Yorick Brown, it seems, is the greatest escape artist who ever lived—or at least he’s made the greatest escape ever. Somehow, he managed to be the only man to escape the mysterious plague that killed every single man on the planet. In fact, it wasn’t just the men—it was every mammal with a Y chromosome. So Yorick and his capuchin monkey Ampersand are all that’s left. How did they do it? Not even Yorick knows.
I’ve been reading this series of comics (10 trade paperbacks in all) by Brian Vaughn and Pia Guerra over the last few months. The premise fascinated me right off the bat, but I was wary. There are so many ways this idea could go wrong. It could become a girl-power manifesto that shows how women don’t need men at all, and the world is just plain better off without them, thank you very much. Or it could play up the supposed differences between men and women, either by showing how much kinder the world is or how unable the women are to be strong and ruthless. But it does neither of these things.
Initially, the plague is a clear disaster, not because there are no men, but because half the population is suddenly gone. The roles filled by the dead men are empty, and they cannot all be filled immediately. It’s not that women can’t do the work of men—many already do—but it takes time to learn, never mind the need to decide which work is most important. Never mind the fact that nearly everyone one the planet has lost someone they love, and the future they planned for is lost.
Women react to the loss in different ways. Some don’t seem to mind all that much—a group called the Amazons even revel in the end of the patriarchy. Others are paralyzed by grief and join the band of mourners gathered at the Washington Monument. (A little too obvious a joke, but it did make me laugh.) Most, however, figure that they have to move on in some way, and over time, the world starts to recover.
But even if the women who are left can pick everything up and move on, the loss of mankind creates a long-term crisis. The women who are left will be the last. Humanity may not need men to live, but it does need men to live on. So, the handful of people who know of Yorick’s existence are duty-bound to protect him and to figure out what protected him and Ampersand from the plague. A government agent called only 355 takes on the role of protector, and a geneticist named Alison Mann accepts the responsibility for figuring out what is keeping Yorick alive.
Yorick, however, has his own priorities. He’s desperate to find his girlfriend Beth, who, at the time of the plague, was working on a project in the Australian Outback. Breakdowns in communication and transport systems have made contact with her impossible. Yorick knows he needs protection, so he allows 355 to escort him across the U.S. with Dr. Mann, who hopes that she can find the key to Yorick’s survival in her California.
These three characters are the heart of the series. Their divided loyalties and mixed intentions enable the story to go on even after the initial question of what the world might look like without men recedes into the background. Gradually, the premise becomes less important than the characters, as is true in many a quest narrative. Other characters come and go, and some of these are more interesting than others. After a while, I got bored with the constant testing of loyalties and reversals of loyalties that then got reversed again. There was a period toward the middle of the series where you could count on every single new character being a double-crosser, if not of Yorick and his friends then of the person she was supposed to be hunting Yorick for.
Tedious moments aside, however, I did find this to be an absorbing and entertaining story. I appreciated the care that the authors took in providing a range of women characters. The loss of men does not mean a loss of particular personality types. It just means a loss of people. I liked how this series made that clear without seeming to preach a feminist message. (Not that I’m against preaching feminist messages—this story just wasn’t the place for it. Better to let the story speak for itself.)
When I read apocalyptic fiction like this, it’s typical for me to be more interested in the set-up than in the resolution, and that was certainly the case here. I didn’t dislike the ending, but I didn’t close the book thinking, “Wow, that was perfect.” It was more like, “Huh. So that’s how it ended.” I’m still working out how I feel about the epilogue, which I found sort of moving and sort of silly. I do know that one character’s fate seemed to be more about shocking readers into an emotional reaction than about good story-telling. It was just such a cliche, which was disappointing. But the final moments are haunting in a good way. I especially liked the final image. It just felt right.