Monday, June 26, 2006

Why "The Last Man"?

(c'mon - someone had to to make that pun)

Yeah, so, I guess I ought to knock off a few of those things on my to do list.

Let's start with the one that will get me lots comments. (yeah, right.)

Y: The Last Man roxxx!!!!!! Ok, well, not so much. But it's amusing. Er....at least, issues 1-5 and 37-42 are anyway. The rest may be as well, but I haven't read them yet. (so...I may be revising my opinion later on)

The premise is, of course, idiotic. It is assumed to be every (hetero) man's fantasy (all the women in the world to myself mwahahaha...) and what every idiot assumes is every feminist's fantasy (no more men - almost, anyway - let's throw a party!). For some reason this comic is supposed to appeal to women, and despite the fact that I actually do like it, I have no idea why people assume that I would.

Very little possibility of beefcake? check

Leading female characters that are only leading because there are no men to take their rightful place as leaders? check

A storyline that manages to be all about men (especially one in particular) even though all but two of the characters are female? check

"Nice guy" character being chased by feminazi's, protected by la femme Nikita in dreadlocks, and occasionally sparing time from his busy schedule of tracking down his girlfriend (oh, sorry, fiance) and saving the world by his mere existence to put the womenfolk in their place? check

Remind me again why women are supposed to like this?

Remind me again why I ever broke down and picked this up?

Oh, yeah, because it's written by Brian K. Vaughan.

If you haven't ever read anything else by Vaughan - and I'll admit Runaways and a few issues of Ex Machina is pretty much all I've read - then I should probably tell you that he and Joss Whedon are mutual fans of each other's work. Which has you either suddenly intrigued or rolling your eyes. I most definitely fall into the former group.

When I saw how Vaughan handled the practically all-female Runaways, I started to wonder if maybe Y wasn't so bad after all. Every time Gertrude opened her mouth, it became that much harder to imagine Y as the completely sucky comic I had presumed it to be.

So, I picked up the first trade paperback, and found it both surprisingly good and predictably bad.

Y: the Last Man is not an interesting look at what the world would be like without (almost any) men; it can be rather annoying when it comes to that. (The Washington Monument? Seriously, Brian. I, personally, would end up parking myself in front of the statue of Lincoln and bawling my eyes out; I would not be lighting candles in front of a big phallus.) It is, however, an entertaining (and at times infuriating) look into the mind of a feminist leaning man in a misogynist world. Y: the Last Man is not really about women at all. At most it is about Yorick's/Vaughan's perception of women and his struggle to be fair and respectful of women in a world that pushes him not to be.

Franny at So So Silver Age wrote:

Ultimately, Vaughan is using the unmanned scenario to explore manhood and masculinity through a character who is decidedly not the American ideal superdude, who is a composite of anxious shortcomings thrust from being a guy to not just being a man but the man. And ultimately, it serves feminist purposes to reevaluate and reflect on the meaning of masculinity.
I think she has it exactly right and that this is the underlying and unspoken reason why people think women would be more interested in this comic than men: men aren't supposed to question these things (but all those feminists secretly wish they were men, right?)

When we are first introduced to Yorick he is practicing his escape artist skills. It's obvious - anvil sized obvious - that this is meant to foreshadow future events: in the near future he will be constantly hunted and must constantly escape capture. Throughout the story, pretty much everyone wants to tell him what to do. Those that don't usually simply don't bother telling, they just do.

I suspect it is also meant to by symbolic of Yorick's attempts to escape the constraints of gender - his struggle throughout the story is not just to escape physical capture but to resist being defined solely by his biology. His most valuable asset to society is his ability to help create the next generation (not that way - get your mind out of the gutter). He understands this and generally agrees that this needs to be his number one priority. He is often frustrated however, with the fact that he no longer matters as an individual - to everyone fighting over him he is an object, really. He spends much of his time trying to contact his girlfriend and is a constant advocate for the idea of romantic love, the importance of personal relationships, and the validity of emotions.

Of, course, Yorick being an escape artist is also a nice plot device; it makes it hard for people to keep him locked up - which would have made the story either really boring or forced Vaughan to focus on other characters. If it was possible to keep Yorick locked up, Vaughan might have actually had to write about a world run by women. Instead, he gets to write about about a man trapped in a world run by women.

Y: the Last Man does not turn the world on it's head by creating a world in which women fill men's shoes, it turns the world on it's head by putting a man in a traditionally feminine role. Sometimes the story shifts and it becomes the usual, annoying "nice, average guy searching for the perfect woman" but most of the time Yorick's story fits very nicely into the "fiesty heroine who is being forced to marry for the sake of the family reputation/younger siblings/war torn kingdom, but believes in true love anyway" cliche that pops up again and again in Romance novels. He's even got the taciturn bodyguard, the emotionally cut-off elder sibling who starts out as a hinderance but later becomes an ally, and the whole "physically weak but usefully clever" thing going for him.

Which explains why I like it: I read Romance novels. I'm not completely sure why everyone else is so into it, though.

I also find it odd but interesting that so much of the buzz about the book centers on not only it's gimmicky premise but on the Amazons - and the idea that they are stand-ins for radical feminists. With so many other examples of strong - feminist even - women in the series, it seems quite obvious to me that, in this world without men, they are meant to represent the unapologetic violence that men are supposed to embrace, not Andrea Dworkin and every woman who fails who disown everything she says. They are more than Rush Limbaugh's fictional feminanzi's brought to life, even if Vaughan has trouble shaking such stereotypes. Despite being women, they are "real men" who do what needs to be done and respond to heartache with destruction and anger, not tears. They understand that violence is needed and that the rest of the world "can't handle the truth." In some sense this is meant to be commentary on the human condition and the not so big differences between men and women. Mostly though, they are there to provide a foil for Yorick and create scenarios where he has to choose or reject violence.

It seems quite normal to me that a group like the Amazons would exist; anger is one of the stages of grief, after all. However, it also seems really abnormal that there wouldn't be other radical groups: ones that claim that the end is here and women were found unworthy, ones that blame women, liberals, the church etc. for the disaster, and so on. To me, it's the fact that such groups are almost non-existent in his world and the apparent focus on the Amazons that is troubling, not the mere existence of the Amazons alone - or even any of the actual interactions between Yorick and the Amazons (that I've seen). However, the Amazons exist and the religious fanatics don't because Vaughan sees the former as useful foils for Yorick, not because Vaughan thinks that feminists are evil, nasty, and out to get men. That doesn't mean his writing is any less flawed because of his lack of conscious intent, just that it's useful to keep that in mind when picking the story apart.

But, then, like I said, I met Gertrude first. It's hard to read a comic in which the fat, nerdy, cynic gets the hunk and think that the writer has it in for feminists.

(ps - don't worry about spoilers in the comments - I've obviously skipped ahead anyway.)

13 comments:

Leia Weathington said...

What got my attention when first choosing if I wanted to read Y or not was the front page of the PDF file of the first issue that was available on the website. It had a rundown on the ration of men to women in government, religion, farming, millitary, ectra. That made me think that it would be more of an actual STORY than a stroke fantasy.

Anyway, I bought it and turned into a huge fan of the books. I thought it was a really interesting take on a cliche so used as to be pathetic. Yes there are things that Yorick says that set off a tick in my eye, but really? A male perspective is different than a female perspective. And I think his characters are thoughtful and well realized.

When the amazons arc started I cringed at first, but the way he has handled it makes it seem as if the Amazons, particularly Victoria, Are just straight up thugs or lost souls looking for somewhere to belong. Victoria was an opportunist who seized the chance to control others when it arose.

I've read volumes 1, 4,5,6 and 7 of the trades so I'll assume that I missed something in 2 and 3 that was important. But some of the flashbacks in the later volumes are really facinating to me. The under laying message (under the Gender related stuff of course) strikes me as being one where in times of upheaval people can either choose to panic and use violence, or can attempt to find a different way and that way is not always easy.

But that's just my perspective on the comic. Thanks for letting me junk up your journal with mine. Also? sorry about my spelling.

~leia

(I found my way over from "When Fangirls Attack")

Ampersand said...

You know what really pissed me off? When they had the "physically weak" Yorick beat up an Israeli commando with his hands cuffed behind his back. No one would buy a cuffed female character who has no combat training or skills beating the crap out of a male Israeli commando - but we're supposed to buy that Yorick is able to do it, because any man is tougher than any woman, or something.

Plus, the Dave-Sim like stereotypes of feminists - combined with the general belief that women are absolutely incapable of running the world - are simply offensive. I don't understand why so many feminists like this comic.

Mickle said...

For the same reason we forgive Joss for the last season of Buffy?

Actually, I think in Vaughan's case it's really just because it's different. There is so much about the world he's created that just doesn't ring true and the story doesn't really work as a tale of a world run by women. It is, however, a sometimes interesting story about a typical guy not (completely) buying into macho masculinity. Which is even more rare than strong female characters.

I hadn't read that part about Yorick and the Isreali commando though - Yuck! and Huh? seeing as how his Mom was able to throw him in the second issue.

SarahStumpf said...

I have to say I strongly disagree with the last two comments here. I've always found Y to be very well written and deeply interesting from a feminist perspective.

Agent 335 and Dr. Mann are not women who became strong by extraordinary circumstance. They were both strong BEFORE the plague hit, as a kick ass super spy and a brilliant doctor respectively. Yoricks mother (whos name I am blanking on) was already a Congress woman BEFORE the plauge. The Austrailians control the seas because they were smart enough to have strong, smart, and capable woman sailors and submariners BEFORE the plauge. The Israelis have the best army because women served in active combatt BEFORE the plauge.

I thought that Vaughn made it very clear that the Amazons were NOT feminists. They were extremists and lost souls clining to a pop cultural version of feminism. I've met enough women who respond to my saying "I'm a feminist" with man-hating jokes to feel like an army of scared, lost, and traumatized women being lead by a disgruntled sociopath who thinks that man hating and feminism are the same to be completely plausable.

If all the men where whiped off the earth, I don't think that would would creat a happy fluffy bnny utopia. I think that there would definately be women who were not strong enough to live in that world, and would latch onto the first stable thing that came along. There are already women in this world today who do that. If the world ended tomorrow, what would all the wingnut women who submitt to their husbands do? Cuz I really think they would be the perfect fodder for any woman, good or bad, to exploit since they're used to taking orders, not shaping the world. I think that the Amazons only seem like a metaphor for feminism if you don't look beyond the surface of what the Amazons actually say and do as individuals (Victoria and Hero in particular) or as a large scale group. Because past a surface level, that metaphor doesn't really line up. The Amazons line up much more with a blend of terrorism, Stalist&Maoist communism, and Jim Jones creepy cultness.

I guess I've always found the story in Y to be highly compelling and well written. I look at a lot of the characters (not all, but a lot - the conveniantly knocked up astronaut was lame to me) and I think that they behave in very realist ways. In fact, thats what consistantly draws me back to picking up the next trade, the realism of characters and situations, as they play out in a world where gender binaries have just ceased to exist and individuals find themselves navigating that out.

And I once knew a girl who was 5'2" and couldn't have weighed more then 130 lbs who kicked the crap out of a 6'5" personal trainer and body builder, so Yorrick knocking out the Israeli gaurd didn't suprise me. You'd be suprised what the element of suprise and adrenelin will allow you to do. Considering every other time Yorrick gets the crap kicked out of him by women, I don't think that letting him clock one woman in the 48 issues I've read is somehow meant to be a sign that all men can always take down all women, I think it is supposed to be dumb luck.

Mickle said...

Sarah,

Neither Ampersand nor I are arguing that a world without men - especially one in which all the men died suddenly and violently - would be a happy, bunny utopia. I thought I made that quite clear in the post.

I also think that Vaughan can be a very good writer - better than most, actually - I just think he doesn't always bother to write well. I'd imagine deadlines and the added difficulty of trying something new rather than the same old thing have a lot to do with that.

I'd have to see the actual scene to be sure, but from the little I've heard, it strikes me as the same as kind of scene as the one where he lectures the senators and senators wives about patriotism. Unless agent 355 has been giving Yorick pointers, the guy sucks as hand-to-hand combat - and I don't really care how much adreneline and surprise was factored in - it stretches the believability and comes across as very "guy showing the women what's what." It's not enough to make me give up on the comic, but it certainly prompts a lot of grumbles and eye rolling on my part.

No matter what, though, Ampersand's point that such a scene works for most readers because of the gender of the people involved is very true. It's not Vaughan's fault that this is true - but the fact that he will sometimes rely on this makes his writing weaker and less feminist. It's still much better than a lot of what's out there, but it could certainly use some improvement.

Stephen said...

...the general belief that women are absolutely incapable of running the world...

I don't think that this is expressed in the books at all. I think the books express a (very realistic) sense of how utterly !@#$%-ed up the world would be if half of humanity died. I think a huge part of the books -- which I like, although I wouldn't say they were the second coming of Sandman or anything -- is simply about living in a world in which a lot of people died suddenly, unexpectedly and (quasi) violently. In that sense, Y is very much a post-9/11 comic -- just as Battlestar Galactica is very much a post-9/11 show. (It goes without saying that comparing the effects of the deaths of a few thousand people to the deaths of several billion is over-the-top; but it's clearly an influence in both cases (and perhaps a reasonable example of trying to clarify through fictive exaggeration.))

If this series started, as BKV has said, as a play on a common adolescent (straight) male fantasy, step two was obviously the thought that this meant a lot of people dying. And a lot of the series has been about that.

Stephen said...

When they had the "physically weak" Yorick beat up an Israeli commando with his hands cuffed behind his back. No one would buy a cuffed female character who has no combat training or skills beating the crap out of a male Israeli commando - but we're supposed to buy that Yorick is able to do it, because any man is tougher than any woman, or something.

This is, clearly, a more legitimate complaint than the other one -- but I just re-read the scene in question, and I actually think that what Vaughan wrote is defensible here, too. First and foremost, I don't think it is at all beyond the realm of normal-for-mainstream-comics violence: I doubt anyone would blink an eye at it in most comics whether the perpetrator was male or female.

Further, as to realism: it's worth noting that the commando isn't fighting back. In half the scene she's aiming a gun she very much wants to shoot straight; in the other half she's radioing for someone else to destroy what Yorick made her miss. He manages to beat her up because she's busy doing something other than defending herself. -- Obviously, it wouldn't be beyond the realm of mainstream-comics-today realism to have her fend him off with one hand. But I don't think this is either. (MCT Realism is fairly flexible for plotting purposes...) "Catching unawares" is a time-honored technique in adventure fiction for letting a weaker character overcome a stronger one. (The Joss Whedon example that comes to mind, since he was mentioned a lot, is the duel in Firefly where Mal manages to defeat a clearly-superior opponent who is distracted.)

Anyway, I think the way Amp phrases this is far worse than it looks; I would guess that someone who didn't have other issues with the series would most likely fail to notice the scene.

Mickle said...

Stephen,

I agree that everything falling apart because half the population dies all at one is pretty realistic. If anything, Vaughan doesn't show it as anywhere near catastrophic enough.

Considering how well things are working barely months after the event, the fact that so little is working several years later does seems a but questionable, though, even if its hardly outside the realm of possibility. I doubt Vaughan veered that way because he thinks women are incapable, or even because he really thought that precisely about what it would be like. I think it served the story he wanted to tell and didn't sound implausible, so he ran with it.

I'm mostly wondering how well he explains why things are the way they are. I suspect it comes across much the way the Amazons do. The story is about Yorick, after all, not the rest of the world. Vaughan's chooses which parts of the world to present to his readers. Non-Amazonia fanatics and exactly how the sanitation systems get back up and running are only interesting as background color - like soldiers in a war-time Romance novel. They don't neccessarily have any direct affect on the plot.

Re: the scene: I need to see it for myself before I decide, but either way it doesn't sound like the strongest point in the series. Like Joss, Vaughan relies on stock characters and stock storytelling techniques quite often. Which is just fine - I like them, actually - but it does devolve into lazy storytelling at times, and it doesn't have to.

I think, in the end, that's my biggest complaint with Vaughan's work. He is very creative and a very good storyteller, but he isn't terribly consistent. Then again, I can't imagine what Buffy would have been like without a team of writers helping Joss.

Plus, it doesn't help that Y is praised from here to eternity, either. There is such a thing as too much hype. Y also suffers from misplaced hype - people feel free to nitpick his protrayal of the unmanned world because it's billed as such, when really the main focus is how Yorick is unmanned.

Stephen said...

Mickle,

I agree with most of what you say. My particular take is that Vaughan is consistantly solid, but not spectacular -- reliably good but not (say) Whedon-level great. He's imaginative but not brilliant; his biggest strength is probably his compelling plotting. All of which is to say that, while I like Y, I agree it's over-hyped. It ain't the second coming or anything -- or A Great Feminist Series. It's just fun.

Josh said...

Coupla things—
First off, while I generally enjoy YtLM, I can't stand Buffy. Too much soap opera, too much implausibility (sez the comix fan). That, and I never liked Geller.
Second, it's odd to me that this book is recommended as something women would like (or that it's somehow "feminist"). The book, at least to me, is more than anything else a meditation on masculinity and what it means to be a guy in society now. I read the story at the same time my girlfriend did, and while I got a pretty big kick out of it, she enjoyed it much less and had a lot of fair critique to give it, so it's always odd to me when I see it advertised as something that women would especially like. Maybe for heterosexual women looking to understand a very male perspective on gender...
Aside from that, I think it's kinda a book that anyone can like in that it has a pretty decent plot, fair dialogue and fairly rounded characters. Though, to be fair, any time that a comic has those things, it is promoted as something women would like (which feels almost like an admission that most mainstream books are pretty crappy and that women won't read crappy comics. Or something).
And I do think that the book benefits from feminist critique because gender is so central to it, but I don't think that it's a feminist book. Just a pretty good one.

Anonymous said...

"is simply about living in a world in which a lot of people died suddenly, unexpectedly and (quasi) violently."

...and without giving two weeks' notice. Most workplaces would be messed up if half the people there - any half of them - suddently stopped showing up for whatever reason.

TrĂªs said...

It's really sad how it seems you misread most of this story just based on a desperate hope it would into some weird preconceived idea you had that this comic was supposed to be a lame attempt to disguise a sexist view of the world and a coup to win over women readers.

Y: The Last Man is an outstanding feminist manifest and as much as you try to distort it, time will - as it has already - prove you wrong.

No. the story line is not male driven.
(why, because one of the main characters is a man?)
No. the Amazons are not a lame attempt to ridicule feminist.
(they're not feminists, their extremists and violent man haters. in what world does that translates to feminists?)
No. it was never said anywhere that the world is in chaos because women can't take care of them selves.
(did you just ignore the fact that HALF of the world died and because of the gender imbalance in power - so interestingly explained through the first issues - most of all countries' governments and leaders fell -?)

I challenge you to find stories with as many three dimensional strong and memorable female characters. or a story with so many different point of views and acknowledgement to gender roles and that force mainstream audiences to actually think about gender imbalance and feminist/queer issues.

Brian and Pia (yeah, that's right, one of the co-creators is a women) wrote and amazing though provoking story that's incredibly layered and dramatic that it's a step forward for female characters and punch in the gut for any mainstream male fantasy.

And yet you don't understand why so many feminist women like this. Maybe something's wrong with Your argument.

Y:tLM will stay in comic book history as few other comic books ever did but none of those others still seem to do what Y did in relation to the feminist ideals.

And I'm really sad that you call yourself a feminist and you couldn't understand something as simple as this.
If you waste your time criticizing this wonderful story you clearly have no idea what the rest of the world is writing about.

Mickle said...

Tres,

I never said I thought it was meant to appeal to feminists, I said I had heard it was supposed to appeal to women.

Perhaps you might try improving your reading comprehension?

I would also like to point out that I, in fact, said that I liked it, and also that I am a feminist myself - and yet you seem to think that I can't understand why feminists would like it - to the point that you think it's appropriate to say that my calling myself one makes you sad.

Why? Because I think that Vaughn tried but often missed the mark? Because I have an opinion that is different than yours? Because I dissed something you really admire?

(because I said your Nigel isn't so great after all?)