Y: The last issue

It’s a sad week for comics. The brilliant and addictive Vertigo series Y: The Last Man is wrapping up its five-year run this week with its 60th and final issue. Written by Brian K. Vaughan (whom I met at WonderCon last year—he’s a nice guy and he gave me some good advice about comics scriptwriting) and pencilled by the underrated artist Pia Guerra, Y is the saga of Yorick Brown, a twentysomething slacker who embarks on a globehopping journey to find his missing girlfriend and to find out why he survived a mysterious plague that killed all the men on Earth. In 2003, the superb writing in then-new titles like Y, Gotham Central and Sleeper reignited my love for comics after a low creative ebb during the ’90s drew me away. (I stopped buying comics in the mid-’90s because I got fed up with the fugly-looking “enhanced” covers, the inane costume changes and the unwieldy crossover events—all ’90s Marvel and DC gimmicks to boost flagging sales.)

What does any of this have to do with TV or film? If Y were a TV show, it would have been the best mythology show on the air. (It’s because Vaughan didn’t have network execs meddling in his vision or forcing him to keep his series going for another few years. Aw, the creative freedom a comics creator gets to enjoy when he owns the rights to his project and answers to no one.) Maybe the writers from inconsistent and unfocused mythology shows like Heroes should start taking notes from Vaughan’s comic about how to build an intricate mythology and keep it from falling apart or how to do any of the following:

Unlike Lost, no ill-conceived, one-dimensional Nikkis and Paulos have ever been awkwardly added to Y‘s large, predominantly female cast. Every character in Y has been richly drawn, from 355, the world-weary, kickass African American government agent (and knitting aficionado!) assigned to protect Yorick, to Dr. Allison Mann, the surly Asian American lesbian biochemist who must unravel the mystery of the plague, to Col. Alter Tse’elon, the driven and enigmatic Israeli soldier who wants to capture Yorick as part of a plot to repopulate Israel. No character is overlooked. Even Yorick’s pet monkey, Ampersand—the only other male survivor of the plague—was given his own flashback issue.

Unlike Heroes or 24, Vaughan’s post-apocalyptic series has never taken itself too seriously, despite its exploration of gender politics. (Vaughan once said in an interview that “the level of discussion [of gender issues in comics] was never very sophisticated. If written by men, they were either this gross sex fantasy or, alternately, the surviving women would all go down to the U.N. building and hold hands, ending war and suffering. Both were insulting to women. I wanted to subvert the fantasy.”) Speaking of attempts at subversive writing, Y is genuinely adult sci-fi, unlike Torchwood, which pats itself on the back for doing “adult sci-fi,” but with the exception of the standout “Out of Time” episode, it has come off more juvenile than the show it was spun off from, the family-friendly Doctor Who. It’s interesting that Y has been loaded with more T&A than TorchwoodY wouldn’t have been a Vertigo comic without them—and yet Vaughan’s series is still more intelligent and grown-up than Torchwood, because of thought-provoking (but not preachy) dialogue like Dr. Mann’s brief and startling discussion about how the plague fixed China’s gender imbalance problem and caused the crime rates in that country to drop.

And unlike the showrunners of mythology franchises that wore out their welcome—I’m looking at you, X-Files—Vaughan set an end date for Y (as well as his other creator-owned comic, the equally enjoyable WildStorm title Ex Machina, a 50-issue saga about a disillusioned ex-superhero who becomes mayor of New York). From the start, Vaughan promised to conclude Yorick’s quest after 60 issues and has stuck to that promise, so Vaughan’s single-minded, Col. Alter-like devotion to reaching that end point hasn’t resulted in filler storylines like Galactica‘s Apollo/Starbuck/Anders/Dualla love quadrangle or the repetitive Heroes-goes-El Norte arc involving Dania Ramirez’s endlessly weeping character, Maya the walking Ebola virus (in Spanish, “Maya” means “basket case”).

It’s no wonder that Vaughan’s knack for straightforward storytelling, his ear for witty dialogue and his clever but never gratuitous or pointless pop culture references (I love that Yorick is a fan of The Last Detail—his reaction when he stumbles upon a DVD of the Hal Ashby flick is priceless) landed him a spot on the writing staff of Lost last year. Vaughan co-wrote the “Catch-22″ episode about Desmond’s past as a monk, and of course, it was one of several highlights of Lost‘s third season.

Before the writers’ strike caused it to slip into development limbo, Vaughan worked on the screenplay for a feature film adaptation of Y, with Disturbia director D.J. Caruso scheduled to be at the helm and Caruso’s Disturbia lead Shia LaBeouf as a frontrunner for the title role. Like most other fans, I think Y is better suited for TV. It would have been perfect for HBO. But Vaughan disagrees and has said, “I never felt [that it can only be a TV series to be done correctly]. Maybe because I’m the only person who knew exactly how Y ends and I’ve always been able to see it as something with a three-act structure—something with a clear beginning, middle and end.”

Despite Vaughan’s involvement in the Y feature film—he said the feature is an opportunity to improve on material that he felt he bungled in the comic’s first few issues—the film can’t avoid paling to the original comic. For two hours, the feature will likely be a globetrotting action thriller elevated by sharp dialogue about gender roles and amusing pop culture references. For 59 awesome issues, the comic has been a globetrotting action thriller, a thoughtful exploration of gender issues, a satirical critique of sexism in the comics industry, an all-girl gang flick, a simian slapstick comedy, a medical drama, a floor wax, a dessert topping…

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