Monday, April 11, 2005

Y ask Why

York and Agent 355 attempt to bond

It's always depressing when some aspect of pop culture you've depended on to brighten your day suddenly disappoints you. It could be a favorite TV show or entertainment magazine—or maybe a boozy white trash gold-digger who suddenly drops, like, 300lbs.

I can't quite place my finger on when it happened, but somehow, for me, the spark has gone out of Y, the Last Man.

In case I haven’t droned on about it to you already, Y: the Last Man is—sigh, was—a brilliant comic book written by Brian K. Vaughn and illustrated by Pia Guerra (one of the few female artists in the comics industry) for Vertigo Comics, an avant garde, no-men-in-tights imprint put out by DC Comics (think Disney and Miramax).

In the series, Yorick Brown, a twentysomething slacker/escape artist with low self-esteem, is quite literally the last man on Earth. In one horrifying moment, all the males on the planet (human or otherwise) just dropped dead. 49% of the world's population—and a higher percentage of doctors, politicians, engineers, soldiers, etc.—gone, just like that. Except for Yorick, that is, and his pet Capuchin monkey, Ampersand.

Another post-apocalyptic nightmare, you ask? Absolutely not. What made Y so brilliant is that Vaughn avoided most of the sci-fi cliches to focus on the human interest elements inherent in that kind of scenario. Why all the men died has still not been explained after 32 issues (though a number of interesting possibilities have been hinted at) and we're only now beginning to understand how Yorick and Amp survived.

Instead, we saw Yorick and his companions, geneticist Alison Mann and the mysterious government agent 355, deal with all kinds of stuff—guilt, loneliness, power struggles, sexual politics and the possible extermination of human civilization. It's easily one of the most pro-feminist works of literature I've ever read. And not because Earthwomen, finally free of the shackles of male oppression, create some kind of utopian gynocracy. Just the opposite—they proved to be full of the same mistrust, greed and fear that hindered their male counterparts.

Like other great works of science fiction--Day of the Triffids and "28 Days Later," for example--Y:TLM imagines what the world would really be like after a catastrophic disaster, rather than some monkeys-running-the-world fantasy (Don't get me wrong, I love me some Planet of the Apes, too).

Over the first 30 issues, as Yorick and his friends trekked cross-country to reach Dr. Mann's lab in San Francisco, they dealt with everything from traffic jams and food poisoning to right-wing militias, murder and military coups. The pacing was slow, but Vaughn's gift for dialogue and drama made the pay-off all the richer.

I joined the series late, but went back and collected every issue from number 1 onwards. The first Wednesday of every month, I got a rush knowing the next installment was coming out.

I would talk up the series at parties and buy the trade paperbacks as birthday presents for friends who weren't even into comics. (They all thanked me later.)

Something's changed in the past few months, though.

I'm not sure when it started. Maybe it was the 15th time some mysterious woman showed up to sidetrack Yorick and Co. from their very important mission.

Maybe it was the growing web of conspiracies and secrets that were never fully explained. (What ultimately killed "The X-Files.")

Or maybe it was the fact that since our band of heroes was constantly on the go, we never got much in the way of an extended cast of characters. Interesting characters—like a paranoid Israeli army captain, a Russian astronaut, a Catholic "priest" and various possible love interests for Yorick (who, despite being the last man on Earth, has been trying to save himself for his missing fiancée, Beth)—would pop up and disappear just as quickly.

Finally, last month, I couldn’t ignore it anymore. Instead of the rush of excitement and anticipation that usually accompanied finishing an issue, I found myself feeling somewhat bored and disappointed at the end of issue 31, when Yorick set sail for Japan.

The whole experience has been very disheartening. I imagine it's probably like what some people felt when "Buffy" was cancelled or when The Phantom Menace premiered. Your "go-to"—that thing guaranteed to make you forget the stress of life for at least an hour or so—doesn’t work anymore.

I'm not blaming anyone. In fact, I think it was inevitable, given the nature and pacing of the series. Some stories have a finite shelf-life and I think YTLM just passed its expiration date.

Maybe, I'm wrong and this is just a slow patch. I'll keep checking back in periodically—skimming the issues in the store to see if the magic has come back. But I'm not holding my breath.

The upside, though, is that now I have $2.95 a month to invest in a new comic book.

I've been hearing great things about Ex Machina.


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