What would the world look like if every mammal with a Y chromosome died? That’s the question at the heart of the comic book series Y: The Last Man, written by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra.
The first issue came out in 2002, and the series went on to amass over 60 issues, win three Eisner Awards, and be nominated for a Hugo. Since the issues' initial release, they’ve been compiled in a multitude of collector’s editions, which include new cover art and behind the scenes artwork. With a television series nearing release, here’s a primer to the powerful, post-apocalyptic world of Y: The Last Man.
What is the series about?
On a normal day in July 2002, almost every mammal with a Y chromosome dies. Escape artist Yorick Brown and a male Capuchin monkey named Ampersand somehow both survive. While mammals with the X chromosome aren’t killed by the mysterious plague, they don’t all make it out of the onslaught unscathed. The sudden and simultaneous deaths of billions of people all over the world create a multitude of mass accidents. In the wreckage, society descends into panic, trauma, and chaos.
Two months after the disaster, Yorick manages to reach Washington, D.C., where his mother is a congresswoman. She convinces the new president to commission an agent from the mysterious Culper Ring––an agency of spies originally created under George Washington––to help Yorick get to Boston.
Agent 355’s directive is to protect Yorick and help him reach Dr. Allison Mann, a geneticist and cloning expert. The hope is that Dr. Mann can not only clone Yorick, thereby saving the human race from extinction, but that Yorick's genetics can help identify why he survived the plague, and replicate his survival in others.
Of course, easier said than done. When Yorick and Agent 355 find Dr. Mann, they discover her lab has been destroyed. In order to complete both the cloning and the research, they have to travel to San Francisco, where Dr. Mann hopes her other lab is still functional.
Along the way, the group encounters a vast array of women. Some of them want to kill Yorick, and others are willing to help. Yorick is primarily concerned with finding his fiancée, but that task is made increasingly difficult as women all over the world try to capture or kill him for their own ends.
Wait, what caused the plague?
The plague is the biggest mystery of the series. There’s a lot of tension in this post-apocalyptic world as Yorick and his companions struggle to survive, and the ambiguous nature of the threat always looms over the character’s heads.
[Very mild spoilers below—if you'd like to avoid any spoilers about the plague, skip ahead to the next section.]
There are quite a few theories about the plague's origins presented by characters throughout the series, but none of them are ever definitive. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer, though. In interviews, Vaughan has said that the source of the plague is told to the reader at some point in the text, but he won’t say exactly when. This means that any of the possibilities can be the truth, but it’s up to the reader to decide which truth fits the story best.
There are multiple theories explored or posited by the characters throughout the 60-issue series. However, the below three are explored in the most depth.
The first theory introduced is that the devastation was caused by a cursed amulet. Agent 355 was warned about a curse attached to the sacred Amulet of Helene when she was ordered to take it from Jordan. She and others believe the plague was released the moment she took it out of the country.
This theory is further supported by the fact that the wedding ring Yorick bought for his fiancée was made from the same mystical material. In other words, being in possession of the ring may be why he and Ampersand survived.
Another theory is that, due to the science of cloning, the Y chromosome was obsolete and had been trying to self-destruct for years. This theory is supported by the fact that Ampersand was once a test animal for a geneticist. Prior to the plague outbreak, Ampersand was dosed with a compound that may have inadvertently protected some mammals with Y chromosomes.
The third major theory revolves around the Culper ring and their clandestine activities. Before the outbreak, they had developed a chemical weapon designed to prevent women from conceiving male children. It’s believed that this chemical was released but backfired, killing anyone with the Y chromosome instead.
But other theories abound: A fanatical group called the Daughters of Amazon believe the Y chromosome is an aberration that Mother Earth is attempting to cleanse itself of, and they’re willing to do anything to help in that mission. A troupe of actresses believe the plague is retribution for gender inequality in the performing arts, and argue the validity of their theory by pointing out the bubonic plague erupted when prominent playwrights such as William Shakespeare excluded women from productions. Other theories are government conspiracy related, along with multiple religious explanations.
Is this a 'man versus women' story?
While the narrative is told from Yorick’s perspective, this isn’t a story about men. And it’s not exactly a story about the absence of men, either.
At its heart, Y: The Last Man is a story about humanity. Who do we become when the world suddenly diverges in the most extreme way? What happens when half the planet dies? The series tackles politics and power-vacuums, while focusing on one man trying to find the woman he loves.
Yorick isn’t a muscle-ripped hero, but instead is a scrawny, dopey guy. While we’re rooted in his journey and hope for his survival, the more compelling story is why this catastrophe even happened in the first place. Readers are introduced to theories that often highlight the darker side of both human nature and political control, and force us to grapple with what we’re afraid of on numerous levels.
Even the art in the comic is meant to draw us into Yorick’s emotional journey, as opposed to a physical one. The women are varied and nuanced, presenting a scope of characters wearing more than unitards or skin-tight suits.
Vaughan and Guerra make it clear through the characters and the writing that they are more focused on the human experience, as opposed to a strictly gendered story.
Within the pages we meet angry women, happy women, and fanatical women. There are some who are traumatized from immense loss, some happy that men are gone, some who are simply trying to survive.
There are any number of ideologies and reactions to this global event, and without veering into a preachy or condescending tone, Vaughan and Guerra present a society to evaluate, and offer an extreme lens through which we can question and challenge our own assumptions.
But that’s not to say the comic is without its criticism. As we'll explore in more detail later, the series doesn't address trans, intersex, or gender non-conforming individuals often on the page, making this a very binary story.
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How to read the series
While the original, individual comics are considered collectibles (and have price tags running well over a thousand dollars), there are options that are accessible and affordable. Since each issue is numbered, even in the compilation editions, it’s easy enough to keep track of which order to read them in. However, the different editions group the issues in various bundles with new cover art, making them appealing to collectors.
The first option is the trade paperbacks, known as the collected editions. Each of these versions includes anywhere from five to seven issues.
The next option is the deluxe editions. These are hardcover books with alternate cover art, and typically contain eleven to thirteen issues each. In 2014, these books were made available in paperback with the same cover art.
The next year, an absolute edition was released. These editions are also hardcover with new cover art, and include special oversized slipcovers. The issues are divided into three volumes.
In 2019, a complete omnibus edition was released. This includes all of the issues, along with a sketchbook by Pia Guerra featuring behind-the-scenes art. The cover art is the same as the first trade paperback collected edition, Unmanned (#1-5).
The TV show and other adaptations
Back in 2007, New Line Cinema bought the film rights and moved forward with a script covering the first fourteen issues of the comic. Creative differences between the writers and the studio over how to best tell the story, along with difficulties finding an enthusiastic lead, stymied the project. The rights ultimately reverted back to Vaughan and Guerra in 2014.
In the meantime, two Portuguese students made a loose adaptation of the series in 2011. It premiered in the Fantasporto film festival as a short feature and school film. For some time, it seemed that might be the only adaptation the graphic novels would get.
Outside of rumors of interest, the series didn’t move forward for further adaptation possibility until FX revealed in 2015 that they were developing a television show based on the comic.
This latest adaptation must bring the binary story into a more inclusive world. The comic itself faced some criticism on how it handled trans, intersex, and gender-nonconforming individuals. To address this issue, the TV series created a new character, Sam Jordan, who is Yorick’s best friend and a trans man. Sam is played by trans actor Elliot Fletcher, known for his time on Shameless.
In a 2020 interview, Fletcher answered The Hollywood Reporter's questions about how the series will address gender: "Society’s perception of gender will hopefully be shattered because there are a lot of great conversations that this show will start regarding male privilege and the capability of women. There are a lot of misconceptions that people have relating to gender."
The studio has also announced that the entire first season will be directed by women.
Ultimately, viewers will have to wait to see how the series explores gender, race, sexuality, and class outside of the heteronormative experience, and depicts humanity's survival under extreme conditions.
The show premiers on FX on Hulu September 13, 2021.