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Y: The Last Man – The Deluxe Edition, Book I (Review/Retrospective)

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.

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, and now how abhorr’d in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it.

Hamlet, Act V, Scene I

Y: The Last Man is perhaps a triumph of comic book story telling. Told over the course of sixty issues, it’s the story of (as the title implies) the last human male on the planet following the death of every other male mammal (save his monkey) in a mysterious plague. It’s not necessarily the most original idea – in fact, it brings to mind Frank Herbert’s The White Plague (although in that case it was a plague which killed all the women) – but it’s a well told story by author Brian K. Vaughan. Indeed, his work here would see him hired as a writer on Lost, perhaps the strongest affirmation that a multi-layere pop culture author can aspire to. All told, Y: The Last Man is a smart, fascinating a bold comic book narrative which perhaps demonstrated to the mainstream what geeks like us have known for years: superheroes aren’t the only thing in comic books.

Trying to figure out "Y"...

“Y” is an interesting title for the book. It can simultaneously mean many things and nothing. Does it refer to the protagonist, Yorick Brown (he jokes, suggesting his father “thought naming his kids after obscure Shakespeare characters might help him get tenure”)? Does it refer to the “Y” chromosome, the male gene? Does it represent, as in the imagery frequently returned to throughout the series, a fork or decision point – two paths diverging from one? Is it a reference to the central mystery of the book: “why the last man?” I don’t know. I don’t think I’ll ever settle on one particular explanation.

From the start of the saga, I can pretty much call it that Vaughan more than likely won’t ever articulate the reason for the death of approximately half of the global population. I don’t think, later down the line, that he’ll spell it out and point to this or that as a reason – simply because he goes to such great lengths to keep the story open early on. Personally, I like the idea that all the men “just” died the moment that Dr. Mann made them biologically redundant (giving birth to a cloned baby) even though it makes no logical sense and there’s no scientific basis for it (though I’m hard-pressed to think of anything save The Happening being able to kill every man in the same instant – maybe it’s plants!).

It's a hit...

Anyway, from the outset, Vaughan makes it clear that his story isn’t about figuring out what caused all this destruction. It’s about what happens next. How do you deal with the loss of every male on the planet? How does that affect society? How do women adapt to fill the social, political and economic voids left by men? How will the human race survive? How fundamental are the changes to the social contract that this brings?

Y: The Last Man is pure and unabashed science fiction. It comes with an endorsement from Stephen King printed on the front cover. I mean it as the most sincere complement in the world when I say that the story reminds me of one of the truly great Twilight Zone episodes – it’s that sort of “through a mirror, darkly” style of storytelling, which makes itself relevant to the modern world by contrast. At the very end of the very first issue of the very first arc, Unmanned, Vaughan offers us a statistical cheat sheet of just what men do in the social order. Did you know that 99% of the world’s landowners are dead? Or only three nations have women serving on submarines? You learn something new every day. And yet it doesn’t feel forced or educational – we’re being told a story first and foremost. What we get from it is our own business, after all.

No cop out here...

The main benefit that an ongoing 60-issue series has over an episode of an anthology like The Outer Limits is that it allows Vaughan has the space to tell a somewhat grander epic than a sixty-minute television show. In fact, that is the reason that I dread the inevitable big-budget Hollywood adaptation. Sure, the twelve issues collected here, covering the first two arcs – Unmanned and Cycles – are mostly setup, you can see the ideas that the author has beginning to take form. There are interesting notions – like what happens to parliamentary democracy when a huge proportion of elected officials die (and indeed, the vast majority of elected officials from the dominant political party) or how this scenario would affect the crisis in the Middle East (hint: it’s good for Israel) – that Vaughan throws out, but most of these issues are about setting up events to come.

Indeed, only on re-reading the collection does it become how well-planned-out this epic was. From quick glimpses of characters that will become vital later on to hints of key future developments, it seems like Vaughan had a very clear idea of how his epic was going to play out from the very first page to the last, which is a conceit we get all too rarely in regular comic books, where stories span on for decades without a resolution in sight. Here we have a series with a beginning, middle and end in sight.

It's bloody great...

That said, some of Vaughan’s dialogue comes across as just a little too hipster, a little forced. On discovering the Republican widows ready to storm congress, Yorick asks his mother, “When the hell did women get so petty and… and power-hungry?” to which his mother replies, “Didn’t you vote for Hillary?” (despite the fact she’s a Democrat). It isn’t that the lines aren’t sharp (in fact, in fairly sure some of them gave my eyes papercuts), just that not all of them feel organic. It’s a very small complaint, particularly in the grand scheme of things, but it was always there throughout the lovely hardback book. It’s also worth pointing out that I’m not convinced that this is the best “deluxe” presentation the work could have received. There’s no commentary or even an interview, just some sketches. Later books in the collection would include scripts, but still – the series has been a landmark in pop culture, and it deserved better treatment.

I’ll probably go into the gender politics a bit more as we jump into the meat of the second book in this collection, but I think Vaughan handles the material remarkably well. Rather than taking an obvious or stereotypical view of “the fairer sex”, it’s clear that the author has put a great deal of thought into how the world would work without men. It’s as if he managed to divorce the aspects of the world that can be inherently traced back to men and the left over aspects that are just human.

It's monumental...

The artwork by Pia Guerra is beautiful, as is the colouring. It reminds me of some of the classic Silver Age work on the comic books of the sixties, and the simplicity works really well. Perhaps to compliment the “sixties sci-fi” vibe to the story, the layout of the pages is almost consciously straightforward, with pages clearly broken down by interrupted gutters – nothing escapes the little boxes on the page. It’s also fun to try to spot the “Y” pattern that has been subtly worked into each of the lovely comic book covers.

Y: The Last Man is a modern comic book masterpiece and a demonstration of just what can be done within the medium. It’s a great and clever story, one well written. It’s a wonderful concept that is brought to life with utmost, avoiding the obvious pitfalls that one could foresee with the material.

Check out our complete reviews of Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man:

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