All comic books are tights and fights. That seems to be the immediate assumption people make when they think about the medium. To be fair, the artform’s biggest celebrities (Superman, Spider-Man, Batman) all wear spandex while purposefully throwing their fists into faces. And when a movie not based on superhero comics is released, there always seems to be a level of shock or surprise when the film’s secret origin is revealed (usually the question “Ghost World/Redemption Road/From Hell was a comic?” followed by a brain cave-in). The truth is, comic books are a means of expressing a story and are not confined to the superhero genre. So to those of you reading this who snicker at trailers for films starring grown men wearing bodysuits made of an incomprehensible mix of spandex, leather and rubber, I give you…Y: The Last Man.
The series takes place in the aftermath of a mysterious plague that kills everything with a Y chromosome…except 22-year old amateur escape artist Yorick Brown and his male Capuchin helper monkey, Ampersand. Yes, post-apocalyptic settings and population-destroying plagues are nothing new to science fiction, but that doesn’t mean that Y: The Last Man lacks originality. The complexity of the characters and their continued growth as well as recurring themes and an intricate narrative make this a completely thrilling read. The voice of this series, which mixes political thriller elements with irreverent humor (via Yorick), is so unique that it makes you forget that you have previously read similar tales.
Throughout its 60 issues, writer Brian K. Vaughan weaves a narrative that hops around the globe as much as it does the story’s own timeline. Events unfold chronologically for the most part, but Vaughan intercuts the expertly paced plot with Rashomon-style point-of-view shifts that show you where the different characters were when the plague hit. This nonlinear approach is key to maintaining suspense as the protagonists slowly start to uncover clues about what caused the plague and Yorick and Ampersand’s immunity.
Gender politics probably top the list of Things That Will Never Be Discussed In Comics for many science fiction fans, but Y: The Last Man tackles issues head on. Vaughan uses the setting of a world populated almost exclusively by X chromosomes to make gender equality, sexuality, feminism and women’s historical importance seamless parts of the story. None of these Very Special Topics, which could easily feel lecture-y, feel out of place thanks to Vaughan’s thought-out approach. It’s also of note that the series features a remarkably strong cast of women, all of whom fight off the stereotype that many of the big-buxomed and scantily clad super heroines perpetuate. A few of these women are:
- Agent 355, who is Yorick’s bodyguard on his continent-spanning journey and a member of a mysterious government agency whose origin dates back to the Revolutionary War
- Dr. Allison Mann, an expert geneticist whose recent breakthroughs in human cloning prove to be important in a world with no men
- Hero Brown, Yorick’s older sister and former paramedic
While the global ramifications caused by the death of every male are interesting in their own right, action fans need not fret. The mix of drama and explosions, chases, espionage and intrigue will satisfy anyone who enjoys shows like “Lost” or “Battlestar Galactica.” The world of Y: The Last Man is dangerous and the series truly pulls no punches.You will root for characters who are constantly in peril. Be prepared.
Everything I’ve written so far pertains to the writing, which would be worthless if it wasn’t being illustrated by a true top-notch talent able to convey subtle emotions and complex action sequences. Series co-creator Pia Guerra is just that; she’s top-notch. Her art isn’t overly flashy or stylized. Her people look and move like proportional people. But as a series that is set on portraying what would really happen in the event of a gendercide, Guerra’s art is perfect. It sells the elements that might push probability by portraying them in a grounded fashion, and also makes the intensity of the story hit that much harder because of how familiar it all feels. Her art is so essential to the story that the handful of substitute artists the series employed match up fairly seamlessly with Guerra’s artistic vision.
If you are a fan of science fiction but have yet to take the dive into comic books, then Y: The Last Man is the comic your diving board. It’s an excellent example of the artistic heights that the medium can achieve, as well as a phenomenal serialized story that, in my opinion, nails the landing. Don’t believe me? Check it out. I just finished this series a few days ago and I’m dying to talk to someone about it.