I have a confession to make… I’m a pretty lame comics fan. I’ve never read any of the classics of the 90s or early 2000s. I know nothing about Sandman or Starman. I’ve never read Preacher, Powers, or Planetary. I don’t know the difference between Garth Ennis and Warren Ellis.
But I’m hoping to bone up on comics knowledge by reading some of the modern classics over the next few years. The first series I tackled was ‘Y: the Last Man.’ Here are the basics:
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Pia Guerra (primarily)
Years: 2002 – 2008
Of all the comics on my bucket list, YTLM has the catchiest premise. A mysterious calamity sweeps across the globe and kills every male of every species—except for one young man named Yorick Brown and his pet monkey.
Before I started reading, it was hard to predict what the tone of the series would be. Given the premise, I might have expected some gratuitous male-fantasy wish-fulfillment, something like ‘I Am Legend’ re-imagined by the people who brought us ‘Van Wilder.’ Or, given Vertigo’s reputation for heady, ‘alternative’ titles, I might have expected a 60-issue allegory about misogyny, or ‘man’s inhumanity to man.’ The series is actually like something written by Joss Whedon, Brian Michael Bendis, or Lev Grossman. Very character-driven. Lots of charming dialog, occasionally punctuated by action scenes. Overall, YTLM is a prolonged road trip, with Vaughan speculating on how a sudden a lack of men would affect different cultures around the world. He presents some pretty interesting ideas.
The titular mister is an aspiring escape artist… He’s training a helper monkey… His mother is a U.S. senator… His girlfriend is on a walkabout in Australia… He’s named after a Shakespearean character who’s famous for being dead… Mmmkay. Despite this weird confluence of uniquenesses, Yorick is, at his core, an everyman (an onlyman?). Unless he discussing random trivia about world history or etymology, Yorick is not particularly bright (other characters point this out continuously). He’s pretty weak. He’s pretty slow. He’s annoyingly sanctimonious, if the plot calls for it. He’s kind of a goober, not at all smooth with the ladies, and constantly pining for his unreachable girlfriend, while wandering through a world of 3 billion eligible bachelorettes.
Actually, Yorick can’t be blamed for his lack of assertiveness. In the wake of the gender-cide, a cult of misandrists (the opposite of misogynists… look it up!) are gathering in the cities. And foreign agents are hunting him because they view the last living source of y-chromosomes as an asset that’s worth killing for. In general, the post-plague world is not a very safe place to be. Infrastructures are failing, crime is rising.
In the way YTLM portrays a crippled-but-not-devastated society, it reminds me of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Instead of post-apocalyptic, YTLM is semi-apocalyptic. And Vaughan brings up some good points. What would happen to the world if half the population dropped dead? What do you do with all the bodies? And since soldiers, airline pilots, mechanics, sailors, and construction workers tend (or, in this case, tended) to be men, what happens to those pillars of our society? In some ways, I think Vaughan is too pessimistic. For instance, in one of the first few issues, Yorick is nearly crushed by an improvised sanitation worker, because she can’t figure out how to work the brakes on a garbage truck. Then the woman gets out of the car wearing a ridiculous skimpy outfit for her job, which is gathering half-decayed corpses.
Hmm. Not the most practical outfit for harvesting corpses.
I have to say that the first issues of YTLM were the hardest to get through. They’re full of kinda dumb and unrealistic scenes like the one above. Yorick makes his way across the semi-apocalyptic landscape to his mother, who is now one of the highest ranking officials in the U.S. government. Within pages of being reunited with her son—who has miraculously survived a Biblical plague, who may be the one chance the human race has of continuing the species—Mrs. Brown agrees to let him journey across the continent with a single bodyguard. On foot. It makes no sense at all. If this series was at all realistic, Yorick should have spent the next 60 issues locked in a bomb shelter impregnating Olympians and valedictorians. But no, instead he stumbles across the country, continuously falling into trouble that is often highly avoidable.
But Yorick picks up some interesting friends, and I stuck with the series, mainly based on its sterling reputation. Then we get to issue 19. And that’s when the series truly kicks into gear. There is probably a term for the type of character that is introduced here. She is a mouth-piece for the readers, and basically she tells Yorick what the readers probably want to tell him: “Stop being such a douche!” It’s a similar sort of role that Spike played on ‘Buffy the Vampire’ and ‘Angel,’ with the way he would ground the protagonists with a snarky remark when they started to get too mopey or irrational. After issue 19, Yorick stops being so mopey and irrational, and the story is a blast from then till the end. At the same time, Pia Guerra’s penciling gets better and better. She starts off excellent at convey emotion through facial features, but her figures are her compositions seem a bit stiff. By the end, her stuff is cinematic. Perfect. The coloring also gets better, I can’t think of another example of coloring so adeptly conveying mood and setting.
An example of early YTLM artwork, and artwork from later in the series.
It’s interesting to think of how Vaughan might have changed direction as the plot progressed over six years. It felt to me like he had a loose outline of where he wanted to go. The first few issues establish several possible causes for the plague (some mystical, some biological, some quasi-scientific), and I wonder if some of these red herrings were also possible alternative that he wanted to keep in his back pocket if he had decided to take the story in a different direction. It’s also interesting to see new characters pop up and old characters fade to the background, as if Vaughan realized that they had become obsolete. In that way, I guess writing a comic series can be like being a show-runner on a 12-episodes-a-season TV show. I don’t think there’s any question that Vaughan makes some fine choices for his primary characters, that he adapts nicely, and that he most definitely sticks the landing at the end. And I have a feeling that the story of Yorick and his friends will stick with me for a while.