It looks like Yorick Brown will die because his bodyguard made a big mistake.
Writer Brian K. Vaughan, in Safeword, the fourth volume collecting his superior science fiction series Y: The Last Man, plunges Yorick into a dangerous erotic captivity at the hands of someone with whom the bodyguard had entrusted Yorick' protection. The results are riveting.
The bodyguard is Agent 355, part of a government secret operatives agency which supposedly was shut down during George Washington's presidency. Now, more than 200 years later, the agency is still active and the President of the United States has assigned Agent 355 to protect Yorick, the only man to survive a sudden plague that wiped out all other men. 355 also has to protect Yorick's monkey, Ampersand, the only other male mammal to survive the plague. The cure, if there is one, might lie in Ampersand's genes. Or in Yorick's.
Until now, man and monkey have been kept together. Protecting them both has been not easy. Now circumstances demand separating the two. 355 and their comrade in adventure, Dr. Allison Mann, a cloning expert, decide to safeguard the monkey and leave Yorick with an ex-agent of 355's secret organization.
That's when Yorick might die.
As he has in the first three volumes, Vaughan weaves a story that excites and, despite the grim subject matter, amuses. He blends intrigue, adventure, mystery and humor to unfold a tale that will linger in memory.
Co-creator Pia Guerra's straightforward artwork serves the story without calling attention to itself. Guerra's focus remains most of the time tightly on the characters so the effect is largely static, kind of like watching a television talk show. But when action erupts, the art conveys the excitement well. There is enough background imagery to suggest the post-apocalyptic setting.
The more arresting images are on the covers of the comic books that are collected in this and the other paperbacks. Illustrations by J.G. Jones combine realistic representations of what happens in each installment with symbolism that underscores the imaginative richness of Vaughan's stories. They are like painted photographs of dreams.
In one, Yorick seems to float a few inches above the ground while a woman towers over him. All we see of her are her legs, bare except for stockings and high heels, and the cat o' nine tails she wields. In another, our heroes are on the Yellow Brick Road. Mann is the Tin Woman, 355 the Scarecrow and since they have not yet met the Cowardly Lion, Yorick is Dorothy.
Yorick is a major part of the brilliance of Vaughan's story. Yorick is, as he freely admits, not the man most of us would choose to be the last hope for restoring mankind. He is a smart-aleck but not especially smart. He has a faith in his own abilities that is often unfounded. He is reckless and impulsive and has nearly gotten himself killed several times. He does not, one could say, embody all the masculine virtues. But Yorick is likable.
He also is a nerd. His father taught a college courses on Shakespeare (hence his son's name), but Yorick is a student of pop culture. He refers to everywhere from Mayberry to Smallville and to everyone from Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry to X-Files agent Dana Scully. He expects everyone to know what he means. There are many such references in Safeword as well, including Yorick's response when a woman offers him Viagra. "You don't think that Bob Dole sh-t will work, do you? The blue diamonds in a box of Lucky Charms would have a better chance of making me hard now."
There is in Safeword a lot of bickering among the band of heroes on whom humanity's future rests. Yorick agrees with some of the digs his friends make at his expense, as when a character says his desire to track down his girlfriend, Beth, in Australia is "romantic . . . and kind of stupid." Yorick answers, "It's the dual nature of my charm."
But the charm doesn't impress the woman that Agent 355 did not suspect would drug Yorick, chain him up, inject a liquid into his neck and submerge him in water.
Some of the images in Safeword are sadistic. Others might be masochistic.
To me, sadomasochism is like string theory in physics: I've read about it and had it explained to me by proponents, but I don't get it. Yes, pleasure and pain are part of the same continuum. Starvation and satiation also share a continuum. I prefer the one that doesn't involve agony. And sure, introducing pain into a relationship requires trust that can deepen the emotional bond underlying the physical acts. But I'd rather trust my partner not to hurt me.
If you are with me in the "if it hurts, you're doing something wrong" school, then brace yourself. The imagery is not exactly overwhelming. This comic book explores some adult themes but it is, after all, published by the company that publishes Superman. Nonetheless, the images are unsettling.
On the other hand, if you are now thinking I'm soft and pathetic, the images might be too tame.
Vaughan writes with such conviction that we can believe Yorick might die, or at least suffer horribly. External considerations weigh against this. It is early in the series to kill the title character. But internally, Vaughan sustains the sense that Yorick is in serious danger. It is gripping.
AFTER THE SEX, NO CIGARETTES
If Ampersand is cured at the hospital and if Yorick survives his captivity at the hands of a deranged dominatrix, they still must face a violent band of supremacists who will save Arizona even if it means the rest of the United States starves. And they must deal with the consequences of perhaps the most important birth since the immaculate one.
Volume Five, Ring of Truth, promises to be another good one, especially if Yorick lives to see it.
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