Brian K. Vaughan is set to enter his 14th year as a professional comics writer, and by all accounts, it’s been a successful run. The creator of such critically acclaimed books as Pride Of Baghdad, Runaways, and Y: The Last Man, Vaughn has developed a knack for creating fascinating characters and original situations that reflect contemporary society while still delivering comic-book thrills. A multiple Eisner Award winner, Vaughan was nominated for a WGA Award for his work on the writing staff of Lost. He recently wrapped up his long-running Ex Machina, a West Wing-like comics series about the political life of Mitchell Hundred, a superhero who becomes mayor of New York. Vaughan spoke to us on Election Day about the ins and outs of writing a comic about politics, and the differences between comics, film, and television writing.
The A.V. Club: When we last spoke to you, Ex Machina had just begun. Did you have a clear sense then of where it was going to end up?
Brian K. Vaughan: I had a pretty good sense of where it was going to end up, I guess. I knew what Mitchell’s ultimate fate would be, and how he was going to get there, but if you’ve read the last issue, you know there were some real-world aspects of the story that I could not have anticipated. It was a detailed road map, but with enough freedom to incorporate real-world events.
AVC: The story was set a few years behind the time when you were writing it. Did history throw any roadblocks into the path you’d set up?
BKV: No, it was always really cooperative. I remember there was one storyline where I knew I wanted Mitchell to lose his powers, and I thought it would be great if I could incorporate some real-world event into that, and then the New York City blackout happened. Luckily, it wasn’t the kind of tragedy where anyone was hurt, so I felt like it was fair game to exploit for the story. We left any opportunities open in hopes of something we could play off of.
AVC: Did you consider anything off-limits?
BKV: I really don’t think so. By the time you have your protagonist attempting to assassinate the Pope, you’ve sort of signaled that everything is on the table.
AVC: How do you feel now that the series has wrapped?
BKV: Well, there’s always that relief you feel when you’re working on your own series that you can actually make it to your planned ending and that your audience will still be there to support you—and that your publisher will still exist. I guess we got in just under the wire before Wildstorm ceased to exist [in September 2010]. First and foremost, it’s relief. But now, I suppose there’s sadness setting in—I miss getting fresh Tony Harris [Ex Machina artist] pages every month. But I’m mostly pleased that we ended it the way we wanted to.
AVC: So would you say you’re ultimately satisfied with the ending?
BKV: [Laughs.] “Satisfied” is kind of an interesting word for something that’s depressingly dire, but it feels like the right ending. It’s the one we set out to tell. I was really proud of it—as proud as anything I’ve ever written before.
AVC: And are we now totally done with Mitchell Hundred? No chance we’ll ever see him again?
BKV: It is the end, I think, barring some kind of financial crisis in my life that, inexplicably, Ex Machina would be the way out of—which I suppose is always possible. But no, that’s it. I always knew that I wanted to tell this four-year story of this guy’s one term in office, to give you a glimpse of what it would cost him down the line. So that’s it. There’ll never be any specials or spin-offs or anything else.
AVC: You had to strike a balance in Ex Machina between telling a story about politics and not making it a piece of political advocacy, for fear of offending half your audience. Was that difficult to do?
BKV: No, because I think the book is explicitly political—I think there’s no two ways around that. I suppose someone is always going to be offended or bothered by something, but because it was never going to be just a mouthpiece for my own politics, I never worried about trying to make sure everyone liked the character. I think it’s fine if you hate Mitchell Hundred, and some people did. Some people loved him. But I was never concerned—I guess I found it difficult to believe that there would even be enough readers that would be interested in something that was a balance between jetpacks and municipal politics.
AVC: Have your personal politics changed at all since you started the series?
BKV: Yeah, I’d say my view about politics in general has changed. Obviously, this project started just after 2001, when, like a lot of Americans, I felt like I wasn’t political enough, so I ran off and became really politically engaged. And now, this morning, having voted, I’m starting to feel a lot of the apathy and ambivalence that my fellow Americans are feeling right now.
AVC: Do you think things are better or worse now, politically?
BKV: I think it’s too soon to tell, which I suppose is a copout, but these things always tend to come in cycles. It’s too early to tell if this is the End Times or not.
AVC: With Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina having finished up, have you had any time to sit back and think about your accomplishment?
BKV: It doesn’t feel like that much. It’s not like I built a hospital or something; just a few graphic novels. I guess I haven’t stopped to think about it. But this is the first time in 10 years that I haven’t had some kind of major comic-book deadlines, so it’s been nice that my sellout television day job has afforded me the opportunity to sit back and decide what I really care about before having to write something just to keep the lights on.
AVC: Just in terms of process, what’s the main difference between writing for comics and writing for television?
BKV: I was only ever part of Lost—a very small part of an extremely talented writers’ room, where as a writer, it’s sort of your job to sublimate your ego and work in the service of the show and the show’s voice. So if anything, it was a pleasure to go home and work on Ex Machina at night after a long day in the writers’ room, since it was primarily just a collaboration between me and Tony. It’s definitely a quieter room, working on comics. I don’t think it’s better or worse, but it’s different. It’s more personal. So I think I’ve come to sort of take comics for granted after working on four or five titles a month. You have to appreciate what a unique medium comics is, with the ability to tell ongoing visual stories without having to worry about that this actor dropped out, or this location just got blown away by a tsunami. Comics remain really a joy to work on, which television rarely gets to be.
AVC: Did it take any discipline, after working with your own characters and stories for so long, to get used to handling other people’s characters and fitting them into an already-existing narrative?
BKV: It was an adjustment. I don’t think I have discipline when it comes to anything. [Laughs.] But again, you’re not a Chilean coal miner at the end of the day; you’re just a TV writer. So there are challenges from day to day, but nothing insurmountable.
AVC: How closely have you been involved with the movie versions of your books?
BKV: To varying degrees with each, as they slowly churn through the development process.
AVC: Would you be willing to see films made of any of your properties if you weren’t involved at all in the process?
BKV: Sure. Most of these were things where I was in my early 20s when I signed on for them, and the thought that there would be a movie of Y: The Last Man or Runaways or any of these things, at the time, was just so unthinkable that sure, I was always happy to sell the cow for a magic bean. But I’ve been flattered and grateful to work on some of the adaptations in the capacity in which they’ll have me, so I suppose it sounds disingenuous—I have worked on all the movies based on my work. But for me, the comic was always the end point. It would be great if there was an Ex Machina television show or movie or something like that, but I don’t feel like that would legitimize the book. That’s not the destination, for me. Ex Machina has reached its conclusion, and anything that happens after that, be it with me or without me, is gravy. Delicious gravy.
AVC: Do you think the synergy between comics and movies is benefiting the comics industry? Are comics getting as well as they’re giving?
BKV: Again, it’s too soon to say. I think you have to take it on a project-by-project basis, but anything that gets comics in front of new eyes is a net win for us. But we’re in the eye of the storm now—stay tuned for a more articulate answer to that question.
AVC: Have you pursued doing any film work detached from your comics projects?
BKV: Yeah, I actually sold a spec script called Roundtable a few years ago—it was an original idea that I didn’t think would work as a comic book, and didn’t feel right as a TV series. I’ve also written something original that I’d love to direct at some point. It’s always about where the story would best be served, and it’s nice to be in a position where I have that luxury.
AVC: After working so much in the more immediate fields of television and comics, do you ever get frustrated at the relatively slow development pace of moviemaking?
BKV: I guess because I’m a miserable bastard, the grass is always greener, and when you’re in the thick of comics, there’s no hiatus. There’s no writers’ room, and it doesn’t matter if you’re sick, or your grandfather died that week or something—you always have to feed that beast. So when I was writing four books a month, I was just so exhausted that the thought of movies and their glacial pace sounded fantastic. But now that I’m involved in movies and their slow development, I crave comics. I hope I will always have both in my life, because it helps you to not go completely insane to get to use both to channel your creative energy when it feels right.
AVC: So what’s taking up most of your time now?
BKV: I created a pilot for a new science-fiction series called Smokers that I’m developing for Sam Raimi, so that’s today. There’s also new comics stuff that’s been percolating in the background, getting ready to be brought to the fore. It’s a lot of developing things, which happens slowly and surely. But it’s all-new stuff, which is fun.
AVC: Did you have any conception when you started working on Ex Machina that you would end up with the career you have now?
BKV: No! In fact, before you called, I was looking at the last interview I did with The A.V. Club, which was five years ago or so, and even then, looking back at where I was, I had no idea that I’d end up where I am now. It’s very strange and unexpected, and I have no idea where I’ll be five years from now. But I’ve been very fortunate; it’s been fun to sort of Forrest Gump my way through pop culture.