Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man absolutely devastated me yesterday, so it’s time to whip up a post about it. And yes, I did marathon through all ten books in one sitting. It was worth it.
Plot: After an outbreak on Earth known as the Plague kills every mammal born with a penis on Earth except for a man named Yorrick and his pet monkey, Ampersand, the two team up with a doctor and a secret agent to find the truth behind the Plague.
Warnings: Some sexual content, nudity, language, violence, ableism, transphobia, existentialism
Initial thoughts: I heard this was a beautiful story and while it wasn’t as beautiful as I imagined, it met my expectations in every way except for what I’d expected. The premise is really fresh compared to other kinds of comics, but I don’t necessarily know that this story has to be told as a comic. I’m becoming more critical of that lately, but I think this story would be just as emotionally powerful in written format as it does in graphic format, if not more powerful to an extent. That’s not to say that it fails as a comic – to the contrary, it’s wonderful – but the art doesn’t necessarily add anything in my reading experience.
The big question on my mind while reading was the extent of sexism. I still find it hard to believe that the world would crumble to difficult functioning without the existence of men (c’mon, the electricity and food industries would continue to work just fine), and the radfem group known as the Amazons is something of an exaggeration. However, the main characters include a Japanese-Chinese-American lesbian doctor and a black secret agent bodyguard, which was refreshing for a comic with high praise. Without men, some women in the story have taken up masculine disguises for sex work, which was a little disappointing to see, and the existence of trans women were not mentioned once in the story. Trans men continued to exist and there were references, though often in transphobic remarks and without actually showing a trans man. The gender binary continued to exist in troubling ways, often reinforcing sexism rather than subverting it. After all, in a world of nothing but women, why should it be shocking to see women appointed as presidents, working garbage trucks, or working as leading scientists? It really shows how the patriarchy has limited women, and also there are implications that women aren’t necessarily adept at their positions until much later all. It’s not as problematic as it sounds, but it’s something to think about.
Itty Bitty Research: I want to weigh in on names, particularly Yorick’s and Hero’s names, since I think they’re extremely important to the story. Hero’s and Yorick’s father taught drama and was a fan of Shakespeare, hence the names of his children, but the names chosen are not necessarily the most famous. Hero’s name comes from a supporting character in Much Ado About Nothing while Yorick’s comes from a character who isn’t even alive in Hamlet. Though Hero has lines in her play, Yorick is arguably the more famous character for the oft misquoted line, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio” in Hamlet 5.1. This startling contrast between the legacy of male and female characters within the Western canon serves as the foundation of inequality in representation that Y: The Last Man assumes.
For example, in flashback scenes with her family, Hero expresses frustration at being overlooked in favor of Yorick. This can be interpreted both as a result of her namesake and the patriarchal society she lives in. In Much Ado About Nothing, Hero is not even the main character; she is a foil for the unruly and headstrong Beatrice. Results from Open Source Shakespeare indicate that in Much Ado, Hero has 44 speeches compared to Benedick’s 134, Beatrice’s 106, Claudio’s 124, Don Pedro’s 139, and 120 by Leonato, her father. She has only four more speeches than the villain, Don John, who has 40 speeches, whose very first words are, “I thank you: I am not of many words, but I thank you.” The point of Don John is that he is a villain with power but is able to speak with few words because of his melancholy. This is a volitional difference compared to Hero, who conversely is silenced by Claudio and her father due to the patriarchal structure. In the graphic novel, Hero has had a long string of abusive power relations in her life, including ex-boyfriends and Victoria. Like Hero in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Vaughan and Guerra’s Hero is subjected to patriarchal structures that absolutely limit her autonomy.
In fact the point of Hero’s presence in Shakespeare’s play is to doubt her chastity and loyalty to Claudio, and in order to resolve the besmirching of her honor, she must pretend to die. This is similar to the besmirching of Hero’s honor in Vaughan and Guerra’s story, where there is the suggestion that her grandfather has been sexually abusing her, and Yorick considers all of her ex-boyfriends to have been bad for her without any regard of what she thinks. This is exactly what Hero points out when she insists on moving to Boston to drive an ambulance instead of writing a book. Even during her recovery, she functions by running missions for Yorick. At the end of the novel, we see Hero liberated from patriarchal rule when she finds a lasting and loving relationship in Yorick’s ex-girlfriend, Beth. However, to get to that point is a complete inversion of the expectations of Shakespeare’s heterosexual and obedient Hero.
As for Yorick, his name comes from an iconic skull of a jester during the grave digging scene in Hamlet. While many have superficially pointed to the connection between skull Yorick’s status as a jester and Y Yorick’s joking nature, the metaphor of Yorick goes deeper than that. For example, Yorick is a famous name despite never having any lines in the play; he is already dead. Unlike Hero, who actually has lines, Yorick’s fame is typical of gendered media representation of binary sexes. While Hero’s story both in the play and the graphic novel revolves around romance and the need for acceptance, Yorick’s story is concerned with philosophical ideas not pertaining to life but death. In the sense of male/female representation, objectification/subjectivity, and life/death, Vaughan and Guerra are able to convey binary differences between the siblings’ experience merely off names.
Yorick’s name also has great significance to the title and the idea of cloning. Most obviously, the name begins with a Y, similar to the Y chromosome that is rumored to have died out after the Plague. While male privilege has been to be seen as a human without being reduced to the sum of his parts or as a representation of all of his sex, this is reversed in the world of Y: The Last Man. At the most base level, Yorick’s significance is not that he is a jester or a particularly significant man; it is simply that he has Y chromosomes. In addition to the reduction, we again turn to the speech in Shakespeare’s play, in which Hamlet asks, “Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know / not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your / gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, / that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one / now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?” Not only must Yorick confront the bitter moments of the journey, such as contemplating suicide, upon his death clones of himself will presumably help repopulate the world by natural insemination. As we see in the epilogue to the series, there are at least seventeen Yorick clones in existence, but none of them are truly Yorick. Yorick the seventeenth lacks the charming wit and joviality that Yorick embodies, though they are composed of identical genetic material. Instead of skull, “Alas, poor Yorick: I knew him,” is directed at living, breathing clones.
References: Vaughan, Brian K., writer. Y: The Last Man: Unmanned. Art by Pia Guerra. New York: DC Comics, 2003. Print. Vol. 1 of Y: The Last Man.
—. Y: The Last Man: Cycles. Art by Pia Guerra. New York: DC Comics, 2003. Print. Vol. 2 of Y: The Last Man.
—. Y: The Last Man: One Small Step. Art by Pia Guerra. New York: DC Comics, 2004. Print. Vol. 3 of Y: The Last Man.
—. Y: The Last Man: Safeword. Art by Pia Guerra. New York: DC Comics, 2004. Print. Vol. 4 of Y: The Last Man.
—. Y: The Last Man: Ring of Truth. Art by Pia Guerra. New York: DC Comics, 2005. Print. Vol. 5 of Y: The Last Man.
—. Y: The Last Man: Girl on Girl. Art by Pia Guerra. New York: DC Comics, 2005. Print. Vol. 6 of Y: The Last Man.
—. Y: The Last Man: Paper Dolls. Art by Pia Guerra. New York: DC Comics, 2006. Print. Vol. 7 of Y: The Last Man.
—. Y: The Last Man: Kimono Dragons. Art by Pia Guerra. New York: DC Comics, 2006. Print. Vol. 8 of Y: The Last Man.
—. Y: The Last Man: Motherland. Art by Pia Guerra. New York: DC Comics, 2007. Print. Vol. 9 of Y: The Last Man.
—. Y: The Last Man: Whys and Wherefores. Art by Pia Guerra. New York: DC Comics, 2008. Print. Vol. 10 of Y: The Last Man.