The Last Man

[23 December 2002]

By Ryan Paul

Men, can’t live with ‘em?

The post-apocalyptic setting has long been an arena for science-fiction writers to explore the cracks and frailties in society. Movies like the Charlton Heston classics Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man, Mel Gibson’s Mad Max flicks, and even Kevin Costner stinkers like Waterworld show a world in tatters, where the pleasantries and the superficialities of civilized society are discarded in favor of base survival. Literary works like Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and even the comic book-turned-feature film Tank Girl describe how easily the rituals that comfort us can be perverted and turned into dark caricatures of human decency. The list of works in any medium that fit into the post-apocalyptic genre could go on and on for pages.

Brian K. Vaughan’s new comic Y—The Last Man takes a rather simple, and not entirely new, post-apocalyptic idea, and brings it into fresh territory. As one of the most successful new comics of 2002, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that this series has reinvigorated the post-apocalyptic setting, as well as presenting powerful social commentary that moves beyond the boundaries of the comic-reading community. This is the kind of book that anyone can and should read, because it is not only a tremendous story, but topical in nearly every aspect of its plotting.

A mysterious plague instantaneously kills every male mammal, sperm, and embryo on Earth, except for struggling magician and escape artist Yorick Brown and his pet monkey Ampersand. Vaughan’s series, however, isn’t some male chauvinist fantasy about being the stud horse for the repopulation of the planet. Rather, it’s a work of startling insight into gender roles in modern society.

Vaughan and artist/co-creator Pia Guerra create a truly feminist work. A misinformed idea of what feminism entails would assume that means that it posits a world where, without men, women would achieve a kind of utopia. The world would be free of oppression, warmongering, and hate. But this is an outmoded concept of feminism. More recent “third-wave” feminist critics and gender theorists instead argue that the concepts of male and female are false binary oppositions. Defining men as the violent gender is as sexist and false as defining women as the weaker sex. Rather, society has set up these gender roles and enforced them, setting up an imbalance in power and a false sense of alienation between genders.

The first five issues of this series take the reader through a world where the walls separating gender roles have been abruptly and painfully razed. With the death of the male population, the vast majority of landowners, CEOs, government officials, manual laborers (with the exception of agricultural laborers), and religious leaders is gone. Also, a majority of military personnel is lost. A huge power vacuum exists within society and the international community. The first issue notes that only 14 nations (not including the United States) have women soldiers who have seen combat, and in the Middle East, the walls of gender have been eroding for quite a while, with Israel enforcing compulsory military service for all women of the ages of 18 to 26, and female suicide bombers popping up in Palestine.

Vaughan’s work takes all these facts into account and paints a very plausible picture of what would happen in the event of such a catastrophe. We see the gun-toting widows of Republican Congressmen storming the Capitol, demanding to take the seats once held by their husbands; the now all-female Israeli Defense Force, no less hawkish for its dearth of male leaders, strikes out against traditional enemies in a bid to finally secure the Jewish way of life; and a former supermodel with now useless $3000 breasts is demoted to driving a garbage truck. The world is radically changed, but the conflicts that existed in a two gender world still exist.

The first story arc of this series is also about catastrophe, and how we as humans deal with it. In a post-9/11 world, large-scale horror and loss is much easier for people to comprehend. And just as Americans after the collapse of the World Trade Center, the people of Vaughan’s world react in a myriad of ways. There are suicides by those who can’t bear the thought of living in a world so changed and unstable. There are the hawks, like Colonel Tse’Elon of the IDF who see the opportunity to grab power by any means necessary. Perhaps most frightening are the fundamentalists, those who forsake any concept of reason and cling to whatever outlandish belief system provides solace. In our world, the Osama bin Ladens and Pat Robertsons; in Vaughan’s, the Amazons, women contend that the death of the “oppressors” must be the will of God—women who are almost the embodiment of Rush Limbaugh’s caricatured “FemiNazis”. And finally, there are those who mourn, and will always remember, their loss, but who try to carry on as best they can. It is to people like Yorick and his companions that we look to try to find a way to rebuild and remodel society into something that can function again.

Brian K. Vaughan’s new series is a heady mix of high-concept and masterful storytelling. The richly written and simply yet elegantly drawn (by newcomer Pia Guerra) characters and story mix humor, suspense, a bit of horror and sci-fi, and a lot of pertinent social commentary into one engrossing read. The beauty of a book like Y—The Last Man is that behind the captivating story is a powerful commentary on society, something that in a still mostly male-dominated world hits home. This is the kind of story that the comic industry needs—it shows the depth of thought and powerful social relevance to which the art form can rise, and does so in marvelously entertaining fashion.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/last-man/