Y The Last Man Vol. 1Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, José Marzán, Jr., et al.

by Rudi Dornemann

In the nearly twenty years since the debut of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, the comic book series that have followed from DC comics' Vertigo imprint have become almost a genre of their own. They offer a writer working with, often, a fairly stable art team five or six years' worth of monthly issues in which to tell a story. It's an expansive canvas, offering more room for detail, incident, and sheer volume of character experience than all but the heftiest prose novels. The Vertigo series has developed its own usual structure, in which early, somewhat episodic story arcs gradually give way to more tightly linked sections, toward a grand climax and tying up loose ends, which is followed by denouement that lasts one or several issues.

We've probably got a year or so before Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, and Jose Marzan, Jr. bring Y: The Last Man to its conclusion, but, with the book beginning to gain momentum toward its finale, it's a good time to take a look at the comic so far.

The basic concept is fairly straightforward: every man on earth has died, except for one, Yorick Brown, and this is his story. What follows from this premise is a sort of post-apocalyptic road trip, first across the U.S., then across the world, which gives Vaughan and his collaborators a chance to explore the changes that follow from half the world's population dying, and from the survivors being women.

The sole male survivor, Yorick Brown, is, ironically, an amateur escape artist. He's likable, occasionally a jerk, and rarely acts in a particularly heroic manner. The larger, more dramatic gestures belong to the characters around him—characters like 355, an agent from a secret government cabal formed by George Washington, or Hero, Yorick's sister. As Vaughan has shown in Ex Machina, he has a penchant for interesting historical tidbits, like the Culper Ring, 355's organization. This can lead to the occasional overloaded speech balloon, but it also keeps Y connected to our world, with its history and all the consequences of that history.

Y balances the ongoing story of the travels of Yorick, 355, and cloning expert Dr. Alison Mann, with what the trio observes in the communities they encounter. Like any good post-apocalyptic scenario, the world that Vaughan, Guerra, and Marzan show us is an unsettling combination of the changed and the familiar. Some of the women encountered by Yorick and his companions are making a new start while others cling tightly to what remains of their old lives. Some, like the Daughters of the Amazon, want to remake the world by any means necessary, however violent. Others, like the inhabitants of Marrisville, Ohio, pursue a quieter path, but one that may lead them a little closer to utopia.

Like any long-running series, the typical Vertigo comic has a tendency toward expansion as secondary characters reappear and begin to develop storylines of their own, and Y is no exception. It’s a little trickier here, however, since the trio of main characters is continually on the move, and may be several thousand miles away by the time the comic jumps back to check in on characters from previous issues. In volume 7, Paper Dolls, and volume 8, Kimono Dragons, an ongoing storyline has developed around Hero and a number of other characters who've crossed paths with Yorick. This isn't just an example of mid-series spread—at this point, Y has built up enough narrative drive that Vaughan can step away from the ongoing story to spend time on a second story and occasionally devote entire issues to filling in the pre-catastrophe backstories of the characters.

One indication that the story had the ability to remain compelling without its main characters came in "Comedy & Tragedy," which featured guest artist Paul Chadwick. Picking up on the series' loose Shakespearean themes, this two-issue story at the end of the third collected volume followed a group of traveling players performing a play-within-a-comic that imagines what would have happened if a lone man had survived the plague. It's an alternate-take microcosm that spotlights Y at its best, offering a quick tour of its themes and tensions, bringing together both the weight of history and the everyday experience of living it.

As the comic moves into its final act, its final resolution depends on maintaining this balance between larger issues and individual lives. Y seems to be building toward answering some of the big questions that have been in the background since the very first issue: Why did all the men die? Will humanity survive beyond those currently alive? For readers, however, the question is not only whether Yorick and his friends will find these answers, but how the journey will end for the memorable characters we've followed for so long.

Click here to purchase Vol. 1: Unmanned at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007