Saga and Y: The Last Man writer Brian K. Vaughan talks about making comics his own way
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After the conclusion of Ex Machina in 2010, Eisner Award-winning comic-book writer Brian K. Vaughan took an 18-month break from the industry to work in television and film after a successful run as a writer on Lost. The writer of contemporary classics like Y: The Last Man, Runaways, and the aforementioned Ex Machina made his triumphant return to comics with last month’s debut issue of Saga, his hugely successful space opera with artist Fiona Staples. The story of two lovers on opposite sides of an interplanetary war trying to protect their newborn daughter, Saga is a labor of love for Vaughan, who has been developing its universe since his childhood. The book has also proven a massive success for Image Comics, with a third printing hitting stores on April 25. Vaughan talked to The A.V. Club about transitioning from superhero to creator-owned books, how his time in Hollywood has made him appreciate comics, and how he’s keeping Saga grounded in reality despite the fantastic concept.
The A.V. Club: When did you decide to pursue a comics career after graduating from film school?
Brian K. Vaughan: I guess it had already started before that. I was a junior in college at NYU, and I was a film-school nerd, and not a particularly good one. Every student film felt like a failed science experiment, and it was really hard, and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. James Felder, a Marvel Comics editor, had come to NYU, saying, “Marvel is looking for new writers, maybe we can find some classically trained young writers who could work cheap for us if we went to NYU and sort of taught them the ins and outs of the basics of comics.” So, I sort of jumped out of movies and into the lifeboat of comics. I loved it right away. It was the opposite of film school. Whatever was in my imagination could end up in the finished product. There were just no limitations. So I started selling things to Marvel while I was still at school.
AVC: Were there any initial challenges for you getting into superhero books?
BKV: The challenges were in figuring out this new medium. But no, I’m a giant geek, so I had grown up on Spider-Man and Batman. And I was sort of agnostic about which company I would follow; I just liked characters or creators. No, I was embarrassingly well-versed in Marvel lore, so it was pretty easy to slip into that world. But really, already by the time I’d started writing superhero comics, my dream was really to be writing my own characters. I guess I’d find out later on that having a couple superhero books under my belt might have made that harder rather than easier, but it was still fun.
AVC: Could you elaborate on that, the challenges of transitioning from superheroes to creator-owned?
BKV: Yeah, I think the challenge was at that time, Vertigo was sort of, and remains one of, the biggest games around town for doing creator-owned books. But I think the fact that I had a couple of random Ka-Zar annuals under my belt didn’t necessarily make me more attractive to Karen Berger [Laughs], or make her think, you know, that I was going to be the next Neil Gaiman or what have you. So, yeah, I think I had to fight so hard to get my first couple of credits at Marvel and then sort of fight past that perception that I was just a superhero writer and was capable of doing other things.
AVC: You’ve compared being a writer on a TV show to a low-stakes version of being a president’s speech-writer. Is it the same feeling when you’re working with characters like the X-Men or Batman, when the character’s direction is largely in the hands of your editor?
BKV: No, that’s not what I found, actually. And I think it’s different because—I mean, it depends. I think when I was working for companies like Marvel and DC, I was usually drawn to characters like Doctor Strange or Swamp Thing, things that were on the outskirts, or at least behind schedule enough that there wouldn’t be too much editorial interference. And so there were always the parameters that you have to work inside of; I could only do so much working with Doctor Strange. But I never liked working on editorial-driven comics. I just didn’t see what was the point. They don’t pay well enough for me to write other people’s ideas. I like to write my own ideas, and Marvel and DC editors were usually grateful to have somebody who just wanted to turn in scripts and, for the most part, be left alone.
AVC: How does it feel, now that you’ve moved on from superhero books, seeing characters like The Hood and the Runaways continuing to be a part of the Marvel universe?
BKV: Oh, it’s great. I wish, particularly, the Runaways were more a part of it. But yeah, I knew when I created those characters what I was getting into. I’ve been fortunate enough to be a young writer who made a pretty good living off of other people’s creations. It felt only fair to sort of add new things back to the universe when I was finished with it.
AVC: Do you think Runaways would have changed if you had written it after you had children?
BKV: [Laughs.] Yes… probably? I mean, almost assuredly for the worst. But I’m happy I wrote it when I did. Because it’s very strange to have written this book that’s basically the message, “Your parents are evil.” And now I am one, so I’m much more sympathetic to the people I used to be out to get.
AVC: Are you anticipating when your kids are old enough to read your books? Are you figuring out how to deal with that right now?
BKV: [Laughs.] God help them if they want to read that stuff, but yeah, I don’t know how I’m going to handle that. But I suppose it’s right. I guess they were coded messages to my future children, telling them that daddy is evil. It’s probably true, so yeah, they better get crackin’ and read this stuff as soon as possible so they know what they’ve gotten themselves into.
AVC: When you work on an existing property like The Escapists or Buffy, or coming up you have a TV adaptation of Stephen King’s Under The Dome, how do you stay true to the source material while also incorporating your own voice?
BKV: I don’t know. It’s tough. It’s different with each project and always changes. I guess I approach each project differently, and then you just try and sniff out what is the soul of this thing, and how do I not fuck it up too badly?
AVC: You mentioned Marvel coming and looking for classically trained writers at NYU, and I remember a couple years ago going to your MySpace page and seeing a list of your favorite play. Are you a big theater fan? Has that had any influence on how you approach a story or dialogue?
BKV: I am a big theater fan. It’s mostly just being pretentious, I think, and trying to look smart. It’s much easier to list a couple of Chekhov plays and just tell everyone how much I like Empire Strikes Back. But I do, I love theater. I love it so much I married a playwright. My wife writes highbrow stuff downstairs in our house, and I write lowbrow stuff upstairs, and then we meet once a day on the stairs to sort of talk about what we have done. I guess the big takeaway is that dialogue can be action, so you don’t need a fistfight or someone getting tossed through a wall to have a compelling, exciting moment. So I like the talky-talk, and I think that’s what I’ve stolen from stage.
AVC: You’ve worked with some of the best artists in the business. Has there been anything that you’ve learned working with each different artist? Do your different collaborators teach you something different with each project?
BKV: Yeah, obviously, it’s really the joy of working in comics. When you’re writing for film or television, those scripts always look pretty much the same, you know, because they’re being disseminated to hundreds of different workers: to electricians, to actors, to producers, and everything in between, so it has to be this sort of familiar, recognizable object. Whereas when you’re working in comics, and you’re writing to your artist, sometimes the artist will be the only other human being who will ever take a look at that script. So you’re just tailoring each story to them, so it’s just this little love letter that you’re dashing off to your artists. So my scripts for Adrian Alphona on Runaways, or for Tony Harris on Ex Machina don’t look completely different from, you know, what I’m writing for Fiona Staples now on Saga. I guess the biggest thing I’ve learned is just to trust your collaborators and give them a lot of room to be themselves and just give them space and trust them. If you do that, they will give you their best.
AVC: Going into a first issue, are there certain points that you always try to hit?
BKV: Yeah, I guess I like some sex in it; that helps. [Laughs.] I’m trying to think back to what things I have in each of my first issues. I guess the first issue is a promise to your readers, especially for an ongoing series. It’s this promise that this is what we’re going to explore over a huge length of time, and these are the people who will be coming along for this trip. Do you want to join us? I guess I have a real kitchen-sink policy with first issues that I want you to see everything that the story is ultimately going to be about; it’s all there in that first issue. And that’s not to say that you’re not going to be introducing new characters and new conflicts down the line, but basically you want that first issue to be, “This is the heart of the thing, and it’s all in here, and if you don’t like this first issue, feel free to stop reading now, but if you do love it, we’re going to be giving you something in this universe for a long time to come.” So I guess it’s just a pact you’re making with readers.
AVC: You’ve been quoted as saying that you like stories that engage the reader in the real world. How are you making that happen with a big fantasy space opera like Saga?
BKV: I’m writing about things that interest me about my real life and what it’s like to have two young kids now, and to bring them up in a country that’s currently engaged in multiple wars that might not be part of their lives. So I think it’s trying to find ways to talk about all these boring, pedestrian thoughts that are in my head in an engaging fashion by adding in rayguns and space helicopters and what have you. I guess it feels like the farther away I get from Earth, the easier it is to talk about Earth and what’s happening there. I don’t know how to not write about the real world. I’m trying my best with Saga, though, and I think already a lot of it bleeds through.
AVC: What does Image offer that Marvel and DC don’t?
BKV: Most importantly, I think it’s just total creative control and complete ownership of the work. The kind of ownership that means if Fiona and I decide we never want this comic to be a movie or a TV show or a videogame or whatever, that that’s perfectly within our rights. You know, I’ve gotten to work for a lot of mature-reader imprints before, so it’s not like I ever felt like I was wearing a straightjacket. But Image in particular, I just know my scripts don’t have to be approved by anyone. There are no limitations other than what Fiona and I set on ourselves. So it’s great to just sort of sit down without already self-censoring yourself knowing that what you might not be able to get past the powers that be. It’s just total freedom.
AVC: I was really impressed by the kind of youthful imagination in Saga. The map they find seems so much like a map that a kid would draw. You’re pretty open about your arrested development and teenage headspace; do you think that’s helpful when you’re creating characters in places that people haven’t seen before?
BKV: Yeah, I hope so. I’ve talked about how the universe of Saga is sort of this deranged world that I’ve been building in my head ever since I was a little kid. So I think you have the benefits of all this world-building has already happened, because it’s just been a lifetime of me daydreaming. Instead of when I should have been thinking about the SATs or whatever, I was just imagining what fictional conflicts are going on in, you know, border planets and this strange galaxy that I’ve invented. So hopefully it feels real because it is weirdly real in my own head. It sounds pretty self-indulgent to just say, “Look inside this crazy thing that I’ve invented.” I never wanted to tell a story set in this place, I just thought it was my own sort of quiet disease that I would keep. But then when I realized that I wanted to tell a story set in an epic sci-fi fantasy universe, I had already built one, so it seemed to come together pretty naturally.
AVC: How closely are you working with Fiona in terms of outlining the story? I’m sure she has a big part in design, but how much of a role does she have with the story?
BKV: I mean, she’s been amazing so far, and I can give her the barest suggestions for what I want. Because even though I say that I’ve had this universe thought up in my head since I was young, in my head it looks fucking terrible because I’m an awful artist with no visual sense. So I’m able to sort of give Fiona things like, “The dad’s got horns, the mom’s got wings. Go please turn them into actual human beings with feelings and personality,” and she does that, so that is no small feat. In terms of story, Fiona’s sort of like, “I just want to be surprised along with the characters. Don’t tell me too far ahead what we’re up to.” But despite her request, I still keep pestering her for assistance because she’s really smart, and I trust her instincts. So she’s been great, and I think you’ll be able to see her influence on every panel of every page.
AVC: What is your stance on digital versus print comics? Not that there should be or needs to be a “versus,” but there’s definitely hostile reactions from retailers about creators that are trying to innovate digitally. Where do you stand?
BKV: I think it’s terrific. I’m old and dumb, so I don’t totally understand it yet, but I sense that it will be good. It feels a lot like when I broke into comics 15 years ago. There was sort of a wave of new collections, where it used to be that nothing would ever be collected. It would be Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns available as a graphic novel, but for the most part, after comics were published, they would just sort of fade away. And when I started with Y, everything started getting collected, and there was this sort of this trade-paperback revolution. And a lot people thought, “Oh, this will be the death of comics. People won’t go to comic book stores anymore. They’ll just wait for the trade and order off of Amazon.” And there was a certain element of that, but things that were good only did better because of trades. And stores that did good only did better because of collections.
I get the sense that digital is going to be the exact same way. That right now it’s driving a lot of us crazy, and it’s confusing, we don’t know if it’s hurting us. But I do think for books that are good, this is just one more avenue for people to find it. So yeah, I’m not a fan of those motion comics, I think those are kind of goofy. That just seems to combine the worst elements of animation with the worst elements of comics. But it you’re talking about just reading an old-school comic on your iPad, you know, if your store has sold out of Saga #1 and you want to go to comiXology and read it right now, fantastic. And if you like it so much you want to go own it or pick it up at your local comic book store next month, great. So I think in the end, maybe I’m hopelessly naive, but I think it’s going to be a very healthy thing. Like I say, for books that are good.
AVC: Have you checked out Mark Waid’s “Luther” digital short story? It’s his experiment with how the digital medium can be used differently than print.
BKV: Yeah, I checked it out. I thought it was terrific. And I’m really excited by what Mark’s up to. You can usually count on Waid to be ahead of the curve on these things.
AVC: While on the subject of collections, Runaways was a book that was basically sustained on the strength of its digests. With bookstores fading out, do you think that a book like Runaways could survive in the current market, when people are looking for books that are tied into continuity or are considered “important”?
BKV: I don’t know. I’m not sure I totally believe that anymore, that people are looking for books that, you know, “matter.” I recognize those are the books that tend to be doing well right now, but it feels like sometimes that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that the companies recognize, “Oh, this does well, so we’ll keep putting our best creators on our best characters, and we’ll keep doing this.” I think people are just hungry for stuff that’s good, regardless of whether or not it’s connected to some larger universe. I also think people are really hungry for something new, and comics are a medium that is better built to create new things than any other medium out there. The cost of doing business, of just creating something wholly new from scratch, is easier to do in comics. You have an audience that’s more receptive to it. So I don’t believe this thing that just because we’re in conservative economic times that people just want what they’re comfortable with. I think that’s sort of the common wisdom right now, but I think those books that are fighting against that are really benefitting from it and will continue to.
AVC: Last time we interviewed you, you said that we should stay tuned for your opinion about comics in movies and that synergy. Now that The Walking Dead is a massive success and Avengers looks like it’s going to be huge, do you have a more concrete opinion on the relationship between comics and their adaptations?
BKV: [Laughs.] Well, no, I don’t. I don’t understand it any better than I did before. Yeah, my experiences are sort of—can I punt this to my next interview? Hopefully, sometime in the next 30 years, I’ll figure out if all these adaptations are a net positive or not. But part of me is—it’s very flattering when people ask about what’s the status of Y: The Last Man, or Runaways, these other things I’ve been fortunate enough that some of them have gone in development. But it’s also a little frustrating because I feel like, you know, particularly with something like Y: The Last Man, [artist] Pia [Guerra] and I are done. We finished. We set out to do what we wanted to do, and we’ve always felt that the comic was sort of a destination; it wasn’t a blueprint. I continue to be frustrated that that’s sort of seen as the end goal for all good comics, is once they are a movie or a TV show, then they have arrived. At the same time, I think Walking Dead is a great show, and I think it’s probably gotten many more people interested in the comics as well. So yeah, I just don’t know a goddamn thing. I don’t know what to make of it yet. But I can tell you that I’m working on Saga at the moment, a comic strip, and not on an adaption as we speak, so that’s certainly where my heart is at the moment.
AVC: Has your time in Hollywood helped you deal with the endless wheel-spinning of seeing things get adapted?
BKV: Yeah, it’s always hard. Especially having come from comics, where you just have the benefit of—that machine is just so fast and just needs to constantly be fed that there’s no sitting around or reworking things. You’re just constantly putting out new material. That’s creatively the most satisfying. Television’s probably closer to that once it’s up and running, but, yeah, film does move torturously slowly, but the end results can be incredible, so sometimes it’s worth it. But, like I said, for now comics are pressing my buttons.
AVC: Regarding the screenplay for Roundtable, which, I don’t know what the development looks like for that right now, but it’s you playing with Arthurian legend. In a way, the Knights Of The Round Table are a bit like a classic superhero team. How do you think the concept of a hero has changed from the knight to the contemporary superhero?
BKV: I’ve always been interested in the idea of heroes and how it’s largely kind of an imaginary construct, that it’s this thing that we impose on people. I do think people are capable of doing heroic things, but once you start defining them as heroes, you’re just setting them up for disappointment and setting them up to disappoint you. That idea has always interested me, whether it’s in politics and our politicians as heroes, or superheroes and the nature of secret identities as well. Heroes fascinate me. I don’t have all the answers about them or I wouldn’t write about them, but I find them endlessly compelling. And superheroes in particular are a really good metaphor for a way to talk about the way we treat each other, and sometimes elevate each other in ways that aren’t always healthy.
AVC: Speaking of superheroes and unhealthy, you’re very vocal about your admiration for Garth Ennis. What is it about his writing that you’re drawn to, and what other comics creators do you really enjoy right now?
BKV: That’s a good question. Garth is an influence, definitely he’s an influence. I just greatly admire that confidence of his writing. I just feel no matter if he’s writing about World War II or superheroes, he’s the kind of author that as you’re reading, you know that he knew no one was looking over his shoulder as he was doing this. He’s writing only for himself and for his collaborators. And just a real economy of language, and letting pictures do a lot of the heavy lifting. I think few people are better craftsmen, just pound for pound, I think there are few better writers than Garth Ennis in our business. So Garth’s great, and I mean, Alan Moore will always be my hero, and the writer I will always most strive to be like and most fail. So Alan is up there high. Paul Chadwick, who does Concrete, is a creator I really love, and that was someone I was really surprised, when I first met Garth Ennis, to hear that he was also a Paul Chadwick fan. If you haven’t read Concrete, it’s very sweet, and sort of quiet and socially engaged. I think if you read Concrete, you’ll see its influence on [Ennis’] Preacher in sort of a weird, unexpected way, and definitely its influence on Y: The Last Man. I think those guys are, off the top of my head, from the world of comics writers, who I particularly love.
AVC: Are there any titles that you’re really a big fan of right now?
BKV: I read everything. Acme Novelty Library is always what I’m most excited for, so I think that’s usually my happiest reading experience of the year, when a new Chris Ware comes out. But on the total other end of the spectrum, I keep recommending this IDW book Cobra, based on the G.I. Joe toys of our youth. There’s a writer named Mike Costa who is writing it, and I think he’s just absolutely bringing his A-game to what could be just a regular sort of shitty work-for-hire job. He’s just turned it into this really smart, very clever espionage book that’s always written at the top of its intelligence, and I love it. So from Acme Novelty Library to Cobra and just about everything in between, I read a sickening amount of comics these days. Oh! Spaceman, I have to say, by Brian Azzarello, people haven’t been reading it. I think it’s Azzarello and [Eduardo] Risso’s best work they’ve ever done. Goddamn that book is good.
AVC: What can readers expect from Saga coming up? And in general, what can we expect from you?
BKV: Right now my focus has been on Saga, just because I love it so much, and new ongoing series take a lot of love and work to get them up off the ground. So I think they can expect the unexpected. I think if you checked out the first issue and were surprised to see robots with TV heads fucking and monsters getting their heads exploded, you will continue to be surprised by the directions the book takes. I love it. It’s the happiest I’ve ever been working on a comic, and Fiona is as good as it gets, so if you liked our first issue, I hope you will check out number two.