Comics as venereal disease?

February 4th, 2008

Brain K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, thank you for the herpes.

OK, not really, but a subhead in this week’s Portland Mercury pretty much sums up my thoughts on the final issue of “Y: The Last Man,” by Vaughan and Guerra, one of my absolute favorite comics books: “IT’S LIKE IF HERPES WAS A BOOK!”

“We really wanted it to be a book that you could give to your significant other,” Vaughan, who also writes for “Lost,” explains to the Mercury’s Erik Henricksen. “I knew it was working at the first convention, when guys would drag their girlfriends along and say, ‘Thank you. This is the first book I’ve been able to give my girlfriend.’ But then we knew it really worked a couple years after that, when women would come up with their boyfriends and say, ‘This is the first comic I’ve been able to give him!’ I always quote Neil Gaiman, who said that Sandman traveled like a venereal disease through relationships: that guys would give it to their girlfriends, they would break up, the girlfriend would give it to the next guy… we wanted to do something similar.”

“Y” ended its spectacular 60-issue run on Wednesday, with one of the best, most satisfying conclusions I’ve ever read. A trilogy of movies, potentially reteaming Shia LaBeouf with “Disturbia” director D.J. Caruso, is in the works.

I didn’t discover “Y” through a girlfriend or anything like that. In the summer of 2004, I was an intern at MAD Magazine (owned by DC Comics, which publishes “Y” through its Vertigo Comics imprint), with tons of free comics and tons of free time on my hands. Most of what I read was third-rate Superman and Batman stories (which I’m sure is like printing money), but a few titles, notably “Y,” grabbed my attention.

I caught up on the series and pushed it hard on anyone who would listen. Most — friends, girlfriends, former comic book readers — gave it a shot and walked away converted. “Y,” like most of what Vaughan writes, is a comic book for people who don’t read comic books. You don’t need to know 30 years of back story and convoluted continuity.

Here’s the pitch: A mysterious virus wipes out every male on the planet except for one goofball and his pet monkey. It sounds like really bad porn, but as Vaughan says, it’s the story of how the last boy on Earth becomes the last man on Earth. The moment before the virus hits, Yorick, the last man, proposes to his girlfriend, Beth, while she’s studying abroad in Australia. The phone goes dead as all the men die. He can’t hear her response (which, come to think of it, sounds like the ultimate Cingular dropped-call commercial). All Yorick wants is to go to Australia and reunite with Beth.

Despite the weighty issues the story explores — gender politics, scientific ethics, sexuality and religion, “Y” succeeds because it’s not interested in being a gender studies thesis or op-ed. At its heart, it’s an adventure, deftly blending coming-of-age, romance, political intrigue, history and post-apocalyptic science fiction. And, it’s got cowboys, pirates, ninjas, secret agents, robots and astronauts.

So, why do Vaughan’s comics, unlike, say, “The X-Men,” work across the gender gap? (That’s not to say women don’t read X-Men, just that superhero readership is highly male). I’m not sure, but I think there’s more than one answer. These are, of course, broad generalizations, but I think there’s some truth to all of them.

Comic books have been, historically, at least, a boy’s hobby. Those boys who grew up reading lighthearted Stan Lee and Jack Kirby adventures became the men who would create more violent worlds — of books like “The Watchmen” or “The Dark Knight Returns.”

Despite a few notable creators and editors, the vast majority of the people in comics are still men, writing the stories they would have enjoyed as boys — drenched in that same unaccessable continuity.

Many comics — especially those of the mid-1990s — are pure male fantasy, with women of unrealistic proportions wearing skimpy costumes made of dental floss.

There’s a certain expectation of genre that goes along with gender. Girls in America are raised to play with Barbies, boys with G.I. Joe. Maybe some well-meaning parents will send their daughter a couple Archie books while she’s at camp, but won’t even consider that she might enjoy “The Avengers” just as much.

So, why do Vaughan’s comics act like herpes, when the vast majority of mainstream comics are pretty much confined to a men’s bathhouse? It’s exactly like he says — these are comics people can give their significant other, without fear of being labeled an overgrown child or a socially-challenged adult.

Last night one of my exes demanded to know how “Y” ended. From what I lent her, she loved the book — and even came with me to sit in on a Brian K. Vaughan Q & A at the New York Comiccon last year. Now, she’s hooked on “Runaways,” a series which Vaughan created for Marvel.

Vaughan’s not the only male comics writer who appeals to the non-comic book reading public.

But what he does so well is craft stories that sit just outside the mainstream (comic book mainstream, that is), paired with accessible, inviting art, such as Guerra’s. That’s something anyone can enjoy.

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072 or jeiserike@potomacnews.com.

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