Y: The Last Man, a planned sixty issue series from DC’s Vertigo imprint by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, presents a unique opportunity to trace the possibilities for engagement with traumatic situations in specific spaces and times. In particular, the volumes “Girl on Girl” and “Safeword” illustrate the opposition of queerness and heteronormativity, a binary that, in normative political discourse, often relies on its own binaries of local/global and private/public in order to distinguish positive from negative. In this essay, after looking at many seemingly-obvious but ultimately unproductive readings, I reject the simple oppositional dynamic between these forces, in a way that parallels Lauren Berlant’s call for more analysis of “modes of subjectivity that are disorganized, or noncoherent, or negative” (Berlant, “Critical Inquiry, Affirmative Culture” 449). Finally, I move beyond merely valorizing the appropriate political position to a more flexible and dynamic figuring of productive action, which allows individuals to articulate a self capable of intervention into complex stagings of conflict.
Y: The Last Man centers on Yorick Brown, who, along with his pet helper monkey, Ampersand, are the only survivors of a mysterious plague that instantaneously wipes out all males of every species on the planet. Though his Congresswoman mother wants him to remain in the White House and repopulate humanity, Yorick insists on traveling to Australia in search of his fiancée, Beth. But his desires are put on hold until he, along with covert governmental assassin and bodyguard Agent 355, find Dr. Leslie Mann and aid her attempts to find a cure. After a brief stop in a Colorado cabin to stage a suicide intervention – the subject of “Safeword” – Dr. Mann discovers that Ampersand caused Yorick’s immunity, just in time for the monkey’s kidnapping, prompting an oceanic journey aboard a cargo ship run by pirates, which takes place during “Girl on Girl.”
At first glance, the “Girl on Girl” storyline of Y: The Last Man appears queer in a manner designed to evoke male-targeted pornography, from title to content. Dr. Mann, the narrative’s ironically named lesbian, engages in a passionate tryst with Agent 355 aboard a cargo ship full of female sailors, with a submarine full of Australian Navy women in pursuit. However, this queer encounter only serves as a subplot to a decidedly heteronormative story: a linear, globally focused buddy-cop tale of intrigue and espionage on the high seas, full of one-liners, clichés, gender-based jokes, and an eventual victory by the good ‘guys.’ In keeping with the pattern established throughout the comic, no sooner does Yorick disguise himself – via gas mask, burqa, or in this case, a box in the cargo hold – but his masculinity is discovered. The stowaway is taken to Captain Kilina, who is introduced in a panel of half-dressed titillation, and her evaluation that Yorick is not just another one of “those she-he’s the slave runners are selling outta the Philippines” asserts a flippant if not dismissive gender politics, and reveals the story’s privileging of international politics over local identity (Girl on Girl 15). Despite Yorick’s protestations that he has a girlfriend, he and Kilina share a passionate kiss, thereby unsettling his bond of monogamous heterosexual partnership with a moment of irrational desire. The consequences for Yorick and Kilina are momentary expressions of guilt and uncertainty, rather than a challenging of their identities as isolated captain and devoted boyfriend, and are quickly subsumed into a larger story that is concerned with actions that affect societies, rather than individuals.
Heterosexual intimacy between Kilina and Yorick is quickly juxtaposed with queer intimacy between his companions on the quest. Dr. Mann and 355 are framed in a comfortable domestic scene as they read and knit on a single bed in their cabin. After fantasizing briefly about their lives after the quest to save humanity, 355 tries on Dr. Mann’s glasses, and, literally seeing as the latter sees, initiates sex. The audience discovers Dr. Mann’s lesbianism in “Safeword,” but 355 has always been coded as straight, and potentially interested in Yorick: the comic deals with both issues first by having 355 deny loving Yorick except in “the way a panther loves her helpless, annoying cub. As briefly as she has to,” and second by using the metaphorical shortcut of altered vision to explain the shifting orientation of her desire (Girl on Girl 24). The comic’s immediate cut from lesbian romance to a spy aboard ship establishes parallels among the spy, 355, and Kilina, allowing them to share in a sexuality that is dangerous, violent, secretive and transgressive. A seasick Yorick in search of Dramamine discovers the couple, and his interruption plays on the voyeuristic lesbian fantasy while simultaneously dispelling 355’s moment of queerness. 355’s immediate reaction is discomfort and excuses, and her focus on chasing Yorick to explain the situation only supports the idea that she cares for him, while Yorick’s bitter jokes about slash fiction imply the same, making the conflict heterosexual rather than queer. Yet Yorick’s discomfort with 355 and Dr. Mann’s encounter only provides a brief pause in the larger narrative, which consistently interrupts these personal intimacies with an insistence on global concerns. Whatever issues of desire, sexuality, and intimacy might be raised by this same-sex encounter, they are dismissed by 355’s blunt declaration that “It’s done, Allison. Last night was a mistake. There’s nothing else to – (Girl on Girl 51).” A moan from the injured spy cuts off her rejection, and shifts the story’s emphasis from Yorick and his companions to global conflicts and their effects on local lives. In this context, “local” refers to particular concerns located in specific places, which often appear detached from larger dynamics of cause and effect, and “global” to transnational structures of power which forge connections between disparate localities in the pursuit of a greater good, however that may be defined.
The art in “Girl on Girl” emphasizes connections between global events and their local ramifications, consistently moving from the plague, the traumatic and inescapable origin of Y: The Last Man, to the local suffering that it causes. As Rose explains that she is not a spy but rather a member of the Royal Australian Navy, infiltrating the ship so as to destroy the heroin it is transporting, the comic frames her story of how “it all started” with two pages of wide panels arranged vertically, pulling the narrative briefly down a straight, unwavering line from past to present, and from global cause to local effects (Girl on Girl 57; Figure 1). Rose suggests that, after nearly all law enforcement agents died, and the U.S. desperately needed resources to fuel global trade, some “clever farm girl” decided to use national parks to grow opium crops, and turned to “one of the few countries that still had its shit together. Mine” to export her goods, with predictable results (Girl on Girl 57). The images begin with a shot of dead DEA agents, and then move from a national park before and after the opium plan to the Sydney Opera House, fast-forwarding through the two years since the plague and locating the viewer inside it on the next page, layering an inset of a haggard woman shooting up over a full-page, red-toned panel of dead and dying women collapsed in seats and on the stage. The art telescopes forward in time, highlighting the story’s focus on a linear movement from a global cause to its urgent local effects, and underscoring the importance of a shared traumatic past to the specific conflict aboard ship.
Once 355 asserts that the captured spy does not deserve medical attention, her identity of government agent and assassin clashes with Dr. Mann’s own of healer, and any possibility for a relationship between them dies. Personal concerns such as these are secondary to the upcoming battle between cargo ship and submarine, and the argument between Kilina and Yorick’s companions over the ethics of drug trafficking. By establishing the narrative necessity of global considerations in order to understand and engage local events, the telescoping art of “Girl on Girl” relies on a simplistic hierarchy: if a global event is the source and explanation for the local scene between Kilina’s ship and the attacking submarine, then this particular interaction is only important as a reaction, an effect, rather than a situation which should be ethically resolved for its own sake, and change of any significance must necessarily take place on a global scale.
“Girl on Girl” continually tables the individual conflicts of desire that Yorick and his companions experience in favor of pursuing the causal relationship between global affairs and individual suffering, as issues of economics, disease, slavery, law and order, and international trade play out aboard ship. It is significant that the ethical complexities Rose and Kilina voice during their confrontation in the captain’s cabin are given consideration, even arbitrated by Yorick, who refuses to take sides in their dispute because, though he had previously advocated imprisoning a drug dealer for life, “That was two years ago, Doc. I was a naïve little kid back then. I didn’t understand how … how complicated shit could be” (Girl on Girl 72). Though Yorick perceives that the relationship between global and local is more complicated than Rose or Kilina assert, his quest to save the world by restoring it to its prior state requires constant movement, which keeps him detached from particular local contexts except insofar as how they help or hinder the mission. Further, focusing on the goal of restoration means accepting that the post-plague world is flawed, and can only be changed through constant effort toward global survival; Yorick cannot afford to engage in other local or global battles, and his situation does not provide him the means to determine what should be done in them.
The argument about drug trafficking only becomes important through the artistic and narrative emphasis on the locality of this particular ship in this particular moment, but underscoring the significance of this locality relies not only on making a telescoped connection to a global catastrophe as source, origin, and unforgettable cause, but also on ignoring concerns that are not local, but private. Rose’s story is not, for example, about her mother’s heroin addiction or her own, but about the plight of her country, and Yorick’s budding feelings for Kilina only register as an occasion for individual mourning, rather than being as important to the issue at hand, once a torpedo hits the ship and takes her down with it. Furthermore, her death happens offscreen; the artwork and story follow Yorick as she ensures his survival instead of her own, which suggests that what is important is Yorrick’s survival and the ability to continue his quest. The local that “Girl on Girl” engages is external, about conflicts between countries and individuals that have moral and ethical, not personal resonances. The desires that Yorick, 355, and Dr. Mann struggle with while aboard the ship have little relevance to the narrative, which does not even resolve the ethical dilemma in the local sense, but instead literally explodes it and lets the debris fall where it may. This particular conflict has little to no effect on the global issues that caused, or resulted from, the growing heroin trade; Kilina’s is just one ship that won’t be reopening the sea trade between East and West. “Girl on Girl” suggests that Yorick’s quest, not Kilina or Rose’s, is crucial to global change, which can only happen on a scale much larger than this particular locality. Thus, the primacy given to global themes and the traditional adventure narrative over messy issues of local conflict and same-sex desire render “Girl on Girl” more heteronormative than queer.
Just as “Girl on Girl” appears queer on initial examination, a storyline that takes place two volumes earlier, “Safeword,” first appears heteronormative. Needing a place to sleep during their journey, and one that will be safe for Yorick while Dr. Mann and 355 seek medical treatment for Ampersand, the group visits one of 355’s fellow agents, 711, in her remote mountain cabin. Once alone, 711 drugs Yorick and stages a suicide intervention using bondage, humiliation, threatened rape, and attempted murder. Because the central characters are male and female, because 711 asserts Yorick’s heroic destiny as the father/savior of mankind, and because the intervention is coded in a highly sexual way, “Safeword” registers as heteronormative. However, a deeper reading reveals themes usually associated with queer narratives: the narrative focus is on Yorick’s private issues; the story is rife with fantasy, symbolism, hallucination, and layers of meaning; and the intervention itself depends upon an intimate negotiation with the memory, history, and temporality of trauma.
Just as the art in “Girl on Girl” illustrates the trauma that connects both sides of the global and local binary, complicating both their interactions and the options for social change, the art in “Safeword” illustrates the effects of public trauma on a private and internal psyche. Two similar panels, placed on the penultimate page of the first issue in the volume (Figure 2) and the opening page of the next, destabilize artistic and narrative conventions by using them for internal expression rather than exterior location. Both pages have a similar three-panel layout: Yorick in close-up, white text on black background, and Yorick from farther away. Though white on black text is normally used in this comic to establish setting, and thus is a voice of an objective, exterior world, both of these center panels contain dialogue, and rely on the images below them to place Yorick in context: 711, having drugged Yorick into unconsciousness, states, “Yorick, you need to wake up,” and he is then revealed to be bound from the ceiling (Safeword 26). The first page in the next issue introduces Yorick’s hallucinations, for just after he asks, “Where the Hell Am I,” the following panel reveals Yorick dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, joined by 355 as the Scarecrow and Dr. Mann as the Tin Man (Safeword 29). This initial hallucination, along with his brief vision of 711 as a giant fly, hint at memories of violation and shame that will be revealed later on, and immediately connect hallucinations, unconsciousness, and traumatic memory as altered states with something in common. 711 justifies calling Yorick a faggot with the evidence of 355’s journals, which report that the last man on earth hasn’t had sex since the plague, and then demands that he recount his first gay experience. The color composition shifts from dark red and orange tones to the cool green of childhood memory as Yorick recalls a childhood game of a capture and escape turning to molestation. Yorick insists that “It’s not my secret origin,” that this experience does not define his identity or tell some secret ‘truth’ about him, repudiating the mythology of superheroes and their formative origin traumas (Safeword 37). 711 pursues the idea that his molestation can be used to explain Yorick: “Is that why you became an escape artist? So you could get free if something like that happened again? Or is it because you like remembering the way it felt?” (Safeword 37). But Yorick is no longer willing to confess his secrets, and 711 has to drug him to recover the memory of his first time with a girl, which happens to have been his fiancée, Beth.
The memory takes place over three pages, and their unusual composition not only reflects Yorick’s drugged state, but the nature of traumatic memory. Four literally depicted Polaroids that fade in as though developing take up the first page, all of them identical but for the unpunctuated and rambling narrative explaining their decision to have sex. The sex itself takes place on the next page, and is portrayed through overlapping, out-of-sequence snapshots in a similar Polaroid style, with sound effects scattered throughout in closed-off word bubbles, detached from a speaker (Figure 3). The only way to read this panel is in a fractured, three-dimensional line that moves up and down through images and fractures as it reaches the end of the page, rather than in telescopic, concrete and direct line of descent. The only narration is in white text, written on a tissue box, and the text both contextualizes the box’s placement and the multiple times at play on the page: “She told me I could finish, but not inside her. I ended on her stomach, and we laughed, uncomfortable” (Safeword 40). The snapshots exist simultaneously and can be read in any order, but their juxtaposition with other objects on the page allows them to represent both active event and objects in space. This blurring between present moment and memory becomes more complicated when it is read in concert with the tissue box and Yorick’s hand reaching for it on the page, which are images from after the sex scene, as well as the text itself, reminding the reader that Yorick is recalling this story years later. The panel thus contains four potential times and places in simultaneous space, layering retelling, remembering, and visual record over actual experience in a fluid and nonlinear representation of memory.
Unlike the telescoping effect used in “Girl on Girl” to move from global to local and past to present, the use of snapshot images in “Safeword” suggests that memory occurs in repetitions and out-of-sequence recollections that are highly posttraumatic, without contextualization or linear determination of what happened, when, and what matters about it. The use of snapshots rather than telescoping images reflects a narrative focus that, unlike “Girl on Girl,” only engages the public by referencing the plague, a traumatic past that every survivor shares. By presenting Yorick’s memory, trauma, and desire through fragmented images, “Safeword” concerns itself with private and internal issues that refuse ordering and rational context. The division of public/private is often allied with heteronormative/queer, often using one term to define another. Lauren Berlant utilizes Michael Warner to define heteronormative culture as “a public culture, juridical, economic, aesthetic, organized for the promotion of a world-saturating heterosexuality,” whose public nature stems from an abstract, universal conception of democratic nationality that is upheld as both the reality and the right promised to citizens, who then live apparently unmarked by structures of power (Berlant, Queen of America 16). Private, on the other hand, can be understood in terms of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s description of the closet, a secret and unacknowledged state that cannot access publicly recognized and accepted spaces, but instead coalesces secret knowledges, confessions, traumas, and inexpressible selves (Sedgwick 71-90). While telescoping is concerned with time, cause and effect, and understanding a global prior context that informs local events, snapshots are moments out of time, out of order, images detached from particular spaces and times because they contained within a wholly private individual memory.
The third page of Yorick’s memory of sex with Beth is the aftermath, and the art follows his narration from “the next morning” to what he witnesses, moving closer as though with a microscope as he reveals a secret shame: the tissue taken from the box on the previous page, used to clean up his seed, is now covered in flies, “feasting on my lust, my depravity … my weakness” (Safeword 41). Yorick claims that this is “the most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen,” and when 711 asks whether he even enjoys sex, and if so, why not have sex with her, he recalls further moments of shame – having the sex talk with his father, being humiliated by his sister, and a disturbing speech from a priest about mortal sin – but refuses to voice them, only insisting that he has a girlfriend (Safeword 41). As 711 demands that he have sex with her, finally forcing him to swallow what she claims is Viagra, the ironic use of the title “Safeword” becomes clear. Yorick has been denied the safety of a consensual engagement with D/s, and the power of refusal that a safeword provides; indeed, this story is not really about sex acts at all, despite 711’s flattery and seductive clothing. The intimacy of the sex scene taking place depends on the exploration of multiple desires, the play between the pains and pleasures those desires cause, and elements of danger, tension and transgression, which appear inextricable from the sexuality of the D/s intervention.
The most persuasive argument that 711 makes depends on Yorick’s public obligation to spread his seed for humanity, and though this method is just another stage in the intervention, neither Yorick nor the reader knows this at the time, which makes it all the more convincing. Yorick’s eventual compliance does not depend entirely on persuasion, however. Before she uses that tactic, 711 calls him a child, and claims he’s living in denial: “Yorick, you survived a plague that wiped out nearly three billion people! Three! Billion! Do you honestly expect me to believe the worst thing you’ve ever seen is a few bugs?” (Safeword 46) This prompts Yorick to remember the sight outside his apartment after the plague hit, and this full-page panel of blood, bodies, and a mother holding her miscarried son is so horrifying that the memory makes Yorick close his eyes in resistance. Only two pages later, Yorick gives in, because he does not want to remember, he does not want to recall and re-experience what he saw. Indeed, he would rather give up his own desires, including his love for Beth, rather than engage his experience of the plague, whose effects, both private and personal, have become a kind of secret origin. He does not tell 711 that he is tired of abstinence, that he wants sex, but that he wants “the pain to end,” a pain rooted in trauma, not in sexual torment (Safeword 52). Having broken his resistance, 711 takes Yorick to an underground pool and confronts him with his suicidal impulses, first by demanding the truth about why he constantly endangers his life, and then by dunking him until he confesses.
Yorick flashes back to three days after the plague, when he ventured out into the streets and discovers a police officer that killed herself, and realizes that “if some tough broad from New York’s finest couldn’t make it in this world,” he had no chance (Safeword 60). Yorick takes the cop’s gun but is unable to kill himself, and though he claims it is because he decided to live for Beth and his family, 711 claims he was simply too much of a coward, and knew that if he sought out danger, someone would end up killing him. Yorick begs 711 to help him die, and she agrees to grant his wish, leading to another instance of microscoping images, which close in on Yorick’s underwater face as he moves inward toward epiphany. While underwater, Yorick suddenly perceives himself floating in space, surrounded by light, and turns to see something off-page that he responds to with an “oh” as it illuminates his face (Safeword 64; Figure 4). Breaking free of the water and 711, Yorick declares that he doesn’t want to die, and 711 explains that the intervention is “a form of aversion therapy … based on the idea that your sexuality and your mortality are indissoluble elements of—” but here 711 is interrupted, and the audience never learns the rational justification for Yorick’s journey (Safeword 67). Every aspect of this transcendent process emphasizes the mystery and secrecy that are necessary to its success: the intervention remains unexplained; 711 not only refuses to let Yorick tell her what he saw but insists that he keep it to himself; the audience is denied privileged access to Yorick’s epiphany; and because the “journey” is specific to the individual, it is doubtful whether Yorick’s knowledge would be useful to others, even if he were able to adequately express it (Safeword 68).
Though “Safeword” mysteriously transforms Yorick’s suicidal impulses into a desire to live, the intervention does not manage to extend his understanding past his body, which makes the volume concerned with private rather than public trauma in fundamental – and limiting – ways. Ann Cvetkovich gives us a way to think about the relationship between trauma and political action. She frames trauma not as a pathological problem that requires fixing or an inescapable wound that cripples, but “instead as a social and cultural discourse that emerges in response to the demands of grappling with the psychic consequences of historical events” (Cvetkovich 18). The plague is a public experience of trauma because all survivors experienced it as a world-altering event, though its effects obviously vary. Yorick’s own experience is informed by survivor guilt and the burden of being seen as the world’s savior, but his own response and recovery are characterized in private and inaccessible terms: rather than cope, and actively pursue his quest to help the world survive, he rejects the responsibility that his survival places upon him. Further, once he regains his purpose, it is limited to a desire to live, rather than to pass on his epiphany, or to take up a role in the world through testifying about his new knowledge. Instead, his journey engages his circumstances without making connections to the nearly three billion women who also survived, and does not encourage Yorick to contribute to a discourse that would channel this trauma for a public good. This intervention is private, rather than public, and though it allows Yorick to engage and work through past trauma, it offers no guidelines on how to live with trauma’s remains.
A reading that valorizes “Safeword” because of its queerness and condemns “Girl on Girl” because of its heteronormativity, however, is unsatisfying. An unproblematic privileging of the queerness in question appears to foreclose the possibility of engaging the global, given the relentless dependence on a global cause that cannot be altered locally in “Girl on Girl,” and the incommunicable knowledge gained from wholly private change in “Safeword.” Yorick’s suicide intervention exposes the importance of confronting his singular survival, and “Safeword” supports Cvetkovich’s claim that “the memories retrieved in order to heal from trauma are not just memories of what happened in any simple sense,” but also include responses to the memories and their effects, such as his memories of sexual trauma, his continuing desire for death, and his rejection of the role of mankind’s savior (Cvetkovich 98). The artistic representations of trauma in “Safeword” demonstrate how past events reappear in fragments, references, and hauntings, from snapshots and layered panels of remembered shame to the image of Yorick’s face moving inward relentlessly as he is about to die, illustrating the volume’s themes of memory, storytelling, coming to consciousness, mystery, and transformation. And to consider the end of “Girl on Girl,” his response to learning of Kilina’s death – that “every woman I meet dies” – is not actually true, but Yorick’s words suggest that this is death is connected to the female cop’s suicide in his traumatic memory, as well as the many others he has witnessed since (Girl on Girl 97). Each death that he encounters both recalls and repeats the memory, and while the intervention of “Safeword” provides him with an opposing desire to the response of killing himself, it does not heal the original trauma or prevent its reoccurrence.
711 stages a momentary “queer healing practice,” which “would turn negative affect or trauma on its head, but by embracing rather than refusing it,” but that practice is only temporary, and stops at the limits of Yorick’s body inside the cabin (Cvetkovich 88-9). However encouraging a purely celebratory queer reading of “Safeword” may be, the story ends with a mysterious epiphany that offers nothing but the encouragement to live, and Cvetkovich asserts that the ability to find productive power in trauma involves linking fantasy and need, pleasure and pain, resulting in a protagonist who must “be unafraid to make her own painful experience the source of agency and pleasure” (Cvetkovich 104). Yorick and his companions are on a quest to bring back males of all species, to heal the world by returning it to a time before the plague, but Yorick’s engagement with his pain has not granted him a source of agency. And without a ‘practice’ that allows for engagement with others and negotiation with the world, whether in particular localities or when confronted with the global, Yorick’s queer knowledge remains inexpressibly, inaccessibly within him.
Because a particular global trauma provides a shared cause for the world Yorick and his companions encounter, it hints at intersections between the global and local and the public and private that occur in the space of local effects, from starvation and addiction to piracy and celibacy. Each volume moves through the memory and effects of traumatic experience, circulates complex desires, and contains individuals coping in often queer ways, from seeking death to seeking same-sex solace. The destructive effects of the intimacies Yorick, Dr. Mann, and 355 engage in aboard ship in “Girl on Girl” cannot be entirely laid at the door of mankind’s destruction, but the circumstances, as well as the intimate desires at play, are inextricably connected to Y: The Last Man‘s narrative of global trauma. Thus, trauma blurs the borders between the seeming polarities of global/local, public/private, and even heteronormative/queer, revealing that the two stories contain elements of both/all.
However, supplanting the reading that “Girl on Girl” is really heteronormative while “Safeword” is really queer with one that balances elements of both leads to Sedgwick’s observation that contemporary theory has an “impoverishing reliance on a bipolar analytic framework that can all too adequately be summarized as ‘kinda subversive, kinda hegemonic'” (Sedgwick and Frank 500). Determining that all texts contain potentially transformative as well as normative themes often leads to evaluating individual examples according to the particular percentage breakdown between binaries, allowing the reader to valorize subversive texts and reject ones found useless to the project of social change. Binaries remain intact, individuals choose sides of ideological battles to support, and simplistic readings of social and individual contexts remain unchallenged. “Safeword” supports intimate engagement with trauma as a method of individual healing that goes no further, and the events of “Girl on Girl” appear to deny personal desires in favor of always-limited attempts to solve local effects of global issues, thus rendering both approaches incomplete. Any struggle to choose between them merely reinforces the idea that there are only two options, and one must be the ‘right answer;’ that answer is usually conceived of as a rejection of heteronormativity in favor of establishing queerness as the new norm, somehow all-inclusive yet restrictive to none. Picking sides, however, leaves the assumptions on which these binaries are based unquestioned, and ignores the significant problems that result when Yorick’s desire comes into conflict with his role as mankind’s hero.
The massive amounts of trauma Yorick experiences in the text aside – as though sexual violence and humiliation, global catastrophe, suicidal impulses, the constant witnessing of death, his sister’s attempt to murder him, and not knowing whether his fiancée is alive weren’t enough – the most significant problem he faces is the constant role of heroic savior that he unwillingly represents and is called upon to perform. From the moment in the first volume when his Congresswoman mother argues that his job is to remain safe and impregnate America, to the Israeli army’s continual attempts to ensure their own country’s future by kidnapping him, Yorick’s identity and desires are continually under attack by national and international power. That power’s negation of his identity is literalized in his desire to kill himself: upon seeing the cop who could no longer live in a world free of patriarchy, Yorick envies the men whose struggles are over, and recognizes that “the perfect answer” to his existence would be dying, and “letting the women save themselves” (Safeword 60-2). But Yorick is finally unwilling to embrace suicide and leave the world to a revolutionary rebuilding that, he assumes, would end in the death of the human race, and so he must continually negotiate the special identity that being the last man confers. His negotiations fail in the final encounter with Kilina because Yorick does not realize that, for women attempting to rebuild, his existence forecloses social change.
After setting the lifeboat carrying his companions loose with a whispered, “women and children first,” Yorick attempts to save Kilina as well, but his joking references to Captain Ahab and the utter cliché of going down with the ship are an ignorant refusal to understand the trauma his existence brings (Girl on Girl 90). Kilina, as Dr. Mann, 355, and many other women do before, refuses to let him save her, and drives home how his existence signals the end of her hopes for a world without patriarchy, structural oppression, and the future:
“Yorick, it was too late for me the second I found out about you. My whole life, I’ve always been a … a supporting character in somebody else’s story. Daughter, student, fuck buddy, first mate, whatever. But when the plague went down, I finally saw a chance to change that. I wanted to be a leader. I wanted to help as many women as I could. I wanted to give them an adventure. And if a few people ended up getting hurt in the process, what the hell? We were all going to be gone in a few years anyway, right? And then the last man on earth shows up. You don’t get it, do you? The Australians are right. Now that you’re here, I’m just another crazy bitch fucking up the world you’re gonna save. It figures. An entire planet of women, and the one guy gets to be the lead” (Girl on Girl 92-3).
According to Judith Halberstam’s conception of “queerness as an outcome of strange temporalities, imaginative life schedules, and eccentric economic practices,” Kilina’s attempt to forge a queer life is based on a desire for adventure and community that renders death irrelevant because the future is over and destruction is certain (Halberstam 1). Though not all of the women Yorick encounters share Kilina’s joy at the chance to forge a new life, her example demonstrates how his survival makes such a desire impossible. Yorick’s socialization into gender and heterosexuality are part of what inspires him to save others and sacrifice his desires for the public good, but the real damage is done to Kilina, and others, by what Yorick represents, more than what he does. The last man on earth signals a return of the past social order and the future it promises, the limitations of male power on woman’s options, and a return to the ideal hero who can only be male, because it is always his story.
The manifestations of power that hound Yorick throughout his journey are driven by the desire to reestablish the world as it was before the plague, a world that frames its political discourse in terms of accepted norms, and relies on a doctrine that Lee Edelman calls reproductive futurism. Using the figure of the Child (Edelman capitalizes the term) as its organizing principle, an ideal that is pure, unable to speak for itself, and must be provided for, reproductive futurism “preserv[es] in the process the absolute privilege of heteronormativity by rendering unthinkable, by casting outside the political domain, the possibility of a queer resistance” (Edelman 2). It promises that preserving the normative social order will grant a suturing of the self with the Lacanian Real, erasing the present lack in an always absent future; and in order to provide the Child with said future, adults must sacrifice their present rights (Edelman 3). Yorick’s mother, the Congresswoman who privileges the imaginary future citizen over her actual child, demonstrates its practices by justifying oppression for the sake of a literally imaginary future citizen whose existence must be protected. Edelman sets a radical queerness in opposition to futurism, one which finds its source in embracing the negativity of the death drive, rejecting a stable identity guaranteed by order, and resisting the political location of the public good in an ideal Child. Kilina’s decision to embrace a temporary existence and care for her own, despite the arguable harm her actions do to others, is one example of this belief in action; when faced with Yorick and the return of the future, however, Kilina chooses actual death, rendering her activism rather ineffective.
Because Y: The Last Man is so overwhelmingly concerned with reproduction, global catastrophe and reestablishing social order, it is relatively easy to critique it as hopelessly mired in reproductive futurism. The problem at hand is not one of a mythic future, however, but an entirely literal one. The people Yorick encounters along his journey are struggling to survive, not to procreate and live on through posterity, and Yorick’s quest is to find a scientific solution that will allow for real children, not ideal ones. Edelman’s future no longer exists for anybody except for Yorick and the governmental forces that attempt to rebuild it through Yorick’s body, but the one consistent motivator of Yorick’s actions is a desire to help without sacrificing his identity and desires to produce a future, even if it is a real one. Though Yorick agrees to become the guinea pig for Dr. Mann’s experiments to save the world, his response to global trauma is first an attempt to nullify himself, and then to embrace the inexpressible holy light that, though it motivates his life, does not allow him to engage his social identity and act on the global stage.
When confronted with opposing ethical views of Kilina’s heroin trafficking, Yorick refuses to choose a side, instead merely asserting that he has learned how complicated such issues are. Yorick’s goals, ultimately, are twofold: help Dr. Mann bring back males, and find his fiancée, which suggests that Yorick partially manages to resist submission to the rhetoric of reproductive futurism, as he asserts his right to fulfill his own desires, and refuses to identify with what he is called upon to represent. But Yorick has yet to find anything to replace suicide other than his epiphany, which remains an ideal within him. Without a means to engage the effects of a global, public trauma through a citizenship of judgment and action, he embraces apathy and its freedom from negotiating between global and local, public and private, heteronormative and queer, or from finding another way to engage the forces ranged against him. Simultaneous resistance and compliance, however, is not enough to transform the global power that continues to insist and threaten. Yorick’s queer experience and epiphany do not ground his new knowledge in accessible practice but instead leave him trapped in an apathetic reaction to events, either refusing to make decisions or bemoaning the deaths he must witness.
Such an inability to act resembles Lauren Berlant’s infantile citizen, “whose naïve citizenship surfaces constantly as the ideal type of patriotic personhood in America,” though said citizen can only occupy spaces of idealistic faith in the system, which quickly become ones of faith in the potential of the system, and disillusionment in its lack of actuality (Berlant, Queen of America 21). This is the child or youth “on whose behalf national struggles are being waged,” and it can be extended to contain Yorick, who also does not perceive structures of power as affecting his life, does not recognize what he represents in this changed world, and who vacillates between ideals (‘Women and children first’) and a traumatized apathy (Berlant 21). Because Yorick has not yet found a way to move beyond the refusal to fit into a heroic social order, as well as his refusal to choose some better path to engagement and healing, he remains an infantile citizen who cannot engage issues larger than himself, not even those of a particular locality, and who accepts a holy internal light in place of political action. The ability to move beyond infantile citizenship rests, in part, on his chosen family of government assassin and lesbian doctor: they allow Yorick to resist the role of straight child soldier who must be protected in order to perform his duty to mankind, even as they protect and study him, because their perspectives on the often-conflicting demands of global and local contexts provide a constant dialogue between the seemingly-opposite ends of these binaries. Here, in the configuration of Yorick’s new family and their relation to other forces, we begin to see how Y: The Last Man charts a different understanding of the interaction between heteronormativity and queerness.
Agents of the American government and other nations continually symbolize the ‘bad guys’ of the story, dedicated to heteronormativity, futurism, and regaining the social order lost to the past in order to possess a future. As Yorick and his chosen family travel across countries and oceans in search of a cure, they encounter individuals who, conversely, have become members of a disengaged and insular populace, concerned with individual survival as opposed to global and even political concerns, should they extend beyond local borders of community, town, or ship. In the wake of global catastrophe, the world has become almost entirely localized, and Yorick’s family stands in the middle, traveling through localities and either encountering or instituting globalities at each turn, with the revelation that a man – and hope for a future – exist. Though they struggle to end the overarching crisis, as well as to do what is right in each local context, none of the three has yet found a successful means to engage. Yorick can barely cling to his newfound desire to live and find his fiancée, much less decide a right course of action in constantly varying particular circumstances, while 355 and Dr. Mann struggle to articulate more complex positions than their seemingly obvious roles would make available. Dr. Mann usually acts for the public good, in accordance with a doctor’s public code of ethics, but she also makes decisions against legal and ethical norms – in particular, her attempt to birth her own clone out of personal ambition and a private desire for biological children, rather than simply for the betterment of humanity. 355 has forsaken her name and the right to a personal life in order to fight for her country, but “Safeword” strongly implies that she sets up Yorick’s mysterious and intensely local intervention, thereby valuing his specific trauma above the basic mission parameter of keeping him alive for study. As 355 and Dr. Mann struggle to define what course of action is acceptable from moment to moment, often in opposition to each other, their negotiations between desire and obligation offer Yorick a continual example of just how ‘complicated’ it is to engage the world.
Yorick and his family possess a particular advantage in Y: The Last Man‘s narrative: their collective position as travelers, transitory occupants of places and their norms, excludes Yorick and his companions from both sides of the public/private and global/local binaries. Because they are external to every situation they encounter, their interventions into global plots and daily life end up interrupting, causing, or suffering the results of clashes between the two forces. They witness and take sides, through belief or necessity, when private needs come into conflict with public restrictions, when local practices challenge global policies, and when queer desires confront heteronormative demands. Both literally and figuratively, each issue of Y: The Last Man presents scenes that contain prior contexts from the world before the plague, as well as new effects of global trauma. What Yorick, Dr. Mann and 355 experience from their outsider perspective is a constant restaging of clashing forces in particular spaces and times, and the possibility that, in each restaging, productive action can be taken without blind alliance to one side. As outsiders whose lives are organized around different desires and goals than the survivors of the past and those who wish to revive it, the travelers engage time, space, and place in particularly queer ways: their time is neither wholly present, past, or future, their place is always somewhere else, and their space is more intimate than sexual, but is still located “within and between embodiment, place, and practice” (Halberstam 5). Halberstam links transgendered individuals to drug addicts, sex workers, and homeless people through an umbrella of queerness, and though her topic in In A Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives is the aforementioned transgender body, she does not rule out the importance of queer identities that are not defined wholly by gender and sexuality. Halberstam’s move to situate outsider perspective within queer politics, however, relies on detaching queerness from particular bodies and identities in order to universalize its potential for social change, which is then understood as being on the side of queerness, rather than heteronormativity. Further, neither the comic nor its protagonists advocate a single position of the binary, and do not promote an agenda of social change that resembles queer politics – Yorick’s perspective on the posttraumatic world is advantageous because of what it demonstrates about the nature of the conflict, not because it supports a radical alternative.
Having disregarded prior readings as unsatisfying – “Girl on Girl” is queer and “Safeword” is straight; the former is really straight and the latter really queer; both of them are both, linked by trauma and interweaving elements; Y: The Last Man supports queerness; Y: The Last Man really supports heteronormativity – we can now consider heteronormativity and queerness as interdependent forces in continual dialogue, endlessly restaged in particular situations, each of which becomes a potential point of engagement and change. Sedgwick’s analysis of the interdependence of the categories of straight and gay can be layered onto the similar binaries of public/private and global/local: rather than being entirely separate, these categories “actually subsist in a more unsettled and dynamic tacit relation according to which, first, term B is not symmetrical with but subordinated to term A; but, second, the ontologically valorized term A actually depends for its meaning on the simultaneous subsumption and exclusion of term B; hence, third, the question of priority between the supposedly central and the supposed marginal category of each dyad is irresolvably unstable” (Sedgwick 10). Y: The Last Man‘s queer narrative defines itself by its distance and exclusion from a more heteronormative story, though it has already been shown that each volume of the comic contains elements of both, destabilizing any hierarchical evaluation of either narrative as more successful, more subversive, or more likely to lead to social change – and when the vision of queerness as the rejected, perverse shadow of heteronormativity is called into question, then the integrity of the categories themselves can no longer be assumed.
Once we have rejected various explanations of the relationship between queerness and heteronormativity that utilize oppositional binary categorization, an alternative figuration of what is happening in Y: The Last Man is required. If heteronormativity and queerness are interdependent, and relate in engaged ways, then neither force can be merged with the other, erased by it, or triumph over it. Conceiving of these two concepts as forces makes their dynamic conflict visible, and avoids the traps of assuming static binaries or viewing their interactions, like in “Safeword” and “Girl on Girl,” as mere inert records that can be quantified and evaluated on the basis of whether the championed side has won a victory. Such a conflict between forces occupies space and time, and has movement, though this movement is not from a single established point or toward a predetermined end, from a particular historical moment whence the conflict ‘began’ to a final utopian victory that elevates one to a universal anti-dominant, since there would no longer be anything other to dominate. This movement is a motion toward, a vector of engagement without an imagined end, which takes place in a particular staging and then continues by exiting the locality of conflict via Deleuzean lines of flight. Each exit is a departure, and not a resolution, because motion toward is not a dialectic construction that erases terms engaged in an eternal struggle of dualism, only to locate a new struggle within the synthesis that results. Motion toward works through lines of connection, whether through repeated effects of trauma or collectively-forged understandings of how to intervene, and through lines of flight, which reject the current staging and destabilize its terms only to move away and encounter other connections. Neither connection nor exit strives for a utopian end, achievable or otherwise; instead, as a reexamination of Kilina’s death demonstrates, a generative and productive tension exists in the space of conflict where these forces interact, and each restaging moves toward further points of engagement, affect, and resistance.
After Kilina explains to Yorick how his existence renders her way of life meaningless, she forgives him with a kiss, knocks him unconscious, and transports him to a lifeboat, thereby ensuring that he will live to fulfill his quest. In a traditional heteronormative story, such an act redeems the villain by showing that she is capable of understanding both how she is wrong, and the importance of the hero’s life over her own. Her choice to ensure Yorick’s survival could also mean that she accepts her death as necessary because it is at odds with the new world now returning, and further, as a final choice: Kilina will die in the way that she has lived, embracing a queer world of women in which she can be the hero of her own story. Thus, though “Girl on Girl” delivers a success to the forces of heteronormativity, that success is simultaneously undercut by Kilina’s refusal to relinquish her queerness, and by her death’s place in the litany of Yorick’s personal engagement with the global trauma. None of these interpretations is wholly accurate, for an accurate answer would embrace both/and, rather than either/or, whether in terms of interpreting experiences, dealing with situations, or negotiating the forces that make both possible. No decisive victory occurs here; merely another endless restaging of conflict. These restagings are significant because the necessity of their repetition suggests that, if these two forces are interdependent rather than opposite poles of a binary, then each restaging can be an opportunity to act for a more just and beneficial resolution to a present situation, rather than for the end of an imagined progress narrative.
Kilina’s death alone does not transform the narrative, or suddenly bestow agency upon Yorick. But he carries this traumatic memory with him, and her articulation of a local, desiring, and queer self that cannot survive negotiation with the global does not disappear when destroyed by an Australian torpedo. Rather, Yorick’s traumatic interactions with the constant conflict trace connections between prior deaths and his holy light, and show him that past failures may lead to successes with different tools, should he become aware of this perpetual restaging. Granted, Yorick’s growth is not the only thing that matters, but he is the last man of the title, and Y: The Last Man is the story of Yorick’s struggle to articulate a self that can engage in particular local spaces, instead of being the heroic puppet of global forces. Rather than embracing a holy light, determining the appropriately queer position and waving a flag there, or even accepting a helpless position of infantile citizenship, engagement means recognizing and embracing the wounds within ourselves and others and that one consistently stumbles onto such a wound when one travels through the world. Productive action relies on a full and aware engagement with a particular stage, a stage that may take place within a global trauma, but whose particular players are not – and need not – be defined by it.
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Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Duke UP: Durham, 2004.
Halberstam, Judith. In A Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York UP: New York, 2005.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky and Adam Frank. “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins.” Critical Inquiry 21.2 (1995): 496-527.
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