The Last Heroes
Growing up in the wilds of New Jersey, I read a lot of superhero comics as a teenager. Originally, I had a paper route and on Saturday mornings, after I finished my deliveries, I’d ride over to the 7-11 and pick a stack out of the spinner rack. I did this so often that one time there was a new cashier who charged me tax on my stack of books, so I argued with her (politely) that comics weren’t taxed. She insisted they were and I ended up paying the extra couple of cents. The next week when I went in the cashier apologized to me that she was wrong and gave me my the tax money back. She must have asked somebody who knew I’d be back the next week.
Then one year I joined a monthly comic subscription service, which sold books at a discount and had a wider selection. These were the days when the direct market started picking up and many comics were being distributed directly to comic book shops and not to convenience stores. I wanted to get these “direct only” comics as they were known at the time and there weren’t any major comic shops near where I lived.
When I first started with the subscription service, though, I mainly just bought the same comics I had at the 7-11, which consisted of 98% superheroes. Gradually though, I started adding in some of those sweet, sweet direct only comics. But these too were mostly variations on the superhero theme, like the future cop Judge Dredd and monster hunter Mr. Monster.
But as I got older I eventually stopped reading most superheroes and took up more and more alternative, indie and underground comics, like Cerebus, American Splendor, Hate and their ilk. Plus, at the same time–and possibly because I was reading more radical literature–my political nature gradually became more liberal.
Also, in recent years, I’ve become a big fan of Steven Grant’s Permanent Damage (originally Master of the Obvious) column on ComicBookResources.com. Steven’s been a professional comic book writer since the 1970s, but I originally wasn’t all that familiar with his work even though I have some of his Marvel superhero comics in my collection.
Today, in addition to his column, Steven is mostly known as a crime comic writer, writing books like Badlands, Damned and the recent CSI miniseries “Secret Identity.” However, back in 1994, he and legendary artist Gil Kane created what they meant to be the last word in superhero comics: A trilogy of four issue miniseries called Edge, to be published by the short-lived comic company Malibu.
Unfortunately, during the first four-issue arc, Malibu cancelled the book with issue #3 so that the first arc never saw its conclusion, much less the second two miniseries. In the 11 years since then, Gil Kane sadly passed away in 2000, but publisher ibooks decided to publish the full first Edge miniseries in the hardcover graphic novel called The Last Heroes in 2004.
What makes The Last Heroes different from almost all other superhero comics is that Grant and Kane put their heroic characters in a world without supervillains, creating a very political kind of superhero adventure. Grant’s politics, which he puts on full display in Permanent Damage, closely mirror my own, which is progressive in nature.
The main characters of The Last Heroes are born out of the racist science of eugenics, where human evolution is sped up through selective breeding. While disdaining true eugenics, a scientist nevertheless devises a method to create super powers in normal humans so that they can help cure society’s ills. Of course, selfishness soon trumps altruism in these new heroes who quickly become agents of the powers-that-be instead of independent do-gooders. If Spider-Man’s credo is “With great power comes responsibility,” then Grant and Kane’s heroes’ credo is “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Conflict in the story comes from the character Edge, who is the lone true hero who tries to stop his brethren’s perverse rampage.
As a teenager, I was never a big Gil Kane fan. I don’t quite know why not, but his art had kind of a “scratchy” look that turned me off. But I’ve gained a better appreciation of Gil’s work, especially after reading The Last Heroes because while there’s plenty of grand themes in the writing (which Gil had a hand in plotting) it’s still a ripping superhero yarn with lots of great action. There’s real power in Gil’s artwork with the characters bursting from the page even if the page is full of stand-around exposition.
I actually got The Last Heroes several months ago (as a Valentine’s Day gift from my wife, believe it or not), but I just re-read it so I could write this review. The book really held up under a second reading where I could pause and contemplate its bigger themes underlying the straightforward action. The only potential drawback is that while the book is a complete story it ends feeling that it should be continued. I would hope that the next two series arcs would continue in a more positive vein than this one ends on.
Steven Grant, Gil Kane, Superheroes, Graphic Novel, Comics, Comic Books