When the apocalypse comes, it might be harrowing, astonishing or simply unimaginable. But Aminder Dhaliwal doesn't think so. In Woman World (a compilation of her wildly popular Instagram comic), the apocalypse is so low-key, it's downright forgettable. It's given a scant two-page spread early in the book with the explanation, "the world was ... distracted by a series of natural disasters. It was as though Mother Nature had craftily picked the most inconvenient time to show her strength." But said disasters – even a tornado and forest fire – are actually drawn to be kind of lovely, and the towering goddess who unleashes them seems less vengeful than... smirky. Maybe because she's just eliminated men from the earth.
In fact, Woman World is just what it sounds like: a story in which human males have mysteriously gone extinct. Dhaliwal attributes this to a combination of inexplicable early deaths and a rise in female births, but she's not really interested in why all the men are gone. What she wonders about is what women will be like without them.
Comics creators have long thought about getting rid of men. Nicole Hollander famously said a world without men would be one with "no crime and lots of happy fat women," while Brian K. Vaughan conceived a rather direr scenario in his mid-2000s series Y: The Last Man. Dhaliwal's vision is far closer to Hollander's than Vaughan's. Her women aren't particularly fat, and they're not ecstatically happy. What they are is mellow. Turns out, without men, a lot of conflicts simply don't escalate the way they do in our reality. Whenever problems crop up, Dhaliwal's women greet them with easygoing wryness. In fact, the characters are a bit too wry, to the point where they're undifferentiated. Dhaliwal hasn't just imagined a world without men; she's imagined a world where everyone is Aminder Dhaliwal.
Take Gaia, the mayor of Beyoncé's Thighs, the village where much of the comic takes place. Gaia habitually goes naked. Under Dhaliwal's laid-back pen there's nothing stimulating about Gaia's nudity; she's as minimally drawn as all the other characters, but with a little triangle at her crotch. In fact, you hardly notice she's naked at all. Still, it provokes questions. "Why are you always naked?" another woman, Lara, wonders. "Is it practical? Maybe it's a lifestyle?" Gaia takes a moment to reflect. "Mostly, it's to feel the cool breeze on my underboob," she announces. Lara is impressed: "So wise!"
Later, Ina hears people telling Gaia she looks "weird" and decides to defend the other woman. She throws off her own clothes in solidarity, crying, "Gaia doesn't need to explain her nudity to you every single day! Let her be!" But it was all a misunderstanding: Gaia looked weird because she decided to put on clothes for once. "I thought I'd see what all the fuss is about," she says.
In another creator's hands "all the fuss" would be about a lot of things, not just nudity. There's the pesky absence of sexual partners for straight women, the hardship of living in subsistence-level villages, the dubious future of the human race. (Although the women have somehow figured out how to have babies, the process is complicated and burdensome). But the characters can't manage to get strung out about any of it. Without the pressures of dealing with men, Dhaliwal seems to say, such problems just aren't such a big deal.
This makes for a remarkably sly and devastating critique of patriarchy. Dhaliwal takes the occasional direct jab at our male-dominated world (she ridicules high heels and envisions positive approaches to menstrual cramps), but is content, mostly, to let her characters' gentle, comfortable lives speak for themselves. "Do you ever wonder how long we can ignore potential extinction with humor?" Layla asks her partner Lara in one comic. "At some point, the jokes will run out and we'll have to deal with it." Lara reflects for a panel, then responds the way any woman would if she felt completely uninhibited and free of male judgment. She farts.