In an effort to prove that comic books aren’t just about men in spandex hitting each other really hard, this month I’m reviewing all of Brian K. Vaughan’s superb Y: The Last Man. In April, I took a look at all the writer’s Ex Machina.
What continues to astound about Y: The Last Man is how Brian K. Vaughan took a pulpy science-fiction concept that might have served as an episode of The Twilight Zone and has managed to not only expand it out into a five-year series, but also continue to offer new and clever takes on a world without men. It’s a wonderful and thoughtful book, but perhaps the most impressive thing is that – amidst the end of the world – Vaughan never loses sight of humanity.
In fairness, as I’ve noted before, this type of fantasy is a potentially dangerous one for any writer to play with. After all, rather than exploring feminist concerns, it’s very easy for a story about a world without men to turn into a story about how important those men were – it’s undoubtedly somewhat worrying when a story is more interested in a bunch of dead men than all the living women in the world. Vaughan seems aware of this, and finds it curious that his central character in this study of a world without a y chromosone should be male. It’s strangely phallo-centric to have an entire world of women and still focus on the one guy left.
Yorick himself seems to comment on this, discussing the inherent sexism of the French language, the so-called “language of love.” The French have two versions of ‘them’ - one male (ils) and one female (elles). “But if you’ve got a group of men and women together, they’re always referred to as ils,” he explains to his future girlfriend, without a hint of the irony that lies ahead. “Even if there’s only one boy in a crowd of, like, a billion women.” And so it is. In a world with a population of over three billion women, this is still a story of a man. Vaughan seems wryly aware of this, and references it repeatedly.
“My whole life, I’ve always been a… supporting player in somebody else’s story,” one female character observes at her big moment. “Daughter, student, &*^% buddy, first mate, whatever. But when the plague went down I finally saw a chance to change that.” Of course, Yorick’s arrival puts an end to that particular idea, and instead of being a strong character acting out her own particular story to its own conclusion, she’s trapped as a guest star in his continuing adventures. “It figures. An entire planet full of women, and the one guy gets to be the lead.”
That’s the one thing I truly admire about Vaughan’s writing, both here and on Ex Machina. It’s honest and its humble. As brilliant and clever as it is, it never insists upon itself – and it’s always willing to throw in a line that’ll make you smile alongside everything else which makes you think. There’s never a sense that Vaughan is asking you to unquestioningly accept his comic book as some grand work of art, despite his charm and skill. He seems to be just playing with various ideas and concepts, trying to spark some thought or discussion – without any sense of pretense.
Another factor which adds to the appeal of Vaughan’s work is how much thought he puts into his concepts. The earlier chapters featured appearances from the Israeli Defense Forces, but here there’s a genuine sense that the writer is broadening the world he’s created, as Yorick and his companions literally “Go West.” You don’t doubt that Vaughan had this all figured out (or at least brewing in the back of his head) from the moment he put pen to paper – especially given elements of Girl on Girl were foreshadowed as early as the first issue – even as he expands the scope of the series.
That expansion is very necessary, because the basic concept of “every man in the world dies mysteriously” can only sustain a series so far before the author needs to broaden it out and start developing. In a move that many other series might have ignored, Vaughan dares to peer beyond the United States, and to take a look at global affairs. As mentioned above, this is hardly a surprise development, and Vaughan has hinted at various international developments before, but here he gives us a very clear picture of what is happening outside the borders of the U.S.A.
Anna and her friends raise the question of how the Islamic world must be responding to the death of all the men (again, something Vaughan hinted at as early as the first volume – but it’s nice to see it developed). It’s interesting to see how Vaughan proposes the death of every male on the planet might impact sea-based trade, and naval military operations (as well as drug enforcement). We learn, for instance, that Yorick “looks a lot more convincing than those she-he’s the slave runners are selling outta the Philippines.” We get an idea of how America is coping with its neighbours as it is forced to trade in “the same crop that all poor, starving nations grow.” Indeed, it’s very creepy to see the Sydney Opera House presented as “a bloody shooting gallery.”
It’s particularly harrowing because Vaughan’s apocalypse is one that the infrastructure of the world can withstand. Yorick notes, for instance, that San Fransisco is fully functional – “all the electricity’s on, public transportation is working, and the post apocalyptic marauders are few and far between.” The sports stadium we see in Ring of Truth looks in perfect condition, as if it could still be used to host games. This makes it all the more shocking when the collapse of society takes its toll. Rather than decayed buildings or barren landscapes, drugs are grown inside national parks and the sights like the Sydney Opera House retain their outer beauty while being completely depressing locations, examples of how far humankind has fallen.
I’ve always liked how the series serves as a vehicle for Vaughan’s observations on humanity, and how much (or how little) is informed by gender. Even with all the men gone, we see drug smuggling, pirating, murder, assault and a whole host of social ills that one might subconsciously associate with male archetypes. The world keeps spinning, on and on and on. The beauty and the horror remain, almost as they were before. Politics are still played, people still want entertainment. The rules have been adjusted slightly, but the game remains fundamentally the same.
I especially like the way that Vaughan explores the inherent misogyny of the Catholic Church, a male-centred organisation if ever there was one. As much as raiders may decry the local church as a “disgusting shrine to male hegemony” – there are any number of atrocities committed by the institution that cannot be laid at the feet of men. Beth cites the Irish example of the Magdalene “Asylums.” As much as I appreciate the reference, we actually refer to them as the Magdalene “Laundries”, but the point stands. Beth makes the observation that “the church wasn’t &*^%ed up because was run by men, it was &*^%ed up because it was run by humans.” And I think that underlines a lot of Vaughan’s observations about human life in general.
I love how the author tackles mysticism. I don’t think any strictly rational explanation could reason away the sudden death of ever creature with a Y chromosone, at least not at the speed of light. Vaughan tackles the subject with care, suggesting that there might be some sort of supernatural reason for the gendercide, but refusing to give an answer one way or the other. He even has a bit of a laugh in proposing one reason that Yorick survived. Yorick remarks that he used to believe there was a reason for what happened, “but now I know it was all just a crapshoot. Mother&*^%ing literally.” Vaughan cheekily suggests that anybody trying to explain away what happened might be full of crap.
The author continues to do great work with his characters. Hero in particular comes into her own during this run of issues, as she gets an issue focused on her (Hero’s Journey) and a whole host of development. I admire how Vaughan subtly suggests that Hero was abused by her grandfather, creating her deep-set issues, without ever being too explicit. “Tick tock, the grandfather clock?” the illusion of Queen Victoria taunts her. “Do you even remember what that monster did to you?” Yorick wonders how hero can live with causing that much harm to somebody, “When you realised what you’d done… why didn’t you just kill yourself?” Hero retorts with, “What, like grandpa did?” – which instantly kills the conversation. She even cuts off Beth’s “were you and your grandfather–” question at her grandfather’s funeral.
It’s playing away in the background, with Vaughan ever feeling the need to ram it down our throats, which is a lot of the strength of his work here. Y: The Last Man is never pushy or preachy. It’s an entertaining adventure saga populated with interesting characters first, and the social commentary just seems to flow naturally from that. I know from a lifetime enjoying science-fiction that this sort of balance isn’t exactly the easiest to maintain, and Vaughan definitely deserves credit. So, here we are at the half-way point, and I can’t help but find myself wishing that it would never end.
Check out our complete reviews of Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man:
- Y: The Last Man – The Deluxe Edition, Book I
- Y: The Last Man – The Deluxe Edition, Book II
- Y: The Last Man – The Deluxe Edition, Book III
- Y: The Last Man – The Deluxe Edition, Book IV
- Y: The Last Man – The Deluxe Edition, Book V
Filed under: Comics Tagged: | arts, brian k. vaughan, catholic church, Christian Church, christianity, Churches, dc comics, Exmachina, Jesus, Protestantism, Religion and Spirituality, review, san francisco, Sydney Opera House, Transubstantiation, United States, y: the last man