High fantasy. It’s a term thrown around often without a real concrete definition. It’s one of those things you know when you see, and The Last God is definitely high fantasy. It’s a new world of epic proportions that is gigantic in magnitude. It has already introduced an enormous cast of characters. It has its own gods, mythologies, cultures monsters, magic, and more. If that doesn’t sound like high fantasy, I don’t know what does, and one other thing: The Last God is really really good.
When it comes to Black Label, DC has had a rocky start. Batman: Damned was a success for the wrong reasons, Superman: Year One was a mixed bag at best, Batman: Last Knight on Earth is a lot of fun, but nothing extraordinary, Batman: Curse of the White Knight, Harleen, Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity, Joker: Killer Smile are recent success stories, but they’re all Batman related. What is DC going to point to when asked about the limitless potential of the Black Label or when asked to provide an example of the new and original stories that can be told with unlimited creative freedom? The Last God is their answer.
Many are saying The Last God is like a D&D campaign come to life, and in some ways that’s true, especially when it comes to culture and limitless potential. Cain Anuun feels like a world where anything can happen. It is filled with so much history, mythology, and lore that even exploring one corner could last 12 issues. From just one issue, there is already the limitless story potential of a D&D world, but The Last God differentiates itself from D&D in two ways: grandeur and convention. As far as grandeur goes, in addition to an enormous world, every last detail feels important. In fact, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the density of the book. While King Tyr and Eyvindr appear to be the main characters of the story, that could easily be turned on its head in a matter of moments. Every character given a name has a purpose and a story, and you can feel that after read one line. Phillip Kennedy Johnson is excellent at giving his words the weight to match the story he’s telling. There is no fluff or wasted dialogue, and every word is packed with feeling. Perhaps it’s because he’s drawing from some of the best stories in every medium. Limiting yourself to comics or even prose closes you off to numerous different ways to tell a story. Johnson isn’t only using prose such as Tolkien and George R.R. Martin, some of the best high fantasy writers ever, he’s also using other media such as True Detective, The Last of Us, and Dark Souls.
This is also largely due to Tom Napolitano, who is doing some of the best work of his career. The font has a slightly shaky nature that gives it age and makes the words few historic and important. Additionally, words are bolded and enlarged very intentionally. Only important or meaningful terminology such as different races, or locations are given a bold font. Additionally, a lot of care is given to volume in this comment. When a crowd is shouting or chanting, you know it because everything is in bold, thicker, and some words are enlarged. Additionally, Johnson is able to give these lines a different cadence from normal dialogue. They have a rhythm feel like they have a crowd backing them. The opposite is true for whispers. The works are thinner and shakier, the font smaller. They look and feel weak. This is a difference one of the best letterers in the business can make. Then there are the songs. When the characters sing, the balloons are decorated with elaborate music notes. It’s a small detail, but it’s enough to make you read the words like a song. Once the SFX kick in, however, is when things get really crazy. They are thin and jagged with textures I’ve never seen before. They blend in with the tone of the art but stand out in how unique they are. There are sounds I’ve never seen before that fit in seamlessly with the action on the page. For these reasons and more, this is one of the best-lettered single issues I’ve ever seen.
The above paragraph is an example of the sheer amount of detail packed into one element of this world and the amount of time one could spend on it. Johnson has already hinted that while The Last God is 12 issues, there are unlimited stories within the world of The Fellspyre Chronicles, and that is already apparent. There are a multitude of realms and locales each with their own history and mythology, but here in The Last God, we are mostly learning about humanity’s place in this world. In our world, we are the Apex, the rulers. There is no one to even contend with us. In world created by Johnson, Federici, Gho, White, and Napolitano, humans are one of many races to have united against the Gods, and think about how rare that is. The tales surrounding the Black Stair depict legends of mortals triumphing over Gods. The Black Stair is a toxic locale where a divine poison originated, but it also connects to avoid. It is quite literally, a stairway to nothing. And when death and destruction can originate and multiply from nothing, that is a formidable threat. It is entropy incarnate, a world of constantly generating chaos. Luckily, there is also unity. Humanity is not alone. There are the Dwarrows, the Aelvan, Dragons, Rivermen, large beasts, and more. They all have origins and lore that are so intertwined they’re inseparable. That takes some incredible worldbuilding prowess.
It’s necessary to recognize all of the phenomenal collaborators that make this possible. Riccardo Federici is putting an unbelievable level of care into this issue. There is an unparalleled number of monsters and creatures in this issue. Races each with their own unique designs, dress, and mannerism all rendered in immaculate detail. Immense and grotesque looking beings that will haunt you in your nightmares. You see a monster in some of the flashbacks and think, “That’s the biggest one, right? That’s the God?” Not even close. There are also tentacles of bark impaling people in deeply disturbing ways and a profound sense of depth and dimension. Federici truly brings this book to life by bringing forth imagery that stems from equal parts history, mythology, nature, and pure imagination. It’s unbelievable. There’s also incredible variation in paneling. Wide, horizontal panels frequently populate the pages with occasional square panels overlaying full splash pages. Then towards the end, when the chaos breaks loose, the panels become distorted and jagged. Overall, it’s a brilliant mix of brutality and culture that feels unique to Federici.
Then there’s Sunny Gho and Dean White. The book utilizes three three primary color palettes to produce three different states in Cain Anuun. First there’s the world shrouded in darkness. This is the state when the Gods have taken over and won, a world in the wake of their destruction. It is overwhelmed by blue-gray shadows with splashes of deep, deep reds where blood was spilled. This is largely the world of the past, but as we progress through the issue, we learn that the Last God was not killed, and the darkness returns. The poison, blood, and shadows all return ferociously. It is also worth noting that King Tyr is almost always covered in shadows, even when the rest of the panel is not. Perhaps it is because his reputation is built on a lie. Then there is the the world of triumph. This is the Golden Age that appears to exist under King Tyr’s rule. It invokes imagery of ancient Rome with the gladiators and the Colosseum playing a large role in society alongside an underbelly of mistreated, yet necessary slaves. This is an era of prosperity and entertainment, bathed in light and a rustic golden brown. Finally, there’s the world on fire which so brilliantly depicts the chaos of violence. Victory cannot be gained without destruction, and that is exactly what happens. When it is man vs. monster, there are entire panels covered in flames. These states of the world also appear cyclical, as if to say that no side could ever truly win.
Finally there is Steve Wands, who is also doing some of his career-best work. I have personally never recognized his design work, only his lettering, but these supplemental pages are unbelievable. Anyone who is praising Hickman for data pages and the use of other media should pick up The Last God, because Johnson proves that Hickman does not have to be the only one boldly pushing comics into the future by experimenting with different forms of additional content and storytelling, whether it be song, scripture, or historical record. Wands does some phenomenal design work here and showcase a lot of versatility and talent.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how The Last God comments on the fundamental nature of storytelling. Cain Anuun lives and dies by means of the story. King Tyr and his associates or fellow elite remain in power because of a story. It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s actually true, only that people believe it is. People cheer for Eyvindr because of his story. People cower before Veiko Al Mun because of her story. Then, when cracks begin to appear, it’s astonishing how quickly society falls apart. A new generation must create a new story while redeeming the old one, and that is a difficult task, and one that appears insurmountable because of the scale that accompanies horrific monsters with the size and power of high fantasy Gods. When the entire world is surrounded by nothingness, those who inhabit it attempt to fill the void with culture and stories, but the destructive power of absence strikes back. A tale of epic proportions indeed.
This book, in some ways, is fairly niche. There are people who will be put off by its density and distance from realism. But there is so much effort, care, and craft put into this comic that makes The Last God #1 one of the best-made issues on the shelves today. If I’m ever lucky enough to make comics for a living, I can only hope to assemble a creative team that will put half as much care as was clearly put into this issue.