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Why Y Works

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I’m putting the sequence series on hold for a minute...sort of. I want to talk about a few reasons why “Y -- The Last Man” is such a great comic. Funny thing is, I’m going to use a few of those things we’ve been talking about in the sequence series to prove my point.

What better place to start than at the beginning. Check out this opening panel:

I’d say that’s a pretty strong visual puzzle. We’ve got a woman, covered in blood stating a rather obvious “Something’s wrong.” I’ll say. The first question that pops into my head when I see that is “Okay, but what is wrong?”

The second panel is a title. “Brooklyn, New York. Now.” The plain logic of visual storytelling says you should never throw away a whole panel on just words. Unless those words do something that pictures can’t. “Now” is definitely one of those words. In this case, “Now” serves two purposes. First of all, it brings a terrible sense of immediacy and urgency to the story. I daresay that since most of the world watched the Twin Towers collapse live on television, being able to see things as they happen has become the new requirement of almost everything. But the real kicker here is that Vaughan isn’t going to deploy a loaded word like “Now” and then not use it anymore. Instead, he’s using it to establish a timeline which he will exploit very shortly. In the next two panels, Vaughan pushes the ugency up a notch by overlapping the speech bubbles, a nice way to render the cinematic device known as overlapping dialogue (thank you Howard Hawks).

The final panel of the first page answers the question posed in the first panel. What is the something that is wrong? “All the men are dead” the cop says as she turns the gun on herself. We can almost hear the gunshot as our eyes move to the first panel of the second page. Of course, we’ve also got another question in our mind. Now that we know what is wrong, we want to know how and why all the men died.

Second page, first panel: another title. Only this one tells us we are twenty-nine minutes in the past. What Vaughan has done is brilliantly translated Hitchcock’s definition of suspense into present day comic storytelling. For those of you who don’t know, Hitchcock explained suspense as the difference between seeing a bomb go off and seeing the bomb before it goes off. In other words, if we see two people at a table talking and then a bomb goes off, we get a terrible shock. But if we see those two people talking and then we see the bomb ticking and then we go back to the people talking, we will go crazy with suspense, trying to get the people to stop talking and do something about the bomb. Here, Vaughan has told us all the men are dead and then he shoots us into the past, before the event. We’re now so anxious to get twenty-nine minutes into the future again so we can find out what’s going on that we will turn pages as fast as we can. Every encounter with another one of those title panels ratchets up the suspense and moves us closer to the answer we are seeking.

It finally comes, of course, in a bravura two page sequence that counts down the final seconds, each in its own panel, until we return again to the loaded word “Now,” this time presented in all caps and by itself. We get pictures from around the world which don’t in and of themselves give a clear indication as to what is happening. But we know already. When we finally find ourselves back in Brooklyn with that lady cop about to blow her own brains out, we have circled back to the beginning and almost feel as if the story hasn’t really started because everything has moved so fast. Vaughan is so good, however, that he has used this first sequence to cram in all the exposition he needs to set up no less than six seemingly separate storylines.

And in what is surely one of most spectacular finishes I’ve ever seen, we finally really get to hear that gunshot outside the window on the last page of the book which happens to also be the title page. Talk about exploiting the reverse timeline structure to the maximum.

With that, Vaughan brings his first sequence to a close. The point of attack is: “All the men are dead.” Except Y...which is the question that will propel us into the next sequence/issue. Why is Y still alive?

I’m not suggesting that Vaughan studied sequence structure and used it to write his comic. But I do know that he went to film school at NYU -- you can tell that just from the movie references in the first issue alone. What I am suggesting is that sequence structure is another way to look at what good stories have in common. “Y -- The Last Man” is a monster hit for many good reasons. I have no doubt that many of those reasons are right here in the first issue. By starting his story with a bang -- literally -- Vaughan almost guaranteed that readers would snap up issue two as soon as it came out. I have no doubt that excitement spread to other readers. I’d love to know how many of you gave Y positive word of mouth and how many of you received positive word of mouth that made you go out and buy an issue or two or twenty. Let me know in the forum.

Until next time, keep writing.

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