Thursday, June 25, 2009

Why Oh Y

I don't really know where I heard about Y: The Last Man the first time. Might have been a blurb in Entertainment Weekly, a blip on the radio, or maybe it was mentioned in a class where I should have been paying closer attention. In any event, it drifted in the periphery of vague awareness for awhile, giving off the mild but persistent buzz of something too smart to go mainstream and too new to be cult.

Covers were found through Google and belong to Vertigo

Unfortunately, the faint intrigue that evokes is easy to dismiss, so I didn't get around to reading it until Fall Quarter of this year, when my history teacher canceled lecture for Obama's Inauguration. I wandered to the campus bookstore, looking for nothing in particular, and happened upon the first volume. I decided to give it a browse and I looked up after finishing the second volume. Such ravenous hunger is fairly typical where my consumption of comic books is concerned, but I usually make a point of getting home or at least buying before I start devouring.

My brief time as a bookseller has taught me to regard the practice of in-store reading with wariness and loathing. It seems to be the first step in a cycle where one collects various unrelated texts, retreats to a chair as if it were a hibernal cave, and emerges as a egocentric, mouth-breathing twatwad who declines to return his hoarded texts to their rightful place. Admittedly, most subjects start out as twatwads to begin with, and I have witnessed a few benign cases of bookstore reading, so take no offense if you indulge in the habit. I generalize for the sake of humor. (I've never seen the movie for that link, or have any notion of its existence, but when I went looking it suited my needs perfectly).

Where was I
? Doesn't matter. Moving back to Y.

Like all great works of science fiction, Y is based on a timeless "What If" question: What if all the men died, save one? To male readers, by extension, that question becomes: what if you were the last man on earth? The series begins with a global gendercide that instantly wipes out every living animal with a Y chromosome, except for Yorrick Brown and his capuchin monkey, Ampersand. Already, readers have a compelling mystery (what killed all the men? can we bring them back?) in a near-post apocalyptic setting thats serves as an ideal platform for exploring the concepts of Matriarchy and gynocentrism.

The writing is not only sharp-witted, but genuinely smart and thoroughly thought provoking. The dialogue is also chock-full of interesting gender-relevant factoids that beg for further exploration. While I’m willing to bet a decent amount of research went into the series, it’s clear the writers primarily relied on their cultural savvy to carry the conversations. Consequently, the dialogue can get referential at points and the conceptual insights provided may run a little shallow for serious sex and gender scholars who are hoping to address current issues in society. At the same time, the comic manages to make said issues relevant and interesting for casual readers, when you think about it, reaching the masses tends to be more conducive to social change than producing conceptually brilliant treatises that only an elite few will read and understand.

I think this kind of social victory, and this kind of fiction, is exactly what Women's Studies could use right now. The field lost a lot of voice when the feminist movement split into a million different subgroups, but it split for a damn good reason. Even as a guy who is fairly certain females are the superior sex, the early feminist novels I’ve read ranged from, rather ham-handed to relentlessly ball busting. I won’t deny that Patriarchy has a lot to be ashamed of, or try to argue that meaningful progress can come without strong arguments, but it’s hard to find the motivation to work for said progress amid a 280 page treatise expounding on all the ways you suck. Y manages to move the discussion forward by telling a story where women are suddenly forced to rule the world as opposed to having to fight for the privilege.

Polemics aside, it's the characters and their wild adventures which make reading such a pleasure. Like every good fantasy epic, each character of the main trio has distinctive traits and skills that allow them to play off each other perfectly. Yorrick is a goof-ball trickster, Dr. Mann is a brilliant but slightly-neurotic scientist and Agent 355 is the cool-headed but culturally oblivious badass. Their names alone should give you an idea of the series ridiculously self-conscious sense of humor, which carries over into the supporting cast which includes cowboys, pirates, amazons, ninjas and robot pimpstresses. Each of these characters are given surprisingly robust personal histories, though many end up feeling similar to each other despite their varied backgrounds and occupations. There are a few gems though.

I have a particular soft-spot for the former Russian soldier, Natalya Zamaytin, who speaks English in annihilated manner and shoots many Yiddish women with assault rifle named for dead husband to defend comrades. Overall though, my think the most interesting character in the comic is Yorrick’s older sister, Hero. She eventually lives up to her namesake perfectly, which is to say she is not a heroine –the love interest of a leading man, or a heroic woman seeking the love a man–, but a modern female Hero who can fight and adventure in classic fashion with a motivation larger than mere romance.

As these covers will hopefully illustrate, the art in the series is nothing to smirk at either. While the art is not as varied as Sandman or Fables, the panels are put together in very cinematic fashion. In fact, as I write this, I find myself repeatedly typing "show" as opposed to comic or series. While the serialized format is definitely essential for the series (since it allows writers to cover a lot of comics and indulge in a couple of subplot arcs that flesh out the unmanned world) I think it could definitely work as an animation, or possibly even a live action show if the budget wouldn't be so prohibitively expensive. Apparently, Vertigo is eager to explore Y further as a feature film, though I'm not sure if the story will have the same impact when compressed into a three hour film. It's also not out until 2011, so if you start reading the series now, you won't look like those trend-whores who only started reading Watchman after the trailer came out.

After reading the conclusion last night, I feel like I should post some final word, but I really don't want to risk spoiling anything. Anyway, I would recommend Y to pretty much anybody with a mind for adventure or gender studies. Most bookstores have an odd volume or two, but this is a series you really want to read in order because spoilers and cliff-hangers are paced brilliantly, so order the collections from Amazon (you'll appreciate the irony of it all once you're underway!). Anyway, I think I've run my mouth long enough. Until next week gentle readers.

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