Y: The Last Man - "Unmanned" (2002)
Collects Y: The Last Man issues 1-5. Writer: Brian K. Vaughan, Penciller: Pia Guerra, Inker: José Marzán, Jr., Colourist: Pamela Rambo, Letterist: Clem Robins, Original Series Cover Art: J.G. Jones. Published by Vertigo and DC Comics in 2002.
I'd heard a lot of buzz about this title, most notably from The Onion AV Club, so when I had the chance to check it out for free, I decided to do so. A decision for which I am eternally grateful, as Y has proven to be the best and most exciting new comic I have read in years. If not ever.
Y: The Last Man, co-created by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, tells the story of Yorrick Brown, a simple English Lit grad who spends his time mastering magic and escape tricks. He's an unremarkable, skinny twenty-something with little direction in his life, who loves his disproportionately hot girlfriend (Beth, who is away in Australia on a travel-study program) possibly as much as he loves pop culture references. His mother is a House Representative, his sister (Hero) is an EMT, and his father is a tenured English professor (hence the silly Shakespearan-inspired names for Yorrick and Hero). Yorrick is probably the least remarkable protagonist ever for a monthly comic ever, or at least this side of Hawkman.
Which doesn't make Yorrick uninteresting (unlike, say, Hawkman). He's quick-witted enough to make with the snappy patter, but dim enough to be the butt of more than a few jokes. He's basically an average joe, with a dorky side that makes him not unlike the average comic book reader. Smart thinking that, making the protagonist a figure that most of your audience will easily identify with. It is paramount for Yorrick to be an ordinary man, as a key theme for the book is how such an ordinary guy can become the most important human being on the planet, and how he deals with that fact.
Which brings us to the story behind Y: The Last Man. From the back of the first issue: "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 male pet). This "gendercide" instantaneously exterminated 48% of the global population, or approximately 29 billion men" (NOTE: I think the writer meant males instead of men, as there are not 29 billion people on the planet). If the tone of this write-up doesn't give it away, this mysterious plague is treated with all the seriousness the death of almost half the planet would deserve, and not played up as some silly fantasy where, in an instant, a guy gets to be the last man on earth and then gets to check the resolve of all those chicks who said they wouldn't sleep with him in such a hypothetical situation.
Which isn't to say that isn't how the idea popped up in Vaughan's head. But he is talented enough a writer to deal with the real world implications of such an event, creating one of the most interesting and engaging worlds I've ever encountered in literature. Not only are the surviving women dealing with the loss of their various loved ones-- husbands, boyfriends, fathers, brothers, and sons-- not only are they dealing with the realisation that they are now the last generation of humans, but they also have to deal with all the things gender inequities of the earlier society have thrust upon them. 99% of the world's landowners have died, as have 495 CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, 85% of government officials of the world, 95% of American commercial airline pilots, truck drivers, and ship's captains, 99% of all mechanics, electricians, and construction workers, and 100% of all Catholic clergy, Muslim imams, and Orthodox Jewish rabbis. On the other hand, 92% of violent felons also perished.
Before I go any further into the review, these statistics force me to respond to the major criticism this book has received (that is, when it has received criticism. It has received a majority of praise from critics), that the book is misogynist in nature. To which I can only respond, bull-fucking-shit. And, also, are they out of their minds? If anything, this title is rather blatantly feminist in nature. Sure, the surviving women (women were not directly affected by the plague, but many died as an indirect result of it; for instance, those that were in planes piloted by men at the time of the gendercide) have a rough time continuing without the men, and the world is presently rather bleakly as a result. But this has more to do with the sudden annihilation of half the world's population than it does gender politics. Similar effects would have occurred if it had been simply half the world, both women and men. 29 billion beings don't die in a moment and not affect every aspect of the lives of the survivors. Moreover, Vaughan has stated in interviews that had the situation been reversed and all the females on Earth perished, the surviving men would have probably destroyed the planet with nuclear holocaust later that night.
Instead, the book makes valid and important statements about the gender gap of our world while showing how women learn to move on after the horrible event. One of the great strengths of the book is how much thought co-creators Vaughan and Guerra put into how much and how many different ways life would be different in the event of such an catastrophe. Former models now find that their former skill-sets are about as useless as the breast implants they had received before the plague, the highways of the country have been turned into parking lots full of abandoned vehicles (as their previous drivers died instantly during rush hour), the Secretary of Agriculture finds herself at the top of the line of succession, some women turn to transvestites for companionship, and almost all of the gods of rock n' roll are all dead (it was truly the day the music died). The book never stops being fascinating, as there is literally a whole world of stories to be told stemming from the event.
The first issue opens with a bang, as a blood soaked woman pours into the streets imploring a female police officer to help her with her sick little boys, that seem to be vomiting blood. The officer is, of course, unable to help, and in shock. Apparently, this has been happening to men everywhere.
The issue then flashes back twenty-nine minutes previous, introducing us to Yorrick on the phone long distance with Beth in Australia. Yorrick has been having trouble finding work with his English degree, and is having more immediate problems with his new trouble-making pet monkey, whom he has named Ampersand. We are also introduced to Representative Jennifer Brown, his politico mother, Alter, a tough-as-nails Israeli soldier upset that she hasn't seen more action in her mandatory service, Agent 355 from the secret American military para-military unit that answers to the president, Dr. Allison Mann, a geneticist pregnant with a baby she herself cloned, and Yorrick's older sister Hero, who had been unlucky in love but has seemingly found a good man in a firefighter named Joe. All these storylines build together as the clock counts down, with the issue ending with the deaths of every man introduced at this point, and in the entire world, with the unexplained exception of Yorrick (poor Joe, we hardly knew ye). It is a shocking and powerful introduction to the series, that grabs you with the first page, then lets the reader relax a bit with Yorrick's seemingly irrelevant little drama (he is trying to work up the nerve to propose to Beth), before bringing the reader back to the final, literal, bang. At which point, I was hooked on the series, and have remain hooked, quickly devouring the next 35 issues the series has offered.
Beyond hooking me, the series has accomplished the impossible: it intrigued and hooked my non-comic book reading wife. Which means that I'm not speculating when I say that this is a series that non-comic fans will love. It is intelligent, compelling, imaginative, witty, and ultra-addictive. The "Unmanned" introduction to the series could easily be the first half of an amazing movie, but the ideal media translation of Y would be television. The books read like a weekly series similar to Lost, in how it thrusts characters into action, then delves into their back stories as it progresses, and how those back stories relate to the current action. It is a genre-bending series, part speculative fiction, part suspense, part dark comedy. It will surprise you one minute, make you laugh out loud another, and possibly even make you cry another, all the while having you on the edge of your seat as you wonder just what it was that killed all the men? Why did Yorrick and Ampersand survive? Will they continue to survive in an unmanned world?
I honestly can't remember a time I enjoyed reading a comic more than I have Y: The Last Man, and recommend it to absolutely everyone who reads this review. Simply breathtaking storytelling.
Related (other highly-recommended comic books):
Astonishing X-Men - "Gifted"
Batman - "The Dark Knight Returns" (my review)
Batman - "The Dark Knight Returns" (twistedyouth's review)
Batman - "Year One"