Meet Brian K. Vaughan: The Comic Book Visionary Behind ‘Y: The Last Man’
Brian K. Vaughan is the golden boy of modern comic book writing.
He has the reputation and awards (10 Eisner wins and 10 Eisner nominations) to hold the title, and he’s been compared to comics titans like Frank Miller and Alan Moore. From blockbuster hits like Y: The Last Man, the space opera Saga, and TV writing/producing credits on some of the best seasons of Lost and Under the Dome, Vaughan has become one of the preeminent comics authors by the ripe age of 39.
His books embody some of the most traditional science fiction ideas known to the genre with modern sociological twists and turns. In Y: The Last Man, which FX just picked up for a television series adaptation shortly after our conversation, Vaughan explores our fear of feminism by placing Yorick Brown and his trusted monkey, Ampersand, as the last males on Earth after a mysterious plague eliminates all others of their kind. Only women remain after the gender-genocide, and have no interest in reverting things back to the way they were.
But culturally resonant science fiction is not all Vaughan can do. He also takes us to galaxies far, far away with books like Saga, a space opera set in the midst of a war between two races. As a girl, the one bridge between the races, is born in Hazel, Alana and Marko have to figure out how to keep their daughter safe from the many dangers of space travel—and killer robots, tarantula women, lying cats, and a sociopathic bounty hunter. All these boundary-pushing looks at the future have led up to a different, more nostalgic comic book, Paper Girls. Here, Vaughan explores the 1980s through the eyes of 12 paper delivery girls in the suburbs of Ohio, where they discover something from beyond the realm of imagination.
We caught up with Vaughan at this year’s New York Comic Con to discuss his rapid ascent in the comic book and TV writing world, the state of the entertainment industry, and what lies in its not-so-distant future.
You’ve been heralded as one of the most visionary artists in comics. How do you maintain the quality of your work for so long and with such consistency?
Brian K. Vaughan: Well, I’m just riding my artists’ coattails. Comics is an artist medium and I am lucky enough to work with some of the best artists who’ve ever worked in comics. With that, it is easy to sit down and get new pages from Fiona Staples, Cliff Chiang, or Steve Skroce. It is inspiring and fun. My job is easy—they are the visionaries.
You seem to enjoy writing about these massive, intricate conflicts. Where do you draw your inspiration for them?
Each book I work on is just my cheap form of therapy, where I explore whatever I am conflicted or scared about. Y: The Last Man was written after a breakup and I was sort of confused and terrified about the opposite sex. Ex-Machina was post-9/11 and watching the towers fall from the roof of my apartment in Brooklyn. And now Paper Girls is my dealing with nostalgia and both yearning for the past and being disgusted by where I came from, while trying to make sense about being an adult now. The conflict is always really internal and then I just spread it out to characters to try to figure out what the hell is wrong with me.
And what is it like being an adult in the comic book world? How are you still able to be a voice for a younger generation?
It’s weird. When I was doing Runaways at Marvel, where kids find out that their parents are evil, I was closer in age to the kids than the evil parents, so it was easy to identify with them. Now, I have children and am almost 40, I write from a different perspective. Even when I was writing superhero books, I never tried to write down to an audience or a demographic. It was always just for myself and my collaborators and we hoped it would work out.
All of your current work is creator-owned content. Do you have full control and ownership?
Yeah, the artists and I do. We share ownership and control of everything we do. Image can’t really censor us or tell us what we can or can’t print. They don’t edit anything or take movie rights. They just publish comics. This experience has definitely changed the way I approach comic books.
Well, speaking of censorship, Saga has been named as one of the top ten most challenged books of 2014, and was pretty close up there in 2015. What are your thoughts on all the censorship people attempt to apply to comics?
The nice things about it are that, while people often say we are the most banned books, we are not. We are just the most challenged. That means someone will stumble upon Saga in a library and say, “What?! Comic books can’t do this! This is offensive!” The main reason why it hasn’t been banned is because of librarians, who are at the forefront of anti-censorship. They’ve been so great about saying, “It’s fine if you don’t want your children to read Saga, but this is not how libraries work.” It’s frustrating that some people challenge it, but I am so grateful for librarians that let people check out whatever materials they want.
You said you write mostly from personal experience. In Saga, you focus mostly on family dynamics within the context of space travel, and wars, with the marriage between Alana and Marko—and their baby Hazel—in the book serving as a bridge between these two very different, opposing cultures. What were you going through in your life when you started writing this book?
I think marriage is always fusing together two worlds. Saga was written right after the birth of my children and I wanted to explore that fear, excitement, joy, and terror of being a parent. When you describe parenthood to anyone, especially when they don’t have children, you just see their eyes glaze over and start to fall asleep. It’s very boring to talk about so I wanted to find a way to externalize what it feels like to be a parent and work out those fears, plus adding ray guns and wood rockets gave us the freedom to explore more mundane phenomena.
Hollywood is constantly mining comics now for reference material, like with superhero movies. How do you avoid falling into the more common tropes in comic books and maintain your stories’ purity?
I spent 10 years working on superhero comics, and it is sometimes frustrating that the medium of comics that is capable of doing anything is almost completely overrun with superhero stories. I think I do things better than superheroes. There are also people out there better than I at doing superhero stories, and that’s what they should do. But I never worry about tropes or what has been done before. If you start from that place of, “I have something to say about the real world,” it will always feel fresh, and hopefully provide a unique, idiosyncratic perspective.
You’ve also said before that you would not like to see Saga as anything else other than a comic book. Do you feel that way only about Saga or do you think that about all your stories?
I feel that with Saga, and any of my comics, I am open to it being a film or TV series, but I just don’t care that much. It is not that important to me. I’ve never seen comics as glorified storyboards for future projects. Comic books are the destination, not the road map. Saga was born out of me doing work in Hollywood. Here is the stuff I love about television: getting to do really complicated, adult drama that you can’t do in a summer blockbuster. Then the things that I love about summer blockbusters, that epic scope, you can’t always do in television. And comics is the one place where you can do both of those things. Maybe someday film and television will catch up to us and find a way to make Saga, but right now they can’t. Comics are just a superior medium in that fashion of storytelling. It’s not a hard-line stance that me and Fiona have taken. We’re just not hungry for it and haven’t met anyone yet who made us believe they can make a show or movie that was anywhere as cool as the comic.
Have you been approached about possible film or television adaptations?
Yes (laughs), and it’s very flattering. It’s nice and we are very fortunate to be in a position where our books do so well and have such reach that we can afford to not say yes to whatever option or offer comes our way.
You’ve also done some television work in your career. You were a writer on Lost for two seasons, and more recently you were showrunner for Under the Dome. What did these experiences teach you in regards to sci-fi that you have folded into your comic books?
The main thing that appealed to me most about these shows, for example on Lost, was never what is the smoke monster or what’s in the hatch, it was just how beautifully the characters were written. You saw a lot of shows after Lost promising to do what Lost never did and they had these game plans, but you then realize that people don’t really care about that stuff if they don’t care about the people. So, I try to not get too obsessed about the mythology of it all and just write characters that feel real and you care about.
Do you think there is a right or wrong way to do sci-fi?
No, not at all. Just be good. And every time I hear someone say, “This is the right way to do it,” I immediately try to find the opposite way because I’m a contrarian dick (laughs).
Your new project, Paper Girls, seems different and more grounded than you previous works. Can you tell me more about what kind of story you’re trying to tell with it?
I wanted to do something different than what I am doing currently—Saga being this sweeping space opera. I wanted something more contained and grounded with some spectacular element to it. Paper Girls is the story of four 12-year-old newspaper delivery girls growing up, like me, in the suburbs outside Cleveland in the late 1980s. They stumble upon something extraordinary and it’s a mystery and an adventure and a weird book. I didn’t think it would appeal to anyone because it’s too personal and offbeat.
In all your previous works, including the recent Paper Girls, you feature women pretty predominantly in terms of social commentary (as in Y: The Last Man) and family/relationship dynamics (Saga). Are you doing this to tap into the current situation in entertainment of underrepresented female characters, or is it something more organic that just comes out of you?
Yeah, I don’t have an agenda beyond what is a cool story. I tend to write female characters and I remember when I was doing Runaways at Marvel, it was a group that usually had one or two men in it and five women. At the time there were a lot of conversations at Marvel about how we were turning heads with this book. Usually in comic books you have your one token female character and that just seems boring to me. I’ve seen it so many times and with Paper Girls I get the opportunity to just write about four kids in 1980s Cleveland. Then the question was how to do something different that hasn’t been done before? It was mostly just being inspired by these real paper girls that one summer, when I was growing up, who just showed up. All of the previous paper boys became paper girls. It was a movement where young women just sort of said, “Oh, we can do this too!” and it was cool and strange to see as a lazy 12-year-old kid who just sat inside playing Nintendo all the time while these hardcore gangsters woke up at 4 a.m. to deliver papers and just shake down adults for money. I thought that was so cool and interesting that I had to write about them.
What do you think about the current superhero movie universes being orchestrated by Marvel and DC? Do you think that these long-term projects by two major comic book publishers are forcing younger comic book creators to fall in step?
I mean it’s cool to hear people in their 70s, like my father, talk about Thor. That’s just something I never thought would be possible when I was a kid. It is amazing how this sort of fringe, cult stuff has reached the mainstream. At the same time, something that worries me a little bit about it is that my kid’s fiction is almost entirely the same as what I grew up on. I love Spider-Man and Batman and Star Wars and my kids love Spider-Man and Batman and Star Wars. But my dad when he was growing up loved Tarzan and The Shadow, it was cool that he got to see new things being made for his kids. I think that’s what’s inspiring the independent creators most, I feel. It’s great that these characters are being serviced so well, but what comics has always been great at is being this breeding ground for challenging, new ideas. Which is something that Spider-Man, or the Silver Surfer, used to be. That’s an unthinkable, great idea! I love that! But I think now the next crazy, far-out ideas are less likely to come out of Marvel and DC and more from independent publishers. That’s how these movies inspire, not so much as “I have to write the best Batman story ever!” and more “I want to write the next cool thing.”