Joshua Hale Fialkov and Brent Peeples’ The Last of the Greats is a second act. The first act happens largely off-panel, before the comic begins, and we only see clips of it in flashback. I don’t know how many acts there were supposed to be in total, because the planned follow-up series, The Return of the Greats, has yet to be produced. The Last of the Greats was published by Image in 2011-12, a five-issue mini-series that received deserved critical acclaim but ultimately flew under the radar, popularity-wise. In the backmatter of the final issue, Fialkov gives fans an honest, vulnerable assessment of the series’ future: if The Last of the Greats doesn’t sell well as a trade paperback, then The Return of the Greats may never be. The safe assumption is that, thus far, sales of Last haven’t justified making Return, and the absence of a sequel also creates a lack of closure for the series that does exist. So it remains an isolated, partial story, stuck in a self-created limbo. For all the open-endedness of its finish and in media res-ness of its start, though, The Last of the Greats is remarkably dense, complete, and satisfying. There are more bold ideas and smart storytelling moves than in any five issues of most comicbooks, and a full rise-peak-fall structure that makes the narrative feel whole even with a cliffhanger conclusion.
When I say that the first act happens off-panel, what I more accurately mean is this: the story’s present is set in a reality where Earth has already been visited by the Greats, a group of seven immensely powerful alien beings. Six of them set up a personal base of operations in different locations around the planet, and then get right to work making the world a better, fairer place for us all. They redistribute resources and power, feed the hungry, build homes, etc.—massive good works on a global scale, completed at an unprecedented rate. Some people love it, but there is also a certain amount of natural fear, especially when the Greats ask for control of the world’s weapons. So folks gradually join together to rise up against the Greats, eventually killing them. All save one, the seventh Great who, for his own cryptic reasons, never helped his siblings with their Earth improvement projects, opting instead to stay hidden in Antarctica.
This information is all provided in the first issue, so it’s not as if The Last of the Greats throws the reader in totally blind, but the bulk of the narrative takes place after the Greats have come and gone, when the hidden Last Great is finally discovered by mankind, only to make himself into a gently tyrannical emperor of all Earth. How he gains and then loses that position is the heart of The Last of the Greats, but for the characters in the book, it is very much part two of the Greats affecting enormous, worldwide change. For the reader, this means immediately coming to terms with one imagined future status quo, so that we can feel the full weight of the dramatic shifts in that status quo which make up the core of this series.
Fialkov, Peeples, and their collaborators do impressive work with the mix of tightly delivered backstory, compellingly chilling anti-hero, and steady supply of plot twists. The history of the Greats’ time on Earth only takes up less than half of the (oversized) debut issue, and even then it’s mostly related through a present-tense conversation between the Last and a group of humans, their dialogue captioned over flashback scenes. The reason those humans are even speaking with Last (the only name he’s ever given) is because they need his help in fighting off a brand new alien invasion, this one considerably more classic and destructive than the Greats’ initial arrival. A massive fleet of spaceships hovers in the sky, ruthlessly blasting the world to pieces, and humanity cannot defend itself, let alone fight back. So they find Last and implore him to save them, offering him whatever he wants in exchange. And of course, he does agree to slay the invaders, but only after being promised total, unquestioning worship from everyone who survives. This is still, by the way, all first-issue content, which should indicate how skillfully Fialkov and Peeples relate their story, how little page space is ever wasted.
By the end of issue #2’s opening scene, the aliens are gone and Last is already fully established as a god among men, a self-proclaimed deity to whom all mankind is completely, almost willingly subservient. For a moment, it feels like there’s nowhere else for the narrative to go, because the villainous protagonist claims a total, uncompromising victory right up front. However, Last has a right-hand man, a normal human named Charles who was the former lover of another of the Greats and the leader of the team that begged for Last’s assistance (as well as the only member of that team to survive the experience). Charles is the reader’s window into this dismal, terrifying reality, but he is also in a unique position to legitimately threaten Last’s rule. Partially this is because of their proximity to one another, as well as the fact that Last’s body houses the energies and memories of all his dead siblings, so some of the affection Charles and his Great felt for one another remains.
The primary reason Charles represents a challenge to last’s reign, though, is his secret daughter. Somehow unbeknownst to Last, Charles and the Great he loved had a baby together (or something like that…when she died in his arms and her body disintegrated, a child was left behind…I’m not sure quite how that works or if it even makes Charles the father, strictly speaking, but that’s the role he plays). This half-Great child has been raised for years in a hidden underground lab, studied and guarded by scientists as she grew and her powers grew with her. Still just an adolescent, she is nevertheless the only being on the planet potentially equipped to fight Last, and this becomes the crux of the series once she’s introduced.
For a brief, extremely intense time, Last, Charles, and Charles’ daughter (who I don’t believe ever gets a name of her own) form a hyper-dysfunctional family of sorts. Because Last holds the energy of the girl’s mother within him, he is, in part, her mother himself, and even changes his appearance to resemble Charles’ dead love, partially to please the child but primarily just to torment Charles. Indeed, Last has a sadistic sense of humor in general, and a weird kind of passive-aggressive amorality that makes him quietly terrifying. He casually tosses a kid who’s afraid of him into the ocean, because that kid could someday grow up to become a threat, a force of opposition, and Last isn’t messing around with any of that. Which is why Charles’ daughter is a such an important figure; Last doesn’t destroy her right away because they do share a connection, yet her loyalty to Charles and overall childhood innocence means she wants nothing to do with Last’s more malevolent side. In the end, Last and the girl battle each other, and over the course of their fight Last loses his hold on his siblings’ energies, significantly weakening him until, at last, he’s defeated.
Or is he? The exact workings of why/how Last’s dead brothers and sisters live on inside of him are never explained. He seems to possess all of their power combined, yet each of their personalities is its own entity in his mind. He can go inside himself mentally and converse with his family, even argue with them, yet externally he and they appear to be one and the same, sharing memories and a physical form. That is, at least until Last goes toe-to-toe with Charles’ daughter, which somehow allows the other Greats to escape from him, seemingly because they so strongly disagree with his behavior in that moment. It begins with the girl’s mother getting out, and then most of the other siblings promptly follow suit, but Last is just as confused by this exodus as the reader, and none of us ever get any real answers. Presumably, that’s the ground that The Return of the Greats would’ve covered if it had ever been published, and perhaps someday it still will. For now, The Last of the Greats ends with Charles’ daughter winning, with Last confusingly losing much of his power and all of his rule, and with many questions left dangling, possibly forever.
Still, the mysteries that linger don’t undo the excellent work done by Fialkov, Peeples, et al along the way. And it’s not as if this comicbook feels unresolved, exactly, either. We are introduced to Last, see him ascend to king of the world, learn to hate him and love Charles, meet Charles’ daughter, watch Last try to deal with her existence by forcing her and Charles into a strained family unit, and then see her step up to dismantle his powers and remove his grip on humanity. That’s a complete story no matter how you slice it, from the villain’s hermetic beginnings to his climb to power to his loss at the hands of the hero, and the fact that Fialkov left the door open for more story in the future doesn’t lessen the impact of what’s here.
That’s the magic of The Last of the Greats—it’s a standalone second act and simultaneously an entire three-act tale. It skips over the early days of the Greats to get into the meat of Last’s time in the spotlight, and then logically ends once that time has passed, even though that’s not truly the conclusion of the larger saga of the Greats. Will we ever see The Return of the Greats? I guess it’s possible, and certainly I’d be first in line to buy that title if it ever came out, but chances seem pretty slim. That does nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for The Last of the Greats, though, nor should it do so for anyone else. There’s more than enough to enjoy in that series by itself, an abundance of provocative ideas, complicated characters, narrative unpredictability, and emotional weight. Let it stay as it is, then, the awesome and effective middle beat of an epic story that never got to show us whatever was supposed to come next, but also never needed to.