By Steve Morris
Spoilers below, of course: we’re talking about the last issue of the run!
“It was the story that I needed to tell”
That’s the answer Brian K. Vaughan gave when he was asked about the death of one of his main characters in Y: The Last Man, two issues before the end of the run as a whole. It’s a death which really shocked me when I first read it about fourteen years ago. On a reread all these years later, however, the main thing the death makes me think is “wait… why?”
We’ll come to that in a moment. Issue #60, the final issue of the series, skips forward several years into the future so it can lay out what happened to lead character Yorick Brown as he moved on from the stories we witnessed first-hand. The present-day shifts into a flashback, with a totally changed status quo for all the remaining characters living in the future. Having been a successful clone subject, the original Yorick now spends this issue as a bitter and crotchety old man in a straitjacket, thinking back on his life – like Dewey Cox – as his younger clone visits to ask him a few questions about the nature of living.
In terms of craft it’s an especially clever move because it mirrors the first issue of the run, which used Yorick as an anchor to flash around the world and check in on all the characters who’ll come to be important as the series continues. Here, those flashes move backwards in time, allowing the creative team to close off the loop for most of the major characters we’ve followed over the previous few years of publication. As Yorick remembers his past, so we in turn get to see their futures. Craftwise: neat!
Narratively: weirdly very unsatisfying, in my opinion.
In a surprising turn of events, the various flashbacks often seem to be half-hearted or depressed, flinging random characters together in a way which doesn’t feel true to their previous narrative. It’s like the creative team consider issues #1-59 a closed story, and issue #60 is a reboot of everything, complete with the arbitrary and confusing character changes which come with that territory. For example, over the course of the issue we find out that Yorick married Beth in order to provide a family structure for their daughter, although it was a generally unhappy marriage for both of them. Beth, who never came across as anything other than a smart and fiercely independent character, surrendered into a loveless marriage for the sake of her daughter – who we find out in the issue was aware the whole time and didn’t benefit from the loveless arrangement as she grew up. Does that ring true?
Similarly, we find out that the final part of Hero Brown’s story is that she ends up dating Yorick’s ex-girlfriend, who was the subject of his quest across the majority of the series. He spent most of his time trying to get from America to Australia so he could reconnect with her, only to realise that he actually loved someone else more. Hero, to contrast, spent a lot of the series working through her early adoption into a group of murderous outlaws known as the Daughters of the Amazons, a thoroughly complicated character arc. To sum it up clumsily, the series posited that she was brainwashed by an misandrist group, and then had to spend a lot of time deprogramming herself so she wouldn’t murder her brother when she eventually caught up to him.
Anyway, those two characters; one chasing and the other being chased? They end up having a happy ending together. It comes completely out of the blue, and leaves both their stories in a weird place. It certainly feels as though Vaughan simply ran out of road and decided to put them together last-minute in order to give them a finale. Arguably in both cases, the need to focus on Yorick took time away from both characters, and so their stories are hurriedly mashed together so they could be written out. I wouldn’t argue this is what readers needed to read, nor what the creative team needed to do with either of them. It’s simply what they chose to do, and looking back now it’s fairly clearly the wrong decision.
I think we’re sometimes conditioned to think that because a comic has been good, and has lasted for a long time, that the ending has to be good as well, regardless of our actual enjoyment of what happens. The craft remains clever, therefore the narrative must be clever even if it frustrates and disappoints readers. Right??
Around this time there were a lot of writers who said “I’m not telling the story the readers want: I’m telling the story that readers need” before subsequently going on to throw KItty Pryde into a giant bullet and firing her off into outer space. For me, that always seemed to be writers trying to justify making the wrong choice in the name of being unpredictable. Is it really so bad to tell the story that readers want?
That’s why the death of 355 a few issues before the end of the series is so much more annoying to me now, years on from when I first read it. At the time I thought that it was at least clever and interesting to subvert the expectation of readers, but now I simply don’t understand what was behind the decision other than a nasty wish to unseat the readers from the finale they wanted. 355’s death doesn’t ultimately change anything about the final issue of the run – her mission was already completed, humanity’s continuation was assured – except to remove her from it.
Our tour of Yorick’s vaguely unsatisfying life plays out the same way that it would’ve played out had she survived, only adding on that slight extra trauma for him as a result. She could have lived a life with Yorick, died before the final issue’s flashforward started, and you’d still have the scene where Yorick goes to her grave. Her death doesn’t actually serve anything other than to unsettle.
As time has moved on from Y: The Last Man, the voices of people who are largely missing from the series have been listened to more. Trans critics have brilliantly articulated why the premise of a Y-Chromosome extinction isn’t something which a cis creative team can accurately and comprehensively convey. And in this future-set final issue, trans people again aren’t focused on here at all, absent alongside all the complexities of gender which the series ultimately chose to swerve away from.
As the last few panels of the final issue show, what we end up with is a rather white version of France, with everyone overeasily coded as feminine. Considering the series spent most of its time with one white man, one Black woman, and one Asian woman as its leading trio, the series has now shed those women, and finds itself picturing a future dominated by white people, with only slight overall changes to previous power structures despite the massively transformative premise the series claimed to have.
Perhaps you’d argue that the premise of Y: The Last Man is simply too grand for anybody to ever be able to cover in satisfying, cohesive, or informed ways. Gender and identity are far too complex for the originating “menocide” incident to simply result in a loss of 49% of the population, leaving 51% behind. The comic starts off believing there’s a simple line in the sand it can draw in regards to gender, realises midway through that isn’t the case, but then awkwardly decides not to really explore because it’s too tricky. So instead the creative team – primarily Vaughan – decide to double-down on the focus on character and personality. The core characters are the ones we’re looking at, and the trans, intersex, non-binary and so many other characters experiencing other lives as a result of the comic are simply doing all that off-panel.
But that doesn’t work when the series decides to end the stories of those central characters in such strange, convoluted, and nonsensical ways. For all that Vaughan might claim to have written the story that readers needed, it’s become clear in recent years that the story readers needed was the one which was ignored. Instead we got the story which Vaughan wanted to tell, about a cis white guy living in an Apocalypse, and the cis women of colour who accompany him on his journey – only to be killed off before they reach the end. When I first finished Y: The Last Man I felt like a very clever teenager indeed, who knew all this stuff about feminism now. Years later, and I realise that I read the story I wanted to read, because the story I needed to read didn’t exist here.
And that’s why the last man’s story has lost its power in the years since it’s finished.
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Penciller: Pia Guerra
Inker: Jose Marzan Jr
Colourist: Lee Loughridge
Letterer: Clem Robins
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
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I think the first clues that Vaughn wasn’t up to the task of sticking the landing were when the source of the plague was addressed. Vaughn went a bit meta in saying something like, “Well any revelation now would feel anticlimactic, so here’s the one that we picked.” It felt unsatisfying to me at the time and things only unraveled from there.
The ending never seemed to be the natural progression of the characters, it felt more arbitrary and a bit mean. But I guess in retrospect it was always going to be: Alas, poor Yorick!
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