Conflict has consequences, always


Saga volume 1
by Brian K Vaughan (story) and Fiona Staples (artwork)

This was a bit of an impulse buy on a recent trip to the comic shop and I am so glad I grabbed it. Vaughan completely lives up to the promise of Y: the Last Man and I’m both annoyed and excited that I am in on the new series from the start, as it will probably go on for years.

From science fiction and gender politics, Vaughan has moved into fantasy and racial politics, though there’s still some SF in there for good measure. The story opens with a baby being born to a mother with wings (Alana) and a father with horns and some magical ability (Marko). Almost immediately, soldiers burst in and the new family narrowly escapes with their lives. Why are they on the run? And can they possibly keep their newborn child safe?

Well, it appears that an age-old war between a planet and its moon has spread across the whole star system. Various other races have been drawn into the fight, being forced to take sides, while some individuals work as freelancers for the highest bidder. Alana and Marko were both soldiers who fell in love and vowed to give up fighting – which makes them deserters and, as far as most people are concerned, freaks.

There are some fantastic secondary characters, including the baby, who narrates the whole thing from some future point. There’s also freelancer The Will and his sidekick Lying Cat, which is a giant fearsome cat that can detect whether someone is lying. The Will appears to be a nasty piece of work at first but then a visit to Sextillion – a crazy giant brothel that caters to every desire – introduces an intriguing twist. I loved the detail that Prince Robot IV just wants to stay home and start a family with his wife after a gruelling two-year tour of duty, but his dad insists he go out and personally handle the Alana problem. And this book has the most crazy-ass ghosts I’ve ever come across in fiction.

The artwork is excellent, if a little graphic in places (no pun intended). But most importantly (to me) it’s well written. I’m not a great fan of war as a setting but this book looks past the big battles at some of the individuals involved, and does it with humour and pathos.

“They weren’t my men, Marko, they were trigger-happy assholes who got what was coming to them. Besides, I stepped in before you could do anything you’d regret.”
“Then how come it feels like I’ve just gotten us cursed?”
“Why, because you violated some personal pledge against hurting awful people?”
“My reluctance to use force isn’t ideological, it’s practical. Violence is stupid. Even as a last resort, it only ever begets more of the same. Conflict has consequences, always. Sooner or later, our family will pay for what happened today.”
Ehn, so the guy whose hand you lopped off comes after us with a hook in 20 years. Add him to the list.”

I’m not sure I can place my finger on exactly what I loved about this book. If I described the plot in more detail it would sound ridiculous. But maybe that’s exactly it. Or maybe it’s the good old combination of well drawn characters, setting, plot and sub-plots with just the right level of pace and potential. Whatever, I’m in.

Published 2013 by Image Comics.

Source: I bought it for myself at our local comic shop.

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.