When I was a child, I would bristle when my dad would call my G.I. Joe (the 10-or-12-inch figure with the flocked hair and beard) or Steve Austin the Six-Million-Dollar-Man toys “dolls.” I don’t think the term “action figure” had been coined yet, but I knew that the word “doll” was meant derogatorily. There’s power in words.
The times were a-changin’, even back in the 1970s. But, Joe and Steve were dolls, just like Barbie but meant for boys. Dad’s slightly-homophobic ridicule didn’t discourage me from continuing to enjoy playing with my dolls, however. I even had the Evel Knievel doll, with his motorcycle and ramp, and it was badass. Sure, it would have helped if the word “action figure” had become popular a few years earlier than it did, at least for boys who had fathers like mine who still greased their hair and rolled their cigarette packs in their t-shirt sleeves, idolizing Elvis even after he started dressing like Liberace.
I feel like the same thing happened with comic books. My grandmother always called them “funny books,” as I recall. That never bothered me. Most of the comics I started with were funny, or based on cartoons. The term “graphic novel” has its origins in the 1960s, but didn’t become popular until the late ’70s and into the ’80s. I’ve heard people use “graphic novel” as a synonym for “comic book,” as if calling something a comic is as derogatory as calling an action figure a doll. But, a graphic novel—just like the regular kind of novel—is a complete story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Superman is not a graphic novel, although the collected “Death of Superman” story arc might be considered one. The term isn’t strictly defined, and you can continue to say you’re a fan of graphic novels even if you’re referring to picking up the latest issues of X-Men or Spawn. But, I think that just gives credence to the belief that comic books are strictly kiddie fare.
Y: The Last Man is an honest-to-God graphic novel. But, it was released, originally, as a 60-issue comic book, then collected in a series of 10 trade paperbacks, then, years later, in 5 deluxe editions. I’m reading the trade paperbacks of the deluxe edition books. Book Two collects issues #11 – 23, with original publication dates between July 2003 and August 2004. This collection takes us more than a third of the way through the entire story. If the graphic novel follows traditional three-act structure, Act 1 of the overarching story concludes with the “One Small Step” story arc in Issue #15. And this feels accurate to me, because it feels like there’s a shift in the storytelling here, though it’s difficult to tell for certain without looking at the story as a whole.
Book Two consists of four story arcs. The first, which I’ve already mentioned, is “One Small Step.” Yorick, Agent 355 and Dr. Mann meet a Russian woman named Natalya Zamyatin. She knows all about the two male and one female astronauts returning to Earth from the International Space Station. 355 leads them to a secret government installation, where they meet twin geneticists Heather and Heidi. Israeli commando Alter captures Yorick, then 355 offers the two male astronauts coming down in exchange for him. The two male astronauts end up dying upon reentry, but the female astronaut, Dr. Ciba Weber, survives. Yorick, 355 and Dr. Mann hit the road again, heading for San Francisco, California, and Dr. Mann’s other lab. The Russian woman stays behind with the Doublemint geneticists and the pregnant astronaut.
Here’s where the story shifts momentarily, in a two-issue story arc (#16-17) titled “Comedy & Tragedy.” A traveling acting troupe, who have adopted an apparently lost Ampersand as their muse, puts on a play called “The Last Man.” The play seems to be based on the Mary Shelley novel of the same title, a post-apocalyptic tale about the last surviving man after a plague (sounds familiar). After Ampersand is rescued, Yorick is depressed by the play’s ending, which has the last man committing suicide to stop the fighting over him.
During the next three-issue arc, “Safeword,” (#18-20), Team Yorick makes it to Colorado, where they meet up with retired Culper Ring agent 711, who turns the kink up a notch as she forces Yorick to confront his survivor guilt. This arc, after Team Yorick has departed, ends with 711 being confronted by enigmatic shrouded figures calling themselves the Setauket Ring. I’ll sure they’ll be important again later.
Another three-issue arc, “Widow’s Pass,” (#21-23), ends Book Two of this collection. It’s been 8 months since the events of “One Small Step.” An eight-woman militia from Arizona has blocked the interstate, impeding the travel route of Team Yorick, still heading for Dr. Mann’s lab in California. Team Yorick seems to want to get to San Francisco more strongly than the militiawomen want to keep them from doing so. The confrontation ends bloody. Meanwhile, the female astronaut, Ciba, gives birth to a baby boy, who will be kept in the hot suite until geneticists can confirm that no traces of the plague remain.
Book Two of Y: The Last Man ends a little further into Act Two. We’re not quite at the halfway point of the graphic novel. I predict that we’ll reach that milestone—and probably San Francisco—midway through Book Three. Which implies that Dr. Mann’s SF lab won’t provide all of the answers our protagonists are looking for. I don’t think I can accurately predict where this story is heading, exactly. I consider that to be one of its selling points. It does feel deliberately structured, however, and I don’t get the feeling that Brian K. Vaughan is writing by the seat of his pants on this one. It feels like he knows how this story is going to end.
Pia Guerra isn’t the only penciller in this volume. Paul Chadwick takes over art duties in the “Comedy & Tragedy” arc, while Goran Parlov handles “Widow’s Pass.” The change in artists is noticeable but not particularly jarring. Parlov and Chadwick both seem to be adhering to the style template established by Guerra. The story itself, not the art, remains the star of this show.
I am loving this limited comic book series that some prefer to call a graphic novel. I wonder if there were ever any licensed toys made for this series. Yorick, 355, and Ampersand dolls, perhaps. Or action figures.
Firewater’s Sequential-Art-Novella Report Card: A
Still an engaging story that keeps me turning the pages. The apocalypse has never had so much estrogen.