Retro Review: Y: The Last Man #1A comic review article by: Chris Kiser
In case you've never read it, Y: The Last Man #1 is available for free at Comixology!
If you've only just started reading comics seriously in the past couple years or so, it's possible that you don't quite grasp the significance of writer Brian K. Vaughan's return to the medium with Saga, the new ongoing series from Image that starts this Wednesday. Need a reference point? Think Arrested Development's recent Netflix resuscitation or Joss Whedon writing Buffy: Season Eight. Maybe even David Lee Roth reuniting with Van Halen in 2007 if, you know, their music hadn't sucked to begin with. Anyway, it's a big deal. After a decade or so of witnessing BKV crank out great comic after great comic, those of us who sometimes like our stories with pictures that don't move thought we'd lost the guy permanently to those rich bastards in Hollywood. But now he's back!
Circa 2000 to 2010, you couldn't really buy a better comic than one with Vaughan's name on it. From Runaways to Ex Machina to The Escapists, any of his scripts were a surefire bet for brilliantly structured plotting and fully-formed character voices. Easily the best of the bunch, though, was the Vertigo series that originally put Vaughan on the map -- Y: The Last Man. Both an overall critical darling and personal favorite of mine (Y was the first comic I followed regularly that didn't feature superheroes), this series -- about a plague that wipes out every male mammal on the planet save for one man and one monkey -- consistently raised the bar for what comics could and should be, all the way back from its debut in September 2002.
Come to think of it, that first issue may be the best of its kind in the past 10 years, captivating audiences at the time of its debut and holding up remarkably well in light of the remainder of the completed series. In fact, seeing how well its beginning synchs up with its ending 59 issues later, it's hard to accept that the creator of Y: The Last Man could have ever actually worked on the television show Lost (it, in many ways, being the antithesis of finishing what you start). But I digress. In Y #1, all of the major pieces are set in place, some of which won't ultimately reveal their significance until the final story arc.
It all kicks off with the introduction of Yorick, the protagonist whose paternal chromosome and odd Shakespearian initial give the series' title a nice double meaning. In a matter of just a few pages, we're exposed to nearly all of the idiosyncrasies that will continue to form the basis of his character miles down the road. Our first glimpse of Yorick sees him hanging upside-down in a doorway wearing a straitjacket (he's an amateur escape artist), spouting off the random useless trivia he uses as a roundabout way of expressing himself. In the years to come, Vaughan would use this character trait countless times to edutain us to a degree virtually unmatched by any other writer.
Vaughan also slips in a sneaky orientation to Yorick's near-fatal character flaws, though in the sole context of issue one they merely appear as lovesickness for his girlfriend Beth, with whom he'll spend the bulk of the series seeking to reunite. It certainly seems at first that Yorick's speech about acquiring agoraphobia is a cutesy way of telling Beth that he misses her. In actuality, it's the sign of a neurosis that will nearly get him and his friends killed many times over, and it's amazing to see Vaughan foreshadow it so early on.
In addition to Beth, Vaughan acquaints us with the rest of the major cast members and plot elements as well, nearly all of those that will still be relevant when the story ultimately wraps up. There's Dr. Mann and her cloned baby, covert operative Agent 355 and the mysterious Amulet of Helene and Yorick's sister Hero, whose scenes here form the backdrop to her dramatic and jarring transformation later. Of the bunch, only one prominent theme here -- the unlikely pro-life political platform of Yorick's Democratic congresswoman mother -- fails to make a subsequent meaningful appearance (though the character herself certainly does). Again, it's genuinely mind-blowing for a second-time reader to go back and knowingly witness all these seeds being planted so early on.
Of course, the value of Y: The Last Man #1 isn't confined just to those on a nostalgia kick. It is simply a spectacular issue in its own right, with a powerful hook that could make fans of any genre or medium desperate to read the rest. The onset of the plague hits hard and fast, every bit of the shock it delivers to the world conveyed through Vaughan and Pia Guerra's pages. Adding to that impact is an informational text page that gives a statistical analysis of world occupations by gender, enhancing the enormity and dire nature of the threat, as well as providing a peek at the book's rational feminist politics. Vaughan makes no effort to hide his desire for Y to be socially relevant, and the sheer artistry of it all earns him full license to do that.
According to advance buzz, it sounds like we're in store for a similarly excellent opening chapter when Saga rolls around tomorrow. As is always the case with BKV at the helm, the new book also looks to feature a carefully crafted and complete universe, one that defies the limits of having been concocted by a mere human mind. Its "Star Wars plus Game of Thrones" premise may not be as instantly digestible as "All of the men are dead," but there's still no way I'm missing it. And that has everything to do with Y: The Last Man. When I set down that #1 issue for the first time all those years ago, I knew I'd be onboard not only for the duration of that series, but for everything else Vaughan would write in the future.
Raised on a steady diet of Super Powers action figures and Adam West Batman reruns, Chris Kiser now writes for Comics Bulletin. He once reviewed every tie-in to a major DC Comics summer event and survived to tell the tale. Ask him about it on Twitter, where he can be found at @Chris_Kiser!