It's a dark day in Washington sometime in the not-so-distant future. A deadly plague has attacked all the men on earth but spared the women, if you call being thrown into a post-apocalyptic nightmare full of psycho biker chicks and gun-toting Republican housewives being "spared." Only one man has survived, a 20-something slacker named Yorick Brown.
On this dark day, disguised as a woman to keep himself from being torn to bits by rabid Amazons and sex-starved survivors, he's joined a crowd of his sisters in front of the Washington Monument, which has become a de facto shrine to America's lost brothers, sons and husbands. As Yorick sits down to pay his respects to his own loved ones, the woman next to him confesses that she's not thinking about the men she knew and lost; she's thinking about Mick Jagger.
The two sit together in shock and reverently trade off names of the recently departed: Tom Waits, Neil Young, David Bowie, Bono, Bob Dylan, Radiohead -- the scene, which appears in Book 4 of the bestselling comic series "Y: The Last Man," is the best argument for the preeminence of men in rock 'n' roll since the Lilith Fair.
The world without men turns out to be a mess -- and not just because there's a dearth of rock stars. Trains crash. Planes, suddenly pilotless, plummet fatally to earth. The handful of women who comprise the remainder of the American government are left with almost no Secret Service to protect them. And for better or for worse, the stock market is a distant memory. Without men, it turns out, woman can't do jack -- there just aren't enough female electricians, engineers, nuclear technicians or surgeons to maintain the infrastructure that a so-called advanced civilization depends on.
What about sisterhood? Well, there is none. The widows of dead Republicans politicians attempt a coup, marauding street gangs battle over bicycles and motorcycles (the death of all men took place during rush hour, and left the highways glutted with wrecked autos and dead bodies, rendering cars all but obsolete), a rapidly expanding cult of modern-day Amazons (who chop off their right breasts in solidarity with one another) terrorize the cities, and the Israelis -- now the world's only superpower because women there have military training -- are Up To No Good.
Worse, even in this female-dominated world the main protagonist is a man, and not much of a man at that. When we first meet Yorick Brown, he's broke, unemployed and lounging upside down in his apartment (he's an amateur magician and escape artist as well). Not knowing what to do with his life, he's adopted a monkey -- yes, a monkey -- and bought an engagement ring he can't afford, and right before the end of the world as we know it, he's on the phone with his blond-bombshell girlfriend Beth in Australia, amping up to propose to her.
After the end of the world as we know it, and when he should have weightier things on his mind, all the Last Man can think about is getting to Beth. But everyone wants a piece of him. The new president of the United States -- formerly the secretary of agriculture and the highest-ranking woman in government -- wants to keep him safe, the DNA experts want him cloned, the Amazons want him dead, the Israelis want him for something sinister -- and they're all chasing him across the shambles of America as he makes his way to the West Coast to catch a boat to Australia, because Yorick, well, he just wants the Blonde.
All these girls chasing this boy chasing the girl, with nothing less than the future of the human race hanging in the balance, make for a terrific read, but not exactly an "empowering" one. With each new episode - there are 11 so far -- textbook feminism gets dealt another blow. The best and baddest woman in the whole book -- Agent 355, a tough, dreadlocked trained killer who's been assigned to protect Yorick and may or may not have had something to do with the death of all the men, is gradually falling in love with him. Yorick's sister Hero, who starts off as an apparently tough paramedic boinking a fireman in the back of an ambulance, ends up getting brainwashed by a Jonestown-style cult, chopping off her right boob and threatening her own brother with a bow and arrow. And Dr. Mann, the brilliant scientist and world's foremost living expert on cloning, calls her father's death "the only good thing to come out of this whole mess."
These characters don't live in a world in which the whole gender role problem has been solved, kind of like you and me. It's part of what makes the story so compelling: They're all confused, and reeling from the sudden shifts in expectations of what men and women are capable of and how they should be relating to each other -- it's real life, only to the nth degree.
Whether or not "Y: The Last Man" is a top-level comic book is a question best left to the aficionados, and I've tangled with enough of them to know they're an even more lethal breed of hairsplitters than indie-rock critics. Certainly, within its genre, Y can't compete with the stunning visuals of a classic like "The Dark Knight Returns" or the grim noir glamour of "The Watchmen," nor can it tap into the glorious chaotic adolescent angst of the original "X-Men." But New Line Cinema has optioned the rights to the series, and if the movie version is even half as honest and fun to read as the books, I'll be first in line to see it.
Just think of all the "Chicks kick ass" snooze-fests in spandex that we've been subjected to this year: "Matrix Reloaded," "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," "Lara Croft Tombraider," "Daredevil," "Terminator 3." Sure, the women do high kicks, wear cool leather costumes and supposedly give men some kind of comeuppance, but their biggest blow for equality is managing to be just as one-dimensional and boring as their male counterparts (Keanu anyone?).
What Guerra and Vaughan have given us, instead, is something the special-effects wizards in Hollywood seem to have forgotten all about: believable people doing their best to cope with unbelievable situations. Yorick, 355, Hero, Dr. Mann ... their motivations make sense. Who hasn't taken the low road for love, even stupid love, like Yorick, or fallen in with the wrong crowd, like Hero, or hated their parents, like Dr. Mann? If the characters are a bit two-dimensional -- it is, after all, proudly a comic book -- that's still twice as many dimensions as what's waiting for you at the multiplexes.