4 out of 5
The Last Days of an Immortal is, absolutely, one of the best sci-fi comics I’ve ever read. It’s dense as hell while also managing to be straight-forward and readable; it offers immense complexity if you want it but doesn’t rub your face in it, and it world-builds casually, between breaths, while you’re skipping through its 150 pages. The years hence have shown us that writer Fabien Vehlmann seems to be uniquely skilled at writing this type of story – accessible but rewarding; fun but challenging – and at taking seen-before premises – ach, the immortal man of the Nth Century tires of life – and finding a completely new way of framing it in a narrative. Immortal still stands out amongst his writing for the way it’s relatively distilled, and for the presentation as well, which benefits from Archaia’s classy hardcovered, slightly over-sized printing – the book just looks important.
At some point in the future, immortality is a regular thing. We can create “shades” of our self, splintered off at X point in our timelines, and re-merge with them at a later date if we so choose, with the only possible sacrifice being the loss of some older memories. When the core ‘self’ dies, one of those shades can be reinstated as the new primary, one of several tasks that our main character, mediator Eli, has talked people through while resolving the many day-to-day complexities of the intermingling of species from all over the universe. One seemingly natural affect of this deathlessness is the relaxment of thrill-seeking type behavior, and of reactionary emotions that could be said to be tied to more ephemeral states of mind: sex is seen as a unique hobby (its instant gratifications are rather mundane in comparison to the more sustained enjoyment of “dull” pleasures); appearance is transitory thanks to easily made body modifications and thus not as important, as witnessed by the various states of unclothed in which people in this era traipse around. Eli, a superstar of his profession, is already sort of an oddball, fascinated by activities which might bore the populace, and hesitant to make shades, for fear of losing out on important memories from days gone by. His abilities are challenged by a mystery that forms the main bulk of the story: enmity between two races that’s been building to a boiling point, but for reasons that no one has been able to identify. One of these races enacts everything as a play: costumes are worn, scripts for how to behave in life are handed out; the other experiences thoughts and feelings over decades, and does not appear to have a physical shape. Having to spend more and more time on resolving this conflict, Eli relents to making more shades, whose own scattered mediations are intercut throughout.
The Last Days of an Immortal takes on a lot, though, as mentioned, it’s presented in a rather streamlined, simplified style. There’s the forefront consideration of what value our lives have when they are eternities, but it’s bordered by interesting offshoots of that: how we follow and inherit tradition almost senselessly; how breakdowns in communication have guided us along the way. Some of it is absolutely haunting – an act of violence to us is how another race demonstrates respect – and some of it is offhand and thus kind of silly, and it’s the jumbling of this that ends up preventing the story from hitting a perfect mark. Fabien is undoubtedly playing with these themes by sending look-alike clones to deal with drastically different scenarios but then boiling them down to their similarities, but the book’s casual tone means we almost don’t have enough room for that: there’s just enough detail at times to make something seem important, but it’s just meant to be incidental; we return to some scenes and some are one-offs. It’s never not entertaining or interesting, but parsing how much thought to give to certain interactions is sometimes distracting, and fares better on rereads. The art, from Gwen De Bonneval, mirrors that struggle: I think that going with a very clear, stylized, simple look was probably wise, as it allows for this giant future universe with excess alien species to be crafted but look very approachable, but this means that the various settings end up looking like they’re plucked from next door to one another; there’s not a real sense of traveling from planet to planet. And when it comes to the shades, I can again appreciate purposefully making them exactly alike so as to toy with the concepts mentioned above, but it creates some immersion-pausing confusion here and there, where some small artistic cues (i.e. this person or setting is different from this other one) could have cleared that up.
Given the scope of the story that’s managed in a relatively short pace, and how effectively Vehlmann and De Bonneval establish their worlds and characters within, it’s perhaps impressive that there aren’t more issues. We don’t stumble over the excess or moralizing that would often plague stores in this genre or on this topic; The Last Days of an Immortal takes an understood setup and just peels it apart fascinatingly; I might have my nitpicks, but those peels are so intriguing that I want to immediately revisit the story, and likely will again and again thereafter.