I knew there was going to be trouble when the monkey started screaming.
Let me start over. I've never been entirely comfortable with Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra's Y: The Last Man, a comic about the last male survivor in a world where all the other men have been wiped out by a mysterious plague. People routinely cite the series as proof that mainstream comics companies can produce mature, intelligent non-superhero work, but while the early issues seemed full of promise, it's never quite won me over. My problems with the comic finally crystallized, and their origins became apparent, in the most recent issue, the conclusion of a five-part story about Yorick Brown's immunity to the plague and an interminable two-year-plus trek across the United States.
As the concluding chapter opens, Yorick's pet monkey Ampersand, the source of his immunity and therefore the key to saving the human race, has been stolen by a mysterious sword-wielding Japanese woman. Despite the fact that the monkey has been outfitted with a secret transponder (a plot twist that one of the characters comments is wildly implausible - never a good sign), and despite the fact that the heroes have access to the tracking device, they track him by following his shrieks through the streets of San Francisco.
This pursuit leads our heroes from what appears to be Chinatown (or some other neighborhood with Asian signage and orientalized lampposts) all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge - all that distance, just on monkey shrieks. That still makes more sense than the beginning of the scene, where Yorick wanders around looking for the monkey, and Agent 355 somehow finds Yorick, with no leads whatsoever.
Incidentally, I've walked to the Golden Gate Bridge from the North Beach/Fisherman's Wharf area, which is much closer than Chinatown, and trust me,
a) the bridge is surrounded by parkland, quite a hike from any area as densely developed as the neighborhood we see on pages 3 and 4, and
b) that's one long-ass way to follow a shrieking monkey.
Fortunately, there's no one else in sight save for our heroes and the nefarious villain. Convenient, that; the characters' aimless searches almost seem plausible if there's nobody else in San Francisco to get in their way. The first episode of this story showed a city that was populous enough to host professional sports and fill a stadium doing it, but after the second chapter all the civilians disappear. In fact, save for a brief walk-on by a doomed police officer they disappear midway through the first chapter - even that staple of bad 70s action sequences, the cable car, is completely deserted, its operator a vague shadow glimpsed in just one panel.
My point isn't that Vaughan and Guerra get the details wrong or that the setting isn't "realistic" enough; my point is that they haven't really constructed a setting at all. The San Francisco in "Ring of Truth" is a couple of flats, a studio backlot suitable for staging predictable fights in ostensibly dramatic locations like the Golden Gate Bridge (although as Guerra's art never once captures a sense of the bridge's height or scale, any potential drama is wasted). The rest of the final issue, its plotting and blocking and dialogue, is equally cardboard as Vaughan dutifully recycles action-movie standards with all the excitement of a clerk ticking off items on a checklist:
This isn't mature, intelligent comics, it's Tango & Cash.
Such fundamental stupidity may be a key part of Y's relative success at positioning itself in the comics market. With this title and Ex Machina, another comic with grand aspirations and a disappointing execution, Brian K. Vaughan has perhaps supplanted Warren Ellis as the most lauded writer of smart comics that aren't actually all that smart. His comics never challenge the reader and they may not even achieve basic technical competence. (Frothier mouths than mine have already identified Vaughan's poor command of storytelling fundamentals.) I would say Y teaches us that it's easier to craft a commentary on gender than it is to write a decent fight scene, except that after thirty-one issues Y hasn't said much of interest about gender either. The ideas are typically as timid as the storytelling, although with this particular issue that would admittedly be difficult.
Perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps not, Vaughan has supplanted Ellis in another damnable if impressive trait; he's figured out how to dollop out the secrets and plot twists just fast enough that, until now, I've kept reading the series despite its many flaws. This issue is no exception, with a timely revelation that answers old questions while opening up new story possibilities. Vaughan is quite adept at placing these revelations for maximum impact (usually using another hoary old standard, the page 22 splash, although Guerra's art isn't dynamic enough to fully exploit this superhero comic device), but that's no longer enough to keep me buying this comic month in and month out. As an ongoing series, Y: The Last Man offers some compelling soap opera; as a series of story arcs, it's pompous, bloated, and much lazier than it ever lets on.
This latest storyline contains some powerful indicators that now is the time to abandon ship. Just as Vaughan has characters openly questioning his plot twists, he's also got them expressing exhaustion with his stylistic tics. In the first chapter, Agent 355 begins to rattle off one of the factoids so common to Vaughan's writing:
355: Anyway, the top bitch back there calls herself Anna Strong, name of a revolutionary war spy who used her clothesline to send coded signals to -
YORICK: Who gives a crap?
Not I, Yorick. Not I.