Rereading Y: The Last Man, Part 1: Unmanned & Cycles

Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man was the first comic book series I ever read, and I still haven’t found anything that I’ve fallen for quite as hard. I devoured it one summer while commuting to a minimum-wage job, roughly the same age that Yorick Brown is when a mysterious plague kills every human and animal on Earth with a Y chromosome except for him and his pet monkey, Ampersand. The cinematic style, the killer blend of pop culture and pathos, the ambitious worldbuilding envisioning a world without cisgender men—it’s a modern classic.

But simultaneously, it is very much a product of the early 2000s. Post-apocalyptic fiction hinging on a very binary sense of gender (mostly cis) rarely ages well, and Y has some cringing missteps even in the first few issues. Yet it’s still a landmark series that has (hopefully) offered a rich jumping-off point for the forthcoming TV adaptation, which premieres in September. Considering that a lot will likely change in the series—from grappling with the aforementioned gender issues from a 2021 perspective to adding in new characters—we’re going to revisit the comics, in all their imperfect glory, over the next several weeks.

For the most part I’ll try to avoid outright spoilers, but I will be rereading with an eye for dramatic irony and foreshadowing and will at least hint when I see stuff seeded in earlier. Let’s jump right in… NOW.

Y: The Last Man Reread Volume 1 Unmanned Volume 2 Cycles

Y: The Last Man issue #1; Brian K. Vaughan (writer/co-creator), Pia Guerra (co-creator/artist/penciller), Jose Marzan, Jr. (inker), Clem Robins (letterer), Pamela Rambo (colorist)

Volume 1: Unmanned

Pia Guerra’s fast-paced, cinematic style of widescreen panels and time/setting slug lines make it so that it’s easy to follow along with the countdown to a global disaster happening nearly simultaneously. Readers are introduced to all the major players in quick snapshots of their daily lives before the plague strikes:

  • Yorick Brown, unemployed escape artist (in his iconic straitjacket look), about to propose to his girlfriend Beth while she’s abroad in Australia
  • his pet capuchin monkey Ampersand, who Yorick is supposedly training to be a helper
  • his mother, Democratic senator Jennifer Brown, and sister, paramedic Hero Brown
  • Agent 355, carrying out official secret Culper Ring business overseas
  • Dr. Allison Mann, about to give birth to her cloned nephew
  • Israeli soldier Alter Tse’elon, Yorick’s nemesis, though neither knows it yet

Unmanned spans the initial weeks after and examines how the surviving cisgender women congregate and/or turn on one another, from trying to take over roles belonging to cis men to creating entirely new subsets of society. Disguised in his signature gas mask, Yorick’s desperation to find his mom and sister bring him to Washington, D.C., where he becomes a target for both the chaos at the White House and the vigilante zeal of the Daughters of the Amazon. Most importantly, he embarks on his journey with 355 and Amp to find Dr. Mann and then possibly eventually Beth, with the aim to keep humanity from going extinct.

Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves: In this new world order, supermodels drive garbage trucks picking up male corpses, while the Republican wives of dead Congress members storm the White House demanding their husbands’ seats. While brief, this arc does a great job of illustrating the immediate raw grief (for some—a cynical power-grab for others) of suddenly becoming a widow and confronting your life’s work as the spouse of a powerful man—whether or not that also included raising children, writing cookbooks, or other full-time employment. “Those men survive in us,” one woman tries to get Jennifer to understand. “We dedicated our lives to them. We share their ideals and sense of service.” But as Jennifer points out, this is a republic, not a monarchy, and not even post-plague can these women just take over their husbands’ seats without a special election.

HBIC: The Unmanned arc was published in 2002, the year before Syfy premiered its Battlestar Galactica reboot, with Ronald D. Moore sharing Vaughan’s idea of having a lower-ranking female politician suddenly thrust into the mantle of U.S. president after disaster. Laura Roslin was the Secretary of Education, while Margaret Valentine is the Secretary of Agriculture before 355 informs her that she is now Madame President. It’s funny to think that in the early 2000s this idea was scenario was radical enough—choose a woman who would never be president normally—to crop up in two pieces of speculative fiction at roughly the same time. Now, a female president is just one step removed in the line of succession. I’m trying not to (re)read ahead here, but I don’t remember Margaret Valentine doing much beyond this arc, compared to Laura Roslin’s complicated rise/fall and gray morality on BSG. Jennifer Brown would seem to be pulling a lot more of the strings in Washington, though we’ll get into that later as well.

Big Bad: The Daughters of the Amazon, led by unranked chess master Victoria, are I believe the most extreme post-plague societal reaction we’ll see all series: Following Victoria’s dogma that semen is poison and cis men are rapists, the Amazons undergo a single mastectomy (in tribute to their namesakes and to be able to better shoot arrows) and ride around the country burning down sperm banks. They seem committed to eradicating the potential of all Y-chromosome humans, so of course when they hear about Yorick they go hunting. And of course their newest recruit is… Hero!

The Gender Issue: There is a lot to unpack here already. Y: The Last Man features a majority cisgender cast of characters but doesn’t use the word, instead subscribing to the gender binary of “male” and “female.” (That the TV series describes Yorick as a cis man in the logline is very encouraging for how the adaptation might rectify some of this from the start.) There are mentions of trans men like Waverly’s boyfriend, but the character of Bobbi (who we will meet later) seems to conflate transness (and the use of a slur, frustratingly) with being a drag king, indicated by the use of she/her pronouns instead of he/him. We’ll explore this more when we meet Bobbi in-person.

When the Amazons initially hear about Yorick, they debate whether he is “another post-op”—the dismissive nature implying that they have a problem with trans men. But it doesn’t entirely make sense why that would be the case, as the Amazons with their single mastectomies would have something in common with people who have top surgery; and it’s not as if trans men have a Y chromosome anyway. The only thing I can figure is that Victoria and her followers don’t want anyone embodying any aspects of masculinity in this new world.

What a Man, What a Man: So far it’s clear that the world’s men are gone but not forgotten. Yorick in particular holds out the desperate hope that whatever spared him might be genetic, and that his father is still alive. When Jennifer sorrowfully confirms that is not the case, Yorick is agonized by even more regret: “It was his birthday and I didn’t call him.” Alongside that very real pain, however, is Yorick’s ongoing obsession with lesser-known brothers of history: His first lines are about Elvis’ dead twin Jesse, and he later laments how everyone remembers Houdini but not his equally talented brother Dash, a.k.a. the great Hardeen. In both cases the supposed Last Man is clearly wondering aloud about how fate arbitrarily chooses one man over the other to be famous or even just to live; but it also makes me wonder if Yorick ever yearned for a brother? Though truth be told, Hero seems plenty like an older brother.

Best Magic Trick: Yorick seems to get himself into trouble as much as out of it in these first few issues; for every wriggling out of handcuffs, there’s two willing unmaskings because this boy can’t seem to stay hidden for the life of him. But his activation of the fire sprinklers in the presidential safe is clever. If anything, the biggest “magic trick” at the moment is the disappearance of all Y-chromosome organisms—and everyone thinks they’re the key to that trick, from 355 with the Amulet of Helene to Dr. Allison Mann delivering her cloned nephew.

Death Wish: Even though Yorick claims that he throws himself at the Amazons in order to grab their motorcycles, there’s a very telling moment at knifepoint with an Amazon in which he yells, “If this is your world, I want out. Just go ahead and kill me already!” In the moment it could be read as bravado, but we’ll see Yorick’s survivor’s guilt continue to manifest in futures and especially in the Safeword arc.

Yorick’s Prophetic Dreams: The first of many instances in which Yorick’s subconscious tries to warn him that he should not go looking for Beth. Here, it’s incredibly on the nose, with his beloved naked and bleeding from her eyes (even though it’s the men who have perished that way). Speaking of Safeword, there’s some kinky foreshadowing with Yorick in chains saying “I can’t come” while watching Beth die in front of him. Alas, poor Yorick does not put much stock in dreams yet.

Y: The Last Man Reread Volume 1 Unmanned Volume 2 Cycles

Y: The Last Man issue #5: Brian K. Vaughan (writer/co-creator), Pia Guerra (co-creator/artist/penciller), Jose Marzan, Jr. (inker), Pamela Rambo (colorist), Digital Chameleon (separations)

 

Volume 2: Cycles

After ending the prior volume at a crossroads, Yorick, 355, and Dr. Mann head to California to reach her backup lab and whatever cloning research might still exist or can be redone from scratch. But their cross-country train ride is derailed by an unexpected stop in Marrisville, Ohio, where there is a very unusual all-women community that seems to predate the plague. There, Yorick flirts with new (and brief) love interest Sonia, while also running into Hero and the Amazons.

Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves: Though the Marrisville residents keep talking around what is so special about their community, Sonia finally spills the beans: They’re former inmates at a women’s prison nearby, who were set free after all of the men died. They settled in Marrisville, created a charter (no guns, no executions), and have established a lovely community for themselves. However, despite their internal harmony, they are wary of outsiders who will learn the truth and judge them for their former crimes—like Yorick. While the comic depicts his self-righteous anger at the criminals being “allowed” to have normal lives that they didn’t “earn,” it also immediately castigates him for being a brat who runs his mouth without any life experience to back it up.

When the Amazons are disbanded, it’s the Marrisville women who take them in for rehabilitation: at first imprisoning them, but with the intention of staggering their return to society.

HBIC: I’d say Post-Apocalyptic The Queen’s Gambit Victoria, but she meets a hatchet to the face. And how can we not highlight Lydia, the most fearsome widow-turned-convict?

Big Bad: With the Amazons’ queen in permanent checkmate, they quickly cease to be a real threat—except maybe for Hero, who doesn’t seem interested in going quietly… The focus definitely starts to shift to Alter Tse’elon, who burned down Dr. Mann’s lab in Unmanned and who shares Victoria’s single-minded focus on tracking down the last man, but in a much more scarily calm way.

Y: The Last Man Reread Volume 1 Unmanned Volume 2 Cycles

Y: The Last Man issue #9: Brian K. Vaughan (writer/co-creator), Pia Guerra (co-creator/artist/penciller), Jose Marzan, Jr. (inker), Clem Robins (letterer), Pamela Rambo (colorist), Zylenol (separator)

Death Wish: The Brown siblings are more alike than one might think, as Hero demonstrates that she too seems to want out after months of starvation and brutality with the Amazons. She begs Yorick to shoot her, but he can’t do that to his own sister even after she killed poor Sonia.

Best Magic Trick: In the presidential safe back in Unmanned, Yorick tries to regurgitate a backup lock pick and fails. In the Marrisville prison, Hero reveals that Yorick taught her a trick or two, and that she may well be a decent escape artist herself.

Mano a Mano: Yorick versus Hero, in Marrisville.

What a Man, What a Man: Turns out when Yorick says “I don’t know if I’m the only man on Earth… but I swear I’m not going to be the last,” he didn’t know how right he was: There are two astronauts! Up in space! Who survived! What’s funny is that this was the cliffhanger ending for Will Forte’s wonderfully macabre 2015 sitcom The Last Man on Earth, but at least these astronauts have each other—including Ciba, who will play a prominent role in future issues—instead of poor Jason Sudeikis alone with his worms.

 

Commentary

Y: The Last Man Reread Volume 1 Unmanned Volume 2 Cycles

Y: The Last Man issue #1: Brian K. Vaughan (writer/co-creator), Pia Guerra (co-creator/artist/penciller), Jose Marzan, Jr. (inker), Clem Robins (letterer), Pamela Rambo (colorist)

The first person with a Y-chromosome to die is a little boy. While not an issue of Y goes by without someone recalling a man tragically lost, it is very deliberate that the first cis male to be mourned is an (ostensibly) innocent child who has not yet grown up to embody toxic masculinity.

Cycles opens with a damning list of statistics revealing just how much cis men made up the majority of CEOs, pilots, mechanics, felons, priests—a list that stunned then, and that, as Vaughan said at NYCC 2019, hasn’t changed much in the decades since. Those same stats appear in the latest Y: The Last Man teaser from FX.

I’ve always loved the scene at the Washington Monument, in which Yorick (disguised as “Beth”) and another woman reminisce on all of the rock stars who died at once. They’re right, that those figures do seem somehow more immortal than our fathers or partners—and it’s a tender, serene bonding moment before the Amazons come storming in.

Y: The Last Man Reread Volume 1 Unmanned Volume 2 Cycles

Y: The Last Man issue #4: Brian K. Vaughan (writer/co-creator), Pia Guerra (co-creator/artist/penciller), Jose Marzan, Jr. (inker), Clem Robins (letterer), Pamela Rambo (colorist), Digital Chameleon (separations)

I had completely forgotten that Jennifer Brown is anti-abortion! I don’t know how my eyes skated over that on every read, but it makes her insistence that Yorick’s duty is to repopulate the Earth extra thorny. Similarly, Waverly grabbing Yorick’s dick, and the later scene with Sonia, are part of an unfortunate running bit about Yorick’s manhood being “tested” and/or judged as less-than-adequate. It’s often played for laughs, but there’s a darkness beneath; it’s clear that being suddenly put on a pedestal as the peak (and only) example of surviving masculinity is already crushing Yorick. Before everything changed, he was a slacker who had no direction; suddenly he is expected to be the father of the rest of the human race. Though Vaughan’s future comic series Saga more directly examined anxieties about fatherhood, those early echoes are here.

It’s surprising how much 355 is benched for the majority of Cycles, except to mutter in her sleep about wanting Yorick. On a first read, this initially feels way cheesy for so early in the series, shoehorning rather than seeding in some romantic intrigue. However, on a reread, knowing that knitting is what 355 does when she’s horny, it makes a lot more sense—Yorick is seemingly the only man left but is annoying as all get-out, which must be endlessly aggravating to a (for now let’s say) straight woman staring down her only potential option.

Which makes it even more amusing that Yorick is easily distracted from his commitment to Beth by a pretty girl who knows her Bowie references. Sonia is not the last love interest for the last man, and while Yorick’s romantic entanglements are kind of laughable, they also make sense: Vaughan has said that he wrote Y in response to a bad breakup, and there is a certain fantasy in being the last and only option for women who miss being with a cis man. But it also feels like a sly nod to the fact that men often land on their feet post-breakup much more easily than women, who face more barriers to being considered “good enough” for a future mate. All in all, Sonia’s death feels almost like fridging—she’s around so briefly that it motivates Yorick to consider killing Hero, even if he ultimately doesn’t go through with it; and she doesn’t rate as high as another future love interest and perhaps my favorite character in the series.

Despite these global stakes concerning the fate of what remains of the human race, the recurring conflicts in the series always boil down to one-on-one (see Mano a Mano above) and especially a sense of tit for tat, eye for an eye. One of the Republican widows accidentally kills a Secret Service agent, and the surviving agent opens fire. Sonia chops down Victoria, and Hero lets her arrow fly. Yorick stops the cycle before it escalates in the moment, but it’s not the last time that violence and revenge will feel both very specific and very arbitrary.

 

This reread will run biweekly between now and the September 13 premiere of Y: The Last Man on FX on Hulu. I can’t wait to hear what surprised or unsettled you on your latest read, and what you’re looking forward to seeing adapted for TV!

No joke, Natalie Zutter first called dibs on this reread in 2016 and is so excited that it and the TV series are finally here. Join her here and on Twitter!

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