Confession time, ya’ll. I actively avoided Y: THE LAST MAN for years.
The first time that Y: The Last Man was recommended to me was in 2010. Vertigo had concluded the run a few years earlier in 2008, but a friend had picked up every trade the moment each hit the comic store shelves. He described to me the premise: a mysterious plague wipes out every mammal with a y chromosome on Earth except for a single man, Yorick (yes, like that Hamlet play), and his pet monkey, Ampersand (yes, like the punctuation). They must traverse a new world run entirely by ladies. Also, he is an escape artist.
This is essentially the plot of Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man” with extra steps, so I skimmed some panels in the first issue from a point of intrigue.
The bulk of what caught my eye was panel after panel featuring sexualized images of an unrealistically proportioned blonde girl walking around a desert in a bikini top, as her seemingly less-than-employed boyfriend professed words at her while she wistfully looked at landscapes. It just didn’t seem like a book for me.
Now, over the years, a lot—and I mean a lot—of dudes kept recommending this book to me, which got me to a crazy realization. I think I could count on one hand the number of female-identifying friends who I knew had read the first volume, and tons of my male-identifying friends saw it as the thing to recommend to their more feminist inclined peers.
This is kind of wild, if you think about it. A book that by the sheer nature of the world-building has set up a scape that forces brave, interesting, terrifying, intelligent women to be written—you would think it would be talked about by more women, right? How was I not hearing more?
Comics are for all genders, obviously, but it was interesting to see this kind of divide in recommendations when the premise of the book itself is mired in the actual division of gender.
So, I wanted to come at my first read of this book with an open mind and an academic eye, and let me say right now, I could not have been more pleased with how much I sincerely dug Y: THE LAST MAN BOOK ONE.
And not for the reasons I thought I would.
For starters, Y: The Last Man is a unique comic book reading experience because it forces you, as an audience member, to see through two different sets of eyes all at the same time: the feminine and the masculine. The story itself has taken the post-apocalyptic Mary Shelley idea, and given a sense of reality to the traditionally male sexual fantasy of being the only man alive on a planet full of women. As we follow Yorick, the reader can see his foibles as he fights not just the people of a savage new world, but often himself through how he interacts, and learns to interact, with women. The first volume gives you a great taste of that.
Yorick’s girlfriend, Beth (the aforementioned bikini lady), is in Australia when the gendercide plague hits. In his mind throughout this first volume, she becomes this fairy-tale-like princess in a faraway castle to be sought and won as a prize for the completion of his journey. Yorick’s mother, U.S. Representative Jennifer Brown, is shown to be cold, working against her own Democratic party’s wishes on an issue involving abortion. His sister, Hero, is introduced to the reader on top of a man in an EMT truck, while being called a slut by her fellow female coworkers for sleeping with the bulk of last year’s firefighter calendar. In a final jab, one of them wishes she gets herpes.
So, we’re starting with a world of frigid bitches, whores, mean girls and madonnas—the very exaggerations that had originally turned me off to the series.
And then the world changes; for the characters, and for us.
The reader is immediately forced to abandon these preconceived notions because we no longer have the lens of the interactions with men to see them through. Is she a bitch if no one’s fighting against her with the veneer that she’s not worth respecting? Is she a whore, or does she psychologically crave the security of an authority figure? It is only Yorick who keeps his ideal madonna fantasy alive, but every interaction he has throughout the rest of the story makes him fight to maintain it because at the end of the day, it is ultimately kind of messed up.
Analyzing these stereotypes and the poking/prodding of them becomes Y: The Last Man’s mission statement, which is really neat.
The first woman Yorick sees as he begins his journey is an ex-supermodel lugging corpses with a garbage truck to make money for food. The way that she is portrayed—sexy, tan, talking about her breast augmentations—the scene holds all the cadences of an, albeit morbid, pornography film. You’re waiting for her to find out that he’s a dude and immediately want to jump him.
But within moments of finding out that she is talking to a man, she violates his body by shoving her hand down his pants to check their contents before handcuffing him to her vehicle, stating that she plans to sell him. The preconceived notion of the set-up fantasy is broken by the reality of something more akin to sex trafficking. Whatever idea the glamor of the world may have presented from an idealized male perspective, it has already been extinguished with the reality of monetization for survival.
Y: The Last Man Book One also holds very true to the concept of the created world, which is not just men dying, but the repercussions for male-dominated societies. 85% of all government representatives worldwide, dead. 99% of all mechanics, electricians and construction workers, gone. Countries with women who have seen combat in military services are scarce, and the United States is not one of the countries with that military power. It is the apocalypse not because the men are gone, but because with 48% of the global population suddenly dead, not everyone knows how to do every job thanks to society’s traditional gendering of occupation.
There are vacuums worldwide that lead to endlessly fascinating storylines throughout. An attack on the White House by the wives of dead senators demanding they take their husbands’ seats in government, a well-maintained society of escaped prisoners from a female penitentiary trying to keep their origins a secret from the outside world so as not to experience persecution, and many more interesting plots really take you on a journey through what this kind of scenario could easily breed. The numbers give you the epic sense of gravity, but it is these secular stories that grip you in a very human way.
Also, the villain of the piece is perfect for a world without men.
Victoria, an implied chess savant (claiming to have beaten Bobby Fisher as teenagers in a private match) who has taken on the role of leader to a group of women called the Daughters of the Amazon, wields her newfound power with that of a seasoned cult leader. You can tell that she draws her influence from such famous militant feminists as Val, from Marylin French’s The Women’s Room, and Valerie Solanas, the woman who wrote the SCUM manifesto and shot Andy Warhol. Rather than burning bras, Victoria requires her followers to cut off a breast. She is the perfect example that absolute power corrupting absolutely is not a gender specific issue.
There are also pepperings throughout this first volume of issues that I would be really interested to see explored in the future books. Yorick’s assigned bodyguard, the mysterious Agent 355, continues to experience racism within a woman’s world, which of course merits a very timely discussion. There is talk that the female to male transgender community was not affected by the plague, which is a story I absolutely want to hear more about. And let’s not forget the super awesome Israeli commando, Alter Tse’Elon, who shows up from time to time as a thread for a larger arching story. I need to know her weird deal immediately. She rules.
I would argue though, that the most important thing that makes Y: The Last Man Book One worth a peek is the way the book tricks you into indulging in the same weakness as its fallible hero.
The way that Yorick is driven by the fantasy of a life with Beth, we as the audience are driven by our fantasy of Yorick. We are using him as the vehicle for our hopes and dreams about what this brave new world could become. We’re frustrated when he does something sexist or dumb, we’re with him when he wants to help or overcomes some of his former views about the world. You want to see where he’s going by the end, even if you don’t necessarily like who he is right now.
The first collection of Y: The Last Man provides a little bit of something for everyone if you’re looking for a piece to start a dialogue about gender. There’s a lot of meat on that bone, as well as an interesting discussion to be had about viewer vs. hero point of views. It’s definitely a great book club book. I’m super stoked that I have four more books in which to explore this strange new world.