Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard Traveling Fanboys. Over the course of their travels through comicdom, they have encountered numerous stories through the wonder of trade paperbacks and graphic novels. Once a month, Nick and Greg will review one of those collections in The Longbook Hunters.
Greg: Welcome to the inaugural edition of The Longbook Hunters. While our pal Todd Weber has your single issue reviews covered, Nick and I will be here each month to review a trade paperback or graphic novel. Each will be a book that one of us has already read but the other has not. For instance, we’re kicking things off with the first volume of “Y: The Last Man” by Brian K. Vaughan. Subtitled “Unmanned,” this collection tells the story of a plague that wipes men off the planet, save one. Along with his pet monkey, Yorick Brown must struggle to survive and to make sense of this new all-female world.
I first read “Y” about three years ago, picking up this volume on a whim to give it a shot. If it’s any indication how much I liked it, I had bought the remaining volumes within the next three months. Nick, when did you first hear about “Y?”
Nick: I’m not really sure. I guess it was probably a few years back when I read the rumor on movie news sites that a movie was in the works with Shia Labeouf eyed to play the role of Yorick.
Of course, when all the hardcore “Y” fans lashed out at that rumor, I was endeared to them almost instantly.
But as far as the book itself goes, I had always heard brief positive remarks or read that it was well-regarded, but you were probably the first person I had ever heard talk about it in depth.
Greg: I’d heard about it for years through various comic book websites and blogs, and a few of my friends had mentioned it among their favorite contemporary books. I have to admit that the premise, on paper, didn’t necessarily appeal to me. I wondered how the series would maintain drama and feared it would devolve into little more than a gimmick. Obviously I told you about the premise before you ever read it. What were your initial thoughts going into reading the book for the first time?
Nick: Just to show you how little I knew about the book, I always assumed that the title was metaphorical rather than literal. I kind of figured it was about this quirky guy, rather than the actual last man on earth. So when you told me the premise, I was intrigued. When I saw it ran 60 issues, I thought there was no way they could have squeezed 60 issues out of the premise, but I figured the first 20 or so ought to at least be entertaining.
Plus, Brian K Vaughan writes it, which means it had some critical respect within the comics community. I have to make the confession that I’ve really never read much of Vaughan’s stuff, the main exception being his run on “Ultimate X-Men,” which was probably my favorite run of all the writers to take on that book after Mark Millar’s run to kick off the title.
So, all in all, I’d say I was intrigued, but ultimately unsure if I would like it as much as all of fandom seemed to be telling me I should.
Greg: I too went into it trying to keep my expectations tempered in the face of overwhelming fan and critical praise. Luckily, I was almost instantly proven wrong about the premise. Within the first few pages, Vaughan hooked me completely. I instantly wanted to know what this plague was, why it happened and why Yorick (and his monkey Ampersand) survived.
I’d say it’s one of the more effective openings to a book I’ve seen. It takes a few pages establishing a character and then instantly destroys his world. Fascinating stuff. What were your impressions a few pages in?
Nick: OK, so the first few pages kind of introduce you to the characters that will make up the main cast in the final moments leading up to the outbreak. All in all, I’d say it was an effective opening, in that it certainly made me want to keep reading. Yorick charms from his first appearance, and his sister, Hero, seems to be a lovable character pre-outbreak.
However, it isn’t without a couple of minor issues. The smaller one is the introduction of Yorick’s girlfriend, Beth. As is often the case in comics, she seems so… perfect. Certainly doesn’t make sense why she’d be with a guy like Yorick, but I guess that’s an area of comics that I’ve learned to accept (see Parker, Peter).
Greg: Ah yes, Beth. She serves as almost a symbol rather than an actual character throughout the series — the grail Yorick is pursuing despite overwhelming odds and sheer logistical problems. It’s definitely a comic book trope that a guy who perpetually sticks his foot in his mouth ends up with a gorgeous, brilliant woman. However, in this case, I felt Yorick to be charming enough that it is believable that Beth would’ve seen something in him. This especially rings true in that Beth, as one of her perfections, doesn’t seem to be terribly shallow.
Nick: The other, and more major, complaint I had was the outbreak itself. The outbreak seemed to hit the entire globe at once, killing the entire male population almost simultaneously. I think the intention was to make it seem more catastrophic, but it kind of struck me as odd, given that we naturally think of plagues as having to spread gradually.
But, don’t let me mislead anyone. Those two complaints in no way kept the story from hooking me almost instantly.
Greg: But that brings me to my next topic, which is Yorick himself. Probably the top reason for my love of this series, and this book in particular, is the way Yorick is introduced and crafted. Here’s a guy I could definitely see myself befriending in real life. He even shares one of my stranger interests, Elvis Presley.
I also love how clearly neurotic he is, not unlike myself. How did you take to Yorick?
Nick: Like you, his disclosure of his love for the King certainly got me on his side. I think what I also like about him is that no one is ever going to accuse him of possessing a Batman-like intellect. Yorick certainly seems to act first and think later. Case in point, he walks around wearing a gas mask to conceal his identity, yet reveals himself to several characters in the first volume because of his inability to control his impulses.
That tendency to act rashly at times makes for an interesting story, as you can pretty much assume that Yorick is going to find a way to make bad situations worse before they get any better as he encounters the women of America.
But perhaps the biggest thing I can say for Yorick is he is a character of conviction. Any man who is the last man on earth and yet stays faithful to his girlfriend deserves a freaking medal, no matter how unrealistic that might be.
Greg: That’s a great and important point about him. He is as far from a Mary Sue as it gets. There’s something instantly relatable and lovable about a character that, while being a generally good person, has flaws and foibles that bubble to the surface. And Yorick is certainly a good person, if not a hero in this first volume. As you mentioned, his loyalty to Beth is admirable, but it’s established early on that he still has selfish tendencies. As the series progressed, he becomes more and more of a hero and comes face-to-face with his own hypocrisies. But here, he’s just a normal guy stuck in a crazy situation and doing his best to make sense of it and stick to his own sense of right and wrong.
One of the things that distinguishes “Y: The Last Man” is its litany, by necessity, of strong female characters. And I mean that both literally (the Amazons and Agent 355) and figuratively (Dr. Mann). There are developed characters here, those who want to use Yorick for their own purposes, those who want to protect him through their own moral obligation and those who want to wipe him from the face of the earth.
Too often, perhaps because most comic book writers are men, women become background characters without depth. Agent 355 in particular serves as sort of the number two character behind Yorick, and she presents a strong vision of this new post-male world: a black female who is also one of the world’s most elite soldiers. What are your thoughts on Agent 355 and the almost all-female cast?
Nick: I’ll save Agent 355 for last. Hero, Yorick’s sister, certainly seemed like a strong, independent character before the plague, Yet, when things come crashing down after the plague, she kind of takes a left turn that I didn’t really feel fit with how she was portrayed pre-plague. I understand the intent is to show how tragedy changes people, but it felt like too dynamic a shift to understand in just six issues. Of course, I’m sure she pops up in later volumes, so ultimately I’ll have to withhold judgment.
Dr. Mann I love. She seems to be a fully realized character with her own interesting motivations and role to play in the story. Of all the female characters, she seems to be the one I find myself empathizing with the most.
Yorick’s mother, a congresswoman, I was also a fan of. Her concern for her son is evident, and it is established that in this new world landscape, she’ll do pretty much anything to jeep her son safe. This provides her with a clear motivation that some of the other characters can lack at times.
As brief as her appearance was in the first volume, I was also a big fan of the new U.S. president. The former secretary of agriculture, she becomes president after being the first woman up in the line of succession. The scene where she finds out that she is now the president is beautifully written largely because rather than portraying her as a political climber that is overjoyed to have reached the nation’s highest office, it is made clear that she is terrified of her new responsibility in the wake of the world’s greatest catastrophe. She also makes an interesting decision in the middle of the volume that makes it clear she isn’t a woman who will be pushed or influenced easily.
As for the villains, the Amazons, a gang of violent feminists, are nothing if not effective. You should want to see antagonists get their comeuppance, and I certainly found myself hoping 355 would take all of them out in brutal fashion.
Now, for Agent 355. I saved this one for last because I’m afraid it might incite a bit of a debate between us. Since we’re only talking about the first volume of this book and I haven’t seen what kind of development they give 355 in future stories, I can’t really say I was all that into her. To me, she seemed kind of like the televised version of Michonne from “The Walking Dead.” Tough, gruff, mostly silent badass female character who seems to have no other personality other than being a brooding, driven ball of violence. I hope Vaughan is able to make me care about her in future issues, but right now, I’m pretty ambivalent towards 355.
Greg: Wow, that is a surprise. I think I can understand it in the lens of strictly the first volume. She is certainly reluctant to help our hero on his quest, and she’s presented as a fairly one-dimensional loner in “Unmanned,” though she definitely hints at some of the development yet to come. I took to her almost immediately, though I admit I distrusted her in the beginning. Even if she turned on Yorick, I figured, she’s compelling just through how different she is from these other characters, except perhaps Alter, the Israeli military figure who serves as an antagonist of sorts. 355’s sheer physicality and brutality serve as a nice counter to Yorick’s constant banter and neurosis. 355 also comes off as one of the few relatively confident figures in the book, which I also liked.
Some of my favorite exchanges, in fact, are between Yorick and 355. In fact, the dialogue stands out as the book’s strongest area, in my eyes.
For me, “Y” outshines most modern books in its ability to create witty dialogue without being stilted. Does Vaughan’s dialogue sit well with you?
Nick: Love the dialogue. The way the characters speak seems very realistic, with a bit of a comedic edge to it. In fact, I’d say as of the first volume, the dialogue, more than anything else, is the book’s biggest asset.
Yorick speaks in references that I identify with, and each of the other character’s voices are distinct, keeping the dialogue from becoming redundant, which was a concern I had with a cast that is 95 percent female.
Greg: The comedy is tremendous and helps create a lighter atmosphere than you’d expect for a post-apocalyptic book such as “Y.” While there are very serious ramifications for everything, Yorick seems to be a character that (again, much like myself) handles stress through jokes, references and other means of self-amusement.
Nick: On the topic of art, I will say that Pia Guerra’s art reminds me very much of Steve Dillon’s “Preacher” art, which is one of the reasons I was drawn into the book almost instantly.
Greg: Excellent comparison I didn’t really put together until you mentioned it. Her work is expressive, and her composition serves the story completely, one of Dillon’s hallmarks as well. I particularly like the way Guerra draws faces to convey emotion. She has to be one of the better artists at getting me to “feel” a scene. Her panel layouts are also original and interesting without distracting from the story at hand.
Obviously I think very highly of this book and the series in general. I’d highly recommend it to any comic book reader who doesn’t mind a book that is intended for adults only. There is a lot of swearing and many sexual references throughout, but it serves the story and adds a level of realism.
In all, would you recommend this book to new readers? Also, do you see yourself continuing with the series?
Nick: I’d certainly encourage anyone who is a fan of non-superhero fare to give it a shot. Like you said, though, the book is for adults only, and that really can’t be emphasized enough.
All in all, I’d say I enjoyed the first volume. I didn’t love it, but it made me want to read more of the series, which I’ve been doing and am now on volume 5 out of a 10-volume set. The first volume is by far the weakest of the ones I’ve read, but it provides a solid foundation on which to build. So, in short, pick it up and see if it hooks you the way it did me.
If I had to grade it, I’d say a 6.5 or a 7 out of 10.
Greg: I would go with a solid 8 out of 10, as it hooked me faster than most “volume ones” I’ve read. I do agree, however, that the first volume is not as strong as the follow-ups, which is the only reason I give it an 8 instead of a 9 or 10.
The final topic I’d like to briefly broach is the long-discussed movie that is apparently set to be produced by David S. Goyer. I have long advocated “Y” as an ideal choice for an HBO or Showtime series, but I’m not sure how it could be condensed into a film. Would you be interested in seeing “Y: The Last Man” adapted into another medium, and if so, which one?
Nick: I feel like I need to finish the series first, but as of right now, I think it could work as a motion picture. The main narrative seems to focus on the conflict between Hero and Yorick, so if they focused on just that plot thread as kind of a big countrywide chase movie, it might turn out all right. That being said, if you’re hoping for a pure adaptation, it’s hard to imagine anything working better than an AMC, HBO or Showtime series.
Just no Shia, please.
Greg: And the choir said amen.
And with that, we conclude our initial edition of The Longbook Hunters. Join us in August for a look at Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s “V for Vendetta.”