Born in Cleveland and educated at NYU's film school, Brian K. Vaughan has been kicking around in comics since the late '90s, but over the past few years, he's emerged as one of the field's dominant voices for readers who value well-developed characters, thought-provoking plots, and social commentary. In 2002, he teamed with artist Pia Guerra and DC Comics offshoot Vertigo to launch Y: The Last Man, the story of a semi-employed magician who, along with his pet monkey, inexplicably survives a cataclysm that wipes out all the males on earth. What sounds like the basis for a dirty joke has proven, at 35 issues and counting, to be a consistently gripping, often wry, occasionally devastating examination of gender roles and the frayed ends of the ties that keep civilization together.
Vaughan's other series include Runaways, about a group of teens who flee home when they learn their parents are supervillains; it shares space on the Marvel shelves with Vaughan's ongoing run on Ultimate X-Men. And last year, Vaughan and artist Tony Harris unveiled a new title, Ex Machina, a depiction of post-9/11 New York politics with a twist: In the wake of the attacks, a well-intentioned, pragmatic, occasionally inscrutable former superhero has become the mayor.
Vaughan's future plans include an ongoing story in Michael Chabon's quarterly Amazing Adventures Of The Escapist comics anthology, and a new graphic novel, Pride Of Baghdad, about zoo lions let loose in Baghdad after an American bombing. At the 2005 San Diego Comic-Con, the afternoon before Vaughan won the Best Writer Eisner Award and Ex Machina won for best new series, Vaughan spoke to The A.V. Club about dog-sitting, comics he got canceled, and getting into the mind of teenagers.
The A.V. Club: You went to film school. How deep do your scripts get into dictating visual details?
Brian K. Vaughan: They used to be a lot more visual, but the longer I've been writing, the more I find that you have to give the artist more leeway or else you'll just be disappointed. You can't force them to draw every image that's in your head. Since I'm a horrific artist, I wouldn't want them to anyway. So I definitely give them a lot more leeway now than I did at the beginning. But you know, they are such completely different things, film and comics. In film, you have the luxury of accomplishing what you need in 24 frames every second. Comics, you only have five or six panels a page to do that. So really, it's just about that economy, distilling it down to this very specific image. You'd have to talk to my artists—I think they probably all would say I'm too talky and my books are too much people going back and forth. I have no idea. There are probably writers who are much more visual than I am and some who are less. I like to think of myself as a happy medium.
AVC: How difficult was the pitch for Y: The Last Man?
BKV: It was sort of hard, because I'd just tanked the Swamp Thing franchise for Vertigo.
AVC: Did it get cancelled after your run?
BKV: It got cancelled during my run. I sort of ran it into the ground. You know, I was in my early 20s when I got that gig, but to Vertigo's credit, Karen Berger, the editor-in-chief, and Heidi MacDonald, who was the editor, they were really nice and said, "We really like your voice, but it seems like you'd be better suited for your own creation rather than trying to write existing characters." So after that, it wasn't too hard, even though the high concept sounds so dumb, you know, the last man and women riding motorcycles, and monkeys… It just sounds ridiculous. But I wrote such a detailed bible to convince them that it was going to be a thoughtful story about gender and not just a bad Cinemax late-night movie that they were really pretty supportive from day one.
AVC: But when The New York Times Magazine did its big piece on comics recently, they singled it out for derision. Do you find it's sometimes hard for people to get past the genre elements of what you do?
BKV: I don't know. The New York Times article is weird, because they were like, "It's about crazy lesbians on motorcycles," and it's like, "You really haven't read the book if that's what you took away from it." But I don't think so. At Vertigo, for a while there was this thought that high-concept equals lowbrow, and if you just had sort of a simple Hollywood-style log-line, it automatically meant it was going to be dumb. But I've always liked a good high concept as sort of an excuse to explore a million different things. I'm sure there are some people that won't read it because it's genre. But it's interesting, I think superheroes get much more unfair derision. There are so many good superhero books being done. Science fiction is almost more reputable, I guess, at least a step up from poor superheroes. People go see post-apocalyptic movies; they love shows like Lost. So I think people have taken Y as seriously as they should, for the most part.
AVC: Did you make films at NYU?
BKV: I made some really terrible student films. They were sort of experimental, and "Let's shoot a whole film backwards," and they got a little more narrative. But it was frustrating, because it's so expensive, and the sound of the film running through that 16mm camera still gives me gas to this day, because I just picture dollar bills in a toilet-paper dispenser just rolling away. That was the appealing thing about comics: There literally is no budget in comics. You're only limited by your imagination. My student films were like failed science experiments where I had a result I was hoping to get, and it never quite matched. Comics has always been a joy. So I like collaboration, I like visual arts, but film… I quickly passed it aside in favor of comics.
AVC: Why do you think you've had success breaking new characters when it seems like no one else is having any luck?
BKV: I just don't think enough people are trying. I do think if I could do it, more people could do it as well, I just think a lot of creators are attracted to those toys they got to play with when they were young, and everyone wants to write a Superman story or a Batman story or a Spider-Man story. I don't know, if it's been successful for me, it should be successful for anyone. I think the one thing I've done is, I heard a lot of guys put out new books and they'll say, "Oh, the first issue is really good, but wait until you see number four, that's really where it kicks in." Even Neil Gaiman says that Sandman didn't really come into its zone until around issue number eight. The marketplace is so crowded and cutthroat now that you don't have the luxury of going to issue number eight or issue number four. In that first issue, you really have to convince people that this is a book they desperately need to buy, more than X-Men or whatever books they're buying. I think if I'm good at anything, it's writing a really good first issue and finding the best artist to bring that to life. "Hit the ground with your feet running" is the secret.
AVC: The first issue of Ex Machina ends with a 9/11-related twist that could have made readers angry if you'd handled it wrong. Were you concerned about that?
BKV: Yeah, I was. It's hard, because I didn't want it to be like Titanic, where I'm exploiting… Obviously not enough time has passed to exploit this tragedy, to tell a stupid love story like Titanic. It made me uncomfortable and worried, but that sort of made me want to do it more. I think that people kept saying "It's too soon," and I'd much rather be writing about something too soon than too late. It made me uncomfortable and angry. I don't know, [there was] sort of a gut instinct that it was something I really wanted to talk about, so I just did it.
AVC: Ex Machina protagonist Mitchell Hundred is a little obscure about his political beliefs, but to the degree that they've been revealed, how much do they reflect your own?
BKV: Not very much at all. I really didn't want to do a book where the guy was just a mouthpiece for my weird politics, to try and shove it down people's throats. I wanted to pick an interesting character. He's much more logical than I am. He's a civil engineer, and I can't do basic arithmetic. But I do think he's much more of a pragmatist than I am. I think I'm a bit more of an idealist, and he's not like that at all. We're the same in some respects, we differ in others, but he's really independent and I'm not.
AVC: Because you're a hardcore Republican, obviously.
BKV: [Laughs.] Well, I never talk about it, but I think if you read all of my books, you can probably suss out where my politics are.
AVC: With Ultimate X-Men and Runaways, you deal with a lot of teen characters. Do you have a process for getting inside the heads of teens?
BKV: I genuinely am sort of an emotionally stunted man-child, so if I just write to the top of my intelligence, it sounds like a teenager. I don't have to… I remember reading an interview with [Brian Michael] Bendis where he talks about going to the mall and listening to kids, and that just sounds sort of creepy, like a pedophile thing, to me. I don't do that. I like being around teenagers. It's good for drama; they feel everything much more intensely than we do, their lives are much more interesting than ours. They're mutants. They have these weird bodies that are rebelling against them and changing every day. Teenagers always equal good drama.
AVC: You've had some interesting jobs prior to comics, including a stint working at a psychiatric hospital. How long were you there, and what did you do?
BKV: It was my second job after film school. I saw a posting in the NYU job bulletin—they were looking for someone in an audiovisual capacity, so I went and applied for the job. I was sort of the glorified A.V. nerd, wheeling TV trays in and out of places. But every once in a while, I would shoot video stuff where the psychiatric interns would interview patients and they'd want someone to tape it. I'd get to do that. Or I'd have really strange things, like a guy would come into the hospital with, I guess, amnesia… I don't know if there's a better term, a more scientific term, for that, but they would do sodium pentothal, the Nazi truth-serum drug you always hear about in fiction. They'd inject that in order to force memory stuff. I got to tape things like that. And I mean, talk about grist for the mill. As a writer, you want to see stuff like that. I would get to document in some way what was going on at this hospital. I was there for, I guess, about a year and a half, two years.
AVC: Which turns up in your writing more, that or your job as a live-in dog-sitter?
BKV: The live-in dog-butler thing that I did was just a crazy… Some lady let me stay in her butler quarters. I was so poor and I didn't have enough comics work, so I got to live in a Central Park West butler's quarters, and I took care of a rich person's dog.
AVC: Do you have a dog now?
BKV: I do not, and because of that experience, I probably never will. It was a big dog, too, an inappropriately big dog for New York.
AVC: Does your writing read better in trade-paperback form, or month to month?
BKV: I don't know. I sort of read or experience it month to month, and that's what I love. I know a lot of guys—there's this debate about "Are you writing for the trade or not?" But I really don't. I love serialized fiction. I love especially Y, where Yorick is sort of aging in real time. We're entering year three, and Yorick is three years older than he was at the beginning. I like that experience of visiting the characters, sort of peeking in at them once a month. Hopefully, it reads well in trades, because I think that's where most people discover my work. But I like the cliffhangers. I like punishing people and being mean and ending on the best cliffhanger possible.