Last of the Independents first appeared almost 20 years before writer Matt Fraction’s name was common currency in any comic book story. It’s an early idea, published by the apparently defunct AiT/Planet Lar, that could easily have been lost to all but the most determined collector, but instead it has found new life (and a much larger audience) as a hardcover from Image Comics re-released this week. While the story itself will be familiar to any fan of American crime stories, the comic is a testament to the vitality of two creators, even at the very start of their careers.
Fraction and artist Kieron Dwyer play out the very familiar plot of “criminals accidentally rob the mob” with a trio of idiosyncratic anti-heroes: Cole, Justine, and Billy. One bank robbery leads to plenty of car chases, shoot outs, and some even more inventive action as the group does their best to stay ahead of some very nasty individuals. It’s a plot presented with a tone pulled directly out of 1970s action flicks, one of many “tributes” Fraction calls out in his afterword. There’s little room for reflection or ornate dialogue as the story hammers forward with only the briefest narrative captions introducing each new sequence. This comic was designed to function much like the films that inspired it, and it still succeeds in delivering a read that’s difficult to set down until it’s complete.
Much like the films it pulls from, Last of the Independents shows its age. The three heroes at the story’s center provide much of its charm, but also wear some rough edges that likely wouldn’t appear in a current comic from Fraction or his peers. Some slurs are shouted and while all of the characters occupy a variation on one stock character or another (just look at the summer-fall romance), Billy’s treatment stands out as being worth special consideration. He is described as being a “li’l touched in the head” and a sexually-charged comment makes it clear that he is operating with a notable mental disability. This element is primarily used to evoke sympathy for a man who is also extraordinarily strong, an excellent driver, and a deft mechanic. It is not a complicated presentation of a human being, but an assemblage of traits that make for an easily endearing supporting man. This Huck-type approach to disability—swapping guile for superpowers—is one that has filled popular media of the past, but it has not aged well in 2020.
Given the framing of its publication date, it’s easier to look at effects like these with a critical eye that still allows for the surrounding story to be thoroughly appreciated. In spite of some missteps, this is a story told with a lot of love. All three of the protagonists are given ample opportunities to shine and it’s difficult not to quickly sympathize with each of them as all of their flaws are easily forgiven in the presentation.
Dwyer’s sequences featuring the thieves at their best is far more exciting than those moments of sympathy, however. Gunfights hammer by with every panel landing like recoil as bodies quickly mount. It’s the chase sequences that are most memorable. The comic’s climax delivers a combined shoot out and chase in cars and on horses. It is a thrilling piece of storytelling that manages the rare magic of capturing high-speed momentum in the comics medium. Dwyer’s deft sequencing and sparse figures combined with Fraction’s great instincts for developing exciting scenarios make these chase sequences read like the next best thing to a new Parker adaptation that’s never coming.
It’s that energy and inventiveness (or willingness to shamelessly borrow) that make Last of the Indepedents a great poolside read, even 17 years after its initial release. There’s something to be said for the best representations of seemingly threadbare ideas. This take on a caper gone violently wrong delivers a set of easily liked heroes, easily hated villains, and plenty of action to pit them together. There’s plenty of style and sufficient eye-widening twists to make it all feel fun, if not fresh. As summer heads into fall, it’s worth taking an hour to kick back and enjoy the work of two headstrong creators new to comics—Last of the Independents suggests they’re going somewhere big.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Published by Image Comics
On August 5, 20200comments
Written by Matt Fraction
Art by Kieron Dwyer