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I first heard about the long running series Y: The Last Man a few years ago and the concept intrigued me enough to pick up the first volume. I've been hooked ever since! It tells the story of a future where an unknown plague has simultaneously destroyed every sperm, fetus, and fully developed mammal with a Y chromosome. All except for one man who has inexplicably survived the plague with his pet monkey Ampersand (another male), and must try to survive in a new world where the women are running things (Poor sap).
While the ensuing chaos could come across as a little chauvinistic the dust cover gives a brief synopsis that offers a believable explanation for this to occur. On the day of the plague 495 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are dead along with 99% of all landowners, 95% of all commercial pilots, drivers and ship captains. Oh and 99% of the mechanics, electricians and construction workers too! Then it mentions how (at the time of writing) none of the United States female soldiers had been permitted to serve in ground combat, while in Iran it had been compulsory. So the world immediately stopped progressing because even in enlightened times the men had not given the women enough credit. As the book progresses you get to see how some women aren't exactly appreciative of this.
Then again, feminist rights are probably not the first thing you think of when you open this book. When the first line in a comic book is a blood-soaked woman screaming for help as her children are dying; you kind of conclude that this is not a story where Superman will swoop in and save the day. That is what DC's 'Vertigo' line specializes in though. Adult oriented stories that do not fit into the clichéd comic book trappings. Unfortunately this means that the language is a little too prevalent at times, and a few times images of a raunchy nature can pop up unexpectedly; although the latter is a surprisingly rare occurrence given the nature of the theme.
What about this first book in particular then? Well, in Unmanned you get an extremely good introduction into this crazy new world. The first chapter starts by showing the genderside, but then quickly reverts to 29 minutes earlier for a chilling countdown to the event at hand. In that time you will witness five separate plot threads involving main characters that may; or may not, have caused the cataclysmic event. One sees the main character Yorick Brown talking on the phone to his girlfriend Beth while his Mother (A U.S senator) argues over the passing of a mysterious new bill. At the same time a female agent is stealing an ancient amulet from Jordania, an American Doctor is giving birth to the world's first human clone, and a group of Iranian soldiers (led by a woman named Alter) are being shelled by American bombs. All these events coincidentally culminate at the exact second that all men on Earth start vomiting blood and dying; with the exceptions of Yorick and Ampersand of course.
I kind of liked that the book did not give an explicit reason for the event as each the above plot threads offer an explanation (ranging from the mystic, to the scientific, and even the philosophical) that would have come across as silly and unsatisfying on their own. However, by leaving it up to the readers interpretation author Brian Vaughan is able to hook you into his story and get on with it.
From that point on you get a good feel for how the storyline will develop in the future. Yorick decides that he doesn't want to end up as some 'stud for hire' that populates the Earth while the love of his life waits on her own in Australia. Since he will insist on setting out on his Odyssey to find her, the new president insists that he be joined by her greatest bodyguard Agent 355. Unfortunately they must first pay a visit to a certain Dr. Mann, who already successfully cloned one human (thereby making men redundant to nature) and may hold the key to humanities survival. Along the way they must try to avoid gun wielding republican wives, crazed Amazonian wannabes (who believe the Mother Earth selected women), and a group of Iranian soldiers who have become aware of Yorick's existence.
Throughout the journey Vaughan's writing gives a definite sense of importance to these events. His writing is sharp, but believable, and at times hilariously satirical. The emotions of his characters were palpable and the; sometimes very extreme, way that characters responded to them were understandable even when they weren't really excusable. It reminded me of a series like Heroes (first season) where the characters take precedence over the plot, and therefore behave in a believable way to an otherwise unbelievable situation. Dialogue tends to be extensive during somber moments (like Yorick realizing that his father has not survived) and is always free from the pompous speeches you would expect from the genre. In fact, the characters at points openly mock the traditional comic book conventions.
However it's in the writing of the lead characters that the book really shines. Yorick Brown made for a nice every day hero you actually wanted to route for, even when his personality quirks and tendency to charge into trouble should have annoyed. I also really enjoyed his interaction with Agent 355 which feels suspiciously like the 'best friend' banter in stories like this that inevitably causes romantic problems further down the line (Think Moonlighting with gun-toting republicans).
As far as the art work is concerned the team of Pia Guerra and Jose Marzan do a phenomenal job. The images are surprisingly bold and colorful for the subject, often appearing cartoony at first glance. Yet for some reason it all works. When something really horrible happens; like the death of all men, the over the top expressions paint the extreme emotions being felt so well. At the same time, because they are cartoony, they never look grotesque enough to draw you out of the experience. Plus, whenever action does occur (which it does) you get a greater sense of motion because of the lower detail, and so can enjoy the experience more.
At the end of the day Unmanned is the place to start if you are interested in Y: The Last Man, but it's also a fantastic story in its own right and really gives you a feel for the situation these characters are in. I would highly recommend it as a standalone story, except for the fact that it never pretends to be anything but the start of the journey. Y is a series that needs to be read from book one to book ten because otherwise it's just incomplete. So consider yourself warned.