Sisters of Men

Faced with unexpected peril and opportunity, the new Israel Defense Forces chief of staff spirits a crack combat unit to the United States, where the hunt is already on for a young fellow — a hunt so desperate, one would think he was the last man on earth. As far as she knows, he is.

And so it goes for a major storyline running through Brian K. Vaughan’s vaunted comic-book series, “Y: The Last Man,” christened “the best book you haven’t read” by USA Today. In the tradition of gender-bending, post-apocalypse science fiction by Philip Wylie, Sheri Tepper, P.D. James and, in Israel, Hillel Damron — author of the 1982 novel “Milhemet Ha’minim” (“The War of the Sexes”) — “Y” posits the sudden, apocalyptic demise of all the world’s male mammals, not least among them the full gamut of Y-chromosomed homo sapiens. In Israel, where the loss of half the population poses an obvious threat to national survival, the battle-hardened female commander, Alter Tse’ Elon, consolidates her combat-toughened sisters into a fighting force capable of securing the Middle East. She hopes that airlifting the last man to Jerusalem and using him to breed the world’s first reconstituted male army will afford the Jewish state a permanent edge over its enemies.

In other words, she wants to take over the world.

It’s a Zionist plot, all right, but not a particularly invidious one, since nearly everyone else — including the Australians, the Russians and an outlaw band of man-hating Amazons — is in hot pursuit of the same fellow. The Israeli commander is one tough cookie. But as cast by Vaughan and artist Pia Guerra, Alter is rationally motivated, devoted to her country and, as the series progresses, endowed with hidden layers of complexity, humanity and even vulnerability. If she has a flaw, Vaughan declared in a telephone interview from the Burbank, Calif., studio where he now writes for the TV series “Lost,” it is that “she’s a little overzealous — to say the least.”

In 2003, New Line Cinema optioned the series, soon to cap its five-year run, for adaptation as a feature film. Last summer, the Hollywood trades announced that David S. Goyer (“Batman Returns”) had signed up as producer, Carl Ellsworth and Vaughan as co-writers, and D.J. Caruso (“Disturbia”) as director. Actor Shia LaBeouf (who starred in “Disturbia”) has been touted as a shoo-in for the title role. No news yet as to whether Alter will figure in the film version or if she might be recast as a Colombian drug lord, Russian oligarch or whatever nemesis Hollywood deems politically palatable. All Vaughan will say is that she and her character arc remain intact, at least in the first draft of his screenplay.

Thirty-one-year-old Vaughan, a Cleveland native and a graduate of New York University’s film and dramatic writing program, insists that he did not craft Alter as an indictment of Israel or Zionism and that he is wary, in general, of using his characters to espouse his own political beliefs. “I am much more interested in [portraying] characters with a diverse set of views,” he said. “I’ve never had time for comic-book super-villains who think of themselves as evil. I don’t think any person in the history of mankind has considered himself evil. My characters always go into things with the best of intentions.”

Vaughan’s intention in launching this series was to inject the comic-book arena, long the purview of adolescent boys, with an adult discussion of gender issues — one that transcended questions of whether Catwoman or Supergirl’s gravity-defying cup sizes were, as depicted on garish comic-book covers, sufficiently ample to get prospective readers to buy the issue. “The level of discussion was never very sophisticated,” he said. “If written by men, they were either this gross sex fantasy or, alternately, the surviving women would all go down to the U.N. building and hold hands, ending war and suffering. Both were insulting to women. I wanted to subvert the fantasy.”

In science fiction, if you want to subvert a fantasy, it behooves you to begin with a reassuring depiction of reality. H.G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds,” for instance, began with the protagonist and his wife strolling through the bucolic British countryside on a warm summer night punctuated by the reassuring echoes of music, the soft hue of gaslight and the distant rumbling of trains. Quite from the outset, however, Vaughan’s Israeli women come across almost as visitors from an alternate reality, which, for most readers unaccustomed to the spectacle of steely-eyed women bearing automatic weapons, they may well be. Vaughan can perhaps be excused for outfitting his femmes fatales in desert camouflage rather than in olive-green fatigues, or for equipping them with the wrong weaponry. But when I told him I questioned his decision to give female Israeli soldiers Yiddish names such as Alter and Sayde, Vaughan put his foot down. “I’m sure you never met a boy named Yorrick, either,” he says of his titular hero. “Names play an important part in this heightened reality. People [in this series] have strange names that, while not appropriate to the real world, are central to who they are as people.”

Vaughan’s wife, Ruth, was a “U.N. brat” who traveled a great deal while growing up, and her best friend, Vaughan said, is an Israeli woman who served in the IDF. “I spent a lot of time talking to her. She was fascinating. When I thought of all the men in the world dying and tried to envision how this would affect the world’s militaries, it just seemed to me that the IDF would be better suited to this new reality than others. If Alter seems a little paranoid, you have to remember that when I started writing the book, we had just seen the first female suicide bombers.”

Vaughan does better with Alter’s Hebrew, which is presented without translation, its meaning conveyed with the kind of dispatch and economy that, he believes, derives from the comic book’s functionality as a kind of film, albeit one with “fewer frames per second.” He depended, he said, upon the kindness and expertise of Hebrew-speaking strangers, most of whom contacted him by e-mail after encountering the early issues.

“I’ve had some complaints, including one from an Arab man who, early on in the story, thought I was positioning Alter as a hero,” he said. “Obviously, I’d rather hear that the uniform is wrong or the tank isn’t right than that I’ve insulted someone’s worldview. Research is important, but I’m writing fiction. And at the end of the day, drama is the mistress I have to serve.”

Sheldon Teitelbaum, a Los-Angeles-based senior writer for The Jerusalem Report, compiled the entry on Jewish and Israeli science fiction and fantasy for the newly revised Encyclopedia Judaica.

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