Y: The Last Man is a comic book series. Note it’s not a graphic novel IMHO because although you can buy it in different collected forms it was written as a series of 60 comics over about 6 years and it definitely follows a episodic serial narrative.
It’s probably worth mentioning something about the comic book form here. It’s something I only really came to as an adult – yes I read the Beano and 2000AD but not beyond about 13-14 and both of those were weekly comics. I never had the experience of buying monthly comics under what I think of as the US model. Which are aimed more at adolescents and which come out less frequently. They feature on-going stories but also have ‘arcs’ that typically last 4-6 issues. So the “full” story of Y: The Last Man takes 60 issues and 6 years to play out but is comprised of maybe 10-12 story arcs within that. This feels like an odd, slow way to consume a story to me but I guess real comic book fans have several series on the go at once.
There’s another oddity (to me) which is the timing. It takes maybe 5-10mins to read an issue. So if like me you sit down after the fact and read them in long 1-2 hour stretches like you would a novel, then you get a lot of story, a lot of setup-conflict-resolution or whatever in that time. It’s also true that Although it may take 10mins to read there’s often a lot of visual information on the page that’s adding to the story so it sometimes feels like a much more ‘dense’ experience.
I guess for me it’s most similar to watching serialised TV like Buffy – on-going seasonal arc but with shorter episode-length stories. You get the same sense for example of building up to an ‘act break’ which on TV is an ad break and in comics the end of an issue. However the comic book form feels so much more condensed that these occur relatively more frequently.
Anyway, with that in mind, how was Y: The Last Man?
It’s the story of a man, Yorick, who appears to be the last male human left alive on earth after a mysterious plague wiped out all the other men. I’ve explained the premise to people and the usual reaction is “so it’s basically porn, then?”. Well it’s not, but fair comment I suppose. Actually, possibly in reaction to this there’s almost no sex in the first third of the story. This at first is ostensibly because Yorick is on his way to find his girlfriend who was in Australia just before the plague hit. A little later we find out he has “issues” relating to sex which may explain why he’s not taking advantage of his unique position.
In the mean time we get a sort of standard post-apocalyptic survival tale with a twist. Society hasn’t completely broken down but it has significantly changed. Because certain professions have a very high level of men in them (e.g. airline pilots) this has an effect in how the post-plague world operates. Even without a large gender disparity, all the male car drivers suddenly dying (the plague hits quickly and takes effect in minutes) makes a mess of the roads in a way that takes months to sort out.
The book tries to explore what a female only world would look like. What happens in politics, art, commerce, religion, warfare, law enforcement – all these are touched on. It’s quite interesting although at time it borders on preachy/exposition-dumpy to do this. It also tries to have its feminist cake and eat it. Whilst its heart appears to be in the right place it can’t quite avoid the wider comic book traditions of female depiction (ridiculously attractive with gravity-defying boobs). To be fair different artists vary in this respect and the main comic is usually more balanced than the covers.
It’s not just the physical characteristics of the women either. I don’t think it’s entirely unproblematic that we get lots of violence in this book. It’s a very violent book and there is a certain section of the population that just enjoys seeing women laying into one another, whether with weapons or hand-to-hand. On the one hand in a world of only women, women are inevitably taking up all the positions of the moral compass, on the other it can feel at times fetishistic. Overall my feeling was: heart in the right place, occasional uneasiness in specific depictions.
That aside I will say that I enjoyed it. The story lines develop in interesting and unexpected ways. The dialogue had a wit and knowingness that reminded me of Buffy. The ending was not quite what I might have hoped for but not entirely unsatisfying. (I think I read that some were very disappointed. I wonder if I’d have felt more strongly about it after following the characters for 6 years.)
8/10 – Y? Y not? (sorry!)