Y: The Last Man
In The Catch-Up, a longtime fan and a newcomer have a discussion about a TV show, movie, book, music, or other pop-culture item. In this installment, Noel Murray and Oliver Sava kick around Y: The Last Man, the acclaimed science fiction/action comic-book series that considers what would happen if a mysterious malady wiped out every male on Earth, save for one escape artist and his monkey.
Noel: Oliver, I’d read the first trade paperback of Y: The Last Man back when it was first released, but never went any further than that, because while I liked the first trade, I decided that I’d rather wait until the whole series was done and read it as one big graphic novel. Well, this past May, the last “Deluxe Edition” hardback was released—containing the last of the series’ 60 issues—and over Thanksgiving week I stacked all five of them next to my bed and read them straight through, in about eight days. So the first question I want to raise with you is this: Was that the right way to read this comic?
I’ll start with the case for Y as one fat book: It’s one hell of a page-turner. And I don’t want to underrate that. I’ve read heaps of comics in my life, and fluid storytelling is relatively rare, especially when it comes to mainstream adventure fare. Too many genre comics start with a strong premise and then fumble along from action sequence to action sequence until the story peters out. With Y: The Last Man, writer Brian K. Vaughan starts with a sharp hook—every male on Earth is dead, except for one dopey twentysomething and the helper-monkey he’s training—which prompts a string of provocative questions. Why this man? Why this monkey? What caused the plague? And how does society function with nearly half of its population abruptly gone? Starting from that point, Vaughan and his primary artist Pia Guerra send their hero Yorick Brown on quests that lead him around the world, under the protection of a super-secret government operative known only as Agent 355. They look for a doctor, Allison Mann, who may be able to clone Yorick and/or synthesize a vaccine to protect all future males from the plague. They also look for Yorick’s girlfriend Beth, who was traveling in Australia when the incident occurred. And they duck the factions that want to find Yorick: in particular a radical feminist group that calls themselves The Daughters Of The Amazon, and an Israeli commando team led by a hard-boiled woman named Alter.
In short: There’s no lack of plot-drivers here, and Vaughan moves from location to location and antagonist to antagonist so nimbly that it’s easy to read a half-dozen issues in one sitting. Plus the way that Vaughan teases out the mysteries of what may have caused the plague—along with whatever previously unknown connections the survivors may have to each other—is all very compelling. If the end of one issue promises answers, it’s hard not to start right in on the next to find out what they might be.
But here’s where I have a beef with Y, and why I think I might’ve enjoyed it more if I’d read it month-to-month (or at least trade-to-trade). As the book approaches its endpoint, it becomes increasingly apparent that Vaughan’s not going to provide definitive answers to all the questions he’s raised. Some he answers fairly comprehensively; others he answers reasonably well, if not in a cut-and-dried way. But the biggest question—what caused the plague?—Vaughan leaves hanging, though he provides several theories over the run of the series that readers can take or leave. All of which makes me wonder how much of Y: The Last Man Vaughan had mapped out when he began the story, and how much he scrambled to fill in later.
The obvious comparison here is Lost, a TV series that Vaughan worked on as a writer for a few of its best seasons, and a show that I’ve staunchly defended over the years from those who dismiss it as a six-year tease with a weak payoff. I don’t want to rehash my position of Lost here and get too sidetracked from the topic at hand, but I will say that much of my enjoyment of Lost stems from the way I watched it: week to week, with each episode a standalone unit to savor and then pick apart until the next one came along. Even when I’ve watched Lost in repeats, in mini-marathons, I’ve found I have a sentimental attachment based on how I originally watched it.
I don’t know how you originally experienced Y: The Last Man, and I understand that at this point there’s really no other way to read it but to take it as one book, which makes my complaint somewhat moot. Also, I hasten to note that I really enjoyed the experience overall, and that there’s a lot I liked about Y (and some more that I didn’t) that I want to get into later. But I wanted to get your opinion Y: The Last Man as a “graphic novel” as opposed to a serialized comic with 20-odd pages to fill each month. I can be more forgiving of the latter, while I tend to hold the former to a higher standard, looking for a little more control and intentionality.
Oliver: I picked up the first issue of Y: The Last Man when it came out in 2002, and followed it in single issues until the end. I think most Vertigo series tend to read better as one fat book, and the wait between issues of Y: The Last Man was grueling at times, especially when it switched to a bi-monthly schedule toward the end. Vaughan knows how to write an intense cliffhanger, and there was definitely a thrill at the end of each issue because of the mystery that comes out of waiting another month (or more).
It’s funny you mention Lost, because I hopped on to the show during season three after watching the first two seasons in DVD marathons. I found it more difficult to excuse the weaker episodes watching it week-to-week because I had more time to analyze the content (especially with your TV Club recaps) and gripe about the quality. If I watch a crappy episode during a DVD marathon, I can move on to the next one immediately, and usually the bad memory has already faded if the next 42 minutes are solid.
When I read Y: The Last Man in collections, I see that pronounced control and intentionality that you expect from a graphic novel, specifically in regards to the question you’ve already brought up: “What caused the plague?” We never do get a definitive answer, and I think that was Vaughan’s intention from the very beginning. In #17, the second part of “Comedy & Tragedy,” director/playwright Cayce writes a new play about the last man on Earth and names the character Lionel as a tip of the hat to Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. When she’s asked what caused the plague in Shelley’s book, Cayce says:
She never really gets around to explaining it. But it’s not the point of her story. It’s a condemnation of the… the unchecked masculinity that was always threatening to destroy the planet. It’s about the failure of art and imagination to save the world.
Vaughan keeps the story focused on how this new world affects his characters rather than getting wrapped up in the bigger questions of the plot, focusing more on the personal rather than the epic elements of the story. In the end, it doesn’t matter what caused the plague, but it’s not because he doesn’t give us any answers. Vaughan gives multiple reasons for the plague—the Amulet Of Helene, Mother Nature’s revenge for keeping women out of the theater, morphogenetic consequences of cloning, a chemical attack on the Chinese gone awry—and any of them could be right or wrong. The reader chooses what to believe, and that decision shapes how the story is read. Does Vaughan want this series read as a condemnation of unchecked masculinity, or as a globetrotting action-adventure with a tinge of sci-fi?
When I read the series like one big book, I take stronger notice of the craftsmanship. So much of the book is foreshadowed from early on, which gives me confidence that Vaughan had a clear idea of how long the story would run, what points he wanted to hit, and where his characters would be at the end. One of my favorite bits of foreshadowing is when mechanic P.J. tells Yorick that she predicts women will evolve to survive after the plague, “We’ll all turn into birds or whatever.” Not only does it make fun of the tired woman-as-bird metaphor, but it gives greater weight to the final pages of the series and Yorick’s final escape.
What are your feelings on the art, Noel? I feel that Vaughan’s story always outshines Pia Guerra’s art in discussions of the title, but she’s invaluable to the series. Not many artists could create a cast of unique female characters, but Guerra’s figures each have distinct faces and body types, and they’re often unflattering. On both Y: The Last Man and Runaways, Vaughan’s artistic collaborators grow immensely while working with him, and by the end of the series, I feel that Guerra evolves into a Mike Wieringo/Daniel Clowes hybrid, balancing the energy and softness of the late Wieringo with Clowes’ ability to capture the full spectrum of human emotion.
Noel: Well, my favorite penciler on the series was Paul Chadwick, who had a brief fill-in stint. (As a longtime Concrete fanatic, any Chadwick sighting is a welcome one.) That said, I agree with you that either Guerra improves dramatically over the course of these 60 issues or I just got used to her over time. I do recall one arc late in the book, when Guerra returned after Goran Sudzuka had drawn a few issues, and the clarity of the figures and faces suddenly struck me for the first time. I can see that Clowes/Wieringo comparison, for sure.
It’s interesting what you say about the long-range plotting and thematic embedding. I still suspect that there are some threads that Vaughan introduced and then let dangle until he could figure out how to tie them off (or if he really needed to), but I agree that some of what makes the collected edition so grabby is that much of it feels purposeful. I think here mainly of the story of Yorick’s sister Hero, who becomes a Daughter Of The Amazon for a time and falls under the control of the group’s domineering leader Victoria, for reasons that are later explored in one heartbreaking flashback issue. Agent 355’s story too is a stunner. There’s one image that sticks with me, of 355 as a girl, hearing about her father’s death and feeling embarrassed because the shock made her wet her pants. Such a beautiful, painful detail.
As I mentioned earlier, there are other elements to Y that didn’t work as well for me. I think sometimes Vaughan tries too hard to be “adult,” tossing around frank sex talk in ways that sound unnatural and even juvenile. I think that it takes a little too long for Agent 355 to become the likable, good-hearted badass she is by the end of the series. I think Victoria is way too over-the-top as a villain—almost a parody of a staunch feminist—and while Alter shows more depth in her madness, she becomes more strident as the story plays out and as she becomes the primary nemesis. Plus, Yorick in the early going is a very frustrating character, as he keeps thrusting himself into danger by revealing his identity unnecessarily—along with his ignorance about women. I was especially irritated by the arc that takes place in a small town run by women from a nearby prison, which ends with Yorick myopically demanding that the townspeople be returned to jail to serve out their sentences. Yorick just doesn’t always seem to grasp the bigger picture of what’s happened to the world, and his new place in it.
On the other hand, I’m 90 percent certain that Vaughan actually did map the series out this way from the start, with Yorick being a well-meaning dunce who gradually matures. And I did appreciate how skillfully Vaughan handles the first thing that’ll pop into most readers’ heads when they hear that this is a book about the last man in a society of women. Defying expectations, Y: The Last Man isn’t just 60 issues of the hero having sex with everyone he meets. Instead, Yorick tries to save himself for his Beth (though he does falter occasionally). Victoria aside, Vaughan’s willing to let his characters exist as individuals, not just as representatives of an idea he wants to explore. And I haven’t even mentioned some of my favorite supporting players, such as the Russian agent Natalya, with her sloppy English and foul mouth.
Mostly though, what I love about Y: The Last Man is how thought-through the basic premise is. Unlike disaster movies that introduce an apocalyptic threat and then focus on how it will affect a couple of American cities, Y is global in scope, as Vaughan moves from culture to culture and imagines how things might’ve changed with no men. How many doctors are left? How many pilots? How is society organized? It’s a common what-if game to talk about a world run by women and conceive of it as more peaceful and fair; but Vaughan brings up some problems that a lot of writers wouldn’t even bother to consider when telling a story like this. (Example: With no male animals, how long before the supply of meat dwindles?)
There are few types of books/movies/TV shows I enjoy more than those that take a high-concept premise and then examine it from multiple angles. That’s what I like about Groundhog Day, which spins multiple variations on the idea of a man trapped in the same repeating day. That’s what I like about Breaking Bad, which takes the notion of a cancer-ridden science teacher becoming a methamphetamine manufacturer and asks the nuts-and-bolts questions about how he’s going to sell the product and what he’s going to do with the money. And that’s definitely what I like about Y: The Last Man, which takes a nifty thought exercise in places I never would’ve imagined myself.
What about you, Oliver? How would you sum up Y’s appeal to you?
Oliver: It might be sappy, but I love Y: The Last Man because it’s a love story. Yorick and 355’s relationship is one of the most satisfying romances I’ve ever read in comics, because Vaughan develops it slowly and organically over the course of the series. It’s also one of the most heartbreaking and infuriating, and I turn into a weepy mess during the 355 scene in the final issue. I didn’t have the same issues with 355’s characterization as you, and by the end of the Marrisville arc I had completely warmed up to her, especially after her hospital bed reveal that she was in love with Yorick. During my first reread a few years ago, I felt like Vaughan played that card a little early, but this most recent reading showed me how much that moment softens her character. I do agree with you on Yorick’s reaction to the Marrisville ex-cons, but he’s so immature in the first act that I could see him overreacting, especially after kissing Sofia.
Yorick fancies himself an escape artist, but the one thing he can’t break free from is his devotion to Beth. She’s his tether to the pre-plague world, and by obsessing over his relationship with her, he doesn’t have to open up to the reality of his situation. He doesn’t want to be the last man, and by not having sex with any other women, he shuts down the part of his mind that turns a fantasy situation into reality. This reading was the first time it occurred to me just how young Yorick is at the start of the series. When the plague hits, he’s two years younger than I am right now, and a recent college graduate with a useless English degree. I have a useless English and political science degree, but I know that if I was suddenly the only man alive, I wouldn’t handle it even remotely as well as Yorick does. The sudden responsibility for the entire future of the human race would be crippling, and Yorick refuses to accept it until 711 forces him to. The series is essentially Yorick’s coming-of-age, and I like that Vaughan gives us a protagonist who can be a little stupid and obnoxious, because it means so much more when he finally starts acting like an adult.
Vaughan was a great addition to Lost not only because of his plotting skills, but because of how well he writes an ensemble cast. You mention Natalya above, who is just one of the great supporting characters that Vaughan populates the story with, and I love that he checks in with most of them again when the story begins to wrap up. One of my favorite issues is #53, “The Obituarist,” which leaves the turbulent main storyline to check in on the supermodel that found Yorick back in the second issue. As the series nears its end, it’s an issue that encapsulates all the best qualities of Vaughan’s story: sharp dialogue, a great balance of comedy and tragedy, and a good helping of social commentary. Vaughan takes a clever idea—supermodel turned garbage collector—and expands on it to create a poignant story about one woman’s journey to help a nation grieve and eventually grow.
I don’t know why Vaughan left Lost in the sixth season, but the conclusion of Y: The Last makes me wish he had stayed. Vertigo has a pretty good record when it comes to creators sticking the landing at the end of their series, and Vaughan writes an incredible conclusion. Taking place 60 years after the preceding issue, Vaughan throws readers into a new world, showing how womankind has evolved to survive after Le Grand Départ while showing what happens to the cast later in life. The final scene is somehow both an upper and a downer, and the open ending makes it a different experience each time I get to the last page because of where I am in life when I read it.
During his last scene with Hero, Yorick tells her that he’s going to start work on his first novel, maybe focused on the Welsh custom of the Melltith. Wedding parties would chop down trees and create obstacles that the groom had to overcome in order to reach his wife, thus proving his worth as a man. Hero responds, “You still think that’s what it was all about, huh?” Yorick thinks he was in a universal Melltith, and after he overcame all the obstacles, his bride still didn’t deem him man enough. He’s the only man in the world, but he can’t escape the idea that he needs the love of a woman to prove it. Women have evolved past the need for men while Yorick doesn’t have that opportunity, but in the end, he finally finds a way to let go of the opposite sex.
Noel: I definitely appreciated Vaughan’s attempt at something grand with the final issue, leaping into the future and giving only impressions of how the world had changed since the previous issue. That’s one case though where I can imagine that reading Y: The Last Man might’ve been unsatisfying, since there’s no indication during the dramatic events of issue #59 that issue #60—released two months later—was going to leave behind the time and place that the characters had come to know so well over the preceding five-plus years.
In the end though, what I enjoyed most about Y was those big swings. Even when the book didn’t connect with me, I loved the gusto of it. American genre comics don’t have enough long-form narratives with this level of ambition and follow-through. As a comics fan, I almost feel like it’s my duty to pay heed to such a monumental achievement. I’m glad that so much of it was a pleasure as well.
Oliver: That wait between #59 and #60 really was horrible, especially after seeing the final cover and fearing that the entire series was just a dream in Yorick’s creepy grandpa’s head. I think your comment on American genre comics could be applied to most genre entertainment in this country, which is high on ambition, but not so great with the follow-through. I think a lot of that comes from our culture, which puts pressure on creators to keep a story going longer than it has to if interest stays high. You end up with a lot of stories that have strong beginnings but peter out at the conclusion, and Vaughan avoids that by giving himself a set timeframe for his story.
The creator-owned comic-book model that Vertigo uses is something that can’t be done in mainstream film or television, where the fate of a project is ultimately in the hands of studio executives, not the creator. There’s been a lot of talk about adapting Y: The Last Man into a movie, but there’s no way a single film could capture the full scope of Vaughan’s story, which thrives because it doesn’t have to worry about budget and content limitations. Despite the story’s cinematic feel, or maybe because of it, Y: The Last Man is a comic book I’d like to see kept in two dimensions. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Noel, I know I loved diving back in.