the next chapter. And it goes on like that until the book is done. We have to draw 20 pages a week, and this is the way of working that works the best for us.

GD: How involved are you with the English translation?

BSV: We have a total confidence in the First Second team. We gave our notes on the U.S. covers, since they’re not the same as the French ones. But they did such a great job that we didn’t have to complain a lot, and it’s a shame since complaining is kind of a French national sport. In a way, that’s frustrating.

GD: Can you talk a little bit about your influences? It’s clear there are several at play here, just in the first book.

BSV: Our main influence is obviously your typical shonen manga like Dragon Ball, with the tournament and how the action is told (in the first two books, at least). You can also see a lot of nods to a certain type of Hollywood action movies from the ’80s and ’90s. Michael is particularly fond of Stallone as an actor and a director, Bastien is in love with Spielberg’s work, and Balak thinks Tony Scott’s The Last Boy Scout and McTiernan’s Die Hard are the best pieces of art ever made. We don’t really intend to put explicitly these kinds of references in Last Man, it’s what comes naturally.

GD: Help settle a bet. Where is Last Man set? The characters dress like they’re straight out of 15th century Europe. There are hyenas and okapi hanging out in the streets. And the Games and its contestants (with their elemental powers) seem to have very Asian roots.

BSV: Haha! I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for the next books to settle this bet.

GD: There are currently 6 books available in French, and I read that you intend the complete story to span 12 volumes. For an English-speaking audience that is just becoming familiar with the book, what do we have to look forward to?

BSV: Well, a lot of surprises and quite a bunch of colorful characters. We like to explore all the genres that we like, fantasy, action, slasher, drama, science fiction… All we can say is that the end of book 6 left our French readers both happy and angry at us. We’re doing our best not to disappoint them with the six other books coming.

GD: I know you’re also working on adapting the story to animation and a video game. Will those stories follow the same plot, or will you use the different media as an opportunity to tell different stories that maybe you can’t on the printed page?

BSV: From the very beginning, we wanted to expand the universe of the book with other media. The video game is not a strict adaptation of the book, it’s something tied with Richard’s past and book 4. The animated TV show next year will go deeper into Richard’s past and will answer some questions we deliberately left unanswered in the book for now. It’s a big puzzle, and it’s exciting to have the possibility to do this.

GD: The anime version of Last Man is being directed by Jérémie Périn, whose DYE – Fantasy was… unique and just a tad disturbing. Will his version of Last Man follow suit and leave us with a few nightmares?

BSV: Jérémie was our first and only choice for the anime version. The guy’s a genius, we’re glad he agreed to jump on board. The TV show will definitely be darker and filled with bizarre stuff Jérémie loves, but it will be funny too. It will be aimed to teenagers and young adults, not your usual Saturday morning cartoon at all.

GD: Quickly: two of you need to team up and fight in the Games. Who will it be, and who will you choose to fight first?

Vivès: I want to keep total physical integrity, so it will be Mic and Balak. Also, I can’t fight for my life, my girlfriend is way stronger than me. And Balak would go first, because Mic has a wife and a kid, and Balak won’t be missed by anyone.

Balak: Well, thank you. I need a drink and a sad song right now.

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Jamie is a publishing/book nerd who makes a living by wrangling words together into some sense of coherence. When he's not knee deep in a convoluted grammatical mess of a sentence, he's likely on an adventure with his two adorable ragamuffins. You can check out more of his ramblings on The Roarbots, StarWars.com, and Babble.