Y: The Last Man
Unlike my older and smarter sisters, I wasn't much of a reader as a small kid. But then, in a stroke of genius, my eldest sister gave me a bunch of comic books and a They Might Be Giants CD for my tenth or eleventh birthday. And so I was doomed to be an incorrigible nerd for the rest of my life. The comic books (an Uncanny X-Men from the dense and confusing time the team was laying low in Australia while battling Reavers, and a few other Marvel titles) blew my mind. I soon became an obsessive collector, aided and abetted by my father. Because both of my parents worked a lot, Sunday afternoons with my father at Comics Plus, then located in a big and beautiful building in Park Slope, were the highlight of my week. Afterwards we'd get milkshakes at the Greek diner and I'd try to explain who Galactus was as my father looked on, dazed and bemused. I shudder to think about how much money I badgered and pestered him to spend, but I also know that comic books filled me with curiosity about the wider world.
This was in the days before Wikipedia, when learning the minutiae of the Marvel Universe, and the DC Universe and Nexus and Magnus, Robot Fighter and all the rest, was a serious undertaking. Definitely not for dabblers. Pretty soon I knew virtually everything there was to know. I even badgered my father into taking me to a comic book convention at the old Hotel Pennsylvania, where I blew my "savings" on an old-ish Uncanny X-Men from a patent lawyer who was probably younger than I am now. On another memorable weekend my parents took me with them on a long drive to Pittsburgh to visit some of their close friends from Bangladesh. Turns out my parents' friends had two very cool college-age sons who were amused by my interest in comics. By "cool" I mean they spent summers working in Alaska on the pipeline, certainly the coolest summer job I can think of. They handed over a treasure trove of Bloom County books and some pretty alterna-comics, like Howard Chaykin's amazing American Flagg!, which are still among my most cherished possessions, silly as that sounds. I wish I could find these guys and thank them. It's humbling to think that these guys, not far removed from their own adolescence, would be so generous. I don't even remember their names, but I'll always consider them role models.
I kept on collecting comics until around my sophomore year of high school, when I turned to other forms of periodical literature, particularly Andrew Sullivan's New Republic. It was a less wrenching transition than you might think, as the TNR of that era was full of zany and colorful characters who were only marginally less crazy than the supervillains who had previously captured my imagination. I can't really overemphasize the lasting impact of comics on my brain. Even now my intellectual obsessions track my old obsessions with obscure comic book characters: I'd read and read, gorging myself on a particular character or set of scenarios, then grow exhausted and move on to another. I later felt the same way about, say, anarcho-primitivism or state theory or the Brazilian terrorist group MR8. So it certainly could be that comic books have permanently destroyed my brain, and my ability to engage in truly deliberative thinking. I don't think so, though.
Even now I'll occasionally swing by a comic book store, and I'll find that preteens and their dads are no longer the main demographic. It's all men around my age, in part because comics are quite expensive and in part because the medium has steadily grown more "serious" and in part because, well, you know, video games. One of my best friends from high school and college, James, has actually become a very serious collector, and he keeps us appraised of what's going on. The truth is I've grown allergic to most superhero titles. As prudish as this sounds, I'm sort of troubled by the bodies, which are often so distended and misshapen, the women in particular. There's something dispiriting and lame about the pneumatic bosoms and bulging biceps.
I was thus a little skeptical when James singled out a comic book called Y: The Last Man.
i won't say that there isn't a single storyline that sags a little;
there are a couple of slow spells. but in terms of unifying concept,
character, and plot, i just think it's marvelous. and it was also,
for me, genuinely very moving and thematically whole in a way that
almost no comic books are.
Armed with this high praise, I plowed right in, buying all of the trade paperbacks that have been released thus far. Co-creators Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra have garnered plenty of richly deserved praise within the comics world, but I want to tell you, non-comic readers, the few of you who are still with me, to read this wonderful, affecting, intelligent, humane story.
I have reservations, to be sure. Virtually every woman Yorick encounters seems to be a Sarah Lawrence or Brown grad. Even a cutlass-wielding, heroin-smuggling pirate turns out to have majored in comparative literature. Clearly this reflects Vaughan's cultural constellation, as well it should, and I imagine there's some self-parodic, knowing dimension to all of this. It nevertheless seems a bit silly. But that hardly detracts from the fact that the story is amazing, and that it places tough, smart, complicated women at the center.
Without going into too much plot summary, the basic premise is that a strange plague kills all male mammals on Earth with the exception of a capuchin monkey and a sweet-natured yet mostly incompetent unemployed 22-year-old would-be magician. Yes, the fate of humanity is in some sense in his hands. We see the world as it collapses and slowly rebuilds, and as new movements and religions and cultural practices merge to fill the vacuum left by the sudden, grisly death of half of humanity. As an elaborate science fiction scenario, Y can't be beat, and that's not even the strength of the series. The real strength is in the strange camaraderie that develops between Yorick and his protectors, a steely secret agent who goes by the name 355 and Alison Mann, a brilliant, insecure, cranky geneticist. Then there are brief comic episodes that follow the adventures of minor characters, and a subplot involving Yorick's sister, who struggles with murderous madness brought on by the trauma of The Event.
Randall Collins's Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory, a very well-regarded book praised by my friend and colleague Graeme Wood in this here book review, has a fascinating passage on violence perpetrated by young girls, who draw on the (entirely false) received wisdom that girls aren't violent by nature to shield themselves from reprisals. That women can be as vicious and violent as men is a recurring theme. Yet it's also clear that women do a better job of rebuilding their world than men ever would.
All this is to say: there is plenty of food for thought. The series is now complete, and you can read it from start to finish.
It turns out that Brian K. Vaughan is also a co-producer on Lost, my favorite television program, and he wrote two of my favorite Lost episodes, including this season's excellent "Confirmed Dead." I am of course consumed by jealousy, and also very happy to see a true talent flourishing.
Message: I care.
Other message: read Y: The Last Man. Thanks.