The Last of Poor Yorick
One of my favorite comics of the last five years, Brian K. Vaughan's Y: The Last Man reached its conclusion this week. This is science fiction (throat clearing, pretend it's not a "graphic novel") to push on comic-averse friends, and oodles more fun as an adventure story than pretentious wallpaper like Jimmy Corrigan.
The premise is, literally, the second oldest trope in science fiction; Mary Shelley had a go at it in her second novel, The Last Man. A pandemic takes down our precarious civilization-- to paraphrase Roberto Vacca, the more complicated the plumbing, the easier it is to sabotage. Survivors are left to sort through the wreckage, as in memoirs of the bubonic plague. Almost simultaneously, a mysterious plague kills every mammal on earth carrying a Y chromosome, except for amiable slacker/stage magician Yorick Brown and his helper monkey, Ampersand. Try one, two, or all ten collected volumes.
1. Unmanned (collecting issues #1-5)
Wearing a gas mask against the pestilence, Yorick makes his way to Washington, D.C. to find his mother, Congresswoman Brown, and sister Hero (their father was a Shakespeare scholar). Republican wives stage a coup, as the surviving government, composed of females, is predominately Democratic (do the math). A new President, the former Secretary of Agriculture, is sworn in by Agent 355, a member of the Culper Ring, the remnant of George Washington's personal spy agency and the only viable intelligence operation left in the US.
(The Culper Ring was, in truth, organized by Washington and Benjamin Tallmadge, and the first agent to die anonymously in the service of this country was a woman known only as "355". We know that she was captured as a spy in New York, akept on a prison ship in the harbor, and was either hanged or died from complications of childbirth and imprisonment. In Vaughan's novel, the Ring has been hidden-in-plain-sight all these years from the rest of the military industrial complex. 355 is the 10th woman to carry that designation, a badge of high honor within the organization.)
The President sends 355 and Yorick to Boston, to contact geneticist Dr. Allison Mann in an attempt to learn what's happened. Dr. Mann's lab is destroyed by Israeli agents led by Alter Tse'elon, a ruthless Israeli Colonel (always the goddamn colonels-- maybe we should abolish that rank altogether) who has learned of Yorick's survival and wants him for Israel. Yorick, 355 and Dr. Mann head towards a government lab in the Midwest and Mann's backup lab in San Francisco.
Girls That Kick Ass
Kung-fu women, once limited to Mrs. Peel and Wonder Woman, are everywhere you turn around in pop culture since the success of Buffy, and Vaughan and the series artist, Pia Guerra, avoid several of the pitfalls. 355 is tough, watchful and calculating in desperate situations, but not omniscent or invulnerable, and Guerra made a deliberate effort to keep the fight scenes grounded by gravity and realistic forms of combat.
Vaughan also avoids the trap of "the Magic Negro", a hideous trope in fiction and film in which the leading black character has all the soul and weary world wisdom, while the white characters are repressed and plastic. Having grown up and worked for some years in predominately African American communities, I am here to testify that "the Magic Negro" is a Hollywood fiction, possibly from the same ranch in Arizonia where they find all those blonde girlfriends and villains with British accents. In my experience, African-American friends and co-workers were as shallow and uninsightful as their white suburban Republican counterparts, just as quick to worship the plastic over the real. Black schoolmates, drawn to the arts, were rejected by supposedly "soulful" brothers and sisters and had to hang out with the white hipsters. One friend never knew he was "black" until he went away to an all white college, and could earn authenticity points in the English Department for that accident of birth. I dread the coming film adaptation of Y and suspect that Hollywood will turn 355 into another Magic Negro, if only because the audience and the studios are comforted by seeing Foxy Brown in the preview. If anything, it's Yorick Brown who brings humor and soul to the upright Agent 355, and in spite of the thousand shocks that flesh is heir to, neither of them have a background as traumatic as the third lead, the biologist Allison Mann.
Boys to Men
Yorick Brown himself is no booted survivalist, but funny, affable, well read, unambitious except for his own dreamy pursuits, and more than a little hapless-- the kind of man women call "a sweet boy" among themselves, someone to cuddle but not a man to take seriously. Before the plague, Yorick would have been the eternal "boyfriend" rather than the "husband". But needs must when the devil drives, and Y is also the story of Yorick's growing maturity, and a gallant effort to acquire steel in his character without losing his gentleness (he is more soft-hearted than either Mann or 355). If "Man does, woman is", it is interesting that Yorick's attention to a craft-- locks and lockpicking-- more than once saves the day and earns grudging respect from his companions. (Vaughan is quite aware of the layers of implication in his stories, and I wonder if he knew that the hapless Louis XVI was a locksmith, one who tried to escape just a little too late to save his family.) One irony in Yorick's "slackerdom" is that he is the opposite of the kind of man who got the species into this mess-- not a follower, not a bully, not an amoral engineer who creates a doomsday weapon out of curiosity. Yorick, for better or worse, is the voice of the Humanities ("I'd have an easier time finding a fellow Stooges fan") and the head-shaking dynamic between Yorick, 355 as praetorian guard and the voice of the soldierly virtues, and Dr. Mann as the voice of technology without prudence (imagine a family of Victor Frankentsteins), is one of the pleasures of the series.
The travellers find refuge in rural Ohio, in a community governed, ironically, by surviving female convicts from the local prison. The village is attacked by a doomsday cult, the Daughters of the Amazon-- including Yorick's sister Hero-- intent on killing the last male. This cult of violent women who've mainlined Andrea Dworkin was, for me, the weakest idea in Y, and I was glad to see the back of them-- but even Mary Shelley's Last Man has a doomsday cult in it, perhaps with the medieval flaggellants in mind (or the vampire zombies in Omega Man did'jya see it? It was Beauty, eh).
For me the Daughters of the Amazon are the only undeveloped idea in the series, the least worked out and dependent on science fiction cliches, though living in a world where women blow themselves up to secure the privilege of wearing a burkha, and send young people to die in foreign lands so they can stand tall in an election, I suppose I could be complacent about the vicious power of hysteria and the mob. The Daughters fade out after a couple of volumes and a few hundred miles of road, to my relief, and become irrelevant to the overriding quest.
3. One Small Step (issues #11-17)
A Russian astronaut, Natalya Zamyatin tries to rescue the astronauts (two male and one female) who were trapped in orbit by the plague. Yorick, 355 and Dr. Mann reach a sealed government lab and geneticists Heather and Heidi. Oh, great, the fricking Israeli Army invades Kansas looking for the last man, soldier girls following the psychopatic Colonel Alter. And one of the astronauts is pregnant. The survivors of this mess fall in with a theatrical troupe performing something called The Last Man its characters taken from Mary Shelly's other novel.
4. Safeword (issues #18-23)
Ampersand is sick, and his survival of the plague makes him more than just another shit-thrower. 355 and Mann leave Yorick in the hands of Culper Agent 711, who has the damnedest cure for depression and survivor guilt you've ever seen. Survivalists in Arizona block the road to California, and they're no better than their male counterparts.
5. Ring of Truth (issues #24-31)
On to San Francisco. Yorick discovers another survivor named Beth, my favorite of the female characters in the series. How Yorick and Ampersand survived the Plague. Yorick and his sister Hero are reunited, but a fucking ninja ruins everyone's plans.
6. Girl on Girl (issues #32-36)
Pirates, a sea voyage, female navvies on an Australian sub, the return of international espionage. And the return of that fucking psychotic Alter Tse'elon of the Israeli Defense Force, one of the most despicable literary villains of recent memory.
7. Paper Dolls (issues #37-42)
Yorick is revealed to an unbelieving world; his sister Hero finds Beth II (from Volume 6); we learn the biography of Culper Agent 355, and the origin of Ampersand, Yorick's caupuchin.
8. Kimono Dragons (issues #43-48)
The secrets of Dr. Allison Mann, her father and mother are revealed along with a tentative explanation of the plague. The unhealthy lengths some Japanese survivors will go to in their worship of pop divas.
9.Motherland (issues #49-54)
Yorick and 355 and Toyota confront the murderous origins of the plague. One last ninja fight, ranking right up there with the finale of Rob Roy. Yorick and 355 make their way across Russia towards Paris.
10. (Finale, tentatively collected as Whys and Wherefores (issues #55-60).
The cast of characters, including Natalya the Russian, Beth II, and their offspring, reaches Paris, and a reunion with Yorick's old girlfriend Beth. Some truths are told and some hearts are broken. I hate Alder more than ever. Coda.
Of all the post-apocalyptic science fiction I can think of, from low-minded drive-in to NYT approved literature-- Jack London's The Scarlet Plague through I Am Legend, Cormac McCarthy's The Road or Lessing's Memoirs of a Survivor-- I'd say King's The Stand and Brian K. Vaughan's Y: the Last Man are the afterworlds most populated with human and humane characters.