The cover art of Y: The Last Man cultivates a paradox between the representation of morality–the sexual status quo, the politics of gender–and the representation of a world in which those morals have been subverted. Y: The Last Man is about a subverted world, but it’s not about an enlightened world. In fact, the cover art suggests that the comic is established in a long tradition of representing exploitation, perversion, and immorality that is more juvenile fantasy than attempt to challenge the status quo.
On the surface, Brian K. Vaughn’s Y: The Last Man holds infinite promise. The premise, a world without men, is an old one (Mary Shelley had it first), but one that might allow space for alternate representations of our social melieu, political methodologies, and cultural tensions. Moreover, the subject of the comic’s narrative seems oddly suited to a medium that tends to target young boys and renders women into objects of the reader’s gaze, stripping them of agency in favour of the caped crusaders, web-slingers and men-of-steel.
With its allusions to Shakespeare (Yorick is the skull of self-reckoning in Hamlet–a play in which the lead male character was once played by a Sarah Bernhardt, even) and its consistent cleverness (Dr. Mann is a world full of women), Y: The Last Man isn’t shy on literary panache. However, it’s the visual allusions to pulp that seem to play against type most significantly.
The covers above illustrate Y: The Last Man‘s play on the graphic tropes of pulp and romance. The covers both place emphasis on the eroticized female, usually on the verge of some sexual triste and about to become involved in something that will affect her moral purity in a negative way–the act of taint usually visualized by some weapon or symbolic phallus. It’s all about potential, the potential of what fantasies are between the pages (insert your vagina metaphor here). In Y: The Last Man, potential answers to the source of the plague and the whereabouts of Yorick’s girlfriend are continually subverted by female “cat fights” and attempts to corral the last remaining male on earth and his monkey (insert your Mike Myers Sprockets joke here).
The above juxtaposition shows the emphasis the covers’ art places on draping fabric, light and shadow, postures of fear and submission, accentuating the female body, showing the reader a little of what’s underneath hiding just beneath the surface–an interpretive clue in visual form. Those interpretative clues in visual form are what comics are all about and Y: The Last Man, through both its cover art and the art in its pages, to address the underlying queerness of the storyline.
Here, the queerness is “fully realized,” but in the story, itself based on a man’s epic quest to find his girlfriend, the emphasis is on traditional causes, effects, relationships, not on the shifting grounds for sexual politics the plague might bring forward. This point is one of the most frustrating things about Y: The Last Man: it could have done so much, but instead it is and always will be the story of how much women need men and how much, if men were to disappear, women would become like men. For all its potential, Y: The Last Man represents women, for the most part, as idiotic, unable to control their own destiny. Women do everything men would do and cling desperately to the notion that they will get pregnant. The emphasis placed on breasts, whether present or lopped off, suggests a male gaze in control of representing these curvacious, comic-book stereotypes.
The literary critic Stanley Fish once noted that the reader of John Milton’s Paradise Lost–a subverted moral allegory if there ever was one, albeit unintentionally–was “simultaneously a participant in the action and a critic of his own performance” (i). The covers in the Y: The Last Man series, all heavily indebted to the archetypes of pulp, resist the story’s potential as an enlightening glimpse into alternative spaces where gender politics and morality as they are traditionally constructed might be subverted. Instead, the comic relies on a mode of visual representation that cultivates the allure of moral perversion. A world without men, it follows, would be a perversion, but a perversion in which men benefited. The images of the comic nullify any possibility of enlightened representation or discourse in Y: The Last Man by asserting the visual trope of pulp that prioritizes the male’s voyeuristic gaze upon the feminine form as the signifier for benign, even exciting, moral perversion; a situation in which the only the female is objectified. All this despite the last man’s lonely, singular, and anxious position as object to be gazed upon in possession of the forbidden fruit–one we never see lest it be judged–that will save the human race from extinction.
Fish, Stanley. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. 2nd Edition. Cambridge, Harvard UP, 1997. Vaughn, Brian K. (writer), Pia Guerra (pencils), Jose Marzan (inks). Y The Last Man. Vertigo.