Y: The Last Man

Here’s the latest comic review from Donny.

Y The Last Man

Y: The Last Man
#’s 1-60
2002 – 2008
Brian K. Vaughan (story)
Pia Guerra (art)

Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine if the world were going to end shortly after you die, and you knew this were absolutely true. How much of what you are doing now would lose its meaning – its significance? Your own life isn’t going to be cut any shorter, but you know that not long after you die, the world will end, and everyone else will die, too. Or, for another variation, take the scenario in P.D. James’ Children of Men. In that dystopian science-fiction, the entire human race has become infertile. No new babies can be born; this generation is the last one. In such a situation as those, how much of what you do would lose meaning? How much would you dismiss by asking, why bother? The sciences? Gone. The arts? Gone. Politics? Gone. Fighting for social justice, political reform, or to save the whale? Even the most ardent individualist, the most solitary artist, would have trouble finding life worth living in the face of such a situation. As Berkeley philosopher Samuel Scheffler has observed: we need future generations to give our lives meaning. That we, personally, should survive our death is actually less important to us than that others should live on after us. Human beings fear, more than loss of life, loss of meaning.

The most famous post-apocalyptic comic book of recent years has been Walking Dead, but I think the best and the smartest was Y – an Eisner Award winner as well as a New York Times Bestseller. In Y, in one sudden, nearly-simultaneous instant, every mammal on earth with a Y chromosome suddenly drops dead… all except a 21-year-old escape artist named Yorick Brown and his pet monkey, Ampersand. The President (formerly the Secretary of Agriculture – she was the first woman in he order of succession) assigns an ass-kicking secret agent known only as 355 to shepherd Yorick, his monkey, and the world’s greatest surviving cloning expert, Dr. Alison Mann, across the country to Dr. Mann’s San Francisco laboratory. All the while, all Yorick wants to do is to get to Australia to find his girlfriend Beth whom he was about to propose to when the gendercide happened. He’s an unlikely Odysseus, crossing continents and oceans to reach his faithful (?) Penelope, facing Lotus Eaters, Syrians, a cyclops named Rose, and a therapeutic Dominatrix.

It’s a nifty adventure idea, but the book moves quickly into what the social and political ramifications of this event would be. When the “gendercide” instantly killed all the men (2.9 billion people) it took all but 5 of the Fortune 500 CEOs, 99% of all landowners, 95% of all commercial pilots, truck drivers and ship captains… 99% of all mechanics, electricians, and construction workers… 85% of government officials and 100% of Catholic priests, Muslim imams, and Orthodox rabbis. You want to talk about hitting the re-set button on civilization?

So what’s the point? That civilization can’t stand-up without men… or to call our attention to how badly we have underutilized the talents and skills of half our population. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Y is the way it strongly divides readers into thinking it is either a feminist story of female empowerment or a misogynist tract endlessly bashing and dehumanizing women. Many feminists were offended that society collapsed so instantly without the men and that almost all the surviving women seem really screwed-up in the head. On the other hand, Ms magazine called the book a “feminist masterpiece.” I’ve seen Brian K. Vaughn at a con tell a funny story about taking his wife into a comic shop and, to impress her, casually dropping to the girl behind the counter that he was the writer of Y: The Last Man. The girl looked at him funny and then asked, “Um… so… Why do you hate women?” Vaughn laughs about it after the fact, but also admits, “It’s been very frustrating for me that anyone should take Y as misogynistic.”

In large part, Vaughn wants to overturn the stereotype that a world run by women would be a nurturing, non-competitive, egalitarian utopia. It seems like most of the women they encounter on their odyssey are violent, paranoid, man-hating nut-jobs. I can get on board with this approach, because true feminism is realizing that women are just as complex, contradictory, and kooky as men often are, and they can be just as greedy, violent, and petty – because they’re human beings. A recurring theme in Y is that a lot of the differences between men and women are cultural and socio-economic rather than inherently biological. There’s a great panel of Yorick holding a skull (of course), wondering if it was a male or female, and asking, “How can anyone tell the difference?” And earlier Other-Beth (not his girlfriend Beth but the “Other-Beth” he falls in with along the way) muses on the sins of the Catholic Church and observes, “The Church wasn’t fucked-up because it was run by men. It was fucked-up because it was run by humans.” That Vaughan makes his point by often showing women as violent, crazy, and pig-headed set some feminist readers off, but surly the point should be that the sudden loss of half the population – men or women – would be devastating; knowing that you are the last generation to ever live would be unbearable.

However, what really makes Y a feminist story is that what Vaughn did was to subversively reverse the usual gender roles. Usually the violent, scary villains are men, the hero is a man, and the character in need of rescue is female. Yorick is the weaker character, and over and over he plays the traditional role of the damsel in distress so that 355, the action hero, can come to his rescue. I think one of the major points of the book is made explicit when, at one point, Yorick makes a Moonlighting analogy, and tells 355, “I’m Cybil. You’re Bruce.” Add to this the fact that many women want to seduce (or rape) him, but pure-hearted (or very repressed) Yorick is saving himself for Beth.

The most obviously feminist comic book has always been Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman was created by Dr. William Moulton Marston. He was kinky and polyamourous: he lived with his wife and his slave (who always wore metal bracelets). He created Wonder Woman to be an overtly feminist story… but it also had tons of kink and bondage in it. She was always getting tied up or chained up or tying some guy up… So one of the great comic tropes Vaughan inverts is the set-up of the more obviously feminist Wonder Woman. Yorick, an escape artist, is always getting tied-up by girls who want to kill or rape him. Sometimes the fetishy stuff is subtle, sometimes less subtle (the cover to issue #6 which shows him naked in chains wearing the gasmask, an image that could come straight from BoundGods.com) and at least once it’s in-your-face (the “Safe-word” story arc which lets all the slightly buried fetish stuff come right out of the closet). This is a Vertigo book (“For Mature Readers”) and contains a lot of adult themes, language, violence, and nudity (full frontal male and female). Yorick’s modest penis size is a running joke: the last functional penis on earth… barely.

Yorick’s sexuality is a bit of a puzzle. Clearly he’s very repressed and has some big “issues” about sex, and his whole, overly-romantic I’m-saving-myself-for-my-almost-fiancé is clearly a very questionable dodge. One wonders if his escape artist thing isn’t a bit of a bondage fetish as is sometimes implied. One wonders if he is gay or bi or heteroflexible, as is sometimes implied. It makes this story more interesting than the expected “harem fantasy”: What if the last man on earth is gay, repressed, or sexually dysfunctional?

Yorick is a man-child and a bit of an insecure wimp who suffers numerous humiliations. Yorick’s mixtures of pop culture and literary references are often very amusing. I find Yorick to be quite likable precisely because he’s such a goof with this dorky sense of humor. This book can be disturbing and frightening and heartbreaking, but it’s also, frequently, really funny. Yorick is generally clueless, especially in the early issues, and kind of insufferable – but that is very much the point. The last man isn’t a chiseled, heroic, square-jawed Viggo Mortensen or Will Smith; he’s a 21-year old slacker. He’s Nietzsche’s “last man” – a couch potato who basically wants only to be left alone, distracted by books and TV, and sleep well at night with a full belly. Yorick can also be irritating in the early issues because he takes these really stupid risks. “Safe-word” is the pivotal story where we learn that, traumatized by seeing half the population suddenly die, Yorick has a death wish. So now we add another intriguing twist on the premise: What if the last man alive wants to die?

While I see this book as more of a feminist piece than a misogynist work, I do have to agree with one criticism that is frequently hurled at it: almost all the girls in it look like Maxim models. It’s a little disjointed for a work about female empowerment to be so full of eye candy for boys. When we first meet Beth, for instance, she is hiking in the Australian outback in very skimpy clothing (she’s a blond with alabaster skin that would cook), no hat, and she appears to be wearing lipstick! In the next issue we meet a super-model who is collecting rotting, male corpses and piling them into a garbage truck. Is she wearing cover-alls or a hazmat suit? No, she’s wearing skin-tight, leather pants and a tank top! So, okay, there is definitely reasonable cause for calling up artist Pia Guerra and saying, “WTF, lady?”

Be that as it may, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that Guerra’s art is fantastic. It’s crisp, solid storytelling that is well composed but not “showy” the way a lot of Vertigo comics are. And let’s also note how cool and unusual it is to have one artist on a comic for most of its whole 60-issue run (Guerra drew all but twelve or so issues).

Y is a unique, cool, compelling, and often clever comic masterpiece… that perhaps suffers from a bit of muddled messaging which leads half its readers to see it as feminist and the other half to see it as misogynist. To be a socio-political book without a clear message might be a bit of a problem, but at the same time… that’s kind of the way the story works. The whole story – but especially “Safe-word” – walks a line between being exploitive and being a deeply revealing character study. “Safe-word” combines BDSM titillations and a dominatrix rapist force-feeding Yorick boner pills with psychoanalysis and an epiphany that transforms Yorick from an everyman, Gen-X loser to a rich, three-dimensional character. And the obligatory crazy-ladies in “Safe-word” – the Sons of Arizona – are better realized villains than the earlier “Amazons” (a cult of loony, man-hating women who seem too much like a bad parody of feminists). Many long-form narratives take a little time for the writer to get it together – that was true of Babylon 5 and The Sandman. Likewise, Y really takes off with the “Safeword” chapter (issues #18-23).

After completing this 60 issue magnum opus, Vaughn went on to become a writer and story editor for TV’s Lost, and was the show-runner for seasons 3-5. (Not season 6, so don’t blame him for that.) Lost had many similarities to Y. Somewhat reminiscent of the Lost flashbacks, Vaughan frequently employs, in Y, an effective technique of opening each book with the climax and then backing up to reveal how we got there. Alternatively, another technique he often employs is to begin each chapter with Yorick in a genera-spoofing dream sequence. Like Lost, the narrative is very driven by mystery: What killed all the male mammals and why did Yorick and Ampersand survive? Like Lost, some characters change sides from “good guys” to “bad guys” and back again. (I always enjoy that.) Vaughan really understands how to engineer a page-turner; each page ends with a little punch and each issue ends with a cliff-hanger. There’s also a lot of clever dialogue – occasionally given a double meaning, like when Yorick is first introduced and he’s musing about why fate chooses one man to live over another… or the opening line of “Safe-word”: “Yorick always gets to go last!”

The ending of this 60 issue epic is heartbreaking and beautiful – better by far than the ending of Lost. It faces the same problem Lost had: the story is so built around mystery that any explanation at the end is going to seem unsatisfying. Y handles this better than Lost did by having Yorik and Beth confront the issue head-on in the story.   Yorick actually says, “As far as answers go, it was… vaguely unsatisfying.”

Beth then asks him, “After everything we’ve been through? Is there any explanation that would have been satisfactory?”

Yorik answers, “Um, aliens? I also would have accepted witchcraft or anything involving nanobots.”

One thing worth mentioning that is extremely satisfying is Yorick’s final confrontation with the villainous Alter who has hunted him across the globe. If the “answer” to the mystery is “vaguely unsatisfying,” the final show-down with his arch-nemesis is very, very satisfying in all the right ways.

Still, just as happened with Lost, many readers of Y will, like Yorick, feel very let down by the “answer,” such as it is… or annoyed by he lack thereof, really. (It’s never 100% clear if they ever actually learn the real answer.) What Vaughn is doing by having Yorick say that is to make clear to us that the story was never really about, ‘What killed all the men?’ It was about the journey of Yorick and 355, Dr. Mann, Hero, Alter, Other-Beth, Natalya, and Rose. Like all great sci-fi, it isn’t about the “science” at all; it’s about (as the great J. Michael Straczynski put it), ‘Who are you really and what do you really want?’ So much effort to reach Australia and find his Beth. It is almost unbearably sweet when Yorick finally realizes that 355 has been his real Penelope all along. He’s an English major, so he really should have seen it coming given that she was always knitting and un-raveling and re-knitting this scarf… but then, Yorik is lovably clueless.

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