The last queen

Art, nature, extinction: The Last Queen in review

At the heart of The Last Queen lies a warning: “So long as bears rule the mountains, the sun will rise in the morning. But the night the last queen dies, the age of darkness will be upon us.” The titular figure is not a monarch, then, as we might expect, but a bear. She is the last in a line as old as time itself, which humanity is finally on the cusp of eradicating. Already, the environmental stakes of this graphic novel are clear. While its message is a little on the nose, it paints the threat of extinction in all its urgency. 

The Last Queen in context

Author, painter and illustrator, Jean-Marc Rochette is best known for co-authoring Snowpiecer (French title: Le Transperceneige), a graphic novel series which has since been adapted for TV and film. Yet, I think his solo venture, The Last Queen (La Dernière Reine), is also worthy of attention. It might have met with acclaim among the French reading public (including Lire’s Book of the Year 2022 prize), but Edward Gauvin’s recent English translation opens its potential up to a wider international audience. 

Sketching the story

Whereas Snowpiercer envisioned a post-apocalyptic future, The Last Queen casts a backward glance across history. In fact, its timeline stretches as far back as 100,000 BCE, though the main action unfolds in the 1920s, with glimpses into other time frames peppered throughout. The effect is of a story infused with memory, the ancient past often bleeding into the narrative present. 

Multiple narrative themes are interwoven into this complex temporality: art and sculpture, nature and the city, war and brutality. Initially reminiscent of the Phantom of the Opera, our main character is Édouard Roux, a mysterious man who conceals his face, left ravished by a WWI injury. But, sculptor Jeanne Sauvage seems a miracle woman, promising Édouard the impossible. At his request, she designs him a new face, a mask which resembles Hercules, symbolising both Édouard’s Herculean, bear-like strength, and the mythic undertones of his family’s spiritual connection to bears. 

For Édouard and Jeanne’s story is intertwined with the bears of the Vercors forests. Édouard is their fierce protector. Jeanne is fascinated by their beauty, and determined to capture it in her sculptures. This marks them out as exceptions to a rule which tars humanity with greed and brutality, resulting in the cruel torture and death of the bears, over and over. The lovers try – and fail – to escape the ills of such a destructive society. 

At first, I was not wholly convinced by this; the blending of the trans-historic natural storyline with subplots including witchcraft, war and the Montmartre artistic community seemed like juggling one too many things. The fairly unnecessary romance arc between Édouard and Jeanne only added to this impression. Yet, in the end, I think Rochette does manage to pull off his puppeteering of all these narrative strands. Together, they ultimately infuse the text with a high-intensity, sweeping dimension – fitting for the ambitious story that he endeavours to tell. 

Art

All things are made of one flesh: trees, mountains, animals, the wind. The painter must dive into this, drown in it, and then bring it all back to the surface.

It’s worth reading The Last Queen for the art alone. An avid climber, Rochette depicts the changing scenery of the Vercors Massif mountains through the seasons, from falling snow to the bloom of spring, calling on the reader to pause and admire. The graphic novel is at its best in these images of towering mountainsides, cast in the pink and orange glow of daylight; the warmth of dawn seems to radiate through the page. 

Rochette plays on colour variations with a contrasting depiction of the shadowy, blue-tinged urban world. The visual narrative is equally enriched by creative shapes and layouts: shifting perspectives and angles, extreme close-ups, all-black pages to represent death, and more. So it’s difficult to get bored reading The Last Queen, and rather easy to flip your way through it all in one sitting. 

Nature

I’d need eternity to learn to love it, to ever grow tired of it. The wind making rainbows in the pond, the breathing of the rocks, the colours. The river spreading through us with each passing second. The trees, the animals, and you, my love, whom I must leave.

Jeanne and Édouard revel in the natural beauty of their home. Their self-sufficient lifestyle is utopian and quite unrealistic, though perhaps that’s why the illusion of happiness does not last. Scenes of animal cruelty are more convincing and deeply troubling; one bear carcass is hauled away and stuffed, and another is torched alive. The gazes of the animals confront us through the pages, alarmingly human. At the very end, in a kind of epilogue, we memorably lock eyes with a series of them, their stares seeming to communicate variously wisdom, reproach and sadness. It makes for a haunting reminder of how sentient they really are.

Society 

You have exploited the world unto its very roots. But soon you shall pay for the evil you have wrought. I ask you this, as a favour: sentence me to death.

The Last Queen is certainly damning; a scene which sees Édouard on trial becomes a trial of humankind, the accusation reflected onto those who would seek to judge him. A late, bleak twist that I genuinely did not anticipate confirms this, sending the story spiralling towards pessimism and leaving the reader with a bitter taste of injustice.

Yet, the story is not entirely nihilistic, seeking to inform and provoke reflection, not to destroy all hope. And the last few pages, at least, leave us with a subtle hint of survival, a promise of springtime.

Overall, my experience reading graphic novels may be fairly limited (obsessive rereading of the Heartstopper series aside), but The Last Queen is a promising indication of what the genre has to offer, its multi-media combination of impactful words and images making for a message which leaps from the page.