Fans of Brian K. Vaughn’s comic series Y The Last Man (YTLM) have been buzzing this September as FX and Hulu release weekly episodes of the story’s TV adaptation. As of this writing, only five episodes are available for viewing, and I, for one, like where the show is going, particularly in contrast with the original narrative.
For those unaware, YTLM’s premise centers around that old writing prompt: What would happen in this world if all the men suddenly died? And what if one lived? In the story, an inexplicable, catastrophic Event leaves every last male mammal on Earth dead, except one human, Yorick Brown, and his pet monkey, Ampersand. Yorick and Amp become the reluctant protagonists in the tale as they travel across the post-apocalyptic United States with a guide who calls herself Agent 355 to find the legendary geneticist Dr. Allison Mann and participate in experimental genetics research which might allow the human race to go on a while longer. Being the last living man, Yorick is in constant danger from people who want to kill him, or trade him, or any number of other possibilities. And being Yorick, he’s constantly putting his life and that of 355 and other companions along the way at risk.
This premise is inherently problematic, of course: the idea that “all men'' is any one thing that could be easily determined is, scientifically speaking, bullshit. In fact, the concept of a person’s chromosomes being a pre determining factor in their destiny is called “gender essentialism” and is the most striking flaw in Vaughn’s highly popular comic.
Fortunately, the show’s creators have a very different message for their audience. With the exception of Yorick (played by Ben Schnetzer) the Event does kill all the cisgender men, that is true, but there are many, many men left alive, just “None with a Y chromosome,” as the new President of the United States (incidentally Yorick’s mother, played by Diane Lane) says in the first episode. A few episodes later, the geneticist Allison Mann (Diana Bang) gives Yorick a lesson in genetics, explaining that gender is far more complicated than XX or XY. She gave the example of the condition called Swyer Syndrome, in which people who have every indication of being female have XY chromosomes and therefore would have died with the rest. She said, “We didn’t lose MEN. We lost PEOPLE.” They have changed the narrative from “all men” to “all people with a Y chromosome,” which is proper, inclusive, 2021 language.
While the comic made little or no mention of transgender people, the show has a main character who is a trans man. Sam (played by trans actor Elliot Fletcher) is the best friend and travel partner of Yorick’s sister Hero (Olivia Thirlby). Sam finds himself in a brave new world where his transness is no longer a danger to him, but his masculinity is. He must explain himself at every turn, at least in the beginning. Sam has other problems as well: the testosterone which keeps him feeling and looking like himself is now one of the rarest commodities on the planet. Millions of other trans men are looking for the hormone too. Sam’s need for testosterone is the driving force behind him begging Hero to take him to her mother, President Brown, and leading them on a wild adventure that lands them on the doorstep of the group known as Daughters of the Amazon.
The Amazons are another problematic part of the comics, in my opinion. Remember, if you will, that Vaughn is a cisgender, heterosexual white man, and his views reflect that. So the Amazons are his nightmare version of Feminists: they hate men, blame them for the entire state of the world, refer to them as abusers and tormentors. The Amazons are militant to the point of cultism, and burn off their left breasts (in the storied fashion of the original Amazon women) to make using a bow and arrows more efficient. When they learn of the existence of Yorick, it becomes their mission to hunt him down and kill him in order to completely purge the earth of the poison of men. And in the comic, Hero is an Amazon, tasked with finding and murdering her brother.
The one flaw I’d like to point out is that, in the show, Hero and Sam are taken in by the Amazons, and they accept Sam’s transness, but they do not put him out the door. This is coded as tolerant, but is also backhandedly missing the mark: they don’t consider him to be a “real” man. His masculinity depends on a Y chromosome he doesn’t have.
Now that we’ve ticked off transphobia and nightmare feminism, I have one more complaint to mention regarding the comics: the casual, repeated use of the r-word. It might be because of my neurodivergence, but every time I’m reading along in YTLM and encounter Yorick or Dr. Mann or someone else calling another human ret*rded, I get sick to my stomach. It’s a disgusting slur, and one that by 2002 should not have been in use. The show, for what it’s worth, has never once shown a character uttering that word, but they also have done, thus far, not much to counteract it. I have some small hope for future episodes; only half have been released thus far.
These comics were written less than twenty years ago, and the issues we encounter with them were already on the social radar by that time. I think Vaughn could have given more thought to the sensibilities he was portraying when he wrote his commentary on what might happen to society in this situation.
For all the problems with the original text, the television series is doing a stellar job of making it right. The comic has such a deep and committed fanbase, pleasing everyone is a fine line. I believe they’re walking it neatly, staying true to the spirit of the characters while updating the ideals. It’s difficult work. I don’t envy the people making this show, but I do appreciate them.
For another deep dive into comic adaptations, check out Mike Gorgone's article "Age of Adaptation".