Art of Brian K. Vaughan

Comics author Brian K. Vaughan on his global hit "Saga" and making art in troubled times

Author of "Y: The Last Man" and the "Saga" series: 90 percent of art is garbage, but the rest is "worth dying for"


Chauncey DeVega
January 21, 2019 10:30PM (UTC)

Brian K. Vaughan is one of the accomplished and unique voices in contemporary American comic books and popular culture. He is the writer of such award-winning comic books and graphic novels as "Y: The Last Man," "Ex Machina" and "Paper Girls." Vaughan has also been a writer, editor and producer for such TV shows as "Lost," "Under the Dome," "The Runaways" and "Daredevil." Vaughan has won numerous awards for his work in comic books and graphic novels including 14 Eisner Awards and 14 Hugo Awards. Vaughan was also awarded the prestigious Hugo Award for "Saga."

In a career marked by so many successes and accolades, it is that series of graphic novels, "Saga," that is perhaps his most unique and memorable vision.

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"Saga" is a high concept space opera about a galactic war, where a tree is a sentient space ship, there are aliens of every possible type (including a royal family who have televisions for faces), magic and science coexist, and the intrepid heroes fight -- and often succeed -- against seemingly impossible odds. Like the best of science fiction, "Saga" is also a human and personal story about love, family, friendship, life and trying to raise a child in a world and universe that does not want to accept her -- and at worst wants to do her harm.

In my recent conversation with Brian Vaughan, we discussed the origins of "Saga" and its relationship to the "pulps" and other stories from the golden age of science fiction, what it is like to be creative for a living, maintaining perspective while also being successful, how writing comic books and graphic novels can serve as a type of therapy, the dangers of nostalgia for the Reagan 1980s, and how race and gender afforded him opportunities and privileges that helped make his success possible.

Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

You have had great success with comic books, graphic novels and television. How does it all feel? Has the novelty warn off?

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It always feels surreal. I'm this Forrest Gump of the pop culture world who keeps bumbling into these extraordinary circumstances. So, yes, I am very appreciative. But it is also a job -- and as someone who has had other actual challenging, jobs, this is as good as it gets. I'm not jaded about it yet, and I'm not one of those grizzled old professionals who tells younger people, "Don't ever try to break into this business." I don't know why you would do anything but what I'm fortunate enough to do with "Saga" and all of my other projects.

Where does that common narrative about the grizzled old veterans of the comic book business come from? Why is it so seductive?

At least in the world of comics, I feel like I am the beneficiary of generations of comic creators who were wronged. They went through that so that I do not have to. I have  gotten so many more rights as a creator because of their sacrifices. No, I don't begrudge any veteran who feels bitter because for a long time this was a particularly unpleasant and unfair business.

How do you reconcile luck and talent and success?

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I used to think it was 100 percent hard work and just my extraordinary skill. But I think the older I've gotten, the more I can recognize that, yes, luck plays a role. And I cannot discount the privilege of just being a middle-class white male and how the tracks were pretty greased for me. A lot of people gave me jobs because we shared a similar cultural background and interests.

That is almost the very definition of social capital. There are gatekeepers who make some people feel more welcome than others in that "exclusive" world and subculture. What advice would you give about breaking into comics?

Breaking into comics is so difficult and so hard to give advice for because it is not like becoming a dentist where you get a graduate degree and there is a clear path. One of my mentors used to describe comics as this impenetrable fortress and that breaking in involves creativity to find that hole in the wall, but the problem is, once you find that hole, the hole immediately gets plugged up so no one else can come in that way. Everyone who breaks into comics does it in their own unique way. Yes, you need so much creativity and imagination to come up with an idea that's worthy of pursuing, but you need just as much creativity and imagination to find out how you're going to break into this castle.

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And what about those people who pull up the ladder behind them?

Sure, particularly if they are young embittered creators. They feel like it is not fair that this person got in and perhaps they did not have as successful a career -- or any career for that matter. But I do think artists want to take care of other artists and to help out in general. I would like to believe in that inherent goodness.

From "Saga" to "Y: The Last Man," "Pride of Baghdad" and "Paper Girls," there is so much humanity in your work. "Saga" is an especially wonderful antidote to the cruelty and meanness of America and the world today.

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Thank you. Writing, particularly comics, is just so time-intensive. If you are going to spend years of your life on something I only want to work on something that I feel strongly about -- moreover, that I feel strongly about it in a way that I want to write honestly about, that I'm terrified about or confused about. I want to be invested. I hope it begins with the character rather than just like, "Oh, I've got an incredible cookie-cutter high concept that will make for a great movie someday."

How do you manage being vulnerable as a writer?

Vulnerability is just some degree of braveness or where I get paid to make crazy things up. Many times people will describe something that they read with this assumption that the writer or creator has endured it personally. That is not always the case. But, yes, I feel like there's a lot of freedom in being able to explore these very personal fears in a way that I think most people are connected to.

I've always said this is a relatively inexpensive form of therapy for me. I feel like the medium chose me. I got exposed to comic books when I was young and they got their hooks into me. I love comic books so much because they are interactive. With movies or your favorite TV show you sit there and watch. But comics require a great deal of active engagement from the readers. I find that so appealing. When there's a comic book that I love, it is so much more an immersive experience than the most elaborate Hollywood blockbuster because I'm a participant in what's going on.

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How did your love of comic books and graphic novels start?

When I was a little kid, probably in kindergarten, I was home sick from school and my parents brought home a bunch of comics for me to read. I would get comics and I thought that the panels were like an activity book that you were supposed to cut out, like you did with some other magazines, and arrange the pictures in order for it to make sense.

Almost as soon as I was exposed to comic books, I wanted to start hacking them and cutting them open and stitching it all back together again. There are pictures of me as a little kid chopping up I'm sure what today would be hugely valuable copies of "The Amazing Spider-Man" and pasting them with "Heathcliff" or other Sunday newspaper comics. I just thought all comics were meant to be mashed together -- that was your job as the reader.

For me it was the first few issues of "The Transformers" and the famous "silent issue" of "G.I. Joe." Looking back, yes, those were shameless cash-grab toy tie-ins, but even allowing for that fact, there was some smart writing there. I read that "G.I. Joe" issue at least once a year, even to this day.

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I'm stuck on that same issue of "G.I. Joe." It really is a formative comic book for me. I’ve revisited it since and it does hold up. Larry Hama is an extraordinary writer and human being who lived a really interesting life. A Marvel editor told me that they would smuggle a bit of the real world into that type of escapist fiction. I love that. There was so much reality in a comic book that was just supposed to be a toy tie-in.

I think that's a good kind of nostalgia, but I'm also troubled by the fact that my two young children have almost exactly the same type of entertainment that I had as a young person. My dad loved "Tarzan" and "The Shadow' and then I had "Spider-Man" and "Star Wars." I feel like my kids have "Spider-Man" and "Star Wars." I'm most excited when my kids get into something that I've never heard of that is wholly original. I think a little bit of nostalgia is fine, but it is the new stuff that continues to excite me most.

There is so much nostalgia for the 1980s right now, as exemplified by the TV series "Stranger Things," for example. But from the Cold War and Reagan to so many other social problems in the United States, that time was not some type of paradise. Nostalgia, by definition, is a misremembering of the past. With "Paper Girls," how do you reconcile that?

One of my fellow collaborators and I were chatting. We were the age of the characters in "Paper Girls" in 1980, I was 12 years old. I remember a lot of aspects of that era fondly, but it also felt like, wow, there's a lot of fiction now about the 1980s that completely whitewashes a lot of the worst aspects of it. The casual hatred and homophobia was so pervasive.  I think as creators we have an obligation -- particularly in the young adult books, writing for an audience that was not alive then -- to show them how far we have come and also how far we still need to go as a society.

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How have you managed the global success of "Saga"?

I'd say up until I started getting Fiona Staples' artwork, I felt that "Saga" was going to be a vanity project that I'm going to love deeply, but will inevitably get canceled after six issues. It was not a superhero book and it had two people of color as protagonists. But then when I saw Fiona's pages and I was like, "Oh, this is not just a cult thing with naked robots that is wrote for myself." I just found a way to translate this really specific story we came up with and make it universal. When I saw her pages, I felt like, "We're going to be able to do this for a long time." I never thought that "Saga" would be in 22 different languages all over the world and in multiple printings. We never dreamed of the scope of "Saga's" success, but it's been a pretty great experience.

The fact that "Saga" features fully developed characters who happen to not be white is very important. That subtle distinction and emphasis is critical, the obviously intentional versus just being part of a fully developed and rich universe. How did you make that decision?

It was something that I completely took for granted when I started writing "Saga," because I've always written books that have very inclusive casts. But when it came time to write this sci-fi fantasy book, my thinking was, “Oh, one of the protagonists has horns and the other has wings, they're from different worlds and this metaphor will be rich for lots of different reasons.” In my mind, I was like, “Oh, they are white, because that is the default for all characters in science fiction and fantasy."

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It was Fiona's first suggestion. I told her that I don't care too much what they look like but I don't want them to be redheads. That is just too common. Fiona said, "Do they need to be white? What  about telling a story about essentially a mixed-race family coming together? Why don’t we bake that into the DNA of the story?" It was so right for the story. This is all entirely a benefit of working with great collaborators like Fiona Staples and reaching out beyond my own initial ideas and assumptions.

The old assumptions about whiteness being the "norm" for science fiction -- especially "golden age" and "hard sci-fi" -- still lingers. It is very toxic and limiting, creatively and intellectually and morally. Have you received much hate mail or other communications from racists who are angry that "Saga" features characters who are not white and male?

Sometimes I get zero mail because in the back of the book we made a strategic decision. I was rereading a lot of old comics and one of them had a P.O. box address. There's something about that filter. A lot of people are not going to waste time on buying a stamp and sending a letter just to yell at you with their racism. In fact, I have ended up hearing lots of lovely supportive things about "Saga." We still got plenty of complaints, but I don't think I've ever heard anyone say, “This book isn't white enough.” I'm grateful. I'm sure those weirdos are out there, but I'm not exposed to them.

"Saga" is a very literate book. What influences were you drawing from?

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When I was a little kid in grade school, the "Saga" universe was something that I would just daydream about and escape in. I hadn't conceptualized Marko and Alana or any of the characters. It was just a big epic. Having gone to Catholic school, I recognize that it's just all those demons and angels with wings and some science fiction stuff and whatever else I loved, with some Saturday morning cartoons mixed in there.

It wasn't until I had kids that I realized, oh, I could actually set a story in this world, but instead of having it be an epic battle between good and evil, I could just do a sort of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern look at war from two people who make an active decision that they're not going to have anything to do with this. It is just two people trying to survive a never-ending war. I was meeting with Fiona and taking my basic concepts and elevating them. Too often people put the cart before the horse and start worrying about world-building and all that related minutiae prematurely.

It just doesn't really matter at the end of the day. You have to start with characters that you care about deeply. If you do, you will be curious about the rest of the universe you are creating.

Your graphic novel series "Y: The Last Man" is taught in schools across the United States and at all levels. You have even gotten requests to read theses and dissertations. How does that make you feel?

I was barely out of college myself when I started writing that book. To think that it's on a syllabus somewhere is extremely cool. Again, I think that's a testament to Pia Guerra, the artist for "Y: The Last Man." The way that Pia translated my ideas and added ideas of her own made the book something so much bigger and better than the original concepts.

Yes, I love "Y: The Last Man" and how it has influenced so many people. But no, I will not read your paper if you want me to. I really am of the camp that believes a reader's interpretation is much more important than my intent. Once it's out of my hands, it's not my place to tell you if you interpreted my work incorrectly. It belongs to you now. So make of it what you will, and I'm going to hide in my basement and write some more stuff.

This political moment of tumult and trouble in the United States and Europe will generate a great amount of subpar creative work. What advice would you give for how comic book creators and other creative types can avoid that trap?

There is always bad work coming out, regardless of the political moment. Ninety percent of anything is mostly garbage and that remaining 10 percent is not only excellent but worth dying for. The only way to get there is to try to be excellent with your art.

I do think we are not at the most horrific, conflicted time in our country by a long shot. In some ways it's unimaginable and in other ways it's almost completely predictable for the pendulum to have swung to this place. I don't know what the answer is, but it is a really interesting time to be alive.  It's hard to pry yourself away from the news because it's so damn interesting.

As much as I say I don't think that one should be too obviously moralistic in their creative work, I also think that we have to avoid the urge to be purely escapist.

Would you consider yourself successful?

It is for other people to judge whether or not I am a success. When I was a younger writer I was living on a friend's couch when I was writing "Y: The Last Man." I was so broke and I would think to myself, "Man, if you can afford cable and not just a place to live that would be the height of success."

I’m so lucky. I want for nothing. My days are mostly just spent saying no to things and than just writing whatever I want to write. Right now I have no editors and no one telling me what I have to say or I what I can't say. I work with the best artists alive and we have no budgetary constraints and whatever we imagine we get to do. Yes, this is definitely the happiest I've been in my life.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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