Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

02 Jan 2011

(Graphic Novel Series) Y: The Last Man by: Brian Vaughan

(Reaction) A Good Man is Hard to Find by: Antonio Conejos

Talking about gender inevitably begins with cliche: Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned (as if only women take umbrage when they're rejected). Men's only goal in life is a three letter word which begins with an s, ends with an x and has an energetic vowel in the middle (as if only men ever get physically aroused; besides, if this really were the only thing men were after then there would be no women scorned).

While men supposedly are from Mars and women from Venus, we all have to get along on the planet in the middle of Mars and Venus - Earth. At the heart of the graphic novel series is a man, Yorick Brown. The name is an allusion to a court jester in Hamlet, and a dead jester at that. That Yorick, the last man on earth (at least initially) is named after a character who is famous only for the fact that he is dead, is one of the many ironies in a series replete with irony and humor. Moreover, the Yorick of Y: The Last Man is himself a jester, one prepared to face his situation with humor but woefully lacking in skills and abilities to get him through alive in the dangerous post-male world of the series.

Just as Yorick's name reveals something of his character, so is his sister, named Hero, defined somewhat by her moniker. There is also a minor character named Hero in another Shakespeare play, Much Ado About Nothing; who is stood up at the altar by her fiancee who is deceived into thinking that she has been unfaithful. Instead of protesting her innocence, or attempting to get to the bottom of the accusations, Hero simply wilts under the pressure and faints.

Similarly, Hero of Y: The Last Man has grown accustomed to simply accepting less than stellar men, as Yorick puts it, "Ever since she was a kid, it's been this constant parade of losers and, you... quasi-abusive scum bags." Thus, it is completely within Hero's character when she falls under the domineering and abusive sway of Victoria early in the series.

Names also define some of the other primary characters in the series. Agent 355 only reveals her real name to Yorick at the very end. For most of the series she refuses to share her name as it belongs to a carefree past before her parents were killed, before she was recruited by the Culper Ring.

Dr. Mann, the scientist ultimately responsible for restoring men to the earth, choose her name (taken from Mann's Chinese Theater) as a symbol of rebellion against her father. Thus, while at the surface level her name literally signifies or affirms, man; it also carries a double meaning of subversion or co-opting, of rebellion, against man.

Finally, the origin of Alter's name, the troubled Israeli who pursues the wandering troupe (troupe seems appropriate to Yorick's group), reflects her troubled relationship with death. Alter has spent her life hiding from death, hence her change of name, yet she revels in it in her duty as a soldier.

Even Ampersand's name (Ampersand is the term for the "&" charater) carries significance. Throughout the series, Yorick is closely identified with the monkey. He literally owes his life to Ampersand. Yorick and Ampersand are a team but if you put the two names together, it literally comes out as "Yorick &". Finding out who completes the team, who will fill out the hanging space in "Yorick &" is really the driving force behind the series and Yorick's motivation for maturing from a much alive boy-jester to a scarred man, alas.

While names initially define the principal characters, it is in transcending the circumstances/associations of their names that the principal characters mature throughout the series. Yorick's daughter, Beth, acknowledges that names can become a cross, "I'm well aware of the burdens of carrying another's name."

In growing beyond their names the characters demonstrate that one can leave behind the past, that they need not trod down the same paths as their namesakes. (This is especially true of Agent 355, whose number she took from a woman agent who was her mentor but ultimately betrayed the ideals 355 seeks to uphold. In 355 then there is not just the theme of being defined by a name but also of redeeming a name, adding to its luster by one's own accomplishments.)

Some are more successful than others at going beyond their names. Hero by the end of the series is in a stable and loving relationship, she is no longer the weak willed Hero of Much Ado About Nothing. Agent 355's growth is demonstrated in once again returning to a name which she has associated with grief and loss.

On the other hand, those characters who cannot go beyond their names are doomed to misery. In particular, Alter chooses to let her name completely define her, and thus she who ran from death, becomes death. Even Yorick to a certain extent cannot transcend the association of death of his name.

On the purely biological level, Yorick's status as the last man on earth means that he is the only person capable of bringing new life into the world. (The Amazons have been torching sperm banks and while there is no shortage of willing mothers in Y: The Last Man, there is certainly a paucity in available fathers.) Thus, Yorick is literally and figuratively associated with life. For the people he cares about though, Yorick is the bringer of death, not of life.

Every woman Yorick becomes close to in the series usually ends up dead, Agents 355 and 711, Sonia (the former convict), PJ (the bald mechanic) and Capt. Kilina (the captain of the Whale). The only woman to survive Yorick's attentions is Beth (the stewardess and his eventual wife). However, Beth does not survive unscathed, theirs is not a happy marriage as noted by their daughter, "Even from an early age, I knew they were really only staying together for me. No matter how well he tried to hide it, it was clear dad was always in love with someone else."

Yorick has a well meaning nature and would not wish ill of anyone, least of all the people he loves. Yet throughout the series his love, through no fault of his own, dooms the people around him. At first he warns Beth away with a tentative warning, "Everyone I get close to, they...end up getting hurt." Later in the series he admits the truth to Agent 355 (which in itself is a foreshadowing), "Every woman I meet dies." If the plague did in all the men and spared Yorick, he has in turn became a plague to those around him.

Even before the plague, Yorick sheepishly warns Ampersand when they first meet, "See, everything I care about tends to, uh, expire." Ampersand too is the bringer of life, as he holds the cure to stopping the plague which has killed all the men. Yet Amp is also, just like Yorick, a life bringer who dispenses death to those around him. Amp's mother died in childbirth.

That he who brings life also brings death is illustrated in Yorick's repulsion of flies, on the first time he makes love, "She told me I could finish but not inside her. I ended on her stomach... The next morning, I saw the most horrifying thing I've ever seen.... It was the tissues I had tossed aside just before we collapsed They had turned black...black with flies. There were dozens of them, feasting on my lust, my depravity...my weakness." For Yorick, the potential of new life (which every act of sex is) is instead associated with death and decay.

The intertwining of the creation of new life with death is further emphasized in the setting of where Yorick first lays (the biblical description is appropriate) with a woman after the plague hits. Yorick has had numerous opportunities to be with any number of women. Nothing raises your stock like being the only game in town. But he manages to restrain himself and remain chaste. It is only at the midpoint of the entire series that he chooses to make love to Beth, another Beth who is not his girlfriend, in a cemetery. The setting is apt as, in this place of death, their union will bring forth new life (their child). Life and death are not neatly divided in Y: The Last Man but instead are bound together.

Just as life cannot ward off death, death is inseparable from life. Violence, and people's talent of inflicting misery on others, does not die out with the men. Capt. Kilina puts it bluntly, "Just because all the men died doesn't mean psychopaths with guns aren't still trying to take shit by force." Her sentiments are echoed by Cayce Shelon (one time playright turned movie director turned comic author), "Women don't know anything about love or... or beauty. We've had this planet to ourselves for years now, and all we've filled it with is backstabbing and ugliness."

That people, not gender, are responsible for the good and ill of the world is indirectly argued by Beth, "The church wasn't fucked-up because it was run by men, it was fucked-up because it was run by humans." Ultimately Y: The Last Man is an adventure not of how a man restores men but how people (both genders included) soldier on, adapting to death with life in some other form.

The inability to forge forward is the crux of Alter's obsession with Yorick. At their final confrontation, she screams at Yorick, "I have a right to die in battle! And not at the hands of...of some girl!... Why won't you act like what you are?" Alter clings to the way things were, not as they are in a world where men are an endangered sub set of a species. She knows only death, not the life which can come bundled in it.

By rights, by the oldest dictate of an eye for an eye, Yorick would be justified in having his revenge on Alter. Alter after all not only murdered his mother but the love of his life as well. Yet Yorick refuses to bow to the old ways and arcane justifications. By sparing Alter, Yorick reveals that he too has adapted, that he is no longer a man in the sense of what a man was before the plague. From death comes bundled a new form of how to live.

Review:

This is a fun and engrossing series with a lot of heart. Ironically, while Yorick is named after a jester, in Y: The Last Man he is the quintessential straight man. He may have guns routinely blaring in his direction and desperate women throwing themselves at him; but he handles the situation if not with good natured aplomb then at least with the frenetic, bumbling stumble of a boy abruptly promoted to manhood.

Alongside the adventure are numerous puns, wry asides, foreshadowings and story nods to the earlier chapters in the series. For instance, in the early parts of the series, Yorick wears a gas mask which is useless anyway as it will not protect him from the plague. However, at Alter's final assault, the gas mask proves its utility after all.

While the trajectory of Yorick's maturity is predictable, the final product at the end of the series is still entertaining to follow. The maturity of the characters at the end allows for genuinely affecting emotional depth. Particularly good are the eventual fates of Yorick, Agent 355 and Ampersand (really the core of Yorick's troupe) and how Amp helps Yorick escape one last time.

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