Trades Wait For Me...Y: The Last Man

by Doug Smith

One of the benefits of falling behind – way, way behind – on reading the big stack of trade paperbacks on my shelf is that I can read multiple volumes of a series in a row. Since I knew that Vertigo’s Y: The Last Man series was coming to a close with issue 60, I elected to hold off on reading the series until it was done. The tenth and final trade paperback of the series came out a few weeks ago, so I finally sat down and read all ten volumes over the course of one week (I had read the first three volumes as they were released). And wow, what a reading experience it turned out to be! By this time I’m sure you’ve all heard what an amazing series writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Pia Guerra gave us, but in case you’re not sold, let me offer you this:

“Soldiers and spacemen, cowboys and ninjas, pirates and robots.”

That’s right, this series has all of the above. I didn’t even realize it until Yorick Brown, the star of the series, reminisced about his adventures. He encountered all of the above, and it’s to Vaughan’s credit that he skillfully wove all of those disparate elements into one brilliant series. All of the things we loved to play at as children; I’m just amazed he didn’t find a way to mix some dinosaur action in there as well.

Over the course of sixty issues, Y: The Last Man follows Yorick, the last man on Earth thanks to a mysterious plague (referred to as the “gendercide”) that kills every other man. Humans aren’t the only ones affected though; the only other male mammal to survive is Yorick’s pet monkey, Ampersand. What kept these two alive? That’s the answer that Yorick and his female companions, Dr. Mann and Agent 355, must find if the human race is to have any hope of surviving past the current generation

Their journey takes them from America’s east coast to its west coast, and then on to Japan, Australia, and finally France. There are echoes of The Odyssey, as they have to overcome one obstacle after another along the way. Since the series progresses in a semblance of real time, there is also a huge passage of time; the first 59 issues cover five years in the lives of our heroes, as they struggle (much like Odysseus) to travel in a world where mass transportation has collapsed. It’s a nice thematic element in a work that features a supporting character named Hero, and a lead named after one of Shakespeare’s most famous characters.

Vaughan very effectively puts an end to the old “if the world was run by women, there would be no wars” argument; given the chance to run the world, women prove themselves to be just as power-hungry and paranoid as their male counterparts. Society completely breaks down in the days following the gendercide; the early issues have a sense of horror about them as the survivors try to make sense of what has happened. Some women join the ultra-militaristic Amazons, while some others try to salvage what’s left of the world’s governments. With no men left, most of the world’s infrastructure collapses It’s not that women aren’t capable of doing the jobs that were performed by men, but it was an infrastructure designed, implemented, and staffed by men; women simply weren’t in the positions and given the training to step in and replace the fallen men. How many women are currently in the U.S. government, or working as police officers, or airline pilots? To Vaughan’s credit, society fares better where women had been given equal opportunity to serve alongside men (as seen with the arrival of the Australian navy).

Along with the three lead characters, there is a large cast of supporting characters who play roles of varying importance; everybody is given a distinct personality and you find yourself caring deeply for people who only appear in a handful of issues. The dialogue is sharp and real, and there is a rich vein of humor throughout the book’s run; the Russian agent Natalya and her mangling of English are particularly amusing.

Pia Guerra was a new name to me when this series launched; she handles the majority of the penciling duties over sixty issues, with an early fill-in from Paul Chadwick, and regular fill-ins from Goran Sudzuka later in the run. Jose Marzan Jr. inks all sixty issues, giving a consistency to the series that may have been lacking otherwise. But the real artistic star is Guerra; her work reminds me of Steve Dillon in that it is deceptively simple. There’s not a lot of “flash” here, very little that will knock you out and make you say “wow” at first glance, but her storytelling sense is exceptional, and that’s what I want from an artist, more than anything else: tell the damn story! And she does, and she excels at conveying emotion in her characters. And yes, she can do stunning, highly-detailed work too, as a two-page spread of Paris in the final issue breathtakingly proves.

I won’t give away any more information for fear of spoilers; I will say, however, that when we recently had a roundtable discussion about comics that made you cry, I didn’t have a ready answer. After reading the final issue of this remarkable series, I have to admit…I was a little choked up. Vaughan brings all of his characters and plot threads home with some really clever storytelling tricks and one of the most heartbreaking goodbyes I’ve ever seen, and this issue really puts the “plus” in this book’s final grade: A+


Matt said...

Probably one of my favorite series ever. I was going to sell off my singles and get the collected hardcovers that they started to put out but I do think that they read best in singles form. I was surprised how well Vaughan did with a cliffhanger after almost every issue.

Betsy said...

I need to catch up on this series. To Matt's point about Vaughn, I think one of his strengths as a writer is that his stories read well both as a serial and in collected form.

Mister said...

Doug, I'll agree with you about the last trade, very well done, but overall I didn't enjoy the series that much.

Yes it did have some very good parts, and the idea itself was a very interesting one, but there where too many jumbled ideas, too many things going on that didn't "fit"

What was the score with the rats? Where did they come from? The situation with the Israeli army just seemed forced, as if there was a need for enemy to chase Yorrick. When I read the last few trades, there seemed to be more of these, and less of the good stuff.

On top of this, I'm still not 100% sure as to why exactly all the other males died.

The dialogue was very good, the scripting snappy and the art great, but I don't think I would give this an A+.