So, as I recently threatened, I did in fact purchase the first volume of Brian K. Vaughn’s Y:The Last Man. It was…okay. The overall concept is pretty entertaining: one day, all of a sudden, every creature with a Y chromosome on earth dies. All that’s left are women, a guy named Yorick, and his male monkey. The rest of the series chronicles the result of the half-apocaypse, and follows Yorick’s more or less picaresque adventures in the company of various allies, including a government agent known as 355.
As I said, the start of the series bops along effectively. Perhaps too effectively, overall. It quickly becomes clear why Vaughn has been tapped for televison; his plot is suspiciously,and, over time, remorselessly glib. In a high-concept sci-fi series like this, the trick is really to start with your one interesting idea and then try to unfold events as naturally as possible from there. For instance, in Hitoshi Iwaaki’s Parasyte, the single idea (weird parasites invade people’s bodies, take control, and start eating humans) results in seemingly endless pulp creativity. What if the parasytes took over a dog by mistake? What if they failed to control the head and only got an arm? What if two parasites settled in a single body? Can a parasyte controlled body have a human baby? What happens with that? What if the parasytes took over a whole town? And so forth — except for a couple hiccups (the hero’s mother coincidentally getting eaten by a parasite is a little strained) the storyline is built around the hero’s effort to deal with thoughtful variations on the basic concept.
Vaughn is interested in exploring his high-concept to some degree. And his answers about how man-death would effect the military, or the goverment, or sex, are fine as far as they go. But he can’t quite figure out how to turn them into a story…and so he falls back on a wearisome series of coincidences and cheap ironies. Yorick is talking to his girlfriend on the phone just as the plague hits…and she gets cut off just as he proposes! So we don’t know what she said, get it? Oh, yeah…and also, she’s in Australia! So to find her he’s got to go all the way across the earth! There’s plot for you! What are the chances, huh? And, of course, Yorick’s mom is a congressperson, so he’s able to get tied into all the government plot stuff…and then his sister happens to have been brainwashed by Amazon’s and now she’s trying to kill him! What are the chances that the one man left in the world would have a rapid man-killing sister, huh? Ain’t life odd? The grinding of the plot is just really audible…and things aren’t helped any by Vaughn’s willingness to toss out characterization at the faintest whiff of possible “conflict”. Yorick, for example, is portrayed as being something of a lefty — he even suggests he voted for Nader at one point. Yet, when confronted with a town full of prisoners who managed to get free (rather than starve to death in jail) he starts shouting at them that they haven’t paid their debt to society. The whole thing just seems hyperbolic and stupid and unnecessary. Just have faith in your story, man. It’s not a bad story. You don’t need to invent melodrama every other page.
All of which is to say that this reads like slick media product by a fairly smart creator whose undeniable intelligence is always fighting a losing battle against the overwhelming instinct to pander to every passing shoddy contrivance. It’s one of the many possible curses of professionalism; the knee-jerk impulse to deliver gets in the way of coherent or thoughtful storytelling.
So, what does this have to do with the sex element?
Well, while professionalism has many downsides, one of the things it almost always provides in television and movies is the sex element. Sure, this episode of Torchwood has been completely derailed by the writers apparently irresistable desire to end with a Very Tragic Death — but at least I spent the last hour or so looking at Naoko Mori, so I don’t feel like my time was completely wasted. Or, yes, Tomb Raider 2: The Cradle of Life was almost insupportably stupid, but I did see Angelina Jolie in a skin tight outfit. And, yes, there are smoking hot guys in Torchwood and Tomb Raider, too. Even if it fails in everything else, professional pulp will provide you with objects of prurient interest. It’s not always enough, but at least it’s something.
Y is certainly better than Tomb Raider, and it isn’t significantly worse than Torchwood. But Pia Guerra can’t draw sexy to save her life. This is, obviously, an offshoot of the fact that the art is basically crap to begin with. It’s standard mediocre mainstream fare; indifferent anatomy, blocky layouts, no sense of composition — just a stylistic nonentity. So what you’ve got here is a slick, mediagenic pulp script in which basically all the characters are women (except for one young twentysomething guy who seems like he’s supposed to be hot as well) and there is just nothing sexy to look at. Vaughn even throws in a gratuitous super-model at one point — and does she look hot? No, she looks blocky and awkward just like everyone else.
What I’m saying is, if you got Jaime or Gilbert Hernandez to draw this series, the pages would be oozing sex and your eyes would be falling out of your skull and you’d feel like you’d gotten what you paid for when you paid for a goddamn slick pulp sci-fi story. Given that the Hernandez Brothers weren’t available, why wouldn’t you put somebody on this story who could deliver some very basic prurient interest?
There’s a simple answer to that question. The answer is that mainstream comics art is…well it’s not especially good. And one of the ways you can tell it’s not good is that it can’t even deliver professional cheesecake with any reliability (I just had a horrible flashback to that ridiculous Power Girl cover where her breasts seemed to be coming out of her stomach…never mind. We will not speak of it again.)
In a comment on his post, Tom said he liked looking at pictures of hot girls, but if pictures of hot girls disappeared from comics, he wouldn’t shed any tear. I certainly agree that you don’t necessarily need pictures of hot girls to have a good comic. Sometimes you don’ t even want pictures of hot girls (or guys, for that matter). But if you’re making slick, professional, genre product, and you don’t have the sex element…well, you haven’t done your job, and I feel justified in resenting it.
A note about two possible objections:
First; yes, Pia Guerra is a woman. I don’t see that it makes much difference. Women and men in the female-drawn Nana are both hot, for example, because it’s a professional genre product, and that’s what you do in a professional genre product. And Guerra’s men aren’t especially cute either, as I noted.
Second; no, more prurience would not undermine Vaughn’s serious take on gender issues. This is because, while a group of crazed killer amazons spouting garbled Dworkin logic may be entertaining, it doesn’t really qualify as a serious take on gender issues. Sorry about that.
Update: I should have noted: this is part of a bloggy roundtable we’re doing on sex in comics. Tom started it off with this post on different ways in which there can be sex in comics and why he hates them all. Tom also posted his very skeptical take on Alan Moore’s Lost Girls. For my take on Lost Girls you’ve got to go back a bit, but I posted it here. And Miriam’s take in response to my post is here. And Miriam will add her own contribution to this forum tomorrow….
Update 2: Gah! Left out Naoko Mori’s name! Duh.
Update 3: Miriam’s post is now up here