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Retrospective: Y: The Last Man
Brian K. Vaughan’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece, Y: The Last Man, asks the following question: What if every male mammal containing the Y chromosome died all on the same day?
I initially began reading Vertigo’s graphic novel when it was first published in 2002, but around 5 volumes in I, for whatever reason, tapered off and stopped. Life just gets in the way of reading habits. Probably just as well, marathoning a series is always more satisfying than waiting every month for a release.
So after re-reading 5 volumes, then continuing to finish the entire 60 issues, I can say it was an exhausting and exhilarating ride, full of laughter and tragedy. Vaughan plays with my emotions like I’m a puppet on a string, but when the story is this good, I loved every moment.
The format of the story is basically a road trip around the world revolving around the lone male survivor of the apocalypse, a slacker dude called Yorick and his male monkey. The idealistic, if neurotic, romantic was about to ask his girlfriend to marry him via a long-distance phone call before the apocalypse hit, and he’s intent on finding her. Accompanied by a genius scientist and a numerically titled assassin from a shadowy agency, the trio traverse continents in the search for answers to the ‘plague’ that wiped out mankind, while colliding with women from all walks of life.
The first issue of this comic is spine-tinglingly amazing. In dialogue-free panels, courtesy of brilliant artist Pia Guerra, we see men all over the globe dying horribly, and it’s just stunning. Vaughan then goes on to build a unique world with new rules, as the remaining women figure out how to survive and rebuild society. How to reconcile their religious beliefs, their morals, their entire way of life. Some, like the crazy Daughters of the Amazon cult, smile with glee at the extinction of men. Others are distraught, but every character and faction Vaughan depicts seems like a logical outcome of such a terrifying event.
Every sub-plot in the story relates to the main theme. This is the mark of a master storyteller. You’d be surprised how many stories mess this up. As a result of such an error, they become uneven and don’t know what they’re trying to say. Vaughan knows exactly what he’s tackling here, and every single incident permeates with commentary on gender. In a modern context but also historical, and his usage of humour makes it a breezy read, and not a hand-holding preach-fest or po-faced history lesson. The premise is: what would happen if all the men in the world died? He not only deals with that question head-on, but makes any other future attempt to tackle it irrelevant. This is the definitive modern tale of what happens to that unlucky world.
Every side character, side story, flashback, flash forward; every single plot-line has something to do with gender and the relationship between men and woman. Not one issue of the comic is wasted in Vaughan’s meditation on how the sexes impact each other, and how they impact Yorick on his journey from a suicidal nerd, to mature geek. A rites of passage from boyhood to manhood needs a woman’s touch, is the gist of it.
Using deft humour and shrewd observation of past trends, Vaughan has his female characters taking up the mantle in the absence of men. The world trundles on somehow, whether it be through cross-dressing women selling their wares to satiate womens’ lust for masculine sex, or theatre troupes putting on performances of soap-opera level productions, again with cross-dressing actors to satiate the audiences need for cathartic entertainment. Professions that were lacking in females are now filled with them world-wide, and it’s glorious. As horrible as the mass extinction event was, its left a unique world that brought a grin to my face. But Vaughan stays true to life, what’s left is not an utopia; women can mess shit up just as well as men.
Y: The Last Man is crammed with meta self-referential moments. A random example is where we see characters creating their own comic book about the apocalypse, to give the surviving women of the world entertainment. Yorick has to continually disguise himself as a woman to continue his voyage across the planet, which has obvious potential for comedy. The story has some of the best punchlines I’ve ever read, pitch-perfect. Vaughan will set-up a joke with a panel early on, and the chapter will end with such a glorious pay-off, utilising duality in the visual composition, or a simple one word reply.
The dialogue throughout is sharp, witty, full of puns and geeky references to pop-culture. The story is both a meditation on gender relations while having enough time to be an awesome action comedy with ninja and shoot-outs. There are surreal dreams, nightmares, diversions from the main plot following side characters. Vaughan experiments with the narrative to this heart’s content.
The cliffhangers are huge, the highlight of the entire series for me involved an early revelation of something that in hindsight was so obvious, I was kicking myself for not having considered it before. In fact the comic does this consistently. It will have massive reveals, that are shocking but never cheap. They’re always logical but Vaughan has this sneaky way of surprising you with them. Unfortunately I have to be vague to save you the surprises, but many a time I would turn a page and audibly breath out ‘holy shit…’
At one point, a character grabs Yorick and tells him he has a big heart, and that is what this comic exudes all throughout, no matter how dark things get, how messed up, how hopeless, Yorick and Vaughan defiantly reject defeat, learn from their mistakes and man the hell up.
As for the big question, what causes all the men to die? Vaughan does answer it, though I suspect he’d have preferred to not bother, it’s not important how everyone died, but how humanity reacts to it. That’s what kept readers returning issue after issue. Vaughan himself pokes fun at his own explanation afterwards in a typical meta-moment, still leaving room for interpretation.
The story ends in as ambitious manner as it begins: a changed world, and matured characters. It’s a bitter-sweet ending to a tale that began with tragedy, and was infused with an epic struggle. To describe it in any more detail would spoil it, suffice to say it left a heavy ache in my heart. Vaughan had the temerity to have me on the verge of tears multiple times throughout the tale, the talented rascal. The resolution to this story won’t be to everyone’s liking, but life is a bitch, as the saying goes.
The characters go on an epic journey that spans years and grow closer, and as a reader you become accustomed to them. When they’re hurt you hold your breath with each page hoping they pull through. When a writer has you in their grip like that, it’s masterful, and they have the ultimate power to uplift your spirits and also utterly devastate you with how they treat their characters.
In this battle of the sexes, Brian K. Vaughan ensures that fans of compelling stories told and drawn with heart, will always win.