There are plenty of reasons to be evangelical about Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man — a haunting storyline in which almost every male on Earth drops dead, pages of nail-biting drama, sharp humor … and a monkey. It’s like a groundbreaking HBO show in print, with great illustrations (Pia Guerra). But of all the reasons I love this story, it’s the character of secret Agent 355 who tops the list. (Spoilers are ahead.)Comics have come a long way in the diversity department, but even now, Agent 355 represents something uncommon in the genre: a smart, formidable black female character who is much more than a sidekick, and whose ethnicity informs who she is without defining her. Plus, she can knock you the %$@* out without breaking a sweat. If the world is coming to an end, this is a woman you want on your side.
A member of the Culper Ring, a covert operations group, Agent 355 winds up as the guardian of slacker Yorick Brown — presumably the world’s only living man. She’s a bit of a mystery throughout, and we never even learn her real name. But as time passes, we see a complex and even vulnerable young woman — at least, when she doesn’t have to kill folks, something she takes no joy in doing. Early on, Yorick is surprised to see Agent 355 doing mundane things like … knitting. When her backstory finally emerges, it packs one hell of a punch.
It’s no small thing that Vaughan avoids the traps of ignoring race completely or beating readers over the head with it. It’s certainly present in the dynamic among Yorick, Agent 355 and geneticist Dr. Allison Mann, an Asian woman who changed her last name (as in Mann’s Chinese Theatre) to piss off her scientist parents. For example, when Yorick asks 355 why she insists on maneuvering at night while they’re in Boston, she points out that (duh) they happen to be in the Southie neighborhood, and she’s not white.
Yorick: “You seriously think that’s still an issue?”
Agent 355: “Why, because this is the twenty-first century … or because all of the men are dead? Either way, my answer is yes.”
A whole lot of crazy stuff goes down in Y: The Last Man, but its heart and soul is the bond between Agent 355 and Yorick. As we’ve stated previously, this book contains one of the most romantic (and ultimately heart-wrenching) moments in comics, ever. And thanks to Vaughn and Guerra’s excellent teamwork, Yorick isn’t the only one who fell hard for this beautiful, badass and thoroughly awesome secret agent.