Did you know that Y: The Last Man was inspired in part by, as moderator (and former Vertigo editor) Heidi MacDonald teased Brian K. Vaughan at New York Comic-Con’s Revisiting Y: The Last Man panel, “a tawdry childhood fantasy about your babysitter”?
Little did Vaughan think that nearly twenty years later he would be sitting on a panel at NYCC, reflecting on a series that ran 60 issues when he and co-creator Pia Guerra didn’t expect it to last beyond six. “It wasn’t released, so much as it escaped,” he said in a panel that involved waxing nostalgic about their five-year collaboration and even a few coy hints about the forthcoming TV adaptation. Read on for highlights!
The babysitter story, explained: As a kid, Vaughan had a crush on his babysitter, who let him watch R-rated movies on HBO, to the point where he fantasized about how “if only a comet would come and destroy all the other men in the world” and then they’d be alone together.
Joking about his surprise at discovering that other young men had a similar thought process, Vaughan said that he wondered, “Could I subvert this hateful creepy fantasy and sort of use it to say something interesting about gender?” (Guerra: “If I’d known it was about a babysitter, it would’ve changed the way I looked at you.”)
It wasn’t all tawdry: Some of the influence came from Vaughan’s adolescence at an all-boys’ Catholic high school and the semi-frequent visits to the girls’ school—including the looks he would get as an outsider, “entering this benevolent matriarchy.”
Part of what sold the story for MacDonald (who edited some of the series), and later for readers, was a page at the end of the first issue that listed some sobering statistics—what percentage of airline pilots, CEOs, etcetera, would perish in a plague like this. Reflecting on how high these percentages were 17 years ago, Vaughan pointed out that “a lot of these factoids remain the same.”
Moreso than many comic book series, Guerra’s art made her truly a part of the story, shaping the narrative (especially in the Safeword arc) but even down to individual panels. “Pia is one of the best performers in comics,” Vaughan said of her talent for nuanced facial expressions. “There’s such range in Pia’s work”—to wit, the difference between a worried frown and an angry frown.
“I used to really love acting,” Guerra said, citing her study of Shakespeare and participation in high school plays and local pantomime. “I used to audition all the time, but I’m not really the type they’re looking for, so I never found any work. But I could act on-page.”
Much of that skill came from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer samples that Guerra, a fledgling artist at the time, was drawing in the hopes of getting to work on a Buffy book. Trying to translate the actors’ expressions to the page, as well as the TV series’ melodrama, made for heightened expressions. “The likenesses were spot-on,” Vaughan said, “not traditional superhero splash-page stuff, just grounded human drama.”
Guerra reflected that in the 1990s, she would encounter gender bias when trying to get comics jobs: “Ninety percent of the time I’d open a portfolio for an editor and they’d say, ‘You draw like a girl’ [and I’d be like] ‘Is that a thing?'”
“There’s a disturbing amount of me in Yorick,” Vaughan said. “I knew I didn’t want Yorick to be sort of a generic everyman; I wanted him to be very specific.” Very specific meaning, as editor Karen Berger said at the time, “an awful kid.” However, he said, the point was always that he and Yorick grew in tandem as the comic went on; after all, he had pitched the story as the “journey of the Last Boy on Earth becoming the Last Man on Earth.”
“Yorick, yeah, he’s a piece of shit,” Vaughan said, “but I think he ends up in an OK place.”
One of the early issues’ most famous scenes, in which a disguised Yorick and a woman sit at the Washington Monument—which has been transformed into a memorial for the men—mourning all their favorite bands, was stolen from Stephen King. Vaughan cited King’s tendency to name-check famous figures like Cyndi Lauper: “I really liked that stuff because it grounds the sort of absurd fantasy element into this relatable world.”
Vaughan would poll then-girlfriend, now-wife, playwright Ruth McKee, with questions like Would you wear makeup if all the men were gone? to which she had the perfect response: “Do you think we wear makeup for you?”
Y: The Last Man has acted as a gateway comic for many a reader, a decent number of attendees in the room alone. That accessibility was something that Guerra and Vaughan had in mind when creating the series—especially Guerra, who had seen comics series of the ’90s, “really beautiful books that came out with panels doing crazy things,” experiment in ways that alienated readers.
“The answer is clarity,” she said. “You have to be as clear as possible. You’re not just writing or drawing for that niche of people who read and understand comics. You’re writing for people you want to come in to comics, and if they’re turned off by things they can’t understand, they’re not gonna come back.”
Vaughan always knew that the final issue would be a big time jump, though at some point in the process he wondered, “Should I come up with a better ending? But I felt allegiance to the dumb kid who came up with the idea in the first place.”
“We took a lot of side trips,” he said, “but I think we wound up at the destination we set out for in the beginning.”
Along the way, Vaughan joked, he and Guerra didn’t fill their prescribed gender roles: “I like to write scenes where people sit around and drink tea and talk.” Guerra: “I want scenes where soldiers just rappel out of helicopters.”
Which of his other characters would Vaughan want crossing over into the world of Y? “Lying Cat would probably have a fun time.”
But would Vaughan and Guerra themselves ever set foot back in this world? “Y the comic is done forever and ever,” he said, “and the ending is the ending, and that’s all she wrote.” However, they would love to collaborate again on something new.
Vaughan and Guerra also provided some updates on Y, the forthcoming TV adaptation from FX, discussing how the TV series will update their source material for a new age: “Now is the right time for it more than ever. The death of all men doesn’t feel so much like an apocalyptic thing; it’s more like escapist fantasy.”
Fittingly, there was a Yorick cosplayer in the room; expect many more—and hopefully lots of 355s!—at NYCC and SDCC when Y premieres next year.