When alien visitors are depicted in popular culture they typically fall into one of two categories. They are either benevolent explorers or merciless invaders. In the case of the latter, the cruelty is usually an extension of an emotionless pragmatism. In other words, our planet is simply being pillaged for resources for the benefit of the survival of the invading species. In the first volume of Jason Walz’s wildly inventive “Last Pick” from First Second, readers are presented with a third option. What if these technologically advanced invaders were the logical extension of a culture that prides itself on the same superficial venialities that plague our society today? What if they were the culmination and exemplars of our worst selves? What if we have seen the enemy and it is us?
Written and Illustrated by Jason Walz
Colored by Jon Proctor
An alien abduction has left behind only those younger than sixteen, older than sixty-five, or too “disabled” to work. In other words, people who weren’t a threat – until now. Twins Sam and Wyatt are ready to chuck their labels, break free from their captors, and inspire others to do the same. It’s time for “the last picked” to step into the game. Jason Walz pairs vivid world-building and a fast-paced adventure in a beautiful story of sibling devotion. With humor and action, Last Pick shares an empowering message about the dangers of labeling and writing people off. Available in softcover and hardcover editions.
Full disclosure: I have taken great interest in Jason Walz’s burgeoning comic book career. Over twenty years ago, we were roommates and both finding our way in our heady post-college years. Without fanfare, we drifted apart and lost touch. Years later and thanks to the then nascent social media, I found out he was taking a sabbatical from teaching to try his hand at creating a graphic novel. Good for him, I thought. You chase that dream, that silly, improbable pipe dream. Then I read the book, an account of a doomed cosmonaut juxtaposed with Walz’s own experience dealing with the loss of his mother to cancer. When his debut graphic novel, “Homesick,” published by Tinto Press, was nominated for an Eisner in 2014, I wasn’t surprised as it was as nakedly emotional and moving as anything I had read (and not just in comics) in years.
While “Last Pick” doesn’t plumb the same personal and emotional depths as “Homesick” (at least, not yet), it is certainly the product of a man who has something profound to say about life. While I have no interest in spoiling any of the plot details for the first part in this planned trilogy beyond the information in the solicitation, “Last Pick” arrives at a time in our culture when the message of inclusion couldn’t be more au courant, but what is important to know is that the book doesn’t feel opportunistic, overly-simplistic, or over-engineered for maximum message delivery—a delicate balancing act when dealing with this motif. Readers of all ages can smell shameless pandering. What Walz does is take a page (or 200) from the best in classic All Ages literature and updates the genre’s messages of self-worth and notions of youthful determinism with modern sensibilities. It tells a story that readers in 2018 need to hear about the foibles of underestimating people on superficial bases. More importantly though, it shows that this error in judgment is not exclusive to our powerful (and possibly alien) overlords. It’s something we all do, every day, to equally damaging effect. In that sense, “Last Pick” is a cautionary tale, a parable of an undesirable future that we have the power to prevent.
If this sounds like dour proceedings for a book for younger readers, the presentation of “Last Pick” keeps the book from being mired in post-invasion philosophizing by presenting a story in a subversively playful way. Walz’s page designs are constantly mutating variations on a nine-panel grid with splashes and large establishing and punchline panels sprinkled throughout. Each page is packed with story, and the book’s pacing goes from first to fifth gear and back effortlessly with the help of Walz’s cartooning, which is both unfussy and dynamic. His deceptively simplistic caricatures evince emotion in the upward tilts and downward turns of eyes and mouths.Continued below
In a book that is essentially about the fallout of a planetary invasion, Walz chose to set the story of Sam and Wyatt in his own hometown of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, an area replete with rolling bluegrass hills and deep forests that even aliens cannot fully penetrate. I was reminded of M. Knight Shyamalan’s under appreciated and surprisingly funny 2002 film Signs that views planetary occupation through a similar small-town and rural lens. There are even a few jokes that playfully poke fun at the small-scale urban and rural Southern setting and, in fact, Walz’s own colorful Kentucky heritage. Speaking of colors, Jon Proctor eschews the typical post-apocalyptic palette for something more appropriate to the book’s genre and country setting without sacrificing the story’s built-in but bloodless (but not goo-less) alien malevolence.
There is little I am willing to write to prepare readers for Walz’s often hilarious depiction of these occupying aliens and the underlying darkly comedic tone of their three-year colonization. If the story were stripped of its bigger themes, their characterizations alone would make this a hoot, especially for younger readers. Young readers will also certainly connect with the young, twin protagonists of Sam and Wyatt and their sibling squabbles and underlying fidelity, and therein lies the true greatness of this first volume of “Last Pick”–that it can be enjoyed on many levels, which makes it a book that I can heartily endorse as truly for All Ages.