22 June 2017

Review: Y: The Last Man: One Small Step by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, Paul Chadwick, and José Marzán, Jr.

Comic trade paperback, 167 pages
Published 2004 (contents: 2003-04)

Acquired June 2016
Read August 2016
Y: The Last Man: One Small Step

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Pencillers: Pia Guerra, Paul Chadwick
Inker: José Marzán, Jr.
Colorist: Pamela Rambo
Letterer: Clem Robins

In her excellent book, Postapocalyptic Fiction and the Social Contract: "We'll Not Go Home Again", Claire P. Curtis defines postapocalyptic fiction as "any account that takes up how humans start over after the end of life on earth as we understand it" (5). Apocalyptic fiction depicts the end, but postapocalyptic fiction foregrounds what comes after the end; she argues that it's a combination of apocalyptic fiction and the pioneer novel, in that it "take[s] the social criticism inherent in the apocalyptic text and the utopian impulse of the pioneer novel and outline[s] an origin story ironically appropriate for our time when the frontier is absent and the possibility of catastrophe seems imminent. [...] End of the world accounts serve multiple purposes. They are both didactic and cathartic. They provide both the voyeuristic satisfaction of terrible violence and the Robinson Crusoe excitement of starting over again" (6).

from Y: The Last Man #11 (art by Pia Guerra & Jose Marzan, Jr.)

We can't tell stories of people living spare lives on the frontier because there is no frontier anymore; this is arguably the same impulse that gives us The Walking Dead, for example. I taught both Y: The Last Man and The Walking Dead in the same summer course on the apocalypse. And indeed, Y: The Last Man provides the "Robinson Crusoe excitement of starting over": we see in this volume how the women left after the "gendercide" have to do things like fill the gap left when popular entertainment is all gone, or how they even have women who fake being men with facial hair in order to provide sexual experiences to straight women.

from Y: The Last Man #13 (art by Pia Guerra & Jose Marzan, Jr.)

Curtis is a political theorist, so what's most interesting to her are the ways the postapocalyptic fiction explores the return to the "state of nature" and the creation of a new "social contract": when we can go back to an imagined beginning, we can figure out what was natural and what was social, and try to build a new and better society: the state of nature "offers a mechanism for seeing humans are they really are, absent the conventions of an artificially constructed rule bound society; and it gives a moment for humans to consider what kind of government they would actually choose to live under" (10). If this is the purpose of Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra in Y: The Last Man, it's mildly depressing. It's easy to imagine an all-the-men-are-dead novel where a feminist utopia is created-- if men are the source of all violence, then their elimination should usher in a new and better world. This does not happen in Y: The Last Man; women are perfectly capable of perpetuating conflict on their own, as we see in One Small Step where the United States and Israel battle over the recovery of what might be the last men left alive. Of course, this might simply point to the fact that the values of the "manned world" haven't been completely eradicated in the "unmanned" one. Maybe there is no real way to get back to the state of nature.

from Y: The Last Man #16 (art by Paul Chadwick & Jose Marzan, Jr.)

The second story collected in this volume, where we look in on a community of women visiting by a traveling theatre troupe trying to create art for the unmanned world, seems to be engaging with the idea of Curtis that "[u]topian postapocalyptic fiction uses the destruction of one world to usher in a new and potentially better one. […] These accounts can also analyze the very idea of the state of nature and the kind of contract that emerges from that state: what do we fear, what do we desire, how do we plan to allay those fears and realize those desires, how can human community help us to accomplish these ends" (7). The playwright wants to usher in a new and better world, and is doing her part by writing art that functions within that world, trying to shape the fears and desires of her postapocalyptic audience. But the audience turns out to not want that: they just want the old world back, and they just want art that tells them it's just going to be okay. They reject the promise of the postapocalypse to bring in a utopia, because to them the old world was utopian enough.

from Y: The Last Man #17 (art by Paul Chadwick & Jose Marzan, Jr.)

On the other hand, you can also imagine a book where a woman-run world turns out to be a dystopia, and Y: The Last Man doesn't give us that, either. A fun adventure book, of course, but I also found it was very teachable and has a lot of interesting ideas going on.

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