Rereading Y: The Last Man, Part 2: One Small Step & Safeword

Welcome to the second installment of the Y: The Last Man reread! While the first two volumes spent a lot of time in the first few weeks following the loss of all Y-chromosome mammals, the next two pick up the pace. Yorick Brown has a girl to find, dammit, and Dr. Allison Mann has cloning research to recover, and Agent 355 has to keep all of them alive! One Small Step and Safeword cover arguably the greatest narrative ground of the series, from brief bright hopes involving men from space to plumbing the depths of an ex-government-agent-slash-dominatrix’s basement pool and bearing the weight of survivor’s guilt.

We’ve added a few new sections to the summaries (I’m particularly proud of those subtitles) because as the story marks the first anniversary of the plague, we see how humanity is slowly starting to figure its shit out with regard to staving off extinction. Not to mention examining what was toxic about its pre-plague society and what it maybe doesn’t want to carry forward into the new world order. But big change starts with…

 

Volume 3: One Small Step

The previous volume Cycles ended on a killer note for readers: the revelation that Yorick was not indeed the last surviving man, as one American astronaut and one Russian cosmonaut—both cis men—were currently orbiting Earth up in the International Space Station, trying to figure out alongside their female comrade how to touch down, plague be damned. One Small Step is one of the thicker volumes of the series, detailing that ill-fated landing—and face-off with Alter and her fellow Israeli soldiers—and squeezing in a two-issue meta interlude about how art survives the apocalypse.

Y: The Last Man Reread Volume 3 One Small Step Volume 4 Safeword

Y: The Last Man issue #12; Brian K. Vaughan (writer/co-creator), Pia Guerra (co-creator/artist/penciller), Jose Marzan, Jr. (inker), Clem Robins (letterer), Pamela Rambo (colorist)

HBIC: Natalya. motherfucking. Zamyatin. I had forgotten how utterly delightful this Russian secret agent was, with her broken English and poetic Russian, her apologies for blacking out when getting shot, her sniper badassery, her unapologetic tuning out of Yorick’s monologue. Her sign-off to him: “You are good boy, Yorick. When you are done, you may even be okay man.” If I were hurtling to Earth in a flaming Soyuz capsule, squaring off against Alter and co, and/or pregnant with a bunch of strangers, I would want Natalya as my personal bodyguard.

Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves: Heather and Heidi Hartle, twin geneticists, are badass not just for their identical looks and careers, but for their ability to handle the necessary isolation of the hot suite when neither their male colleagues nor male politicians could.

Mano a Mano: Alter and Yorick come face-to-face for the first—but certainly not the last—time. It’s fascinating how much more of the upper hand she has, from coming prepared with Saw-level handcuffs to withholding the information that Jennifer Brown (!) is the one who sent her after Yorick. Of course, if it were Jennifer’s intel about Yorick being an escape artist, it’s not so surprising that he was able to exceed both women’s low expectations by getting out of not the cuffs, but the chair, and wrestling Alter down so she couldn’t blast the Soyuz out of the sky.

Y: The Last Man Reread Volume 3 One Small Step Volume 4 Safeword

Y: The Last Man issue #14; Brian K. Vaughan (writer/co-creator), Pia Guerra (co-creator/artist/penciller), Jose Marzan, Jr. (inker), Clem Robins (letterer), Pamela Rambo (colorist)

Big Bad: While the One Small Step arc ends with Alter hog-tied and on her way to be court-martialed care of mentee-turned-new-leader Sadie, this isn’t the last we’ve seen of the series’ biggest bad. I have to confess that Alter’s motivations were difficult to parse even after she has multiple conversations with Sadie. She claims that the only way to maintain peace internally is to manufacture an external war with the U.S. over Yorick. But her willingness to murder the incoming spacemen, so that there’s only one man to fight over, makes it clear that it’s not about any one person, that these remaining men are interchangeable to her—ironic, considering that’s often the fate for women. At any rate, Alter’s insistence on war being the answer is what finally makes Sadie turn on her, despite the fact that Alter once took a bullet for her.

Speaking of other antagonists: Not that it’s necessarily clear in the moment, but we also get a hint at the shadowy “Dr. M” through his henchwoman Toyota’s conversations with him while tracking Ampersand in Nebraska. Toyota’s appearance is brief, as she wisely fucks off once our trio storm the performance to rescue Amp, but it’s clear that this is not the last we’ve seen of this ninja.

Y: The Last Man Reread Volume 3 One Small Step Volume 4 Safeword

Y: The Last Man issue #14; Brian K. Vaughan (writer/co-creator), Pia Guerra (co-creator/artist/penciller), Jose Marzan, Jr. (inker), Clem Robins (letterer), Pamela Rambo (colorist)

What a Man, What a Man: Let’s pour one out for Vladimir and Joe, who briefly shared the title of last men with Yorick—some might argue that they had earned it more, while he’s still a boy. We never get to see their reactions to terra firma post-XY because their Soyuz capsule catches on fire and they shove Ciba out first. This sequence is so great and tense, because you can’t see through the helmet which of the three made it, and then when it explodes and 355 and Allison are telling Yorick “let’s just be grateful that one of them got out in time” while all three women are crying… argh.

Plague Narrative: Of course, since neither man encounters Earth air, we don’t know if the plague could have killed them or if they might possess Yorick and Ampersand’s supposed immunity. Meanwhile, Natalya is convinced that the U.S. caused the plague, while Edie (from the Fish & Bicycle troupe) believes it has a connection with the Black Death ceasing once women were allowed on the stage for the first time. Everyone’s got a theory, and the mystery continues…

Life, Uh, Finds a Way: Ciba Weber, brilliant and tough-as-nails, has brought about a new section for the reread…because she’s pregnant. (That “women and children first” line gets me every time.) Even better, she doesn’t know who the father is—and I’m convinced it was because she, Vlad, and Joe had created a little space throuple up there. She does say to Allison, “We were up there for almost a year. We were scared and lonely and… and none of us thought we would make it back alive.” And then: “I loved them both so much. So fucking much.” If that’s not an OT3, I don’t know what is.

My only quibble was Allison’s pronouncement that Ciba is three weeks along. The earliest that most pregnant people discover their condition is four weeks, when they miss their period. Unless they had a lab up on the ISS for testing hCG levels at tiny amounts, there is very little chance she would actually know. (Barring, that is, them running out of birth control at some point in their year up there and saying fuck it. But again, what astronaut doesn’t have an IUD?) I’ll stop before I get too into the weeds, since this won’t be our last post-apocalyptic pregnancy, but the logic did give me pause.

Y: The Last Man Reread Volume 3 One Small Step Volume 4 Safeword

Y: The Last Man issue #11; Brian K. Vaughan (writer/co-creator), Pia Guerra (co-creator/artist/penciller), Jose Marzan, Jr. (inker), Clem Robins (letterer), Pamela Rambo (colorist)

The Gender Issue: We briefly meet Bobbi! I had my timeline off in the last installment, in that Bobbi and Waverly (the supermodel-turned-corpse-collector) have not met yet. First, it’s Yorick who crosses paths with the male impersonator and sex worker, who initially mistakes him for a fellow member of her profession. Bobbi critiquing Yorick’s unnatural-looking beard and need to further bind his breasts are more ammunition in the ongoing gag of Yorick not being a “real” man.

Then there’s the Fish & Bicycle traveling theater troupe, named for Gloria Steinem’s expression about how “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” Initially formed to keep plays alive—and dress up women as dashing pirates—resident playwright Cayce and her cast, including star Edie and costumer Henrietta, find themselves challenged by a group of Nebraska housewives who would rather see them continue the aborted arcs of As the World Turns and other soap operas. The arrival of Ampersand, fleeing a ninja who wounded him (!), instead inspires Cayce to write a play about—you guessed it—the last man on Earth.

Death Wish: Of course Yorick can’t resist asking Cayce how her play ends. And what a sledgehammer of an answer: the last man saves the world… by committing suicide and letting the women save themselves.

 

Y: The Last Man Reread Volume 3 One Small Step Volume 4 Safeword

Y: The Last Man issue #19; Brian K. Vaughan (writer/co-creator), Pia Guerra (co-creator/artist/penciller), Jose Marzan, Jr. (inker), Clem Robins (letterer), Zylonol (colorist)

Volume 4: Safeword

Probably the most standout arc of the series, Safeword tackles sex and death as they are entwined not just for the last man on Earth, but also for the fate of humanity.

HBIC: Agent 711, supposedly ex-Culper Ring but clearly still operating on her own judgment regarding which assignments require her expertise. The latest? One Yorick Brown.

The Bad Touch: Yes, this new section owes its name to the 1999 Bloodhound Gang song which, let’s be real, Yorick probably annoyed 355 and Dr. Mann by singing to himself at least once on the road. It’s also the backbone of 711’s intervention with Yorick, at least the first stage of it: She interrogates and tortures and coerces him into answering why he won’t have sex with her, forcing him to relive both a childhood sexual assault by his male friend Lefter and his first time with Beth. Yorick confesses his guilt and self-loathing around sex and even seems ready to give in to 711 if it will end his suffering.

The sex issue comes up with P.J. later, in a conversation that has already been broached in earlier issues but will become even more pressing: How is it that the last man on Earth has been voluntarily celibate for eighteen months? Yorick makes his cheeky five-finger-shuffle joke, but it’s a serious question: He says he doesn’t want to prey on lonely women’s desperation, which is noble enough, though clearly it hasn’t occurred to him that he’s not the only sexual option for the world’s women (folks like Bobbi have that covered). Still, this theme will recur throughout subsequent issues.

Death Wish: Of course, it’s not that Yorick wants to have sex with 711 purely out of attraction or pent-up desperation—he sees it as a way out of one problem, but really it stands in for his larger desire for a more permanent way out. 711’s intervention gets to the heart of it: Yorick wants to die. Or at least, he doesn’t think he deserves to live, so he has been throwing himself in front of every gun, blade, and vengeful woman who will remove him from his colossal responsibility as the last cis man. So 711 prepares to drown him.

Y: The Last Man Reread Volume 3 One Small Step Volume 4 Safeword

Y: The Last Man issue #20; Brian K. Vaughan (writer/co-creator), Pia Guerra (co-creator/artist/penciller), Jose Marzan, Jr. (inker), Clem Robins (letterer), Zylonol (colorist)

Yorick’s Prophetic Dreams: What finally gets Yorick to fight back against 711 and escape his own suicidal impulses? Why, it’s another prophetic dream—but we don’t get to see what (or who) makes him want to live. Rereaders know, and hopefully squeed as much as I did.

Perhaps to balance out his mystery dream, Yorick also has a second violent vision of Beth. This time she’s in the Slave Leia bikini (yeah, we’d expect nothing less from Yorick’s subconscious) and he seems to be cosplaying as Conan the Barbarian. Unfortunately, he’s not able to rescue her from getting disemboweled by not-quite-the-Hoth-snow-monster (I might be missing a reference here). So far Yorick is 0 for 2 in rescuing Beth in his dreams.

Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves: The Sons of Arizona letting girls into the fold even before the plague… sounds heartwarming for the brief second before you get into the flag-burning and highway-blocking. It’s another iteration of the Republican widows wanting their husbands’ congressional seats, but with more of a disturbing militia dimension.

Plague Narrative: The Sons of Arizona thinking that the federal government released the plague on the American people but spared politicians like Bush and Cheney… big yikes.

Y: The Last Man Reread Volume 3 One Small Step Volume 4 Safeword

Y: The Last Man issue #23; Brian K. Vaughan (writer/co-creator), Pia Guerra (co-creator/artist), Goran Parlov (penciller), Jose Marzan, Jr. (inker), Clem Robins (letterer), Zylonol (colorist)

Best Magic Trick: 355 and Allison’s gibberish, which is at first incomprehensible but on rereads swiftly decodes itself. I still don’t think I could manage saying it aloud, though, will have to keep practicing.

What a Man, What a Man: Props to P.J.’s dad for teaching her everything he knows about cars; there’s no way he could have predicted how useful it would be in a post-XY world, which makes it even better, that he did it solely out of love for his kid. The other men who get highlighted in this trade are the nameless corpses of a road crew, supposedly booby-trapped by the Sons of Arizona, that Yorick manages to give a proper burial. It’s a nice little moment for him, especially contrasted with his flashback to stumbling upon the carnage in his apartment building, and of course we have to give it up for the reversal of Yorick as a gravedigger.

Mano a Mano: Poor Leah, who just wanted to follow in her family’s footsteps, despite how wrong she was. Her solo confrontation with Yorick ends off-screen with him killing her and then lying about it to 355 and Allison, but having to take a life has clearly shaken him.

Sins of the Father: Of course this is another new section we have to add. Just as we celebrate some dearly departed men, we acknowledge the ones who were bastards in life. There’s a brief flashback to Yorick’s grandfather (which we’re going to see mirrored in the final issue), with the disturbing implication that he might have molested Hero. It’s a passing line, but chilling to reread, especially in how their father interrupts her—and very telling that this is the first time we’ve seen Professor Brown in the flesh, albeit in memory.

But if we’re really talking paternal sins across generations, Allison’s dad deserves a long, hard look. After a few slips of the tongue regarding her lost offspring, Allison finally admits that she didn’t clone her sick nephew, that he doesn’t even exist—she cloned herself, and not out of some noble impulse, but to beat her father to it. Remember, this is the father she pissed off by changing her surname to Mann; when she heard that he was trying to clone himself, she expedited her experiment, only for it to end in a stillbirth.

Y: The Last Man Reread Volume 3 One Small Step Volume 4 Safeword

Y: The Last Man issue #23; Brian K. Vaughan (writer/co-creator), Pia Guerra (co-creator/artist), Goran Parlov (penciller), Jose Marzan, Jr. (inker), Clem Robins (letterer), Zylonol (colorist)

Life, Uh, Finds a Way: Safeword takes place over the course of exactly one (1) pregnancy, because the ending pages see Ciba giving birth… to a boy! They don’t show the kiddo yet, presumably to keep up the mystery of whether he’s Joe’s or Vlad’s, but rereaders will know that Mother Russia has a new son. Baby Boy Weber will remain in the hot suite for the beginning of his life, while the Hartles continue to figure out if he either has some plague antibodies or if they can come up with a way to arm him against a possible viral threat in the outside world. Of course, he and his female protectors have a more immediate threat to contend with, in the reappearance of one cowboy-hat-wearing, gun-toting Hero Brown!

 

Commentary

By the end of these two trades, we are eighteen months post-plague, which we also learn occurred in July 2002. From the start of One Small Step, it’s clear that the dynamics are more firmly cemented: Yorick and 355 have their mutually exasperated banter; 355 and Allison have developed their gibberish and other shorthands for taking care of Yorick when he’s getting in the way; Yorick and Allison, not so much, but there’s a grudging camaraderie even there. These three have encountered many a roadblock on their Yellow Brick Road, so as agonizing as it is for them to still have not made it across the country, it’s also realistic for the post-apocalypse. In many ways, One Small Step is more about the trio’s steps toward better understanding and respecting each other, though it takes Safeword to finally get Yorick back on track.

I’m surprised that I can’t find more interviews backing this up aside from mentions from their 2019 NYCC panel, but I seem to remember that Safeword was where Vaughan and Guerra really came together as co-creators, as the arc was her idea. Those three issues contain some of the series’ most striking visuals, from Yorick in bondage to the unforgettable use of polaroids—both one image slowly developing, and a scattered pile of searing moments—to represent Yorick’s memories of his first time having sex with Beth. Of course Guerra is responsible for the look of the entire series, but with Safeword she really shapes this exploration into Yorick’s character.

Y: The Last Man Reread Volume 3 One Small Step Volume 4 Safeword

Y: The Last Man issue #19; Brian K. Vaughan (writer/co-creator), Pia Guerra (co-creator/artist/penciller), Jose Marzan, Jr. (inker), Clem Robins (letterer), Zylonol (colorist)

When rereading Volume 1, I had expressed my skepticism at the female cop committing suicide in issue #1, but Yorick’s return to that moment (which I had forgotten about) builds it out more—his confusion and shame that someone he considered nobler than himself had already given up, so why should he be deserving of living, strengthens that decision. Even moreso is the fact that the plague took place less than a year after September 11 fills in so much of Yorick’s survivor’s guilt—guilt that, honestly, every character must feel, but it especially makes sense that he would be boggled at his arbitrary good fortune in surviving two unimaginable attacks in less than twelve months. Vaughan was clearly processing this as well, as he launched the series Ex Machina, with its haunting first-issue final splash page featuring the alternate universe in which Mitchell Hundred saves one of the Twin Towers, in 2004.

Imagine my surprise at coming across the Comedy & Tragedy mini-arc and seeing many of the themes from Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play reflected back in Fish & Bicycle’s ethos. I was remiss in not incorporating their traveling theater troupe into my piece about (re)telling pandemic stories. The mutual snobbiness and closed-mindedness between Cayce and the Nebraska housewives is fascinating, as the playwright disdains recreating soap operas yet pens a way cheesy post-apocalyptic melodrama that is full of catfights and lovers coming back from the dead. Edie’s theory about their current plague mirroring the Black Death is a stretch, yet it also provided plenty of flashbacks to last year and Twitter’s ongoing joke about writing King Lear in quarantine.

Y: The Last Man Reread Volume 3 One Small Step Volume 4 Safeword

Y: The Last Man issue #17; Brian K. Vaughan (writer/co-creator), Pia Guerra (co-creator/artist), Paul Chadwick (penciller), Jose Marzan, Jr. (inker), Clem Robins (letterer), Pamela Rambo (colorist)

Equally improbable was Allison’s assertion that she, with her mad-scientist egotistical cloning, caused the death of all the men. It’s rewarding to see her finally open up about the self-loathing she’s been bottling up for eighteen months, and how it’s less about some global guilt and more frustration with her toxic competition with her dead father. Up until now, Dr. Mann has remained the most enigmatic of the bunch; I was surprised that it took this long for her travel companions, and us readers, to learn that she was queer. Even 355 we learn more about, through tragically losing her parents and baby brother in a car accident at eight, before we get even a shred of Allison’s upbringing. That Allison binds up her frustrations regarding her father with her grief for her clone and even the relatively small embarrassment of her one-sided crush on 355 (aww) with her own death wish of barging into the Sons of Arizona’s camp is just heartbreaking.

There are multiple moments in these trades that Will Forte’s post-apocalyptic sitcom The Last Man on Earth picked up and ran with, from Jason Sudeikis as an astronaut who crash-lands on Earth (and has a scare regarding whether he’s infected with that series’ plague) to analyzing “manliness” in Tandy (Forte) that mirrors the running bits poking fun at Yorick’s masculinity. But whereas Yorick gets jibes about his unconvincing beard and saggy pecs, Tandy’s flaws are less about being a not-ideal man (in the cisgender sense) and more about being an unsavory mate. From the start, the series’ initial conflict is about Tandy and Carol (Kristen Schaal) being the worst possible match, but being obligated to repopulate the world anyway. Even as other options come forward for both of them, again and again Last Man returns to Tandy’s general unsavoriness as a mate, a partner, a man, a father, a neighbor, a progenitor of the human race. I’ll be curious to see if the Y: The Last Man TV series leans more in this multifaceted direction instead of just poking fun at physical features and cis ideals.

Jennifer sending Alter after Yorick will prove to be her most fatal flaw and the single action with the greatest ramifications in the series. I couldn’t remember her motivations, but rereading her assertion that the Culper Ring is actually a network of “assassins and thugs” and her seemingly out-of-nowhere vendetta against 355 in particular… racist much? After getting the inscrutable “shalom” message from Sadie, Jennifer turning around and sending Hero after Yorick, when she presumably didn’t take any time to evaluate her poor daughter’s mental and physical trauma, makes the Brown family dynamics even thornier.

 

These were two pivotal arcs, and we’re not even halfway through the series yet! What stood out to you on your reread?

Now Natalie Zutter wants a Fish & Bicycle / Traveling Symphony crossover. Join her for the Y reread here and on Twitter!

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