Sunday, 24 February 2013

Y: The Last Man

On July 17th 2002 every creature with a Y chromosome died out, leaving womankind and their counterparts in the animal kingdom (or queendom) to inherit the Earth. All that is except for Yorick Brown, an escapologist with a degree in English Literature, and the helper monkey he’s volunteered to train, Ampersand.

As concepts go it’s a good one. Writer Brian K Vaughan does a great job of bringing to life a believable post-male world. The women left behind show a pleasingly large variety of emotions, meaning that even bit part characters feel genuine, as though they’ve survived something truly life-changing. Which, within the reality of this series, they certainly have.

Government and religion are two of the biggest background themes of the book. The US government is shown the most vividly, which is understandable given that the majority of the series’ main characters are American. Tantalising hints are dropped as to how the women are coping with reforming their government, with a larger world and problems always being on the verge of being shown. It’s the right approach: too much information would undoubtedly be boring.

Later in the series we discover what became of countries like France, Germany, Australia and Britain, and the nation of Israel’s story is fleshed out considerably. What could be considered the central antagonist of the series is the highest ranking military officer left in Israel, her discovery of Yorick’s existence and subsequent pursuit of him being one of the lengthier stories of the book.

We learn the fate of the male-dominated Catholic Church and witness the rise of the Daughters of the Amazon, a religion based on the belief that the Earth wiped out men to allow women to take their rightful place as rulers of the planet. The Daughters sound like a far-fetched comic book idea, but they’re handled in a realistic fashion that makes you think that if this wildly outlandish situation did come to pass something not entirely dissimilar could happen.

The questions of how Yorick and Ampersand survived the plague, as well as its cause, are both handled well. Which is good really, because they’re essentially the driving force of the book. Had they been bungled it’s likely the series would be nowhere near as enjoyable as it is. Several theories are introduced to us for what caused the “gendercide”: Mother Earth turning on man, the removal of a magical amulet from Jordan, an attempt by the US government to stem the growing population of China that sent wrong, a random plague that’s somehow skipped all the women, and even the banning of women from the theatre are all ideas floated at various points. The final reveal is satisfying and doesn’t break the internal logic built up within the series.

Yorick’s survival technique is revealed halfway through the book’s run and coincides with a subtle change in tone. The first half of Y details the last man’s journey across America with cloning expert Dr Allison Mann, who hopes to resurrect mankind with Yorick’s DNA, and 355, a government agent tasked with protecting Yorick by what remains of the government. It’s a journey that takes three years, with the last three of the book seeing the gang travelling the globe with greater freedom and the pasts of the characters being filled in.

The motivations of the characters are decidedly small scale. Yorick wants to be reunited with girlfriend Beth. Agent 355 wants to finish missions tasked to her before quietly retiring. And Dr Mann wants to finish her research and help bring humanity back from the brink of extinction… okay that one’s not exactly small in scale. These clear motivations ensure the characters feel real.

Pia Guerra’s art is a big positive for the book. She instils Yorick’s face and body language with warmth and personality, making him a likeable lead character. Her real strength is the variety of women she can draw. Without the ability to flesh out crowd scenes with moustaches and beards many artists would have given us pages of people that look more or less the same. Guerra avoids this with a seemingly infinite cast of faces to plug into the background. All the regulars are instantly recognisable and her handling of emotions is pitched perfectly. More superficially her work puts me in mind of Steve Dillon, although she deals with action sequences far better than he does.

Y: The Last Man is an inventive book with a sense of humour and a perfect pace. Mysteries are solved at just the right pace, strung out just long enough to hold interest without becoming tedious or annoying. It’s got a satisfying ending too. How many comic books can boast all that?

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