Comics Writer Brian K. Vaughan Talks Saga, Diversity, and Fixing Injustice in the Industry

Brian K. Vaughan

Writers in any medium would kill for a creative streak as long as Brian K. Vaughan’s. He started scripting comics in the late 1990s, burst into the industry’s top tier a few years later, and hasn’t exited the spotlight since. In the aughts, he won widespread acclaim and a rack of awards for inventive stories like Y: The Last Man (which imagined a world where all men abruptly died, except for the protagonist), Ex Machina (about a superpowered mayor of New York City), and Runaways (in which a group of kids finds out their parents are supervillains and go on the lam).

After those all wrapped up, he moved on to one of the best series currently in publication, the quirky space opera Saga (penciled by Fiona Staples), and filled out his slate with a story about a futuristic Canadian-American war called We Stand on Guard (penciled by Steve Skroce) and his latest title, the surreal sci-fi thriller Paper Girls. Oh, and he also wrote for the TV shows Lost and Under the Dome. He’s been busy.

With the latest collection of Saga hitting stands today, we caught up with Vaughan to talk about the injustices of the comics industry, his theories about the popularity of comics adaptations, and why he’s writing more stories about people who aren’t straight, white men.

What’s your average day like?
It begins much earlier than I would like, because I have two young children. I walk them to school every day, and then I’m kind of a Johnny Lunchpail: I write during normal working hours, from 9 to 6, which is very strange, because when I started out I would write from, like, midnight to 8 a.m. and then just sleep all day like a vampire. That’s how I prefer to write, so it’s strange adjusting to these normal-people hours. I’m trying my best.

You recently sent a tweet that triggered a lot of discussion: “Comics are a billion-dollar industry built on the backs of largely poor creators who are discouraged from ever learning their true worth." What prompted that?
I’d been thinking about alternate covers. This is getting pretty inside-baseball, but it’s something that’s really affecting comics now: A lot of books come out and they might have six or seven alternate covers, and sometimes there will be a cover for which a retailer will have to order 100 copies of the books to get one of these special covers. I think I was just asking, Are the artists drawing all these alternate covers at least getting paid more for it? I think the companies are all benefiting spectacularly from just one new image on top of a book.

It’s always frustrating to hear from comics creators who are like, “Ah, there’s no money in comics, and it’s an honor just to be working on them.” I guess I disagree with that. There’s a lot of money in comics and the comics companies have been doing better and better over the years, but it seems like, for most artists, page rates have stagnated or gone down. I’d like to see more creators fighting for what’s fair, and not just taking what they’re given.

You’re focusing on artists; do you think they get a rawer deal than writers?
Oh, definitely. But if you’re looking for who’s treated unfairly in comics, you could start with letterers. They’re probably the most criminally underpaid creators in the industry. But yeah, I think it’s always harder for artists. Their job is several times more difficult than a writer’s. It’s physically demanding and it just takes more time. For a page that a writer could dash off in an hour, it’s gonna be a day or two of an artist’s life, and I think they’ve always been taken for granted. Especially because the people who write about comics are usually writers themselves, so it’s natural for them to focus on that side, but comics is a visual medium. The artists should be getting the lion’s share of the attention and ownership and benefits, and that’s not always the case.

So what kinds of fixes do you think could happen in the industry to make it more equitable and fair for creators?
Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Valiant — they’re all excellent places to work, but the characters they own need the creators more than the creators need them. So if you’re a creator and you think you deserve a raise, ask for one. Otherwise, maybe, bet on yourself and go creator-owned. There’s no guarantee you’ll succeed in that world, but even a modest hit can be life-changing.

Do you go back and read many of your older books?
Oh, God, no. I now have enough distance from a lot of my work that, if I see someone bring up an X-Men issue [that I wrote] to sign, I can flip through it and it doesn’t completely feel like I’m drowning or being set on fire. But for the most part, no, I would much rather read other people’s writing than my own.

It really feels that bad with all of your old stuff?
I miss the artists and I miss that collaboration and that time, but I just see my mistakes and failings. Or worse, you see something and you’re like, Fuck, that was great — oh no, what if I peaked back in 2003? This is a nightmare! There is no good that comes from dwelling on your own stuff. You just gotta be like a shark and keep moving forward.

Speaking of 2003, your big hits of the aughts, Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, were produced in the wake of 9/11. How did that influence them?
Yeah, they’re so much a product of their time. The first issue of Y, I wrote before 9/11 and [artist] Pia [Guerra] was in the middle of it when 9/11 happened. Y was a lot more dour beforehand. Living in New York during and after 9/11, you just saw how much people wanted to be together to drink and make jokes and screw around. I guess it was the only way to not go insane. Y got infused with that gallows humor and the balancing of comedy and tragedy.

Ex Machina was about trying to make sense of the world after watching from the roof of my apartment in Brooklyn as these buildings fell, and trying to make sense of politics and this concept of heroism and whether that’s a real thing or just something we impose on people. That was all born right out of that day.

What’s the status of the Y: The Last Man film adaptation?
It’s actually over at FX right now, so it’s a television series. It’s very slowly coming to life. No news I can share, other than that it’s all chugging along happily.

Your recent work is garnering even more attention than your old stuff. Saga has become a gateway drug for people who don’t usually read comics. Was that a goal when you started the series?
Yeah. Since I broke into comics, I’ve always loved converting people. I remember being a freshman at NYU and getting that first issue of Preacher and just watching it spread like an STD around the dorm. It didn’t matter if you were a man, woman, whatever your background was, people just loved Preacher. You didn’t have to understand a complicated layout or anything. If you’d only ever read the Sunday comics, this Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon storytelling was so clear. It sucked you in. So yeah, I’ve always wanted Saga to reach beyond the base of comics lovers and reach out to the vast majority of people who don’t yet know that they love comics.

When did people start telling you, “I’m not a comics reader, but I love Saga”?
It happened right away. With Y: The Last Man, it was a more gradual process. When our first collection came out, there would be guys that would drag their girlfriends up at signings, and the girls would say, “This is the first comic that I ever read,” and by the end of Y: The Last Man, it would be women dragging their boyfriends up, and the guys would be like, “This is the first comic I ever read.” It felt like that sea change already happened during Y, that the audience already started to reach parity between male and female readers for certain kinds of books.

But yeah, it was right away with Saga, and I think a lot of that is a credit to Fiona. This is a weird book. There’s a lot of bizarre, tough-to-swallow shit and Fiona makes it so accessible and inviting. So many people have come up and said, “I saw that first cover for the first issue of the first collection, and said, ‘I have to see what’s going on.’” You turn to that first page and Fiona just sucks you in.

The core cast of your other new ongoing series, Paper Girls, is comprised of young women, and you’ve won praise for Saga’s lack of straight, white males. Do you think creators have a responsibility to be inclusive?
I just feel like artists have a responsibility to be good. That said, I think it’s much harder to be good without trying to reflect some aspect of the real world, and the real world has never been just a straight, white guy world. It's certainly becoming increasingly less like that all the time. So yeah, it’s just not something that I wanna write about.

You’re known for your final pages: Any given issue is likely to end with a full-page panel depicting some twist or revelation. When did you start consciously doing that?
I think I was probably influenced by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It didn’t just have great cliffhangers every episode; it had great cliffhangers every commercial break. And they weren’t what I later learned in television are called “schmuck bait," which is an easy cliffhanger where it’s like, you put a knife to Buffy’s throat and cut to commercial. That’s schmuck bait because everyone knows that Buffy’s not gonna get stabbed and die when the show comes back.

The goal is to create an emotional moment that’s so strong that you’re gonna hold on for a little bit. That’s just necessary in any serialized storytelling. I think that challenged me to know that the end of an issue is a responsibility. Why the fuck should a reader care about this for another 15 minutes, much less another month to come back for it? You try to end in the strongest way possible.

If you could strike the right deal and make sure the artist was gonna be taken care of, would you go back to Marvel or DC to do a superhero book? Or are you done with that in your life?
I think it’s done. I was lucky enough to get to write Batman and Spider-Man and all these characters that I loved from my childhood. But I’ve always been happiest making new things rather than just trying to interpret other people’s creations. There are a lot better, younger, hungrier creators out there who have good stories to tell with those characters.

What can comics do as a medium that filmed entertainment can’t?
It all comes down to money. Every medium is a struggle between art versus commerce, and if you work in film and television, commerce is always the first thing that you think about and art the last thing that you think about. It’s always hanging over your head. But comics is a small enough medium that you can afford to put art first. You can’t not think about the commerce, it just gets to be secondary. You start off saying, “What is the coolest thing?” If you wanna do a double-page spread that features 300 characters, you don’t have to think about budgetary constraints. It almost baffles me that people are so concerned about comics being adapted into a TV show or a movie, as though it means comics are just a glorified blueprint for something else.

Well, comics are serving as jumping-off points for an ever-growing number of adaptations. There’s been an insane boom in the past decade. Why do you think that is?
I think people are now realizing that over the last couple of decades comics have been this incubator of pure imagination. It was this place where people were able to do whatever kind of stories they wanted, without having to worry about budgets. People are crazy if they’re talking about the comic-book bubble bursting. That’s never gonna happen any more than people are gonna stop adapting novels. That is here to stay.

There’s also the generational factor: People who read more ambitious, cinematic comics like The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, or Maus in the 1980s are now making decisions at studios.
When I first came out [to Los Angeles] however many years ago, it was all interns who were nerds. The guy or girl who would bring you a water as you were sitting in the hallway would be like, “I’m such a huge comic person and I love this or that,” and then you would go and meet with people who had no idea who you were or what you were talking about. Years later, all those interns became assistants, and they’re in a position now where they can force stuff on their bosses. Then they move their way up, and it feels like now all those people are second-in-commands at companies. We’re just a few years away from the geeks having completely taken over and running everything.