This is a really difficult series to pin down. In the time since I put down the last volume, I’ve been trying to figure out what Y: The Last Man reminds me of as a series. I’m of the opinion that it’s remarkably good, though I don’t think it’s quite on the same level as Saga. That’s a difficult assessment to make, and probably more than a little subjective since I love Saga‘s space opera vibe; it’s also really unfair to compare a finished series with an in-progress one, considering that endings often do so much to color how the rest of the story is received.
And I’ll be honest, the ending for Y is a difficult one to parse. Vaughan’s a pretty savvy writer, and this series is littered with meta-commentary about the nature of comics in general and this series in particular. The explanation that is ultimately offered for why all the men died is a pretty unsatisfactory one, but following right on the heels of that revelation is a conversation between a couple of characters about the inevitable letdown that comes with from finally explaining such a big mystery and a meditation on how the answer wasn’t really the point of the story anyway (a pretty prescient point considering this series ended two years before the television series LOST failed to deliver on its myriad promises about answering all its mysteries). The point about the ending is well taken, and given the structure of the series (every story arc feels very episodic with Yorick, 355, and Dr. Mann dealing with relatively self-contained crises on their journey to figure out how to save humanity), it feels like a needed reminder that the focus of the series was more on how the characters reacted to their new status quo rather than rushing to some big heroic finish.
So keeping that in mind, it’s a little more satisfying to think about the quiet ending that the series gives us.
From here I want to discuss character arcs and events that happen late in the series, so the usual warning about spoilers is in play. I recommend reading the series if you’re interested in it, but if you don’t plan on reading or you don’t care about spoilers, then feel free to read on.
Yorick’s probably the most obvious character to start with, since everyone else’s stories interact heavily with his own (that’s the advantage of being the protagonist). Perhaps what I like best about Yorick is that even from the outset of the story, he’s realistic about the fact that he’s not particularly special. His survival of the gendercide isn’t some big cause celebre in his mind, as the horror he experiences in the initial chaos leaves him with strong suicidal impulses that direct most of his actions in the first half of the series. What’s great about this characterization is that it’s more or less masked right up until Vaughan explicitly tells us that Yorick’s trying to get himself killed. There’s a nice interplay early on between the typical expectation that the hero of the story is going to take big risks because that’s what heroes do and the expectation that Yorick’s going to do stupid things because he’s still operating under some sort of assumption that as the last man on earth he has to step up the machismo. The fact that 355 and Dr. Mann are clearly the far more capable agents in the story make Yorick’s impulses seem so ridiculous and comical that it feels like a very earned reversal when we find out that he’s actually been deliberately putting himself in danger (that’s kind of how I feel about everything in this series; the earlier parts which seem like perfectly serviceable but rote action stories take on greater emotional significance as we learn more about these characters towards the series’ end).
Given all that, the further revelation that it’s Yorick’s pet monkey Ampersand who is the really special one (Yorick survived the gendercide because Ampersand wouldn’t stop throwing poop at him and thereby accidentally infected him with whatever antigen allowed the monkey to survive in the first place) shifts the focus of Yorick’s story away from saving humanity towards him trying to accomplish his own personal goals. There’s an ongoing romantic tension with Yorick between his drive to find his girlfriend Beth, who was working in Australia when the gendercide happened, and his growing friendship with his companion 355. Yorick and 355 seem to be oblivious to their own romantic chemistry throughout most of the story (and to be fair, the subtext of their relationship is so deeply buried that I wasn’t sure I really bought them as romantic partners until very late in the series’ run), so Yorick’s drive to find Beth is again the very prominent, stated motivation that Yorick has once he gets over his suicidal impulses. Again, the revelation late in the series that Yorick’s actually motivated to continue traveling by his relationship with 355 is simultaneously a surprising reversal and something that feels earned. These two characters spend four years traveling together, and towards the end their relationship really does emerge as something that could be read as either a very close friendship or romance. When 355 dies suddenly as she and Yorick are finally laying out all their baggage, it’s a really poignant moment. I don’t get choked up over character deaths in comics most of the time, but I realized that I was really pulling for them to have a happy ending together.
And I’m realizing that I have enough thoughts on this series that I should probably break this up into multiple posts to avoid going really long and missing things I want to touch on, so we’ll come back to this topic another time.