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y: the last man

7 march 2012

Y: The Last Man is, of course, the vast epic comic created by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra which I (of course) never heard of till about three years after it ended its run, when some much hipper and younger folks pointed it out to me in Austin's amazing Bookpeople. (And it was expensive; to read it I had to wait for the implausible serendipity of getting an unlooked-for hand-me-down copy from a colleague.) I have been slow to get into the 21st century's most energetic medium for genre fiction, the comic book. Not from any highbrow scruples – I think the range of reading that this site displays proves that I have none – but because comics tend to be located in fantasy and SF, genres that are well below westerns, mysteries, and sport stories in my personal canon.

Y is post-apocalyptic SF, with literary allusiveness and postmodern self-referentiality deployed to complicate matters that are quite complicated enough. ("I wasn't this lost reading Heretics of Dune," complains its protagonist after hearing some particularly knotty exposition [9:64].) As its subtitle suggests, it's a "last-man" fiction, and it knows about its debts to Mary Shelley as well as to many more recent imaginings of ultimate guys. In most last-man fictions, there are mutants, zombies, or even talking apes around to provide blocking characters for our protagonist (who is classically Charlton Heston). In Y, the role of zombie hordes is played by all the women of the world.

Yorick Brown is literally the last man alive, but female humanity has been unaffected by the near-instantaneous "plague" that wipes out all the world's males at the start of the series. In fact, Yorick and his helper-monkey Ampersand are the only male mammals (they think) on the planet – though there are a couple of male cosmonauts in orbit, and naturally there are surprises to be sprung in the course of Y's nearly 1,500 pages.

Of all other SF that I've read or seen, Y comes closest to Children of Men – to the P.D. James novel that preceded it by a decade, and to the stylish film that appeared during the middle of Y's serial run. (So that the novel could have influenced the comic that could have in turn influenced the film.) Actually, given sufficient immersion in the genre, it's probably nothing much like Children of Men at all. But you've got a reproductive apocalypse, a global plague, societal breakdown, a man on the run, and lots of explosions. They're not wholly dissimilar.

Yorick is a street magician, a talented escape artist. (It's his only remotely superhero-like quality.) He's a young, broke Brooklynite with a faraway girlfriend. (One assumes I'm not the first to imagine that "magician" is a surrogate for "comic-book artist.") The cosmically weird event that triggers the story immediately makes him the most eligible bachelor on Earth. And Earth seems to be populated largely by incredibly sexy comic-book women who have all the superhero talents that Yorick lacks. They are top scientists, assassins, spies, gangsters, terrorists, commandos, ninjas, and experts on every sort of weapon known to the graphic novel. They are also now the governors of the world, in every sort of community from the Cabinet of the United States to a small midwestern farm-town cooperative to the crew of an Australian submarine to the outback native Australians of a new dreamtime.

Yorick, meanwhile, is a callow doofus. But for all his immature insouciance, he turns out to be one of the more straitlaced, family-values kind of guys in recent American slacker literature. He spends most of the 10 trade volumes (60 comic books in all) of Y looking for the girlfriend he was so far away from when it all began. His quest is not for sex (there's plenty of that on tap if he wants it), or for romance (what could be more romantic than the post-apocalypse?) or even a grand passion: it's for the stable relationship that his Beth promises. And a kaleidoscopic set of concluding chapters reveals that he will find that stable relationship, and commit to it even without a possibility of happiness. (OK, that's slightly a spoiler, but on a point that is ultimately a kind of throwaway, and a bare amount of information about it.) Above all, Yorick is a family man. The book's characters are mostly from extremely dysfunctional families, and their world has changed to make traditional families impossible: but its ethos never stops being one of hearth and home.

Comics are not usually comical, anymore; many of them never were. Y is an exception, being occasionally laugh-out-loud silly and always keeping the reader off-balance with wisecracks. Yorick, like the Shakespearean quasi-character he's named after, is a jester. Sometimes he's as funny as, well, a global plague. The women in his life often don't find him very humorous. But Y sets off its horrors with ample humor – one of the many, many things it tries to do, and succeeds at.

Y: The last man. Created by Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra. 10 vols. New York: Vertigo [DC Comics], 2002-2008.