The first trade collection of this series contains one of the boldest cover quotes that anyone has probably ever seen---“This is why God created comic books.”
But while most comics couldn’t even begin to live up to that level of praise, Y: The Last Man quickly proved to be a work that shouldn’t fall into the category of “most comics.” Another in a long line of classic Vertigo series, this series stands as the signature work of writer Brian K. Vaughan, and the moment where everyone jumped on the bandwagon. I’d been here for quite a while already, following him over from his Swamp Thing run, but it really don’t matter exactly how you got here, only that you did. This is a series that every comics’ fan should have on their bookshelves, and I’ll be devoting two whole columns to talk about exactly why.
This is the largest run I’ve ever tried to discuss in this feature series, and while it’s impossible to mention each and every thing that was great about it, this is my attempt to provide that for roughly the first half of it. You might disagree on some of this of course--but please feel free to tell me all about it below. Why do you love Y: The Last Man? These are some of things that do it for me…
First Impressions (Unmanned, Chapter 1)
When I read this issue way back in 2002, I thought it was one of the best first issues I’d ever read, and that hasn’t changed one bit over the years. Quite simply, this is how you launch a new comic series with appropriate levels of both style and substance. Wrapped in a thirty-minute frame, Vaughan cleverly transitions between every major character in the moments before every male animal on the planet suddenly dies. Again, it’s as engaging and tense a narrative as it ever was, and makes the introduction of the characters and their basic motivations look almost too easy. There are moments and interactions here that don’t fully pay off until near the series end, and some whose endings are made hopelessly obvious even at this point, but everything that happens in this opening story is important. And every scene builds on that rising momentum before crashing into a fantastic cliffhanger, which quickly became another of the book’s common elements.
Power of Three (Unmanned, Chapter 5)
This is what sucks about writing these sometimes---having to choose in the interests of time and space. Cause really, there was plenty to love about this entire first arc. Things like the second issue starting after a two-month gap, Yorick reuniting with his mother, the first fateful meeting between Yorick and 355, the Amazons attack, the awful dream of a blood soaked Beth---lot of great stuff here. But what I’m highlighting here is the very end of this storyline, with Yorick, 355, and Dr. Mann finally assembled and pondering just what direction they should ultimately take. Yorick wants to head to Australia to look for his girlfriend, Mann wants to head to her back-up lab in California, and 355, the consummate chaperone, has to make the final decision. Vaughan and Guerra end things with a down-shot in a Y-shaped intersection, the characters looking very small and insignificant, their ultimate decision appearing to be of no consequence to the world around them, when the reality of it is far, far different.
Reunion in Marrisville (Cycles, Chapters 4-5)
A ton of important stuff happens (and is said) in this arc, but the best scenes deal with the long-awaited reunion of Yorick and Hero. It’s probably due to the lingering effects of The Empire Strikes Back, but the whole “family/friend turned enemy” gag will always feel like a great one to me, and this confrontation is no different. From the moment Hero walks onto the scene and knocks the crap out of her brother, you know this meeting is going to be every bit as intense as promised. Hero’s gradual descent really serves as proof of how much this world has changed, and how much the people in it have had to change just to survive. When Yorick turns the gun on her and she almost begs him to pull the trigger, you can’t help but feel sorry for her, even though we’ve just watched her kill without hesitation. Turning a friend into an enemy is good drama, but doing it in a way where they remain sympathetic and can’t be cast as the obvious villain makes it great.
Strongest Man (One Small Step, Chapter 1)
Yorick and 355 have some classic conversations over the life of this series, but I’ve always loved the one at the opening of this story. There’s just something great about comics being discussed and referenced in other comics, isn’t there? And Vaughan paces it out so the “money line” is on the title page too, making for a great visual to get things going. Pure, simple storytelling always works best, ladies and gentlemen.
Double Agent (One Small Step, Chapter 1)
Same issue, but this happens at the other end of it---Yorick’s own mother revealed as the “mole” feeding info to Alter and her troops. Her actual motivations for this aren’t revealed until much, much later, but it’s a great twist considering what just went down between Hero and Yorick. Can none of the Brown women be trusted? Another great Y cliffhanger here.
Strategery (One Small Step, Chapter 4)
Let’s forget the brilliant idea of having two male astronauts off-planet when the plague hits for a second, and focus instead on some pure action movie ____. Until this point, we’ve seen 355 take some folks out here and there, but we’ve also seen her take a couple decent beatings and lose track of Yorick on more than one occasion. So…yeah, it was pretty great to see her step way up and use a combination of ingenuity and force to recover the last man from Alter’s soldiers…even though Yorick helped out a bit on his end as well. It seemed time for the secret agent to really start proving why she was entrusted with the safety of the last living male, and this is even without considering the collision course that she and Alter find themselves on after this story. Important turn for her character, and her increasing relationship with Yorick, bringing us along to…
N****, Please (One Small Step, Chapter 5)
Story began with a great moment between these two, and Vaughan gives them another good scene as things are wrapping up. You see…when 355 was trying to free Yorick from Alter, she suggested that her desperation to recover him was because she was actually in love with him. Which, you know, is something she also blurted out to Dr. Mann during “Cycles” while under heavy anesthesia. So naturally, Yorick is curious if there’s really anything to it. Her answer is untrue, as is Y’s reaction to it, and Vaughan makes that clear in the final image of the scene. I’ve always had a thing for foreshadowing…
Open All Night (Safeword)
What a strange (yet necessary) little story this one proved to be. After a couple arcs devoted to the mechanics of this brave new world, this seemed a great opportunity to slow up and really dig into the character of Yorick, and some of the traumatic experiences that ultimately shaped him. Now of course, there are a lot of ways to do that, but probably none more interesting than his “encounter” with Agent 711. And through a number of drug-induced flashbacks, Vaughan reveals some things about Yorick that feel almost a little too real in places. Maybe it’s just his skill as a writer, but this story always feels a little intrusive to me, like some of these things actually happened to Vaughan or someone he knows extremely well. But their effect here, on the man Yorick Brown turned into, is entirely believable and completely explains why this book didn’t quickly devolve into some ridiculously contrived male fantasy.
What really happens if the last man alive has a few emotional hang-ups regarding sex? Or if he’s running around the world throwing himself into dangerous situations so someone will finally take that incredible responsibility away from him? Great, great stuff all around, and another fantastic ending.
Also, I had absolutely no idea what a “safeword” even was until reading this story.
And who says you can’t learn anything from comics?
No More Lies (Widow’s Pass, Chapter 3)
Yorick kills someone and then lies about it. In an obvious nod to the previous Yorick/Hero standoff, the last man is again forced to turn a gun on someone, but this time he pulls the trigger. Which obviously is a huge deal for him…but the really cool part is that Allison returns from capture, having confessed quite a few important things to 355, swearing that honesty will be her policy from now on. And having no idea that Y just lied to her and 355 both about exactly how the militia girl was killed and who did it. Even Ampersand looks guilty in the last shot of the scene.
The Other Beth (Tongues of Flame, Chapter 1)
Guilt-ridden after having committed murder, Yorick sneaks off to a church for some manner of absolution, and instead meets a blonde-haired girl named Beth, that he soon has sex with---ensuring that he leaves the place feeling even more guilty because of Other Beth (who he just might be engaged to) still in Australia. At this point, I think everyone was waiting for the guy to break down and finally do it, and when he does, it’s with another girl named Beth. And in a church graveyard. Should this be called irony or something else?
Ring of Truth
Before crossing the halfway mark, it had to come to this. Since the series launched, people had been speculating on the actual cause of the worldwide gendercide, and Vaughan devotes this arc to settling that question…sort of. Personally, I was never that interested in the whys and hows, as clearly that wasn’t the main point of the narrative, but the writer presents a number of possibilities in this story, some of them credible and some of them not so much. The important thing is that the relationships between the main characters continue to evolve after Yorick loses his “magic” ring and all hell breaks loose. The obvious attraction of Yorick to 355 (and vice versa) grows stronger when we see just how far the agent is willing to go to save his life. Y nearly dropping dead also helps prove to Allison that she’s a better scientist than she thought. Hero comes back to apologize and Yorick hits her in the face anyway. Then, it’s revealed that Ampersand is the most important character in the whole book…right before he’s kidnapped by a ninja.
Lot of characters, revelations, and moments crash together in this one, and some character arcs are tied off, while others just become more interesting. Vaughan successfully crosses the midway point at just the right speed, leaving more than enough to settle in the closing acts, but providing the series with a sense of completeness, even at this juncture.
Okay folks---think this is the perfect spot to close it off for the week. Will return next time with the conclusion, and just in case you didn’t know, the above referenced stories are collected in the following trades---
Y: The Last Man: Unmanned
Y: The Last Man: Cycles
Y: The Last Man: One Small Step
Y: The Last Man: Safeword
Y: The Last Man: Ring of Truth
As always, feel free to leave your own thoughts about the series, including personal highlights, favorite lines, etc. on the board below. Thanks again.Ambidextrous 291: Buy Air Ambidextrous 290: Domino Effect Ambidextrous 298: I Watched the Watchmen Ambidextrous 288: On Deck, or, What to Do With Free Time