Crossing the Rubicon

Y: the Last Man
The complete series
by Brian K Vaughan and Pia Guerra

This is a series of comic books that Tim really really wanted me to read so I told him I would if he would help me write the review afterward. Here is our joint effort.

Y: the Last Man begins with all humans and animals with a Y chromosome dying at the same instant, apart from 20-something-year-old Yorick and his monkey Ampersand. Yorick suddenly goes from being just some ambitionless and jobless guy to having everyone after him, as the potential key to the whole situation. But do all women want or even need men to come back?

First, a quick taste of the dialogue:

“[You’ve] crossed the fucking Rubicon.”
“The what?”
“Shut up.”
“I’m serious. What is that? ‘Crossing the Rubicon’?”
“It’s just a saying, all right? Means you’ve passed the point of no return—that you’re fucked.”
“But why does it mean that? What’s a Rubicon?”
“Jesus Christ! You just executed a human being, and all you—”
“You don’t know, do you?”
“—”

Y: the Last Man

Kate: You really wanted me to read this series. Why in particular?

Tim: It’s a very well written, touching, non-superhero comic book based on a strong SF trope. I am still trying to be your guide in SF and comics. Plus, y’know, literature plays a large part. And I know you love literature. What did you think of the literary allusions?

K: You had told me there would be literary references so I think I was expecting more than there was. But it’s actually done well, quite subtly, and I think it’s very true that an ardent reader would place a lot of value on finding people he could talk to about books, even in the middle of global disaster.

T: Also, the art is beautiful, I love the graphical themes that tie the issues/books together.

K: For science fiction, there’s not much science. It’s mostly about the impact on society of a major humanity-changing event.

T: True. SF that doesn’t dwell too much on the “plumbing” of the event can be very good SF. The beauty of this one is the way that Brian K Vaughan toys with characters (and the reader) having different theories for what caused the plague, all in different levels of mysticism/science. I often like this in stories, and that kind of uncertainty can really lend itself to some great storytelling. Take Bladerunner, or Total Recall, or Forever War, or I Am Legend, or Gateway, or Drowned World or… okay, there are a lot of titles that use the uncertainty and not-explaining attitude to SF. Is uncertainty in the heart of a plot an SF thing, or a general good lit thing?

K: It’s not just SF. It’s also not always good (but it often is).

Although our main characters keep facing violence and aggression, the all-female society does pull itself together and get stuff working over time. A comment is made that if the situation were reversed men would have been way more warlike and disorganised in reaction. In fact, a lot of women react with hatred for men and determination that women are better off.

T: Yep. You know, every English teacher I ever had was a feminist.

Several women are shown or implied to have become lesbian or start self-identifying as male as a result of the plague. Is this a cis-hetero/masculine fantasy or an offensive assumption? It is important to note that many other women do NOT.

K: I don’t think it’s handled in a male-fantasy way, whatever that would be. I think it’s realistic that some women would be open to it immediately while others would gradually turn to it from a lack of the alternative and others would resolutely refuse. It could have been discussed more but that’s a BIG conversation.

T: And it’s interesting that the one woman in the book who was already lesbian becomes, basically, celibate.

K: The main character is a man. Is this actually quite a masculine book with an idealised view of women?

T: Do you mean masculine or male chauvinist? I think you need Yorick as a contrast to the assumed macho male, and to evoke reactions (to him being male) from all the other (female) characters they meet. It would have been very easy to have him exist in the story just as a foil or a mirror. What’s impressive is that he is a character with depth without being macho or heroic.

K: Agreed. If anything Yorick is happy when he sees communities figuring shit out and would prefer to blend into the background and let women get on with it.

Though it eventually opens out, a large part (indeed all of the early stuff) of the story is set in the US, with a classic cross-country road trip. Would it have been too conceptual to see more of the world from the start?

T: I don’t know. I think it was important to concentrate on one thread of plot to begin with, allowing some measure of claustrophobia. It’s important because with the death of half of society, communications failed. The point is that the characters we follow don’t know what’s happening in their own city (to start with), and it gradually opens out as communications and society open out. I thought it was a well used device.

K: One observation I made early on was that the cities were falling apart, essentially war zones, while small towns were making it work. Is that realism or idealism?

T: I think it’s realism. There’s a bunch of reasons for it, though. Firstly, you start off in the domesticated east coast, and head west, towards the frontier, “can do” spirit. But I think, more importantly, (as seen in Make Room, Make Room or Caves of Steel) cities don’t exist in a vacuum, they rely on technology – that in this case failed (the power plants blew up, etc) – and a constant stream of food and supplies into the city (transport also broke down). The people living in more rural areas were not only more self-sufficient and practical to start with, they already had handy generators and the ability to grow/catch food. Cities cannot exist without civilization (I checked. I tried playing a whole game of Civ without building a city and it didn’t get anywhere).

Thank you Tim for the discussion and indeed the original recommendation. It is an excellent series.

Originally published 2002–2008 by DC Comics.
Deluxe editions published 2008–2011 by Vertigo.

3 thoughts on “Crossing the Rubicon

  1. Mess July 6, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    Interesting review – thanks to both of you.

    It did come across a bit more as you interviewing Tim, rather than giving many opinions on the book. It does sound like you both enjoyed it though.

    Also, thanks for prompting me to look up the origins of “crossing the Rubicon”!

  2. Nose in a book July 8, 2012 at 10:15 pm

    Mess Yes, I think you might be right. If we do this again I’ll try to make sure it’s a bit more review-y!

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