The first trade collection of this series contains one of the boldest cover quotes that anyone has probably ever seen—“This is why God created comic books.”
But while most comics couldn’t even begin to live up to that level of praise, Y: The Last Man quickly proved to be a work that shouldn’t fall into the category of “most comics.” Another in a long line of classic Vertigo series, this series stands as the signature work of writer Brian K. Vaughan, and the moment where everyone jumped on the bandwagon. I’d been here for quite a while already, following him over from his Swamp Thing run, but it really don’t matter exactly how you got here, only that you did. This is a series that every comics’ fan should have on their bookshelves, and I’ll be devoting two whole columns to talk about exactly why.
This is the largest run I’ve ever tried to discuss in this feature series, and while it’s impossible to mention each and every thing that was great about it, this is my attempt to provide that for the entire sixty-issue series. Why do you love Y: The Last Man? These are some of things that do it for me…
First Impressions (Unmanned, Chapter 1)
When I read this issue way back in 2002, I thought it was one of the best first issues I’d ever read, and that hasn’t changed one bit over the years. Quite simply, this is how you launch a new comic series with appropriate levels of both style and substance. Wrapped in a thirty-minute frame, Vaughan cleverly transitions between every major character in the moments before every male animal on the planet suddenly dies. Again, it’s as engaging and tense a narrative as it ever was, and makes the introduction of the characters and their basic motivations look almost too easy. There are moments and interactions here that don’t fully pay off until near the series end, and some whose endings are made hopelessly obvious even at this point, but everything that happens in this opening story is important. And every scene builds on that rising momentum before crashing into a fantastic cliffhanger, which quickly became another of the book’s common elements.
Power of Three (Unmanned, Chapter 5)
This is what sucks about writing these sometimes—having to choose in the interests of time and space. Cause really, there was plenty to love about this entire first arc. Things like the second issue starting after a two-month gap, Yorick reuniting with his mother, the first fateful meeting between Yorick and 355, the Amazons attack, the awful dream of a blood soaked Beth—lot of great stuff here. But what I’m highlighting here is the very end of this storyline, with Yorick, 355, and Dr. Mann finally assembled and pondering just what direction they should ultimately take. Yorick wants to head to Australia to look for his girlfriend, Mann wants to head to her back-up lab in California, and 355, the consummate chaperone, has to make the final decision. Vaughan and Guerra end things with a down-shot in a Y-shaped intersection, the characters looking very small and insignificant, their ultimate decision appearing to be of no consequence to the world around them, when the reality of it is far, far different.
Reunion in Marrisville (Cycles, Chapters 4-5)
Ton of important stuff happens (and is said) in this arc, but the best scenes deal with the long-awaited reunion of Yorick and Hero. It’s probably due to the lingering effects of The Empire Strikes Back, but the whole “family/friend turned enemy” gag will always feel like a great one to me, and this confrontation is no different. From the moment Hero walks onto the scene and knocks the crap out of her brother, you know this meeting is going to be every bit as intense as promised. Hero’s gradual descent really serves as proof of how much this world has changed, and how much the people in it have had to change just to survive. When Yorick turns the gun on her and she almost begs him to pull the trigger, you can’t help but feel sorry for her, even though we’ve just watched her kill without hesitation. Turning a friend into an enemy is good drama, but doing it in a way where they remain sympathetic and can’t be cast as the obvious villain makes it great.
Strongest Man (One Small Step, Chapter 1)
Yorick and 355 have some classic conversations over the life of this series, but I’ve always loved the one at the opening of this story. There’s just something great about comics being discussed and referenced in other comics, isn’t there? And Vaughan paces it out so the “money line” is on the title page too, making for a great visual to get things going. Pure, simple storytelling always works best, ladies and gentlemen.
Double Agent (One Small Step, Chapter 1)
Same issue, but this happens at the other end of it—Yorick’s own mother revealed as the “mole” feeding info to Alter and her troops. Her actual motivations for this aren’t revealed until much, much later, but it’s a great twist considering what just went down between Hero and Yorick. Can none of the Brown women be trusted? Another great Y cliffhanger here.
Strategery (One Small Step, Chapter 4)
Let’s forget the brilliant idea of having two male astronauts off-planet when the plague hits for a second, and focus instead on some pure action movie ____. Until this point, we’ve seen 355 take some folks out here and there, but we’ve also seen her take a couple decent beatings and lose track of Yorick on more than one occasion. So…yeah, it was pretty great to see her step way up and use a combination of ingenuity and force to recover the last man from Alter’s soldiers…even though Yorick helped out a bit on his end as well. It seemed time for the secret agent to really start proving why she was entrusted with the safety of the last living male, and this is even without considering the collision course that she and Alter find themselves on after this story. Important turn for her character, and her increasing relationship with Yorick, bringing us along to…
N****, Please (One Small Step, Chapter 5)
Story began with a great moment between these two, and Vaughan gives them another good scene as things are wrapping up. You see…when 355 was trying to free Yorick from Alter, she suggested that her desperation to recover him was because she was actually in love with him. Which, you know, is something she also blurted out to Dr. Mann during “Cycles” while under heavy anesthesia. So naturally, Yorick is curious if there’s really anything to it. Her answer is untrue, as is Y’s reaction to it, and Vaughan makes that clear in the final image of the scene. I’ve always had a thing for foreshadowing…
Open All Night (Safeword)
What a strange (yet necessary) little story this one proved to be. After a couple arcs devoted to the mechanics of this brave new world, this seemed a great opportunity to slow up and really dig into the character of Yorick, and some of the traumatic experiences that ultimately shaped him. Now of course, there are a lot of ways to do that, but probably none more interesting than his “encounter” with Agent 711. And through a number of drug-induced flashbacks, Vaughan reveals some things about Yorick that feel almost a little too real in places. Maybe it’s just his skill as a writer, but this story always feels a little intrusive to me, like some of these things actually happened to Vaughan or someone he knows extremely well. But their effect here, on the man Yorick Brown turned into, is entirely believable and completely explains why this book didn’t quickly devolve into some ridiculously contrived male fantasy.
What really happens if the last man alive has a few emotional hang-ups regarding sex? Or if he’s running around the world throwing himself into dangerous situations so someone will finally take that incredible responsibility away from him? Great, great stuff all around, and another fantastic ending.
Also, I had absolutely no idea what a “safeword” even was until reading this story.
And who says you can’t learn anything from comics?
No More Lies (Widow’s Pass, Chapter 3)
Yorick kills someone and then lies about it. In an obvious nod to the previous Yorick/Hero standoff, the last man is again forced to turn a gun on someone, but this time he pulls the trigger. Which obviously is a huge deal for him…but the really cool part is that Allison returns from capture, having confessed quite a few important things to 355, swearing that honesty will be her policy from now on. And having no idea that Y just lied to her and 355 both about exactly how the militia girl was killed and who did it. Even Ampersand looks guilty in the last shot of the scene.
The Other Beth (Tongues of Flame, Chapter 1)
Guilt-ridden after having committed murder, Yorick sneaks off to a church for some manner of absolution, and instead meets a blonde-haired girl named Beth, that he soon has sex with—ensuring that he leaves the place feeling even more guilty because of Other Beth (who he just might be engaged to) still in Australia. At this point, I think everyone was waiting for the guy to break down and finally do it, and when he does, it’s with another girl named Beth. And in a church graveyard. Should this be called irony or something else?
Ring of Truth
Before crossing the halfway mark, it had to come to this. Since the series launched, people had been speculating on the actual cause of the worldwide gendercide, and Vaughan devotes this arc to settling that question…sort of. Personally, I was never that interested in the whys and hows, as clearly that wasn’t the main point of the narrative, but the writer presents a number of possibilities in this story, some of them credible and some of them not so much. The important thing is that the relationships between the main characters continue to evolve after Yorick loses his “magic” ring and all hell breaks loose. The obvious attraction of Yorick to 355 (and vice versa) grows stronger when we see just how far the agent is willing to go to save his life. Y nearly dropping dead also helps prove to Allison that she’s a better scientist than she thought. Hero comes back to apologize and Yorick hits her in the face anyway. Then, it’s revealed that Ampersand is the most important character in the whole book…right before he’s kidnapped by a ninja.
Lot of characters, revelations, and moments crash together in this one, and some character arcs are tied off, while others just become more interesting. Vaughan successfully crosses the midway point at just the right speed, leaving more than enough to settle in the closing acts, but providing the series with a sense of completeness, even at this juncture.
Green Eyed Monster (Issues 32-35)
And this is where it becomes blindingly obvious that there’s something real going on between Yorick and 355…if you hadn’t picked up on it already. This entire story is all about throwing their growing attraction out of whack, by introducing one of the oldest emotions in the book. Obviously, you learn a lot about two people when you drive a wedge between them, and in this case, both of them say and do things they normally wouldn’t and act a little irrationally. Before the arc is over, 355 actually points a gun at Yorick and screams, “I have no idea what kind of siren spell this woman has you under, but snap out of it before I snap you.” Yeah, no romantic tension there at all…
Dream Logic (Issue 36)
LOVE these kinds of issues, and using a narrative like this was the perfect way to physically introduce Beth into the story. For about three years, we’d been hearing and seeing glimpses of her character, being told how important she was by Yorick, but here Vaughan gives us the whole story, skillfully shifting between pasts and presents. I have this borderline psychotic fascination with scene transitions, and “Boy Loses Girl” has a ton of great ones as it builds and then deconstructs the very idea of Beth in only 22 pages. And even though we know she was seconds away from breaking up with him in the first issue, it’s still great to see some of the experiences that made their relationship something Yorick is willing to trek across the planet to preserve. Cute Zatanna gag, as well.
Flaccid (Issue 37)
Had to happen eventually. Since the beginning, Yorick Brown has done a fairly poor job of keeping his own existence a secret, and it finally catches up to him here—forced to strip at gunpoint and photographed by a reporter. Really though, it’s a shock he made it almost forty issues without this happening, but still a funny moment, especially when he complains afterwards to 355 that he didn’t even have time to “chump up.”
Torture Proof (Issue 39)
And here I was thinking Vaughan was gearing up for a major confrontation between mother and son. Instead, we get another fantastic cliffhanger as Alter shoots Jennifer Brown dead, minutes after she sees a picture of her “beautiful little fool” stripped naked on the cover of a national newspaper. Nice moment…and an opportunity before she’s killed to get it on record that she made a mistake allying herself with Alter. Maybe I was just being dense, but I never thought she would end up being that important a character in the book. But much more on Alter later, obviously.
The Letter (Issue 40)
Revealing Other Beth being pregnant as hell was the first great thing. Second was Hero’s reaction after realizing how she got that way. Then the private army of the Vatican showing up, thinking they’re investigating a possible virgin birth. Then Beth and Hero teaming-up and heading for the hot suite in Kansas before the really cool reveal—the actual contents of the letter Yorick wrote to Other Beth in the first place, asking her to take care of his crazy, wayward sister. This was the half of the series where Vaughan really proved just why having a guy like Yorick Brown being the last man in the world wasn’t such a bad deal after all. Behind his sarcastic jackass exterior lurked a really good guy who just wanted to do the right thing by his family and friends. To me, this was the first major sighting of “emotional Yorick” on this leg of his quest, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
Strongest Muscle (Issue 41)
Though not as intentionally strange as the Beth spotlight issue, this one, finally giving us the “secret origin” of Agent 355, was no less important. As usual, the transitions here are fantastic, moving chronologically through her history, and ultimately revealing just why having a band of cannibals bearing down on her triggered this sudden flashback. But it was great to see her in pigtails, and being recruited by the Culper Ring, and having to take down her mentor to save the life of the President. My personal favorite though is the “Blah Blah Blah, N*****” scene, cause that’s just how it happens. Black people get like super-hearing or something when that word is said out loud, and it makes for another clever moment of Vaughan scripting. As is the final page, but we should all be used to stuff like that by now.
Confessions (Issue 46)
I just finished the “confession” issue of Miranda Mercury, and it was a lot of fun because these types of moments are always supremely focused on character. You build this tension between your leads, sometimes without them even being fully aware of it, and then right before it all blows up in their faces (or slightly after), you create some really inopportune time for them to figure it all out.
In this case, 355 and Yorick have been captured in their bid to recover Ampersand from a brainless pop singer, and Allison Mann is facing off with a ninja who wants something from her mother…who also just accidentally stabbed Allison’s new girlfriend Rose. Who herself has been tasked by the Australian Military to spy on Yorick’s intrepid little crew, Allison included. Meanwhile, Yorick needs to tell 355 that he killed someone, and that he slept with someone in a graveyard. 355 needs him to know that she knew full well what 711 was going to do to him in that old cabin, and that she knew it’d do the trick because she’d undergone the procedure herself once before. And that Yorick’s hair has become ridiculous in recent months.
But naturally, having all this stuff out in the open could either bring them closer together or tear them completely apart. Or if you’re a truly heartless bastard like Brian K. Vaughan…you’ll bring them together and then tear them apart at a later date.
Many Men (Issue 50)
Suppose Y-The Second to Last Man wouldn’t sound quite as cool, right? The big hits keep coming when Mann’s father is revealed, alive and relatively well. And that’s before he pulls back the curtain (good one, Vaughan) and reveals a bunch of cute, little cloned Allisons. This family is so entirely screwed up and the more we learn about them, the stronger this feeling gets. Might be a rule of fiction that no matter what else happens—mad scientists will always be cool. And this book gives you more than one! What else should we be asking for again?
Gravity (Issue 51)
355 had a lot of cool fights over the course of the series, but the one with Toyota had it all for me. We got the great escape, 355 having learned some tricks from Yorick. We got the “Holy ____” moment, with 355 tackling Toyota through a high-rise window. Then there’s your close quarters weapon fighting. Check. Followed promptly by the good guy having their face bloodied, because obviously, the fight doesn’t mean a single thing if the hero doesn’t show a little blood. Finally, you have the turning point—here it’s a large piece of wood hidden up 355’s sleeve, skillfully secreted away after Toyota used a larger piece of it to split her lip. Check and check. Sprinkle in plenty of ____-talking and a great twist at the end and it’s a wrap.
You Knew All Along (Issue 57)
Probably everyone reading this book knew that Beth was only minutes away from breaking up with Yorick before the gendercide, but it also makes perfect sense that poor Yorick had no idea. Despite his dreams attempting to clue him in, or his growing relationship with 355, the moment when Beth finally comes clean is still like the dude getting hit in the face with a sledgehammer. So yeah, it sucks to see him learn that his entire “quest” wasn’t about what he thought it was, but how else would he have ended up on it? Throughout the entire book, finding Beth has been one of the major things keeping him going, and without that pushing him, this version of Yorick Brown simply wouldn’t exist, because he’d never have formed the relationship with 355. Which ultimately turned him into this new, more improved version of Yorick Brown in the first place. I don’t know—it’s love, right? Who even knows?
Only thing I do know is that I foolishly believed at this point that Vaughan was finished kicking his main character in the balls. Little did I know…
Perfect (Issue 58)
…that he would finally get them to acknowledge what they mean to each other, and not a second later, put a bullet in 355’s head. Awful, awful, heartbreaking moment, but keeping with the vibe and direction of the book since the beginning. Nothing’s promised, and you never see the bad ____ coming until it’s too late. I was already still mad at Vaughan (mad being an exaggeration of course) because of Alex Wilder, and now he does this to me.
It’s weird though to re-read the whole series and want to punch Alter anytime she appears in the book now. I suppose it was nice of him to let her die in a pretty dress. And extra points for never telling us what her real name was. We just have to take Yorick’s word for it, which is just another little detail that twists the knife.
Alas (Issue 60)
A wonderful ending to a wonderful series. Feel like I’ve run out of fancy words to use in describing this book, but it concludes even stronger than it began, which is a feat that’s always worth mention. Jumping sixty years into the future instantly puts us off-guard, just like most of us were when initially getting into this book, definitely intrigued, but a little unsure as to what the book would ultimately be about. The answer was a little of everything, and that’s something to be found in this final bittersweet issue. Beth and Hero getting together. Yorick shaving his head bald, despite 355’s warning. Ampersand’s death and final resting place. The “pick a card” flashback. And the final great escape, punctuated by a straightjacket blowing in the breeze, in the shape of the letter “Y”.
We can really never say enough about a comic like this, but I hope you enjoyed me giving it a decent try. After almost four thousand words, ladies and gentlemen…
Y: The Last Man, by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, and Goran Sudzuka—this is why I love comics.
Originally published as Ambidextrous 292 & 293 on Newsarama.com