Saturday, 27 August 2011

Five By Five - Comics, week 1: Y: The Last Man (lucky so and so)

In an effort to stem the tide of my loquacity, (a Herculean task, as evidenced by my over-use of brackets) for the forseeable future my columns are going to narrow in focus a little. For the next five weeks, that focus will be on comics, a different one each time around, in an effort to expand my graphic novel horizons. If you’re expecting a traditional review then I would direct you to The Watcher or any of Proud Lion’s other fine review features, as this is likely to be more of a meandering - post-modern series of musings in the manner of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, or y’know, that drunk guy you met on the train once.

Luckily Proud Lion’s proprietor Mr Fardon himself knows me well, so I sit clutching a comic (or graphic novel to give it its grown up moniker) that could have been made for me in my eager, hot little hands. Let’s face it, even the title has me quivering with anticipation: ‘The Last Man’. Is this some kind of feminist revenge fantasy?* Or a comment on the increasing infantilisation of the male gender as society plays out its own Peter Pan complex? Well no, but it’s just as exciting in its way. A plague of unspecified origin has wiped out every male sperm, foetus and fully grown mammal on the planet, leaving only protagonist Yorrick and his training-resistant helper monkey Ampersand untouched. The blurb on the back refers to this cataclysm as ‘gendercide’ and within the first few pages Yorrick’s sixty plus, ass-kicking, Congress-person mother is talking about being spanked. I’m already hooked.

Now just to get this out of the way, I realise there may be a (hopefully small) contingent of male readers out there who have only just flicked back to reading these words after a dreamy hour or two of staring into the middle distance and imagining life as the only man left on the planet. It may be all bikini clad lovelies, feasting like a king and endless blow jobs in your head, but Yorrick’s predicament is no mere male fantasy. And his position as lone male survivor makes him both different, and thus a threatening outsider, and valuable, and thus a potential commodity. One of his first experiences in this brave new world, sees him outed as male by a supermodel and almost sold to a brothel. The plague that kills of the men renders Yorrick a woman of sorts, and turns the world’s female population into men, all of a sudden struggling to grasp the vast powerhouse that swings open to them.

It’s a fascinating idea. I consider myself to be a feminist (raving only by request or on special occasions) yet if there was a major disaster it would be male voices I would look to for reassurance and guidance gliding out of the TV and radio, a kind of paternal authority that the modern world hasn’t managed to shrug off. Even in Western countries men outnumber women to a significant extent in positions of power across the board, from business to academia, from politics to religion. So perhaps it’s no surprise that when all the men suddenly up and die, it is the Secretary of Agriculture, a reluctant ‘farm girl’ as she describes herself, who suddenly becomes the President of the United States, dealing with squabbling political factions, religious extremists and a panicking populace into the bargain.

And this, of course, is another reason why anyone hoping for some kind of lone male utopia in Y: The Last Man will be disappointed. The women that remain are real and complex, with their own conflicting agendas. There are some of them who would like Yorrick to get busy spreading his seed around as much as possible, but there are plenty more who would just as soon kill him on sight, or study him in a lab, or put him to work in a freak show. Yorrick himself equally resists stereotyping, since far from playing the field, he spends the largest part of the story seeking out some sort of lovey-dovey, hearts and flowers reunion with his long-term girlfriend Beth. The characters throughout the story are eclectic from the singled minded Agent 355, to Israeli soldier Alter, to Yorrick’s own sister, Neo-Amazonian Hero.

The flip side of all of this though, is that the writer of Y: The Last Man could perhaps be accused of copping out of exploring what a world ruled by women would really be like, or at the very least they take the easy option out of it. In the story, the world ruled by women is... pretty much the same as the world ruled by men. And for the most part the characters portrayed as most sympathetic are those who seek to keep it that way. Yorrick is first in, lecturing his mother and her political colleagues when someone suggests throwing out the old constitution in favour of ‘Something new’. Now worthy a document as the constitution may be, I’d have liked to have seen more of the women deciding for themselves what sort of society to re-build, but maybe that’s just because I’m a crazy feminist. And crazy feminists don’t fair too well in this story. The only women really embracing the new world order are the misandrist Daughters of the Amazon, a collection of damaged and abused individuals for the most part, who turn away from their mistreatment by men and who believe that the plague is Mother Earth’s own purification ritual, cleansing herself of the male disease. They’re a problematic, if rather compelling group, not least because they very definitely do want to create a new kind of society, but one in which hatred of male-ness is central.

Despite this, it’s worth pointing out that Last Man would pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours. It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking read and the characterisation is largely spot on. And against my better judgement, I think Yorrick’s Mum might be one of my new heroines...

*Note: The majority of feminists do not really fantasise about the death of all men. Some of us even quite like them…

Kate Townshend is back, and better than ever!

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