Early in Brian K. Vaughan's compelling Y: The Last Man (Volume One of Ten: Unmanned), almost all of the world's males are dead and the White House is hit by a barrage of gunfire. The title character, Yorick Brown, hopes it is an assault by the Amazons, a band of extremists who think the death of all men is a blessing. In keeping with the fabled tradition of their mythical namesakes, members of the Amazons burn off one of their breasts so it doesn't interfere with their archery.
"No," says the woman standing next to Yorick. "It's worse. Much, much worse."
But for readers, it is instead very good indeed. Vaughan's story is addicting. His take on the "last man on Earth" genre excites and, despite the grim subject matter, amuses. (When someone asks whether Yorick and his sister are close, he answers, "Like Luke and Leia . . . um, without the French kissing.") Vaughan blends intrigue, adventure, mystery and humor to unfold a tale that will linger long in one's memory.
Co-creator Pia Guerra's artwork is straightforward and effective. It supports 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 with moments of an action program's dynamism thrown in. There is just 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 one and in nine other trade 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 leaps to safety as armed women guard the White House and an American flag seems to float behind him. In another, Yorick is in chains and a gas mask while a woman's partially opened mouth looms large above him in what could be seduction or threat.
When Vaughan introduces us to the last man, Yorick is hanging upside down in a straightjacket. He is an aspiring magician and escape artist. He doesn't know that he is about to pull off the greatest escape in history without having to use any of his talents.
When a sudden plague kills in an instant every mammal with a Y chromosome, Yorick apparently is the only man who survives. A male helper monkey that Yorick has volunteered to train survives the worldwide extinction as well. The monkey, named Ampersand, joins the wannabe magician as the only living remnants of anything male on Earth.
In this new, unmanned world order, things get complicated. Some women adjust and meet the challenges of an all-female world with calm competence. Others resort to violence to make their ways in what has quickly become a harsh environment.
Much of the emphasis is on Yorick and Ampersand, but Vaughan has created a cast of other memorable characters as well. They include:
a supermodel who wants to sell for Yorick for food;
the cabinet secretary who is now President of the United States, if what remains of the nation's government can be said to be functioning;
Yorick's mother, one of the few members of the U.S. House of Representatives who is still alive;
Yorick's sister, Hero, an emergency medical technician who might have found the perfect man just in time to see him die an inexplicable and bloody death;
Yorick's fiancee, who is vacationing in Australia and who might have accepted the marriage proposal Yorick made in the seconds before all the men -- and the international phone lines -- died;
a hardcore Israeli army colonel who regrets that she has never been shot at because she wants to shoot back;
an expert on asexual reproduction who might have given birth to her own clone;
and a lethal adventurer who works for an agency of the U.S. executive branch that supposedly has not existed since George Washington's time.
Yorick's survival depends on some of these people and is threatened by others. Vaughan masterfully muddles everything so it sometimes is unclear which is which.
And he's mixed in plenty of other mysteries as well. Yorick thinks his life might have been saved by a ring he bought in a magic shop. His mother says that's ridiculous. Is it? What is the significance of an amulet that Arab legend says will cause widespread destruction if it is taken out of Jordan? Whose voice is that saying five portentous words over the radio in the Johnson Space Center?
When the first book ends, we don't know what caused the plague or why Yorick and Ampersand survived. We think they're the last males, but we can't be sure yet. We don't know where the story is headed or what will happen to Yorick and company along the way.
But anyone who reads this first installment is likely to know one thing with certainty: We're eager to stay on Vaughan's rollercoaster until he brings the ride to its end.
What did you think of this review?
Fun to Read
What's your opinion on Y: The last man (Volume One: Unmanned)?