'Y: The Last Man' Is a Thoroughly Modern, Endlessly Entertaining Comic Adaptation
Showrunner Eliza Clark knows gender is much more complex than a simple binary.
From 2002 to 2008, Vertigo published Y: The Last Man, a little comic series you might have heard of, which imagined a world in which every mammal with a Y chromosome suddenly and catastrophically (and mysteriously) died, leaving the fractured remains of what was once a patriarchal society in their wake. The series, created by Saga's Brian K. Vaughan and artist Pia Guerra, follows wannabe Houdini Yorick Brown, the titular last (cis) man, who, along with his male monkey pet Ampersand, somehow survived whatever caused all the deaths, and becomes, potentially, the savior of the human race overnight.
Long in development, the series adaptation of Y has finally arrived on FX, a post-apocalyptic yet colorful and vibrant retelling that tweaks just enough of the story to bring it from 2002 to 2021. Showrunner Eliza Clark is more than aware of how our perception of the society we live in, as well as our notions of what gender and sexuality are, have changed in the past 19 years, and she spoke to Thrillist about adapting Y for a new decade, her deep love for the source material, and what would really happen if we somehow lost half the world in a matter of minutes.
Thrillist: This show has been long in development, a long time coming. What got you on board this project? Were you a fan of the comics?
Eliza Clark: I was. Y: The Last Man was the first gift my husband ever gave me 10 years ago, when we had maybe gone on like two dates. And he gave me a copy of Y: The Last Man and because the relationship was so new, I read it like, "What is he trying to tell me?" Pored over every frame of it. I have loved it since then and gone back to it a couple of times over the years. I'm a fan of speculative fiction, or, you know, science fiction that feels grounded and that is rooted in relationships and that looks like our world but not quite. That is my favorite type of genre. And so Y: The Last Man is my favorite comic book.
While I was watching the show, especially at the end of the very first episode, I was thinking about how the comic has this breezier, quicker tone, while the show really doesn't gloss over the horror of what's going on.
I love the way the comic starts. I love that it all happens in the first, like, five pages. And I think that's an amazing opening to a series. But I think that the show is so much about identity and about deconstructing what makes us who we are that it was so important to me to see the characters before, and to see what they were going to lose, and to see what they care about in the old world, so that we can take them from who they were before to who they become. I think that the dark humor of the book, and the optimism of the book, become part of the show. But to me, actually seeing what this looks like, is important to who these people become.
While I was reading the comics, I was like, "Oh, yeah, this is an interesting idea. OkK, what's gonna happen next?" And then watching the show I kept thinking, "Oh, my god, I feel really bad for everyone."
I don't want to watch a show about COVID. I'm not interested in watching a show about an ongoing pandemic. We're living in an apocalypse. No, thank you. So, to me, the beginning of the show is really dark and has this sad, horrifying thing that happens. And it's so important to who these people become, that you have to see it. It's an event, it's not a pandemic, it's like, this thing happens and then the story takes place in the days that follow. But if people are worried about, you know, a pandemic show, it's not that.
There is definitely a lighter tone that comes through, especially in Yorick's character because you have him doing all of his jokes, and doing his magic tricks and insisting that he's not a magician. He's a really fun way to ground all of this in someone who would have a realistic response to and way to cope with what's happened.
Totally, totally. And Ben [Schnetzer], who plays Yorick, is amazing. He's so funny and also so deep—I mean, "deep" is a terrible word to describe somebody, but the depth of his vulnerability, and then the height of his charm and humor, it's pretty amazing how he pulls that off.
You mentioned that this is very much a story about identity and interpersonal relationships. I really, really liked that in the show gender is not so binary. You have a trans man main character, you have Dr. Mann's wonderful speech in Episode 6 about all the people who were lost. What made you decide to represent this world in that way?
That was central to my pitch to get the job. I love the book so much, and I think that so much has changed in the conversation that we're having about gender in the last 20 years since the book came out, and Brian [K. Vaughan] and Pia [Guerra] were also very eager to update that part of the story. The book, and then definitely the series, is trying to ask questions about what it actually means to be a man or be a woman or be a person. What are the systems of oppression that we internalize, and that become part of our identity in ways that we don't even know about? Cis white women uphold white supremacy. Patriarchy doesn't die just because cisgender men die. All of that feels so potent in the books, and it just feels right to take it into the world that we're living in and make clear, early and often, that gender is not equal to chromosomes.
Human beings like to make meaning and they like to create binaries, but the truth is, the scientific reality of the world is different than that. It's just so much more vast and varied, and far more interesting and beautiful than the binary designations of man and woman. But, in general, I think the show is talking about escaping all kinds of binaries. So yeah, I mean, that speech that Dr. Mann gives feels like a thesis for the show. It's tragic, what happens, and her interest in saving the Y chromosome, is not just about bringing back cis men, it's maybe even more so for her about bringing back trans women and non-binary people and intersex folks, the beauty and diversity of the world.
I loved that that was put into words in such a way, because that made it all click for me. And speaking of all the changes, obviously, as adaptations go, adaptations change things. There are a lot of plot elements that were tweaked and updated: You spend a lot more time with Yorick's sister, Hero, finding out how she gets with this group of women, and what their mom is doing in the government. What was that process like, to figure out here's the stuff that we're going to keep, here's the stuff that we're going to tweak a little bit?
I think that comic books and television are different mediums. The Daughters of the Amazons in the comic book show up fully formed and Hero is part of them and it's been six weeks and she's been radicalized, and that totally works in the comic book. But, on a television show, part of what I wanted to do with the project was about getting deeper into those worlds. It's the landscape that the book created, and then we just get to spend a little more time with that and get a little deeper in. I wanted to take a world that you really recognize that feels like our world and characters that feel like either people you know, or people who are like you, and then over time watch them change with the circumstances of this new world. It's just exciting to me to watch that group form, and how that can affect Hero's relationship to [her trans man friend] Sam and how it can affect her relationships to her parents and to her brother.
The same is true with the women at the Pentagon and [Yorick and Hero's mom] Jennifer. I think I've seen a little bit of like, "Ugh, just because cis men die, the world can't function??" Well, no, the world can function. But, the gender inequalities that exist in the world right now, if this kind of event were to happen, would leave people in dire straits. And part of that is because the event happens all at once, the plane falls out of the sky, and the highways are choked with cars. But it also has to do with the fact that we gatekeep, and we keep women out of a lot of jobs. Especially in this country we make it incredibly difficult to have children and work in certain industries. We also have crumbling infrastructure and a poorly constructed power grid. We are seeing this right now, in the world that we're currently living in. The power will be out in New Orleans for 20 days, they're saying. These problems are interesting to me. It's exciting to get to spend time with the women who are—the people who are trying to put it back together.
I was really surprised at how much I liked and was really compelled by Amber Tamblyn's character Kimberly Cunningham, who would otherwise be like a complete supervillain. But watching her realize that everything that she's fought for, for her entire life, has just dissolved, and now searching for a way to bring it back in some capacity, was really compelling.
You'll see Amber in a way you've never seen her before. She's so phenomenally talented. That character's entire life is her brand that she's created for herself, which is a sort of gendered motherhood. And she defines herself as a "Boy Mom." She's the daughter of the President, so she has some power, but it's not really earned power. Her entire life is about her proximity to men. And so, when this happens, she is a person who wants the patriarchy back, she gets a lot of power from the patriarchy. But you also feel for her because a huge portion of her story is about how to deal with the immeasurable grief that she's going through, and she chooses to channel it into action. Her actions are sometimes scary.
Was there a moment or another character in the show that you were, in particular, really excited for?
I mean, we've already talked about the scene with Dr. Mann in New York. That scene to me was the most important scene in the series, kind of making clear that this is not about some sort of reductive, gender essentialist, "Men are from Mars, women are from Venus" kind of thing. It's so much more complicated than that.