Why now is the time for Y: The Last Man

A spoiler-free look at why the latest attempt to bring Brian K Vaughn's celebrated graphic novel to the screen could be a success...

If you aren’t familiar with the long-running attempts to adapt Brian K. Vaughn’s blindingly good dystopian comic book saga, Y: The Last Man for the screen, not to worry, we won’t hold it against you. After all, we live in an age where comic book-to-screen adaptations are ten-a-penny: hardly a day passes by without some studio announcing that property x, y or z is entering development (or being postponed indefinitely) so the news a couple of months ago that Vaughn’s celebrated title is once more entering the adaptation game (this time at the hands of FX) made few waves when it was announced.

And why would it? Although it may be beloved by an army of fans, the project has been in and out of turnaround for years now. That in itself is nothing special of course; Del Toro’s proposed Justice League Dark is the on/off adaptation equivalent to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s relationship and it seems like we’ve been hearing noises about a Rogue Trooper movie, literally since last century. Add to that the fact that it isn’t an instantly recognisable superhero property emblazoned with Marvel or DC’s branding and you’re left with just another maybe, left to fight for air in an oversaturated market, stuffed full to the gills with question marks and contenders.

But is that really the case?

After all, this isn’t really just another project x or z. This is project Y. And this time it seems that things may be different.

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Development cycles shift all the time from studio to studio as rights expire or projects are deemed unprofitable or unfilmable; being ‘in development’ is certainly no guarantee to a project moving towards production – instead, it usually signifies a property’s descent into another circle of (development) hell where it will rot in agony for a while before beginning the process anew at another studio. The notoriously tortured production cycle of Watchmen is of course a classic example of this: the property languished with five major studios over a twenty-year period before ironically finding its way to the silver screen with 20th Century Fox, the original rights holders for the film.

With Y: The Last Man however, significant stars are beginning to align in the Hollywood heavens and it looks as if the faint glow of repeated false dawns may finally herald the coming of the light (and a greenlight at that, if you’ll allow this metaphor to run its tragic course). With noises coming very recently from FX concerning the progress they’ve made in picking a team to work with Vaughn himself, it really seems that this time, Y might really make it into development. So what’s changed? And what makes this project so worthy of survival given the shark-tank of iconic properties it seems to be improbably emerging from?

Kindly allow us to explain.

Co-created by writer Brian K. Vaugn and artist Pia Guerra, Y: The Last Man is a globe-spanning adventure story that explores the dystopian possibilities of a world without men. When a plague wipes out every last Y chromosome on the planet apart from twenty-something slacker Yorrick Brown and his male Capuchin monkey, Ampersand, the young American sets out on an epic quest for answers. With the assistance of 355, a government operative assigned to protect him and Dr Allison Mann, a brilliant geneticist determined to discover the truth behind the male-only plague, Yorrick ventures to the far side of the world and back in a quest for both the truth and for Beth, his long-lost love. And as for us readers? Vaughn allows us to experience the potential possibilities offered by a world without men – and whilst much of it is heart-warmingly beautiful or hauntingly sad – sometimes it is nothing short of terrifying.

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The book ran for sixty issues from 2002 through to 2008 when it concluded. At the book’s charity wrap party, luminaries of the page and screen such as Drew Goddard, Mark Waid and Grant Morrison showed up to trumpet the series’ success; the event’s keynote speech was given by none other than Joss Whedon, another champion of the comic book’s quality. The series was also nominated for a Hugo award and won a couple of prestigious Eisner Awards, including Best Continuing Series in 2008.  

Whilst being lauded with such plaudits is certainly nice, it’s no guarantee of a greenlight. After all, we live in a world where scripts such as 2004’s Catwoman can become a real movie. But that Hollywood sky – my god, it’s full of stars and it would seem that somehow, they’re aligning for Y: The Last Man. The property seems to be high on the network’s wish list and we’d bet that FX’s latest attempt at an adaptation will be the one that finally makes it to fruition. Let’s stargaze as to why a few of those shining orbs may finally be in the right place at the right time.

It’s coming to TV

The small screen is a big deal these days. Whereas TV was once seen as the place where movie stars go to die, it’s now home to some of cinema’s greatest talent. Shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad and True Detective have slowly led an exodus of talent into the once-derided dominion of television. Besides, Y: The Last Man has had a couple of shots at a silver screen adaptation already and for various reasons, it hasn’t really worked out. This isn’t a bad thing though. From where we’re sitting, this property is made for the small screen. Whilst escalating budgets and greater creative control are a gimme for any creator tempted by the advantages of TV, it’s ultimately the long-form storytelling capabilities offered by the medium that really make Y a perfect fit for the small screen. One of the joys of the series is the slow-burn development of character relationships and how they ultimately lead to a payoff far more powerful than could be realised in a two hour cinematic window.

This point was conceded by none other than Dan Trachtenberg, the gentleman responsible for the most recent abortive attempt to get the series into motion picture production. Acknowledging that telling the whole tale in one movie would be unworkable, Trachtenberg instead chose to focus on adapting the first two (of ten) volumes for the silver screen. For whatever reasons, his efforts failed and in subsequent interviews the writer/director has been keen to point out that he feels the series would be better served as a TV show: “Like everyone who’s a fan of the series I had always wished it either remain in its comic book form. Or, if it must be made, a TV series would be the only thing that would suffice.”      

It certainly isn’t out of the question that FX are casting glances at long-form comic book properties like AMC’s The Walking Dead and wondering how to attempt to replicate the alchemy that makes the zombie survival show such a sure-fire hit with audiences. Though the two titles are wildly different, there’s certainly enough similarities to suspect that Y: The Last Man might be the property to which they try and apply their magic formula. 

A woman’s world

When you think about it, the Spice Girls really were ahead of the curve. All that stuff about girl power was dead on. Whether they really were the heralds for greater gender equality, we don’t know (we’ll stop short at debating their contribution to female empowerment; that issue is reserved for finer minds than ours) but what is certainly true is that here in 2016 we find ourselves in an increasingly female-centric society. Over in the UFC, despite losing her world title, Ronda Rousey has attained hitherto unknown star power in the world of combat sports; on top of that she’s also making more money than pretty much all of the male fighters put together. And she’s barely got started with Hollywood yet. Speaking of movies, last year’s movie of the year for many people was Mad Max: Fury Road; it’s fair to say that the focal point of much of the film probably wasn’t actually the titular Max, but was instead Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. The film went on to be a raging success and is seen by any as a great example of a modern feminist text.

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The point is this. If nothing else, Y: The Last Man is a tale of female empowerment. With men all but extinct the story can be nothing but a tale of female dominance. With the rise and rise of female action stars over the last twenty years, one could argue that this process began in Hollywood a long time ago. From Jovovich in Resident Evil to Jolie in Salt, the ladies have been kicking ass and taking names for a long time. That said, the argument remains that to some degree this pseudo-feminism is simply a patriarchal fantasy, viewed solely through a male gaze. 

Vaughn himself tackles this idea within Y when his female characters discuss Lara Croft’s status as ‘a teenage boy’s masturbatory fantasy’ whilst disputing the position of strong female characters such as Ellen Ripley because they were ‘forced to strip down to their underpants to satisfy male viewers.’ Y, however is different. There is no male gaze because there are no males; sure, the tale’s protagonist may be the last person on the planet with their undercarriage in the ‘deployed’ position but that doesn’t change the fact that when travelling with his female companions, Agent 355 and Dr Mann, Yorrick is neither the strongest nor the smartest person in the room – oftentimes by a long, long stretch too. It’s a refreshing take that passes the Bechdel test with flying colours; it’s also a take that finally, the world seems ready for. 


It’s probably fair to say that Brian K. Vaughn is the greatest comic book writer in the industry right now. Saga, his Star Wars-inspired space-opera collaboration with artist Fiona Staples is the best comic book that you’ve never read and he’s been thrilling readers for years now with stories featuring everything from escaped Iraqi lions to newspaper-delivery girl coming-of-age tales. When the last attempt to adapt Y: The Last Man failed, the rights to the property reverted back to Vaughn and the proposed TV series is being developed very much in conjunction with him. ‘So what old bean?’ you may be saying, ‘just because the esteemed gentlemen may have shown himself to be something of a wordsmith proves nothing about his suitability to create in a wholly different medium. How many great video games has Shakespeare created, for example?’ And you’d be right (apart from maybe the Shakespeare thing; that’s just nuts).

Not everyone can pull a Kirkman for example; The Walking Dead creator’s seemingly insurmountable ability to straddle both mediums, continuing to create an iconic, creator-owned comic book whilst running an insanely popular TV show over several seasons and seeing off Hollywood power plays from silver screen legends like Frank Darabont has made him an impressive model for other writers to follow. Vaughn is no slouch in this department either; Producer Damon Lindelof brought Vaughn onto Lost during the show’s third season to help shore up an ailing writing team and none other than Steven Spielberg himself selected Vaughn to be showrunner and executive producer on the TV adaptation of Under The Dome, based on the novel by Stephen King. So the guy can do TV. Sometimes, as seems to be the case (despite JGL’s decision to exit the project) with Neil Gaiman being attached to the long-gestating Sandman project, having the original creator on board can make all of the difference when it comes to finally getting a project off the ground. 

The third act

Aptly enough, we’ve left this shining star as a finale. The last reason why the book makes such an attractive proposition for a TV adaptation is an oft-overlooked one… yet TV networks should ignore it at their peril.

It has an ending.

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And what an ending. Vaughn has written Batman, X-Men, Spider-Man and a whole host of other iconic characters in the past but has freely admitted he has no real interest in returning to them because properties like that never really allow a storyteller to conclude a tale properly. As he says: ‘That’s storytelling, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Something like Spider-Man, a book that never has a third act, that seems crazy.’ Having departed from mainstream comics so he could tell stories with true finales, Vaughn has become something of a master at finishing tales with aplomb. We dare anybody a fistful of your Earth money to read through the heartbreaking denouement to Y: The Last Man without shedding a tear. If you can do so, take our money by all means but know that you’re surely dead inside. 

So why is this such an important factor in adapting a property into a show? The growth of long form storytelling has resulted in an intensified focus on the art of the finale – after all, tuning into a show for half a decade or more elevates audience demand for a satisfying payoff in return for all of that commitment. To some degree, attaining legendary status among the pantheon of truly great shows has as much to do with sticking the landing during your finale as producing great content throughout the entirety of your run. The Sopranos and Breaking Bad are just two examples of TV series whose fittingly-great conclusions simply underlined the genius at work in their creation; the same is true at the other end of the seesaw where shows like Lost (no longer written by Vaughn at this point) and Dexter lost a lot of fan goodwill because they simply didn’t end well. Whether the all-conquering Walking Dead TV series can navigate this final (and trickiest) of hurdles remains to be seen as the TV show seemingly looks towards an ending independent of the source material.

Y: The Last Man has an ending and it’s an astonishingly good one at that, proving Vaughn right about the strength of stories with true third acts. Finally, it seems that the stars are beginning to align for Y: The Last Man and with a little luck we’ll soon see the show on our screens. No matter how long it takes, we’re sure it will be worth the wait.