When I first mentioned on Twitter that I was finally embarking on a start-to-finish reading of “Y The Last Man” for the first time, I heard from more than one person who was jealous. They wished they could read it for the first time all over again, too. I see what they mean, now.
Though I did keep up with the series for its first two years, I fell behind for some reason and then never finished it off. Earlier this year, I picked up the five hardcover books collecting the series, and finally spent the last two weeks reading it. It was time well spent.
“Y The Last Man” is satisfying on every level. It’s a book with lots of ideas, strong characters, exciting plots, and beautiful art. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s a long-term story with a fairly consistent creative team. It is everything you could ask for in a comic series, and something I’d easily recommend to others.
I’ll get into some spoilers next week. This week, you’re safe to read the column if you’re amongst the uninitiated.
“Y The Last Man” is the story of Yorick Brown, the last man left on planet earth after the “gendercide” kills every other man on the planet. His goal is to be reunited with his fiancee, who is assumed to be stuck in Australia. But being mankind’s last hope means greater things for Yorick, whether he wants them or not. Some things are bigger than one man, and now he’s being pushed into a bigger race to save mankind. This means ninjas, secret agents, the Israeli army, the yakuza, the Amazons, and the militia. The series has everything but a giant purple gorilla, though Yorick is accompanied by a small chimpanzee named Ampersand, so it comes close enough.
Brian K. Vaughan’s overall plot feels wide-ranging and relatively loose, but it all ties tightly together. In the last year of the series, he even steps back to show us what’s happened with some of the supporting characters from the previous years’ stories. Not much is wasted or forgotten here.
The overall plot is Brown’s mission to find his fiancee, as well as a solution to the planet’s half-populated problem. Brown is not an easy or simple character. He’s a bit of a lovable loser in many ways. Vaughan doesn’t try to turn him into a hero. He treats Brown as the wise-cracking malcontent who doesn’t want to get involved in this worldwide mission to save humanity. He would rather get out and settle down with his girlfriend and let the rest of the world pass him by. He’s not handling his role as the last man alive in the most upstanding way, though he does have honorable intentions.
Yorick’s global quest gives Vaughan the opportunity to drop the reader into something not unlike an anthology series. With each new location, Vaughan carefully introduces another situation in which the lack of women might impact society. Some are violent and paranoid; some are mellowed out by the whole thing. Others are trying to adapt to the new society in odd ways. As much as you root for Yorick to find everything he wants, you’re always wondering what new crazy situation might be around the next corner. What facet of this new world order is left to explore?
Because this is finite series that isn’t tied into a larger continuity owned by DC, you also get the pleasure of never knowing what might happen next. Vaughan may, at times, overreach on this front. The main characters have a variety of ailments and wounds that they recover from almost too quickly and cleanly most of the time, but there are plenty of other cases where bullet holes are final, and a turn of the page yields a shocking surprise.
Pia Guerra’s art sells the book. It’s strong enough to pull you in during a simple flip test of any given issue. Her characters are expressive. Her line style is open for the colors, yet detailed where it counts. She draws regular people well, which is important in a book like this. It gets more complicated to keep everyone separated as the cast grows and changes over its sixty issues. A normal superhero artist might have a hard time drawing a cast of women for sixty issues without simplifying things down to the pretty women and the buxom sidekicks. Guerra is an excellent choice for this book, as she can draw things very naturally. I’m sure it’s a lot of work, but there’s a variety and a uniqueness to her characters that lets the reader appreciate and understand the story without getting easily distracted or lost.
Some of the action scenes come off with less visual impact and drama than they deserve, but part of me wonders if that’s not just a side effect of having read too many superhero comics. Do we expect the forced perspective and ridiculous over-powered punches and reactions to them? When two “normal” humans exchange blows, maybe locking the camera down and showing the fisticuffs at moments other than the peak of the action is a more realistic way to go.
Guerra’s art is well-grounded throughout the series. With the exception of Yorick’s dreams, she’s not drawing fantasy images in the series. Maybe it’s just superhero detox for this reader?
When Guerra couldn’t do an issue, DC/Vertigo did the right thing in finding a strong artist with a similar style. Goran Sudzuka isn’t a clone of Guerra, not by a long shot, but the line work feels similar. The characters definitely look the same throughout the series. But there’s still an obvious difference in Sudzuka’s pages. Things look a little sharper (by which I mean straighter-edged, not ‘cleaner’) and less soft. Characters’ expressions grow more melodramatic and extreme. It highlights just how natural Guerra’s characters look when they express extremes of emotions.
Sudzuka’s art is also more angular and dramatic. His art appears more comic book-ish. Remember what I said about Guerra’s action scenes? Sudzuka heads more in that direction, with gritted teeth, action-packed sound effect moments, and peak action at much closer range. He also seems to choose a greater variety of angles than Guerra. Both use mostly eye-level medium range shots throughout the series, but Sudzuka’s art breaks that rhythm more often.
The biggest unsung hero of the series, though, is its colorist. Originally Pamela Lambo in the first year, Zylonol quickly took over and maintained the same look and feel with the colors while still adding their own style and techniques. You can see the difference if you flip back and forth. It’s like the same color palette is being used, but Zylonol makes it look just that much simpler and neater, without sacrificing anything. The coloring is often keyed to a specific hue, but always does so without turning the art into mush. A better lit scene in more natural colors keeps the characters popping out of the backgrounds with a simple style that doesn’t overwhelm with gradients or special effects. It’s almost a flat coloring style, but one with shadows and grit. It reminds me a bit of Lee Loughridge’s strong work, or some of Laura Martin’s.
“Y The Last Man” is a book I’d want more aspiring colorists to read, for the variety of lighting techniques and color selection that Zylonol uses. It’s a great example of how you can be dramatic while still being colorful, and how you can color things in the shadows without losing the art with heavy-handed Photoshop techniques.
Clem Robins also deserves mention for his role in lettering every page of all 60 issues. It’s a particularly interesting evolution for his work, as he switches to computer lettering early on in the second year of the series. I doubt most people noticed, but I saw the smaller and tighter letterforms, as well as the first attempts at getting balloons shaped correctly in Adobe Illustrator right there on the page. The imperfect circles where you could tell where his pen picked up and left off disappeared and the tails changed shape, but there was also a liveliness to the lettering that initially suffered. Overlapping balloons and more bouncy letters fell by the wayside while the new method was being learned.
By the end of the series, Robins’ computer lettering is a lot more comfortable. His balloon tails grew curved. The balloons looked more natural, with less awkward white space and more natural shapes. The font he was using changed to look more like his original hand lettering style, and it even grew a bit larger in the computer to more closely mimic how he did things by hand. It wasn’t perfect, but it was much closer to how he started with the series.
If you’re at all interested in lettering, crack open the middle of second hardcover and compare the lettering there to the style seen in the fifth year. It’s a dramatic difference, and a big move back to his natural style. I plan on illustrating this for you next week.
The series is available three different formats at the moment. First, you can pick up the trade paperbacks. Second, you can go with the “Deluxe Edition” hardcovers, which is what I did. Finally, the entire series is available digitally. For what might just be the first time ever, I’d recommend the look of the print edition over the digital edition. There’s something special about the plain white paper the printed edition uses that works well with the colors. It gives the book a muted effect that I like. In the digital format, the colors are let loose. They’re too bright and primary, to my eyes. The yellow sky doesn’t sink into the background as much on the screen as it does in the book. It’s a whole different look. I wonder if this doesn’t show the skill of the colorist to adjust their colors during production, knowing what the final paper stock output would be. They had to make the book overly bright because they knew the paper would soak up so much of the color. Then, when the work is reproduced straight off those original digital files and there’s no paper medium to alter them, the final output is closer to the original files than the intended printed look.
The drawback to the hardcovers is the dustjackets. I used to love dustjackets for the way they gave books that more “book-like” feeling. Now, I’m just annoyed by them. I take them off before I read a book, and would much rather see all cover images and text just printed on the covers, themselves. The “Y” dustjackets have a matte finish. They’re not even glossy. I like the way it looks and even the way it feels when you first pick it up, but it’s impractical. If you held the book in your hands with the dustjacket still on, the oils/sweat on your hands would start warping the paper before you got through the first issue.
Whichever way you can get to it, give it a try. Stick with it. Vaughan keeps things moving from very early on, so it’s not like this is a series you need to get halfway through before you get it. You’ll glom onto it after the first six issues, no problem. What unfolds after that is a sprawling epic that keeps its focus tightly contained, even as the settings and the situations rolls through.
Maybe it goes without saying, but I’ll spell it out: This series if For Mature Readers Only, for all of the reasons you might suspect, including the nudity, the adult topics, the adult language, the naked people having adult conversations with adult language, etc. You couldn’t seriously tackle a topic like this “gendercide” and its effects on humanity without that stuff, and Vaughan and Guerra never exploit it, except for Vaughan’s penchant to give you page-turning shocking moments that drive you from surprise to surprise.
Next week, we’ll discuss some spoilers from the series, and I’ll bring you some lettering examples to trace the evolution of Robins’ work.