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.
They can say ‘fuck’ in comic books?
Jeez, they never said stuff like that in Superman.
– 355 and Yorick get “meta”, One Small Step
If there’s one thing I hate, it’s crappy works of fiction that try to sound important by stealing names from the bard.
– Cayce, Comedy & Tragedy
You know, even if the central premise wasn’t brilliantly intriguing, and the execution wasn’t top notch, I think I’d still read this, simply because Vaughan’s Y: The Last Manis just so damn charming. Thankfully, the comic is everything I mentioned above – and winningly self-deprecating to boot. Awesome.
It’s interesting how densely Vaughan has plotted his own adventure, and the first hints begin to manifest themselves here. Well, they probably manifested themselves in the previous volume, but it’s just more noticeable here because we’re dealing with the second hardcover collection. Indeed, a covert Russian agent who appeared in the background way back turns out to be quite important to the plot of the comic – Yorick himself even notes that we’ve seen her before (“she’s that stowaway they threw off the train back in Marrisville,” he observes), as if to call attention to the fact that Vaughan isn’t actually making this up as he goes along. If you’re an astute and diligent reader, you might be able to spot some of these boomerangs before they come back.
Or you could just enjoy it as you read it. Vaughan has a wonderfully cheeky sense of humour which lets the reader know that it’s not the end of the world… well, except that it is, of course. “Jesus, kill me now,” Yorick Brown mumbles to himself, unaware that there’s a sniper rifle aimed at his head. When the theatrical troupe which found Ampersand suggest checking the handkerchief serving as the monkey’s diaper for a clue to his owner, one deadpans, “Unless the owner’s name was Brown, I don’t think we’re going to find any clues in here.” The irony is delicious.
Vaughan populates the text (as he does in almost everything else he writes) with inane little bits of trivia that he seems to collect, randomly (so much so that Vaughan called himself on it during his cameo in Ex Machina). He explains, for example, the original meaning of the phrase “wild goose chase” (which is, in fairness, cut off mid-lecture) or clarifies what a “klick” is (it’s a kilometer). These little touches give us the impression that Vaughan is having almost as much fun writing this stuff as we are reading it. Although, to be honest, I can see this possibly driving some readers up the bloody wall.
This collection of issues houses perhaps my favourite storyline from Vaughan’s entire Y: The Last Man saga, Comedy & Tragedy. It’s almost a two-part interlude from the over-arching story, as Ampersand is discovered by a troupe of travelling actresses who are inspired to stage a truly controversial (because all “real” art is controversial, surely?) original play about the last man on Earth – in front of an audience of Nebraska farm wives. It’s hilarious, and dramatic, and clever, and modest – all the very best facets of Vaughan’s writing boiled down into two chapters, which is quite something.
Perhaps part of the appeal is that the storyline feels like a conscious reference to the great work that other writers and artists have done telling these sorts of stories. Like Moore’s iconic Watchmen, the storyline features a story-within-a-story about pirates serving as entertainment (in Watchmen it was pirate comic books, here it’s Pirates of Penzance). Like the A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the award-winning issue from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, the story follows a theatre troupe (and explores their inspirations). The way that some of the late-night scenes are pencilled seem to remind me of John Totleben’s work on Swamp Thing, which is all the more remarkable because the normal style of Pia Guerra couldn’t be further away if it tried.
However, I do think that it works so well because it’s the first story which focuses on the world outside Yorick. After all, the series is entirely about Yorick (it’s called “the last man” after all), so we see everything from his perspective (or, at least, close enough). Here, for the first time, we focus on a bunch of characters who have been living their lives and trying to make sense of everything, without having to worry about the last male on the planet. So we get an idea of what life is like and how certain sectors of society are coping with the loss of all the men in the world.
The women of Nebraska, dressed like they are attending a beauty pageant, just want life to go on. They literally want their soap opera to continue, and ask the travelling theatre troupe to act out the unresolved storylines. The members of the troupe, especially the writer and artistic director, are trying to concoct some grander meaning to it all. Indeed, Vaughan very cleverly (and with more than a hint of self-awareness), uses the occasion to spark the eternal debate about art and culture.
The local women just want entertainment, something to divert them. Cayce seems to insist that her travelling band of actors should be about more than that. “Wouldn’t you rather something a bit more… artistic?” Cayce asks. “The only musical I’ve ever seen is that Moulin Rouge,” the local “den mother” responds. “I… didn’t really care for it.” Cayce struggles to find some common ground, looking for anything that would mean she doesn’t have to perform a soap opera. “Well, we, ah,” she stutters, “also have a very thought-provoking all-female production of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross.” It’s not a bad choice. Mamet is smart, but also accessible. Of course, the response comes back, “That wouldn’t have any swears in it, would it?”
And so the debate is framed between too ideological opposites. The local woman in charge doesn’t want anything intellectual or challenging – she wants to give the locals a chance to escape the horror that the world has become. On the other hand, the playwright insists that true art must be challenging and controversial rather than merely safe. Both positions are absurd and incredibly narrow-minded, and Vaughan realises that, taking every opportunity to deride both perspectives.
“We’re not interested in your pretentious garbage,” the local leader insists like a latter-day Mary Whitehouse. “Why don’t you peddle your filth elsewhere?” Cayce, on the other hand, seems to think of herself as something of an artisté. “We don’t need art that pacifies, we need art that challenges and –“ What a load of arrogant nonsense. “Art” doesn’t have to be “safe”, but it doesn’t have to be “challenging.” It can be whatever it wants to be.
Of course, Cayce’s play sucks. I can imagine Vaughan sitting at the typewriter (or computer), cackling with glee as he typed lines like, “But as she sits down to enjoy her lunch, Teresa is confronted with a problem… She is unable to open the jar.” It’s hilarious coming from a bunch of actors and writers who were boasting a few minutes ago about “exploding myths about gender.” Indeed, the whole thing just sort of explodes, but it’s fun and clever and witty… oh, and the play has a wonderfully downbeat ending that doesn’t bode well for Yorick. Easily my favourite story of the run and, if you read just one chapter of this saga, make that one it.
That’s not to undermine what Vaughan does elsewhere. Indeed, here it becomes clear that the saga unfolding before us really isn’t about the end of the world or the plague that killed all the men, but about one boy’s journey to manhood. It’s about Yorick growing as a character, changing and evolving. Learning to make his way in the world and to finally take responsibility for everything (even if, at this stage, it seems like a lot to ask). Indeed, he’s already growing, making “a pretty magnanimous gesture” in letting the Israelis go (especially after wanting to lock up everyone in Marrisville in the last volume). “You are good boy, Yorick,” Natalya remarks as he continues on his journey. “When you are done, you may even be okay man.” Hell of a journey, but Yorick is already showing signs of growth, coping with everything that the world throws at him.
There are other great ideas in here, as Vaughan leads his troupe across the American wilderness, and we get a sense of what the devastation means for the rest of the country. It’s to Vaughan’s credit that the series would actually develop a rather clever and well-thought-out depiction of the global ramifications of this plague (not all of them easy to predict, at that). In particular, Widow’s Pass offers a fairly chilling story where local militias take advantage of the chaos to single-handedly stop “ninety percent of ground shipment between East and West.”
Indeed, Vaughan’s ideas about politics and human nature are quite depressing simply because of the fact that they seem so realistic and logical. It’s easy to imagine, for instance, Alter’s logic about realpolitick making sense in the aftermath of such a huge catastrophe. “As soon as we removed all of Israel’s external threats,” she explains, “the internal conflict that’s been simmering away for years finally came to a boil.” It creates a climate where “the only way to protect peace in our nations is to invent a war” – something which Vaughan points out might not be particular to the end of the world, but makes sense as a guiding principle of international policy over the past few centuries (and probably even beyond that).
It’s terrifying because, even after all humanity has lost, things haven’t changed too much. You might be able to take away all the men, but you are still left with humanity, present with all its flaws and imperfections. That’s something that is occasionally beautiful, occasionally hilarious and occasionally downright tragic. And that’s the real strength of Y: The Last Man.
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: A Midsummer Night's Dream, brian k. vaughan, Glengarry Glen Ross, John Totleben, Mary Whitehouse, neil gaiman, Pia Guerra, Pirates of Penzance, swamp thing, Vaughan, watchmen, y: the last man |