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Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, Vertigo
The world of comics is spectacularly overcrowded. Month after month publishers release issue after issue of new titles, or old titles, or ongoing titles – and that means thousands of writers and artists working in an industry and trying to get their work noticed in a very oversaturated market. Keeping this in mind, it’s always a good sign when a writer has as many successes as Brian K. Vaughn has.
Brian K. Vaughn as a writer can seemingly do no wrong. Everything he’s written, from Saga to Paper Girls, spanning genre and style, have been fantastic books receiving huge critical acclaim. I am personally a massive fan of his work – if he’s written it, there is a guarantee that it will be a well-written and interesting concept. However, it’s his first big success – Y: The Last Man – that really stands out for me. It’s probably my favourite long form series; when I first read it I become completely obsessed, and devoured all 60 issues in only a few days. I’ve reread parts of it multiple times since, and it never fails to get me emotional. It is no exaggeration to say that Y: The Last Man is considered by many to be among the best comic books ever written. Fifteen years after its first issue, it still ranks high on most people’s favourite books.
Its success is due, in large part, to the incredible concept. “In the summer of 2002, a plague of unknown origin destroyed every last sperm, fetus, and fully developed mammal with a Y chromosome – with the apparent exception of one young man and his pet, a male Capuchin monkey”. Yorick Brown is the last man on earth – an unemployed English graduate, amateur escapologist, and the last person you would choose to be the saviour of humanity. On the one hand it’s an adventure story, following Yorick and his protectors, Agent 355 and Dr Allison Mann, as they travel the globe in search of the cause of the ‘gendercide’, the source of Yorick’s immunity and work out how to clone a human being before the human race dies out. But it’s also a fantastic discussion of gender in modern society. The first issue introduces us to the ‘unmanned world’ with a list of statistics – the death of Man worldwide has wiped out 95% of pilots, truck drivers and ship captains, 99% of mechanics, electricians and construction workers, 85% of government representatives – and many more. The list is incredible to read, in part because of how surprisingly accurate it remains – some of these numbers have improved in the past 15 years, of course, but many haven’t, and some have actually worsened. The world that Vaughn creates in this book is a world teetering on the brink of an apocalypse. I imagine him writing this by pinning those statistics to a wall and then creating a spiralling web of impacts and impacts of those impacts.
The characters are incredible as well – Yorick is a parody of the traditional action hero, emasculated and ordinary. He is probably the least interesting character in the story, but is also for that reason more interesting than any other. 355 is his polar opposite in many respects as the true badass action hero of the team. She is enigmatic and tough, with a tragic backstory to boot, but her real name is a complete mystery.
As is probably obvious, this is the sort of comic book that could be discussed for days. Reading it, I wanted nothing more than for everyone I knew to be reading it too. The concept has so much potential that it could have overstayed its welcome and continued for too long, but instead it concluded in 2008 with one of the most tragic, hopeful and satisfying endings I’ve ever seen. The entire run is a masterpiece of long form storytelling, and reading it will make you cry – but it will also make you laugh harder than any dystopian sci-fi has any right to. This is one of those books that everyone on the planet should have read.