Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra et alia
Reviewed by Jed Hartman
15 March 2006
"The plague struck without warning and without mercy, all across the globe. Every mammal on Earth that bore a Y chromosome died in a matter of seconds. Out of billions of animals, only two were spared—a human named Yorick Brown, and his pet monkey, Ampersand. Why they survived is a mystery."
—summary blurb from Y: The Last Man volume 3, "One Small Step"
Y: The Last Man is one of the most interesting sf comics I've seen in a while.
It's an ongoing monthly series from Vertigo, the mature-readers line from DC Comics that published Sandman and Hellblazer (among other things); the first 31 issues of Y so far (which comprise the first half of the planned 60-issue storyline) have been collected into five trade-paperback volumes.
The series follows young escape artist Yorick Brown and his capuchin monkey Ampersand as they travel across the US toward various goals, after the sudden death of all other male mammals. Traveling with them are a woman known only as "355"—an agent of a secret American intelligence agency—and Dr. Allison Mann, a bioengineer working on human cloning. In the peripatetic tradition of TV shows like The Fugitive and The Incredible Hulk, our heroes wander across the remains of the US, encountering a new community or hazard every few issues. But unlike many television shows in that mold, Y has an ongoing storyline and fairly strong continuity from one episode to the next.
Various friends of mine have been recommending the series to me for some time, and it's been getting a lot of high-profile attention, with glowing reviews from the likes of Entertainment Weekly, the Chicago Tribune, and Publishers Weekly, but somehow I didn't get around to buying and reading it until a couple of months ago. I bought the first collected volume at my local comic store, took it home, read it, and immediately went back to the store to buy the other four volumes. It's pretty solid science fiction (though there are hints that it may also be fantasy), and it's a different take than I've seen before on one of my favorite sf tropes, the single-sex society; in particular, I don't think I've previously seen a work that gives an extended examination of what such a society might be like in the moments and months after the transition.
Y does a good job with that portrayal. The writer, Brian K. Vaughan, is obviously familiar with some of the relevant classics of prose sf; there's an explicit reference to a well-known Tiptree story early in the first issue (and that line eventually turns out to be very relevant to the plot), and later there's a discussion of Mary Shelley's novel The Last Man. And the series is generally pretty nuanced; characters have a lot of different opinions and beliefs and approaches to what's going on. Some of the women are devastated at the loss of the men; others are glad to be rid of "rapists and dictators and [...] serial killers," as one of them puts it; others are just trying to survive in a chaotic new world.
I worried at first (especially after a moment early on when a woman kills herself on learning that all the men are dead) that the series was all about the importance of men, and particularly one man, to the world—but closer examination and later developments make clear that it's much more interesting than that. I don't think Vaughan and co-creator (and penciller) Pia Guerra have a simplistic or straightforward political agenda here, and that makes me a lot more willing to trust them to do a good job. The characters react as individuals, not as puppets making a political point.
Another obvious worry is that the premise of one man in a world of women could lead to "lone man impregnating every woman on Earth" fantasies, but Yorick has a girlfriend who's off adventuring in Australia, and he's ompletely devoted to her, which eliminates most of the potential for macho fantasy. Also, he's kind of a nerd, with a penchant for pop culture. (At one point he comments, "... I only ever liked writing fake stuff, space Nazis and ... Knight Rider fanfic, you know?") Nonetheless, Yorick isn't a Sensitive New-Age Guy, and he tends to charge into action even though he's not much use in a fight. There's a lot more to him than there initially appears to be.
There are also a lot of strong female characters with more to them than meets the eye. They're a pretty diverse bunch, too: 355 is my favourite black action heroine since Angela Bassett's character in Strange Days; Dr. Mann is half Chinese, half Japanese (though it's a little hard to tell she's meant to be Asian in her first few appearances); later, Russian and Israeli women feature prominently. Most of the women we see are straight, but not all of them. (One woman tells Yorick: "I suppose we can add gaydar to the extraordinary number of common senses you seem to lack.")
But much as I like the protagonists (and the recurring supporting characters, such as Yorick's sister Hero), I think the various minor characters that Yorick meets and befriends along the way at a rate of about one per volume may be my favorite characters in the series; they've all got compelling stories and backgrounds, and most of them are very likeable. But the characters aren't the only reason I like the series. There are a bunch of very funny moments, and lots of snappy dialogue:
Yorick: We like to storm into town, inflict maximum damage, and then disappear ... like a KISS concert.
Dr. Mann: Only with less unintended pregnancies in our wake. (volume 3, p. 118)
There are also plenty of sad parts, of course, given that this is the death of half of humanity we're talking about. Throughout, Vaughan's writing is a good mix of human drama and tense fast-paced action. I especially like the pacing in the issues with a nonlinear chronology borrowed from shows like Alias.
And the art, pencilled by Guerra and inked by José Marzán, Jr., is very well suited to the story. What I like best about the art is that it mostly consists of people who look like ordinary people, not the grotesqueries of the modern superhero, and yet they're convincingly portrayed in a wide range of situations from calm conversation to fast-paced action and combat. I know, that's what artists do, but I particularly like the way Guerra and Marzán do it in this series. Expressive faces, expressive body language; compelling scenes of violence without glorification, of sex without (too much) salaciousness; plus scenes of quasi-ordinary everyday life. I should also mention the good work of the colorists, Pamela Rambo and Zylonol, and the excellent original series covers by J. G. Jones, Aron Wiesenfeld, and Massimo Carnevale, which are reproduced inside the reprint volumes. And although letterer Clem Robins doesn't get much opportunity to show off with this series, he too does a fine job.
There are some aspects of the series that I didn't like so much. One area that bugged me is some holes in the plot; for example, the initial motivation for all the traveling is just one line of dialogue: "It won't be long before others learn of your existence, and I don't think it's wise to keep you in one location where they'll always be able to find you." I don't buy it, especially given how much trouble the characters manage to get into as they travel. I also felt that the complete lack of small planes and telephones grows progressively more implausible as the series progresses and time passes.
And more generally, I think time passes too quickly—at a certain point, we suddenly learn that a year has gone by since the start of the story. Even if the characters had to walk the entire way, I don't think it would take a year to cross the country, and we certainly don't see a year's worth of incidents during those issues.
There are some other aspects, besides the plot holes, that didn't work for me. The constant barrage of pop-culture media references in Yorick's dialogue gets a little tiresome at times, though it's quite entertaining at other times. And the end of volume 3 (issues 16-17) is, I felt, the weakest part of the series so far; the standalone story in those issues didn't do much for me, and sadly, I found the art (by normally stellar guest artist Paul (Concrete) Chadwick) especially weak in those issues.
But immediately after that low point, the "Safeword" storyline (volume 4, issues 18-20) takes the story to a whole new level. It's very nicely done, very impressive, both in writing and art. And it explains a lot that had been bugging me. A writer and artist who can carry off a story like that have my trust and respect for the rest of the series.