A few weeks back I posted about the first handful of issues of Brian K. Vaughn’s Y: The Last Man. I’ve now read the whole thing (basically; I missed an issue in the middle, I think.)
There are spoilers here, so be warned if that’s a concern.
I don’t think my assessment of it really altered that much. I still found Pia Guerra’s art really bland and boring. Someone who could have delivered on the cheesecake that the book was obviously pretty eager to provide (supposed-to-be-sexy pirates, supposed-to-be-sexy ninjas, supposed-to-be-sexy quasi nuns, etc., etc.) would have added a lot to the story.
Still, if I read the whole thing, I obviously found something to enjoy. There are a lot of nice touches along the way; I liked Ampersand (the capuchin monkey) escaping the ninja by peeing in her face, for example. I liked the way that the escape from the cannibals in New Guinea was completely elided; you see one scene from it and then you cut away and only ever hear about it again in casual back-references. More importantly, Agent 355, the secret society ass-kicker who shepherds Yorick across the world and back, is a pretty great character. I’m not sol overall on Vaughn’s efforts at confronting gender, but 355 is certainly his best effort in that regard — she’s totally butch and tough, but every so often we get these femme accoutrements, like her knitting, or (right at the end) trading her gun away for a dress…or the fact that she has a long term unrequited crush on Yorick (the titular last man). The way she and Yorick grow closer over the five years they’re together is really nicely done; Agent 355 picks up on Yorick’s escape techniques; Yorick learns about fighting from her; both of them gain a shared past and an appreciation for each other’s tics and habits (for instance, Yorick knows that 355 sews when she’s feeling horny — a tidbit of information that takes on additional meaning when we learn that what she’s sewing is his going away present. And 355’s ambivalent relationship to her own violence — she starts out by being reticent, moves through being willing to shoot a young child (though Vaughn cheats here by having her gun misfire) and ends with her seeming to, at least potentially, try to renounce killing.
But though it has its moments, overall the series feels shallow and deeply untrustworthy. Mostly its the plot; the constant, gratuitous cliff-hangers, and the revved up action-drama just never end. At one point Alison Mann (a scientist who travels with Yorick and 355) curses about the fact that someone seems to be pointing at her every hour or so. It’s funny because it’s true; the action throughout the run all seems gratuitous, unmotivated, and ultimately tiresome. Vaughn wants to dish up action and danger every issue, but he doesn’t have the pulp smarts to tie them together in a compelling overarching narrative, nor to come up with really interesting opponents or situations. So you’re stuck with a lot of women pointing guns at each other for no particular reason and endless semi-ironic coincidences. There’s a moment where two astronauts attack each other for a couple of panels and then decide that, oh, yeah, they’re not really mad at each other at all. A lot of the comic feels like that; just action for action’s sake.
You can really see Vaughn’s pulp limitations in his villains, incidentally. They are all boring and cliched as fuck. We’ve got evil scientist, we’ve got crazed man-hating feminists, we’ve got nutso John Birch government hating psychos — who cares?
When he does try for depth or explanation, the results are often even worse. In explaining why all the men died, for example, we get an explanation based on pseudomystical Jungian gobbledygook tied to a series of soap opera revelations (with Dr. Mann playing the Luke Skywalker “oh, no, it’s my father!” role.) Character after character gets a very-special-backstory issue (you know the ones; kaleidoscope of images from their pasts show you the Key to Their Souls). The absolute worst of these — and it is very bad indeed — is that of Yorick himself. Some secret agent ties him up and offers him kinky S&M sex, then almost drowns him. But it’s all an intervention, you see, to help him overcome his death wish. Because he’s just that important that a secret society needs stage his elaborate sexual fantasies for him.
He is that important, of course. He’s the last man on earth! Vaughn talked in his recent TCJ interview about how Y started off as a kind of Penthouse fantasy — the story of the last guy on earth wandering around screwing willing, horny wenches. Vaughn was, of course, saying he had moved away from that, in particular by having Yorick be faithful (for the most part) to Beth, his girlfriend who he’s running across the world to find.
The thing is, though, that male continence in the face of plenty isn’t the opposite of a sexual fantasy. It’s a sexual fantasy, period. Having lots of opportunities to sleep with beautiful women and refusing is a fantasy of sexual and moral potency. The book, moreover, is Yorick’s story; all the men on earth are dead, but we’ve still got to hear about the quest for manhood of one self-absorbed guy. It’s like all the competition was killed just so that SNAG Yorick could get some “manly scars” and have the strength to not fall apart when his girlfriend dumps him. You can almost see the whole thing as Yorick’s apocalyptic rejection fantasy; Beth dumps him over the phone, and so he imagine a world where all the other men are dead (that’ll show her!) and he gets a long submerged romance with a super secret agent…who is tragically killed just before their relationships is consummated. 355’s murder at the hands of Alter, a really stupid Israeli villain, moments after she tells Yorick her real name, perfectly mirrors the manipulative moment at the beginning of the series when the apocalypse occurs right after Yorick asks his girlfriend to marry him. Yorick’s supposed to have grown up over the five years, but the series itself is in the same familiar masculine place, where it’s better to destroy the world than pledge your love.
Luckily for Yorick, the cards are stacked in his favor. He doesn’t have to do emotional intimacy. Instead, he can grow old as the wise, tragic figure, father of the world (via actual fatherhood, and through cloning) who never knew true love himself, dispensing crotchety knowledge to his younger selves. The last issue, which shows Yorick’s sad future and effectively mythologizes him, is a towering pile of monkey shit. The last page, with the word “Alas” scrawled over it, seems to sum up the series; it’s all about “poor Yorick,” a long rationale for a final sentimental male self-pity party.
Having said that…I certainly wish that mainstream comics looked more like this in general. I mean, for all its faults, this is competent genre literature, which reaches out effectively to a broad science-fiction/adventure audience. It’s weaknesses (sit-com repetition, easy sentimentality, cliched cliffhangers) feel more like those of television, say, than the insular clusterfuckery of super-hero comics. The art isn’t as good, but overall I liked this more than All Star Superman. If I’m going to read about the noblest man on earth, I’m happy to have it be somebody other than Clark Kent.