Y the Last Man
I don’t often write about things I’ve read, preferring to focus on things I’m writing instead, but on this occasion I decided to make a notable exception. I recently finished reading Y the Last Man, the Vertigo series by Brian K Vaughan and artist Pia Guerra, quite a long time after most of the comic reading world had already completed it. So why had I waited so long?
When the book came out initially the premise didn’t really pique my interest enough, I thought it was a good high concept (All the males in the world die, apart from one man and his monkey), but I wasn’t convinced it could sustain my interest in the long run. Then once the series gathered momentum, I started to get rather overawed by the hype, Y the Last Man went on to be a 5 time Eisner winner after all.
So what changed? Why did I decide now was the time to dive into the highly regarded 60 issue series? It all started last October when, as part of the Comics Experience workshop 30 trades in 30 days challenge, I read 8 Runaways books in quick succession. I don’t think I’d enjoyed reading a Marvel series that much since Robert Kirkman and Phil Hester‘s Irredeemable Ant-Man. There were definite comparisons with Joss Whedon‘s Astonishing X-Men run in the tone and writing style, and I loved the way every single character in the story had layers, hidden depths and their own story arc. It hit me straight away that this was the kind of writer whose work, which I’d criminally overlooked previously, was precisely in my sweet spot. In many ways Runaways was the book that, if I’d been able to do a long run rather than a one-off mini series, I would have wanted The Interactives to be.
Earlier this year, I picked up the first Saga trade and once again I was blown away. Within just a few pages, much like the opening minutes of True Romance, I believed the main characters were perfect for each other and would do anything to keep each other safe. It hit me that Vaughan had also written Pride of Baghdad, another book I really enjoyed, and one that packed as big an emotional punch as The Other Side by Jason Aaron and Cameron Stewart. It looked like everyone was right, Vaughan was one of the greats of the medium and it was about time I read his most lauded work.
I read the first issue via Comixology, where it’s available for free, but was left feeling a little underwhelmed and unsure what all the fuss was about. It wasn’t until a few months later, when I happened to stumble across the first trade in my local library, that I read more. By the end of the volume I was hooked, I was fascinated by Yorick and his capuchin Ampersand and was intrigued by the social commentary that seemed to be driving the narrative. I put a call out on Facebook and twitter within minutes of putting it down and managed to borrow the rest of the series from a friend. I was soon completely consumed by the book, which became an important part of my daily routine and in just a few weeks I’d finished the whole series. I’m still recovering, and I think I’ll feel that way for a while.
I really liked the book from the outset, but once I got to the 5th trade I knew this was something very special. On the surface this book was a road movie or a quest, but underneath it was totally character rather than plot driven. By the halfway point in the series I started to feel the same way about Yorick, Agent 355 and Dr Allison Mann as I did about real people. Sometimes I loved them, sometimes I hated them, I was angry with them, forgave them, saw unexpected sides of them, then saw them revert to type, understood why they frustrated each other and understood why they didn’t always get on.
So many characters, especially in the majority of Hollywood movies these days, seem to be increasingly one-dimensional, that is abundantly not the case here. Romeo’s sister Hero is a character who I never felt the same about twice, to the point where I was quite conflicted about her, swayed into understanding through her actions and her ultimate growth as a person. Then there’s the two Beths, Rose, Natalya and Alter, a diverse range of people, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, their own motivations, their own journey, their own story. From the middle of the series onwards the book started to affect me in two very different ways. On one hand it inspired me to push myself even harder as a writer with this as the high bar to aim for, and on the other I almost felt like giving up as I knew I’d never reach these kind of stellar heights.
Vaughan is the kind of writer I’d love to be, mixing humour and pop culture references, with flawed but decidedly human characters who all feel as important as one another. The idea behind Y the Last Man is very strong, the message and themes explored are fascinating, the story is always interesting and gripping, but it’s the characters that are truly mesmerising. I started to feel melancholy as soon as I started the 9th book, because I knew these people wouldn’t be around for much longer. It might sound strange, but I’m really missing having the central cast in my life. This isn’t the first time I’ve had this sensation, I read another Vertigo series, Preacher in a similar way and didn’t want to bid those characters farewell either. The same can be said about the main cast of Firefly, which I watched in one sitting on a rare sick day and also Robert Neville when I finished the audiobook of I Am Legend.
Along with the impeccable characterisation, the book’s themes had an emotional impact on me too. It made me think about life, death, mortality and morality, what it means to be human, what it means to be a man. Sharing Yorick’s journey, watching him grow and change, learn from his mistakes, the people around him and those he meets along the way, was a journey for the reader too. I know there’s talk of a film, and for a fleeting moment I imagined an HBO series starring someone like Zac Efron, but this story really doesn’t need to be told anywhere else. I’m extremely grateful to have finally read this series of books, I thought it was a truly exceptional story. Looks like catching up on Saga and Private Eye and reading Ex Machina are now very high on my priority list. If you haven’t read Y the Last Man I suggest you put that right immediately.