Brain vs. Brawn: The Last Dragon / by Erik Sugay

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If you are familiar with Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, or the black-and-white masterpiece that it is loosely based on, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, then you will have little trouble wrapping your head around The Last Dragon’s tale. Replace grasshoppers and bandits, respectively, with a massive, dried-blood red, fire-spewing dragon terrorizing a semi-peaceful seaside village and you should have the basic gist of it. Interspersed throughout the action are the subplots of a studious, but terribly misunderstood woman whose knowledge is perhaps the most powerful weapon the village has, and how her cunning helps a man to possibly become the person he spent his entire life pretending to be. Despite its fitting title, The Last Dragon focuses its spotlight on the young woman, Tansy, and how her life dramatically changes due to the dragon’s sudden appearance. The free-spirited girl, curious by nature, is contrasted against her sisters – one lost in her superficial fantasies, the other consumed by her steadfast work ethic – and their differing personalities play off each other well. Tansy’s inquisitiveness leads her to being the most reckless as she seeks to further her knowledge, but her studious disposition makes her the best equipped person to deal with the dangers her village is unexpectedly confronted with.

Throughout the book, the dragon is mostly kept hidden from the reader’s view. Even as we follow its frightening exploits, we are only given slight, hardly substantial glimpses of its fearsome form. This elusive presentation evokes an unsettling atmosphere; even though you are watching the dragon, it feels as though it is the one doing the stalking, always in control. The few times that the dragon is truly seen, in all of its horrific glory, are when it is either surveying its prey from the forests’ shadows or a rocky mountaintop, or when it is in the throes of its visceral attacks. These imposing depictions only affirm the grave danger and incalculable challenge the simple village folk are forced to face.

Credit to the author, Jane Yolen, and illustrator, Rebecca Guay, as The Last Dragon is a wonderfully imaginative and fully realized world. To sell the ancient fantasy feel, geography is presented through maps that are dotted with miscellaneous elements like ships and routes seemingly stamped on an old scroll. These maps effortlessly give the story a grand sense of scale. The graphic novel as a whole is full of excruciating detail, from the faux page wear to the ornate framing (eg. golden, gilded borders and floral linings) of the illustrations and multicolored, elaborate text.

Note how each and every colorful, luxuriant outfit billows in the constant breeze. And how the women wear their perpetually flowing, whirling and twirling hair. That mixed with the copious and practically unnatural character poses that are just redolent of dreamy qualities, and The Last Dragon’s exquisite presentation (flush with a delicate watercolor, painterly quality) is essentially swimming in Art Nouveau sensibilities.

Yolen deserves acknowledgement because even without the gorgeous visuals working with it in tandem, the text is descriptive and informative enough to stand on its own. Overall, the single, tiny issue I had was with a facet of characterization. Nearly every character wears their emotions on their sleeves. I cannot fault the characters for their honesty, as that kind of sincerity is sorely lacking nowadays, but without reflection or any sort of affecting inner struggle, the expected character development loses its oomph.

An early passage regarding humanity’s ever-expanding, resource-plundering nature rides a fine line between being an optimistic appraisal of its ingenuity to overcome hardship and a subtle criticism of its destructive need to conquer. Considering this is a tale intended for (but certainly not limited to) children, The Last Dragon volunteers the former with conviction and the result is uplifting. Mixed altogether, you are left with a sweet story of self-discovery in the face of immense adversity.

TL;DR: Without the obstacles that suppressed emotions tend to construct, the tale moves at a brisk pace, coming off as a bit rushed toward the end. Nonetheless, The Last Dragon’s setting and history are incredibly crafted, both written and illustrated masterfully.

Published by Dark Horse Comics, The Last Dragon is written by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Rebecca Guay. You can purchase it at your local comic book shop or, support Spandexless by purchasing through our Amazon web store.