Book Club / Often Feels Like It’s Just About Ticking Boxes

Y The Last ManY: The Last Man: Unmanned
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Art by Pia Guerra

The first time I read Y: The Last Man I thought that it felt like a TV show. 

I’m not quite sure that that was a compliment tho. 

Comics can work in lots of different ways. Some comics are just beautiful objects. Like someone took a bunch of paintings and tied them together with a story. I mean most of the comics that I grew up with were like this. In fact I think reading something like The Horned God by Pat Mills and Simon Bisley when I was a teenager basically ruined me for American comics which by contrast seem quickly produced and cheaply made. It’s like going from the Sistine Chapel to looking at something someone scribbled on the back of a napkin. 

Y: The Last Man is pretty produced in its utilitarian look. None of the panels are really that aesthetically interesting or pleasing to the eye. It’s all about practicality and making sure the information is presented in as an efficient and direct fashion as possible. It’s like the No Frills range from your local supermarket. Like ok yeah maybe it’s a little flavourless but you know exactly what you’re getting…

Some comics are about big macho power fantasies. But again Y: The Last Man isn’t really playing that game. I mean it’s not like a superhero comic with all of the big outsized imagery that comes with it. No one’s covered in muscles. No one has superpowers. Hell – I mean even compared to something Preacher (which originally set itself apart from superhero comic books) Y: The Last Man just feels a lot… calmer. More subdued. I mean literally – (going back to the artwork) – none of the colours are that bright or eye catching. It’s all kinda mellow tones. Nothing too sharp.  

There’s other comics which are all about the ideas. Y: The Last Man is a science-fiction comic book (a worldwide plague? How ridiculous) so you think it would take this path but again – it mostly serves away from it. There’s no robots. No aliens. Or cool technology. Or futuristic landscapes. It’s just a boy and his monkey. And a world that mostly looks exactly the same. Just you know – a lot less testosterone.

So in what kind of way is Y: The Last Man working? What does it do that makes it work a read? 

Well like I said at the start – it’s kinda like a TV show where it’s main overriding aim is just to keep you watching no matter what. Like I know a lot of comics end on a cliffhanger but this book is something else. Every time it gets to the end of an issue it drops another bombshell to the point where reading it feels like you’re in the middle of a warzone where everything keeps exploding around you. 

And yeah well I don’t know I guess it kinda explores issues about like gender and sexism and the Patriarchy and relationships and all that stuff – but it’s mostly on the same level as you’d get in… well – a TV show. It’s all a bit “Issue of the Week” in a way that often feels like it’s just about ticking boxes. 

Although all of that being said – hell – I’ll admit it: it’s still a pretty effective book. And once it sinks its hooks into you – you’ll end up wanting to read the whole thing. 

It’s all interesting seeing how the world has changed around it. I mean – back when it first came out it was mostly seen as a progressive force for good in the way that it examined and talked about men and women in a way that most other comics just kinda ignored. But I know from speaking to some people recently nowadays it’s more seen as something that’s a little outdated and is even disparaged for not being progressive enough. Which well – I guess that’s progress maybe?

But hey – what do you think? 

 

I’m not even sure it was considered progressive at the time, seeing as it didn’t go much beyond ‘women can be as crazy as men too!’ . Trying to go for the ‘average guy’ as a main character who is completely useless at life skills but knows every episode of Star Trek Voyager? Ooof, maybe it hit too close to home. But then surrounding Yorick with a cast of stock characters who’s sole characteristic was they were women? ‘Bitch Planet’ looked like it might tell a more interesting story several years later but that imploded. 

I remember the second half of the series, leaning harder into the mystery of how the plague happened , to be passable X-Files lite but the villains were all tiresome, sucking the life out of every issue they were in and, crucially, seeming to lack any sense of a life outside of the story. The leader of the Amazons didn’t seem to be a woman driven to the extremes by an apocalypse around her, she seemed to have been preserved in a cryogenic chamber somewhere only to be released if the world ended. 

Still, at least ‘Saga’ is coming back.

I mean – Y: The Last Man is a ten volume comic book series where the only male character is Peter Parker Yorick Brown (not sure if monkeys really count? – sorry Ampersand). And you know – this was all the way back in the olden days of 2002. 

Like I’m happy to be corrected if I’m wrong (?) but I’m pretty sure that part of the progressive agenda (such as it is) is that people want more (checks notes) representation and diversity in their corporate media products? And so yeah you know – creating a world where every single other character is a woman seems like it should be something that ticks the right boxes? I mean – it is very definitely trying?

Although it is interesting that maybe actually it’s not ticking the boxes in the right way? (Is that a phrase?). Like the inbaked problem with the premise is that it’s set in a world where there’s 3+ billion women and the main character is… a dude (whoops). But then that makes me wonder what would happen if you did a gender swapped version? XX: The Last Woman? Although to make a massive generalisation about my gender – I’m guessing that would be a lot less winsome? (whoops). 

I disagree that the book is about how “women can be as crazy as men too.” Like for a pulpy serialised adventure comic I think it does a pretty good job showing that women can be just as complicated and dangerous and strange and funny and driven and good and bad and etc as male characters can be. But then you know – being raised in a left-wing feminist household the idea that women are human beings too isn’t really all that revelatory to me (in other news: water is wet).

Comparing Y: The Last Man to Bitch Planet is interesting tho. I mean – I gave up on Bitch Planet after the first volume because it very much wasn’t my cup of tea I’m afraid. But I think it’s fair to say that it’s very much pushing a political agenda and has a particular viewpoint. In contrast Y: The Last Man is much more… defuse. Of course yes everything is political. But I’m not quite sure what Brian K. Vaughan’s politics actually are? Like I’m guessing some form of Liberal Centerism? (Did he vote for Hillary? I bet he voted for Hillary). But it doesn’t really come across in this series. I remember doing a Barbican Comic Forum once and someone had just started reading Y: The Last Man and was complaining that it was showing women as Republicans. But erm you know – some women are Republicans? In fact if there’s a point to the book as a whole I’d say it’s – some women are everything (who knew?). And just because your biology is a certain way – that doesn’t mean that your viewpoint will be the same.  Which I don’t know – sounds about right to me? #NotAllWomen etc

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