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If he were the last man

Special to The Times

Something special in comics is going away. “Y: The Last Man,” one of the more interesting comic book series of the last 20 years, up there with Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” and Alan Moore’s issues of “Swamp Thing,” is ending after a five-year run.

In “Y,” a plague has killed all male mammals aside from Yorick Brown and Ampersand, his ill-mannered capuchin monkey. Yorick is a likable innocent, barely out of virginity, but he is “jobless, behind on rent,” a Brooklyn slacker with negligible survival skills whose only talent is being an escape artist (he can pick most locks). Suddenly, he appears to be mankind’s last hope. Agent 355, a tough-to-the-bone young woman, is in charge of the hapless young man. They travel with Dr. Allison Mann, a brilliant scientist who may have the key to cloning all future humans. Half the story so far has been social commentary. With all the men dead save one, the next-in-line for the presidency was the Secretary of Agriculture -- no woman had a higher role in the U.S. government. Australia, which allowed women in combat, including as officers on submarines, came to rule the seas. But the United States has been mostly in chaos.

Yorick is one of those men who manages because others, mostly women, manage his life. Agent 355 spends pages yelling at him, pulling him out of scrapes. In later issues, the story appeared to be going toward that subtly sexist genre, the male bildungsroman -- the growing-up story where the whole world seems to conspire to turn junior into a man. The surprise is that it doesn’t. Yorick never grows up.

“Y: The Last Man” is, in truth, a failed love story between 355, the bruised and brutal woman, and the young idealist whom life passed over and thus allowed to stay kind. (One is aware of the vast unfairness: Yorick is one of the pampered people of the world; 355 is the sort who allows gentle worlds to exist by guarding them.) But the moment Yorick realized whom he really loved, 355 died.

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The final issue takes place 60 years later. It becomes clear that, actually, Yorick wasn’t the center of the story of humanity’s salvation -- men weren’t needed at all. He was never central, only a side note. Dr. Mann, who dies, is the world’s hero. She has finally figured out how to clone women, and, with the help of Ampersand’s DNA, how to clone men. But while cloning has repopulated the human race, few men have been made.

In this issue, Yorick’s daughter, Beth, has become president of France. Yorick never really helped Dr. Mann with her cloning research; he left his longtime traveling companion once she had the samples she needed. After marrying the mother of his daughter, Yorick stayed around to be a father for eight years, then flew the coop. He spent the rest of his life a wanderer, his only friend Ampersand. Yorick lives the life of a permanent slacker, and it’s a sad fate. In the final issue, he’s an elderly suicide risk secretly imprisoned.

The final issue begins with a new agent of the Culper Ring, 355’s old spy organization, escorting a 22-year-old Yorick-clone to meet the president of France, who is her father’s keeper. “Uh . . . sire? No wait. ‘Sir.’ Sir, right?” says the young agent. Men are so rare, she’s never seen one before. The president hopes that if the original Yorick sees one of his “sons,” it might snap him out of his melancholia. Yorick has become an old man surrounded by monkeys cloned from his deceased pet. He’s still an escape artist; it seems his only goal, as it has been all his life, is to escape. And his final act is a grand, tragic one.

It’s a good thing “Y” is ending. The story arc feels complete. The series’ feminism was edgy five years ago, but is so no longer. As a man who chose nonparticipation in life as a moral stance, Yorick is a Gen-X anti-hero, and the series is a comic-book masterpiece.

Yorick is well-meaning, intelligent, thoughtful, and, ultimately, irrelevant. He’s the everyman we all hope we aren’t.

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Laurel Maury is a New York- based writer and critic.


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