The year is 2002 and the rules for comic books have changed- how do you make a hit comic book series?
Kill all the men, except for one guy and his pet monkey. Seriously.
DC Comics has seen a revitalization of its Vertigo imprint in 2002 and the latest hit series to emerge is "Y - The Last Man," the brainchild of Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra. With only two issues on the stands and the first already sold-out, the creative duo couldn't be happier with the way the series is progressing and both are quite thrilled about the near universal acclaim that "Y" has been receiving thus far. Taking time out of her busy schedule and suffering from a nasty cold, Canadian artist Guerra spoke to CBR News about "Y" and began by giving readers the basic framework of the series.
"'Y - The Last Man' is about a plague that wipes out every living being on the planet that has the Y-chromosome; essentially, this means that every living male thing drops dead except Yorick Brown, an escape artist who lives in Brooklyn, and his surly helper monkey, Ampersand. He doesn't know why he was spared this gruesome fate and when everyone else finds out about him, they have their own plans for him but he just wants to find his girlfriend, who was on a student exchange program. It's basically a love story and a really horrific sci-fi horror story mixed together," laughs Guerra. "But we'll meet other women along the way, including Yorick's mom, who is a democratic representative trying to find someone to run the government with the last remaining women in congress. You also have an Israeli general, whose one of the leaders of the IDF forces now and she is pretty hell bent on eradicating Mr. Brown because of her own political agendas that she wants to see forwarded. There's also Agent 355 who is assigned to escort Mr. Brown on his travels and she's just this hard ass, secret agent with a gun."
The success of "Y," though only two issues into it's life, can be attributed to its broad appeal and the fact that many readers consider it to be a series that transcends the normal restrictions of most comic books. "I think it's because 'Y' has such a simple and basic premise, one that anyone has thought about in their life," suggests Guerra when asked why "Y" has been able to appeal to such a wide variety of readers. "You always hear the phrase 'Not if you're the last man on Earth' and we're basically taking that premise and making it real, seeing how horrific it'd be in real life. It's something that Brian had said that in elementary school he wondered if all these other guys dropped dead, would he still be able to go out with this girl and this has always stuck with him, so he's been looking for a story to tell that his girlfriend could read. I think, from what I remember, she wasn't into a lot of superhero comics and was having a tough time getting into 'Swamp Thing,' so Brian wanted to write something for her that she could read and like - and she does - which is great. This is something we've been hearing a lot actually, that people's wives or girlfriends are digging 'Y' and it's very cool that the series is crossing over without limiting itself to a specific genre."
For those not in the know, Pia Guerra is a female and not a male artist as most people assume, though she admits to not minding the confusion at all. So how does she feel about this common confusion by comic fans? "Most guys do," laughs Guerra, quoting one of her favorite movies, "The Matrix." "I feel complimented and it's not a problem because over the years people have gotten this idea of how women should draw, whether it be softer or prettier or with nicer hair, so I'm glad I'm not being pegged that way because that kind of thinking leads to not getting jobs. It just means people accept what I do and that's cool."
Guerra explains that her interest in comic books began at a young age with the seemingly two most common influences on modern creators: family and Chris Claremont's "X-Men." "My cousin Patrick was really cool. I was 10 - he was 14 or 15 - he was like this big brother I never had, he was in Queens and he was into things like Bruce Lee, Kung Fu and all these comics - just a cool guy to hang out with really. One summer, he was visiting our house in Toronto and he left a copy of 'X-Men' on the coffee table so I thought 'Wow, this must be good because my cousin reads it' and then I took the time to plow through it, get past the tricks and devices that be pretty tricky for a ten year old and concluded, 'Hey, that was good.' So I started reading more and my mom was pretty positive, so nothing kept me from it and it was really satisfying. I was drawing a lot at that point, so when I saw that there was this combing stories and art this way, it just worked perfectly for me. As time went on, I was practicing a lot and drawing for friends and people told me I had some talent. I started taking art to conventions and people said I could make a living at this. I wasn't too sure I would take this beyond a hobby because living the life of an artist was a little scary and I didn't really want to do this. It took a little while to convince myself, but then I decided to get into it."
Guerra says that her involvement with Vertigo Comics came after a lot of hard work and at times it seemed like she might never work with the imprint. "After a few years of talking to editors ... and having Karen [Berger] saying 'no,' I finally met Heidi [McDonald] who really liked my work and wondered why I didn't have work, so she made me her special project, working her butt off to get me a project. A few years after saying that, she finally convinced Karen that I could handle a book and there were a few rejections along the way where I was sending in samples for various books. I was really excited, and then I'd get a big no, like with 'Names of Magic' for example. After 'NoM' I felt like giving up on Vertigo because it'd been six years and I'd tried to get in on 'Shade' through Shelly [Bond], along with other sci-fi stuff through Stuart Moore, and it was all just like one big brick wall. Finally, Heidi called me up and asked me if I minded drawing a lot of women, so I figured I would try drawing it even though it'd probably be another 'no' from the powers that be, but I did get it and here I am on 'Y.'"
The creative synergy between Guerra and series writer Brian Vaughn is evident in "Y- The Last Man," something Guerra says has been there since the time the two first met. "After I read the proposal for 'Y,' I told Heidi that I'd love to work on the series because it's a great idea, not too dark, it's got a lot of humor and there's a good balance of story & art. She said that she'd give it a try and Brian was really excited. After it was all confirmed, Brian and I e-mailed each other, talked on the phone and we had a good rapport- there was an instantaneous connection, due in no doubt to the fact that he's just a really cool guy. I met him in San Diego a few months later and I didn't know who he was before all this, but just from working with him for these few months I can tell you this - he's one darn good writer! We just work well together. We have similar interests, we're visualizing the same movie and the same idea on where the story should go."
While Vaughn is the creator of the series' concept, Guerra is listed as a co-creator of "Y" and she explains that she plays an active role in the evolution of the series. "I design stuff and give a lot of feedback, occasionally suggesting things that may or may not be used, whether it be details to the character or whether its actual characters. I've suggested little things that add to a character's presence on the page and there was one time I suggested a really good idea for a nemesis for Yorick later on and Brian thought it was great, so we've got a whole story arc devoted to that now. It's a great rapport we've got because I'm free to suggest big ideas or just little details to enhance the story. Brian's really open to that, which is unusual. There've been times where I've worked with a writer where they've had pre-set ideas on how the story and plot should both be, with no interest in hearing from the artist, but in this collaboration, Brian wants to hear from me, so it's great."
It may surprise some readers, but Guerra says that she doesn't feel that the fact that her involvement in the creative process as a female really makes the book any more authentic in terms of the book featuring mostly female lead characters. "It's irrelevant. I don't think that gender has a lot to do with this - Brian's good at writing women and men, I'm good at drawing both and we don't think in those terms. I don't constantly question him about whether or not a woman would think in the way he writes - he's already got the fundamentals of writing people down, and I'm able to draw people, so I think that's the good thing about our working relationship."
One thing that Guerra hopes is obvious about her time on "Y" thus far is that she's enjoying herself immensely and stresses that while it isn't all fun and games, there's a lot to enjoy. "The easiest part of working on 'Y' is Ampersand! I love that monkey, he's fun to draw, he brings a lot of energy to the story so whenever there's an Ampersand page to draw I get really excited and it takes me away from the grim reality of the series. The hardest part of working on the series is the occasional blocks of dialogue. For the last two years, I've worked on making stuff jump off the page and making action scenes exciting, so when you have to do just straight conversation, you just have scale back and it's hard, so it's been an adjustment. I talked to Brian about it and he's working on that, but at first I was like, 'Ah, people just sitting, talking, what do I do?' But now I'm dealing better and Heidi gave me Wally Wood's '21 Panels That Always Work,' thank God."
As an artist, its always hard to know when to cross the line in terms of the depiction of graphic violence and Guerra acknowledges that the subject matter of "Y" makes it that much harder. "You look at the story and kinda get a feel for it after a while and say, 'no, that's too much.' It's instinctual more than anything else. I generally like to not use gore as much as implication. There's a scene in issue two where we see decaying bodies and I knew it was grim and I was trying to balance the fun of the series with the seriousness, so I put a lot of it with shadow and did things with the body that would make you think. The body that they lugged into the truck, which you can't see because of the word balloon and that's my gaff, was dressed in a bathrobe, and the idea was to make the reader think about this guy who died in his bathroom or maybe he died alone. That's where more of the real horror comes in because when you start to think about how these people died, that's truly a lot scarier than anything I could ever draw and it's nice to let people fill in the blanks. When you read a gory comic book and see eye balls hanging out, you're taking away from a person's imagination and what a person can do to tell a story better: it's not just me and Brian, it's the reader too."
So what does Guerra hope to accomplish while she's on "Y" other than eventually draw an issue where every page is devoted to Ampersand? "I think for now I'm aiming for consistency so I can do as much as I can and so the first few arcs are consistent so we don't bring in outside help. At some point I don't mind bringing in outside help, so I can take a break and go to Hawaii or something, but I think right now I want to keep the story unified and eventually see it through. I know at some point we'll see outside people come onboard, we've talked about it before, but I want to see this story through to the end, because I think it's great and deserves to be told by the people who started it."
The response to "Y-The Last Man" has been universally positive, as previously mentioned, and Guerra smiles when she's reminded about all the praise being lauded on the series. "It's overwhelming and beyond what we hoped. We thought there'd be good feedback because the series seemed good and we were having so much fun doing it, and I think that's a good sign when you're having so much fun, but success on this scale was unexpected. Brian and I were thinking that it's post 9/11, this is a story about death on a large scale, people might freak, they'll think we're exploiting the situation, and we crossed our fingers that the book would be made, much less people would read it- and we're still not sure why so many people took a chance on the series! I hope people continue liking it and we're braced for a backlash, but we're keeping our fingers crossed and we think that the series keeps getting better. The only thing that could make it better would be the return of the letter column: it drives me nuts that we don't have one! One of the things that I loved about comics when I was growing up was the letters column and I know that it's more a kids thing, which is why it's in superhero comics and not in 'adult' comics, but I don't why they don't do, but they SHOULD!"
What can fans expect from "Y" in the future? "More Ampersand, a bit of a road trip that isn't the normal kind of road trip, unexpected turns, Brian is really good at teasing both his audience and his artist because he doesn't always tell me what's coming up, so I eagerly look forward what's coming up."
Guerra also says that her dream comic book projects are, " 'Buckaroo Banzai', anything 'Buckaroo Banzai' related because it's a good ensemble piece. It's the same reason I like 'Buffy' and the same reason I like team books like 'Titans' or 'X-Men' because they take moments away from the big action to do quirky character stuff that be funny or cool, going behind the action. 'Buckaroo' has people who are smart together, work well together, are cool together and fulfilling their potential together which is important in my world view."
When she's not drawing comics, Pia Guerra does make time to read comics and has assembled a top five comics list for fans. "Anything by Brian Bendis- 'Ultimate Spiderman,' 'Alias,' 'Powers'- I keep blanking on what else he's writing- 'Daredevil'- wow, he writes a lot! Then I love 'New X-Men,' 'Ultimates' and 'Ultimate 'X-Men.'"
And Guerra's suggestion for making the comic industry healthier? "Get more spinner racks into convenience stores and super markets, along with more books that kids can read, not just funny books, but stuff like Marvel series that kids WANT to read. I think what happened when the direct market took over we lost all the spinner racks and kids don't have the random access, so you're really competing with candy bars and kids don't really just walk into a comic shop like we- they don't often know what comics are like we do. You gotta have them holding the candy bar in one hand and the flashy comic book in the other hand: that's how you hook them. Nowadays, you go to 7-11 you find an old 'X-Men' comic that's been there for 4 months and you can't build anticipation or readership that way."
Before getting back to the drawing board, Guerra has some parting words for all those fans who have supported her thus far and who've supported "Y." "Keep reading! You'll like - or else!"