The first issue of Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s “Y the Last Man” came out at the time that I was at the peak of my comic collecting, and from the moment it was advertised (three months prior to its actual publication) it was acknowledged as a guaranteed success solely because of its thesis: the male population is decimated, and there is a single man left to represent and continue humanity (published under DC’s “adults only” Vertigo imprint, no less). Given the predominantly young male readership of comic books, it was a formula that didn’t allow for much in the way of error; Vaughan could have done nearly anything to the plot and the series would have been a best seller if only because of this underlying principle. Surprisingly, however, he did not take the easy way out and follow a lascivious, sex-soaked story of a man taking advantage of being the last male on the planet. Even the characters themselves are aware of this absence, as R.J. points out in issue 22: “You’ve been the last cock on Earth for ages. How could you not bone one girl in that whole time?” Instead, Vaughan capitalizes on the built-in audience and uses the story as a vehicle for often poignant (though sometimes strangely misogynistic) thoughts on gender dynamics, on his politically Democratic leanings and on his thoughts on the Academy. It’s this final point that I find most compelling now, in that Vaughan is so self-consciously literary throughout Y while so openly disparaging of these elements at the same time: Yorick, the Arts’ academic with his self acknowledged “useless BA” (12.11), is presented as a generally static and dull character, important only in that he has survived the plague by happenstance, though he is incredibly pompous besides. He is consistently surprised at womankind’s ability to survive and makes subtly sexist comments throughout the narrative. Despite being very well read (a point that he draws attention to ad nauseum), his character is confounding – one wonders why Vaughan would have left us with such a man, if we were only allowed one, throughout his story.
That Yorick is an academic is a point that Vaughan returns to repeatedly in Y, and in the most blatant of ways; not only are he and his sister named after characters from Shakespeare (his father being a Shakespeare professor), he refers to obscure works of literature throughout the series, references that the vast majority of comic readers would not get (mentioning Nathaniel West in issue 18 is a clear example). There are other nods to the literary throughout Y, nearly in every issue, but they’re so blunt that one wonders at the point that Vaughan is making – the play within a play aside, a clear nod to Hamlet, serves no purpose other than to delay the action for two issues. The snide mockery of those who haven’t mastered a language is also an undercurrent of Y, and at times it’s affronting; the Russian spy Natalya who can’t communicate in English states, when allowed to express herself in her own language, “<Thank Christ! I sound like a fucking retard when I try to speak English!>” (11.17). Of the same woman, Yorick notes in a comical way, “Cookie monster speaks better English than you” (13.11). In a story with so compelling a premise, Vaughan keeps bringing us back to the import of communication in a way that seems of little relevance to the central plot, openly belittling those who can’t communicate effectively.
The references to language and texts become so consistent that their meanings become ambiguous – issue 24 opens with Yorick entering a church, stating “Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret,” followed in the next panel by “Little Judy Blume humor for ya” (24.2). This line isn’t actually humorous, and one wonders who the “ya” is here – Vaughan is attempting to, in a way that is almost pedantic, drop in as many textual references as can be allowed within his narrow page count regardless of their usefulness. Yorick, in the same issue, when Beth attacks and lights him on fire, puts himself out while explaining the correct grammatical usage of articles in a sentence. Being an English guy, I’m all for instruction, but to place it so consistently and in so unrealistic a way disrupts the narrative. In this universe, we have characters discussing their thesis papers and majors set to a backdrop of the potential annihilation of the human race. It’s also important to note that the only other character who highlighted her academic degree is also the first character he deems worthy of pursuing sexually, despite his loyalty to his fiancée to this point in the narrative. Beth in turn continues this type of academically-bent, unrealistic mindset when being attacked by Amazons, asking “you were a theology major too, huh? Where at? Berkeley?” and then, snidely, “yeah, I thought so” (25.17). When the conflict is over, she tells the woman “you’re too smart to be running with those air-heads. When you figure that out, you’re welcome to come back here.” Vaughan makes the same pitch to his readers: read my work in the right context, and make sure to look up my references.
Though there are certainly quotable profundities scattered throughout Y (“Once you make it past the scales and blindfold, justice is a woman with a sword” from issue 9 being the most memorable for me), it is, at times, overwhelmingly geared towards justifying itself as being most correctly viewed in an academic context through its dialogue and obscure references, a habit that followed Vaughan into his career in writing for the TV series “Lost.” Moreover, the series is insistent on hyping itself – even by the third issue, it was offering testimonials on its front cover that highlight the fact that “it’s rare to find a comic with such universal appeal, and this book is going to be the next big thing,” with similar quotations following for the next twelve issues. Y the Last man remains a worthwhile read and is, at points, a highly nuanced fable that explores gender construction in a provocative way. It’s also, as is quite clear, purposed at defining itself as outside of the typical graphic novel; apropos nothing, Agent 355 notes “they can say Fuck in comic books? Jeez, they never said stuff like that in Superman” (11.3). Vaughan offers us a compelling (if convoluted) 60 issue story that seems bent on being as academically minded as possible in order to guarantee discussion long after the story itself has been told in a way that mainstream superhero storylines are rarely granted – the same tactics have been arguably used throughout literature just as obviously, with Finnegan’s Wake being a prime example. Yorick is a dull and generally static character who is often self-deprecating, and while there is some everyman quality in this, the literary references and consistent acknowledging of the import of formal, academic education is too evident to be ignored. It’s also clear that Vaughan’s style has paid off to this end, with a trilogy of films currently on the edge of pre-production and his collected series earning new reprints in expensive, deluxe hardcover editions. By avoiding the obvious approach to his central concern given his market of predominantly adolescent males, he offers us a story that is worthy of rereading in the classroom, even if the self-conscious desire to be perceived as such is immediately visible in the text.
Vaughn, Brian K. (writer), Pia Guerra (pencils) and Jose Marzan (inks). Y The Last Man. New York: Vertigo.