Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Graphic Lit: An interview with Brian K. Vaughn

Comic books have been very good to Brian K. Vaughn.

More specifically, one comic book, “Y: The Last Man,” has been exceedingly good to him.

“Y” has what is known in entertainment industry parlance as a “great hook.” In the near future, a mysterious plague wipes out every male mammal on planet Earth, except for one guy, a young amateur escape artist named Yorick.

For the past five years, writer Vaughn and artist Pia Guerra have chronicled Yorick’s adventures as he, secret agent 355 and scientist Allison Mann have attempted to find the cause of the plague and perhaps a cure.

The success of that series has led to Vaughn’s star rising not only in comic book circles but in Hollywood as well, including a recent stint as a writer on the TV show “Lost.”

Now the series comes to a finale with the release of issue No. 60. I talked to Vaughn from his home in Los Angeles about bringing the series to a close:

Q: How does it feel to be wrapping up Y? I imagine you have some mixed emotions.
A: Very much so. It’s weird. As I was writing the final issue it was half-relief — “Oh my god I’ve been working on this for years and years and am eager to reach the conclusion” — and also kind of a quiet dread of “Wow, I will truly miss getting to write these characters every single month.” I’m still conflicted about it.

Q: Is it fair to say Y made your reputation as a writer? It seems like it brought you a certain national attention.

A: Very much so. In fact, I don’t think I’d be working on Lost if Damon Lindelhoff weren’t a fan of Y. It’s opened up doors. I wouldn’t have met Joss Whedon if it hadn’t been for Y. Anything good that’s happened over the last five or six years has been because Y has opened that door.

Q: What was the impetus for that series?

A: I guess I’d been really eager to talk about gender. It’s always a topic that fascinated me. In comics, if people talked about gender, which was pretty rare, it was in the context of “Should Catwoman’s boobs be smaller?” or “Should she be called the Invisible Woman instead of the Invisible Girl?”

I thought there was probably a way to raise the level of dialogue about gender. I thought it was a pretty good, high concept hook. A fun, sci-fi way to talk about something that fascinates me.

Q: Did you have the whole story planned out from the beginning? I know you wanted it to be self-contained.

A: Yeah, I knew the final sentence of the final panel of the final page from the time we started working. At the very beginning Pia Guerra and I the co-creator, took side trips along the way, we made unexpected discoveries about the characters, came up with new ideas. For the most part, the destination has always been the same. We always knew where we were getting.

Q: Tell me a little bit about those unexpected destinations. What surprises or changes came to you while working on the series?

A: Definitely Pia’s involvement made the book better at every stage. She and I talked pretty frequently and along the way she would make suggestions, sometimes huge, sweeping ones. Sometimes just an offhand comment. We were talking once and she said “It’s very cool that Yorick is an escape artist. The perfect villain for an escape artist would be a master of bondage.” I thought that was funny and brilliant in a way and came the impetus for “Safeword” which was a real watermark for the book in exploring what makes Yorick Yorick. That’s just one of many examples.

Q: You talked about gender being an important issue, but I was wondering what other themes you either came across or wanted to explore in the series.

A: Well, I never like to explain the book. I always say people’s interpretations are more important than my intent. So there are definitely a lot of things that I wanted to explore but I’m always more interested in other people’s interpretations.

I suppose in broad strokes escape and what that means to individuals is a really important part of the story.

Q: Well reading the last couple of issues it does seem like death or rather confronting death seems to be an issue in the series.

A: Any series whose first issue opens with the death of three billion people, death is probably going to play a large part in things, so yes, that is very much the case.

Q: What challenged you, as far as setting up that scenario? What sort of research, if any, did you have to do?

A: Yeah, it was a bottomless amount of research because if I didn’t treat it with a great degree of seriousness and realism that this concept can pretty quickly descend into “late night Cinemax movie” and so I wanted to think about every level of society. How would this affect transportation? How would it affect agriculture? How would it affect politics and military endeavors? So I wanted to look at every aspect of my life and then, circling the lives of others, ask if you removed men from the equation how would things change? And oftentimes more importantly how would things not change. So yes, there was a great deal of research.

Q: You mentioned Pia Guerra. Artistically, what do you think she brought to the series?

A: I think she’s unparalleled at acting in terms of artists working today that a lot of other artists can give you flashy splash pages which I think Pia in the most recent issue did that as well and she’s done that often. But what very few artist can give you is if you just have a few pages of talking heads and not have every head look the same. That her facial expressions are so magnificent that it really makes my dialogue better. Working in television now you can tell when the difference between a great actor delivering your dialogue and a bad actor. And a bad actor will kill it, just like a bad artist will. First and foremost her performances are unparalleled. Beyond that I think it’s the accessibility of her storytelling. People don’t know how difficult it is to make a comic that you can give to your mom or dad or someone’s who’s never read comics beyond the Sunday funny pages and be able to follow it perfectly. Her storytelling and layouts are so inviting and so accessible that I really attribute that to how successful the book has been to reaching out to a mainstream audience.

Q: You mentioned writing for TV. What are some of the differences as far as working on Lost versus writing for comics?

A: The biggest difference is with writing for comics I’m entirely alone. It’s just me, man versus himself. I’m sitting alone in a room coming up with all of this stuff by myself. I’ve got no one to turn to when things go wrong. I also don’t have anyone to yell at me and say “Your ideas are terrible,” which doesn’t happen too often at Lost, but more often than in comics. TV is much more collaborative. It’s sitting in a room with six to eight other human beings and coming up with a story as a group. There are many advantages over writing alone and there are some disadvantages but they’re two totally different meetings. Even though they’re both forms of visual storytelling. And I think if you’re good at one it certainly helps you with the other. But the learning curve has certainly been pretty steep. It’s very different. I’m grateful I get to do both. I love getting to work at Lost during the day and then coming home and weekends and still work on my comics. I love having both of those outlets.

Q: Looking back over Y, what are you proudest of? Is there a particular series or storyline or even just something you feel the book said that hadn’t been said before?

A: I guess I’m a believer in that most things probably have been said before so I hope that if anything I said it in a new way. But honestly, I am really most proud of the final issue. I do think the book, like any monthly journey, has its ups and downs, but I think as artists and creators Pia and I just got better as the months went on. I think the book did as well, culminating in what I think is our best issue, the finale. It’s probably what I’m most proud of anything I’ve ever written.

Q: Now, you’re going to be wrapping up Ex Machina soon too, right?

A: Well, not too soon. I’m about to start writing what will be the beginning of our final year. That will be our final 12 issues or so and that will come out over the next 16 months. So we’ve got a ways to go. It’s not quite done. We’re coming into the home stretch I guess. Issue 50 will be the final issue.

Q: What do you have planned next?

A: I want to wait for the final issue of Y to come out and then just take a breather for a least a day would be nice. After that I have several ideas for new creator-owned things. I’ve gotten a lot of nice offers to work on existing Marvel and DC characters, but I’ve had a stretch of 10 great years getting to work on them and I really feel an obligation to keep creating new things. So it’s just a matter of deciding which one I want to pursue most. I think it will be more along the lines of something like Pride of Baghdad. It will be a creator owned graphic novel before I embark on another ongoing series like Y.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about that sense of obligation you talk about? I wonder if that has something to do with comics where creator’s rights has always been an issue and ownership has always been a tricky thing.

A: I think it’s tricky in any medium, but it’s not so much the sense of ownership, though I do think that’s important. For me it’s more the sense of originality. I grew up revering Stan Lee and he is still a hero of mine and I think such an important pioneer for our medium and our industry. But I think I’ve come to realize the best way to honor Stan Lee if you love Stan Lee is not to write the best Spider-Man story ever, or the best FF story, but maybe to contribute more new things, just like he did when he came to comics, he didn’t say “There’s a Superman story I’m aching to do” or “I can’t wait to get my hands on Batman.” He really was bursting with new ideas and I think if our medium is to grow and evolve we need more new ideas.

Q: Do you see that happening in comics now? It seems like there are a lot of people out right now who are saying what they really want to do is write Iron Man.

A: That’s always been true. And first of all, I don’t mean to sound like a superhero snob. Iron Man and Spider-Man are about as good as they’ve ever been. But I love that Bendis, as well as working on Spider-Man, is doing stuff like Powers that is truly his own. I think there’s always going to be those books taking the most shelf space in stores, but I don’t think there’s ever been a period of diverse works being published by more people. The fact that you can read about Acme Novelty Library in the mainstream press ... There’s probably never been a time where there’s been more stuff. It might not be at the forefront of the sales charts, but I think if you’re willing to go digging for it, there’s more great, original stuff being published now than there has been at any other time since the conception of comic books.

Q: One of the things that is great about Y, especially in that it’s serialized fiction, you do a really good job creating cliffhangers, leaving the reader wanting more at the end of each issue, creating new mysteries. I think that’s very hard to do and still maintain an interest in the characters. And not come off as a cheap ploy. How do you do that? Is that a conscious effort on your part?

A: At first it wasn’t really. I guess that had always been my instinct as a writer. I’ve always seen those monthly issues, much as I love collections and I’m grateful for anyone who picks them up, I really love monthly comics and I love serialized storytelling, something with a beginning, middle and end in a monthly dose. It feels like when you get to that end it has to be crescendo. You have to end on the right note. Leaving the reader wanting more is always felt natural to me. I guess I was surprised initially when people singled out the cliffhangers of the book. It wasn’t something that I set out to do. I think like all writers when you hear something over and over again you start to worry that you’re going to be pigeon holed as cliffhanger guy. That was part of the desire to challenge myself with stuff like “Pride of Baghdad” — do something that was self-contained and didn’t have the benefit of cliffhangers to propel the story forward. But I love a good cliffhanger.

Q: I don’t mean to make it sound like the series is a pulp novel

A: And I wouldn’t mind if you did. I have no problem with those conventions. But it’s interesting. Having worked in “Lost” now I’ve been given this vocabulary that I didn’t have before. We sometimes talk about “schmuck-bait.” Schmuck-bait is if you have a cliffhanger at a commercial break where you put your lead actor in jeopardy — he has a gun on him. We call it schmuck-bait because only the schmucks in the audience are going to believe that guy is going to get shot. That’s not a great cliffhanger. A great cliffhanger is trying to find something that’s emotionally resonant to the character. I think I’ve probably been guilty of schmuck-bait a lot, whereas a guy like Joss Whedon has done in Astonishing X-Men a lot of really meaningful character-based cliffhangers. I’ve really learned at his feet.

Q: Do you follow any of the reaction to the series? Do you have any sense of the reader reaction?

A: I’m pretty neurotic, so I follow obsessively. But I’ve never let that dictate in any way the book’s direction. I think early on with this two part comedy and tragedy story where Paul Chadwick, our first guest artist came in, we just took a break from the main story to talk about this troop of female actors and playwrights. And I would say about 90 percent of people despised it. “Enough of this and can we please get back to the story.” It was always one of my favorite stories and it’s always nice to meet people at conventions who say “that was always my favorite.” They’re few and far between, but I like that. It’s a danger to cleve to that 90 percent every month at the expense of that 10 percent. I only ever try to write the stories for myself.

Q: I was thinking of that specifically, and I’m going to try to phrase this carefully, because with the death of one of your major characters recently I was curious as to the reaction you got from that because that was pretty traumatic I imagine for devoted readers.

A: You would not be able to publish most of the emails that I received. A string of “f you,” “I hate you,” “you suck.” And that feels good, because if I hadn’t gotten that reaction it would have meant that we totally failed. You want people to be so invested in these characters that they hate you for doing anything to them. I feel the same way. I share their pain.

Q: But at the same time, because they have been so invested, you don’t want it to come off as a cheap emotional ploy.

A: It’s always a danger. But you run that risk in a 90 minute movie of “oh, that death was meant to be shocking.” I think our readers have enough faith in us to know we didn’t start something up for five years just to pull the rug out from under you.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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