The Problem With Serial Fiction Addiction

Y: The Last Man, Brian Vaughn’s 60-issue comic about the last surviving male on Earth after a mysterious plague instantly kills every creature with a Y chromosome, is smart, gripping, thoroughly addicting pulp entertainment. And when I say addicting, I mean it: I’m a little more than twenty issues into the series, and I’ve found I have to think carefully about opening an issue, because once I’m in, it’s tough to pull away.

Vaughn’s simple concept — what if all the men died, all at once? — lends itself to all sorts of clever social questioning: What would happen to a Republican Congress, for example, when the majority of those remaining alive are Democrats? And what strains of both radical feminism and radical traditionalism might spring up in an entirely female society? Still, it’s not all academic: Vaughn expertly balances alternate history gender-theory experiments with plenty of chases and shoot-em-ups. The result is an extraordinarily entertaining balance of ideas and action.

If there’s a problem with the series, it’s that, like Lost (which Vaughn helps script), Y uses its conceptual conceit as a setting rather than as an opportunity for honest narrative development. The series is, in theory, about the hero, Yorick Brown, and his attempts to discover why he survived the plague and what caused it, but none of the stories so far have actually advanced that storyline. The secondary mysteries involving a secret, ancient government agency and a mysterious amulet are repeatedly referenced, too. Perhaps I’m asking too much from a series I’m not quite half way through. So far, though, all of the stories simply shuffle the characters around the man-less United States, encountering various forms of all-female society while escaping from packs of foreign agents and other bad guys.

Serial genre fiction is tough to pull off, of course, as one must take care not reveal too much about the central mysteries a series is founded upon. Those mysteries provide the hook that keeps readers and viewers coming back, so creators are loathe to resolve them.

That’s understandable, but it does seem like a little prior planning, as well a some willingness to alter the basic situation, might make for stories don’t merely pique your interest, but do something with it — in other words, stories that aren’t just addicting, but satisfying.