October 2006

Liz Miller

features

An Interview with Brian K. Vaughan

When they write the great history of comics in the 21st Century, Brian K. Vaughn should expect to get some serious coverage. By using the medium to tackle complex issues, his series, including Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina and Runaways, have become must-reads for the literate. Especially the literate who like jet-packs, superheroes, and the post-apocalypse.

His newest book, Pride of Baghdad (art by Niko Henrichon), is about the 2002 invasion of Iraq, from the point of view of four lions who escaped from the Baghdad Zoo. It's a true story. Minus the talking animals.

First off, congratulations on the buzz for Pride of Baghdad. It has to be very exciting.

It's nerve-wracking. I never had this sort of promotion before. I'm always surprised when my stuff takes off -- I mean, I write about the last man on Earth and his monkey, a guy and his jet-pack. I spent three years writing about talking animals. I can't imagine why anyone likes this sort of crap -- I always expect it to crash and burn. But it's nice to get that sort of reaction.

How did you first hear about the true-life basis for Pride?

It was a tiny little underreported news story on BBC and a few other foreign new services.

Pride features two adult lionesses, one lion, and one male cub. Were those the lions mentioned in those stories? 

There were lots of differing reports on what kind of lions there were. Some reports said three lions, some reports said four, some said one male, two females, etc... Then again, if you can't get accurate reports about human casualties, you can't really expect better for animals.

What kind of research went into its creation?

I'm a research junky -- I was a film student, so I have no education of any worth, and any time there is an excuse to learn something, that's just pure pleasure. My research on this was twofold -- I tried to learn as much about lions and animals, while also learning about the history of Iraq as well. Both the current and past wars.

I spoke to Mariette Hopley, a rescue vet who spent time in Iraq as part of The International Fund for Animal Welfare. Also, blogs from Iraqi civilians were very helpful for getting the civilian perspective.

How did Niko Henrichon get brought on?

[Niko is] a Belgian guy who lives in Canada, and Will Dennis, an editor at DC put us together. I'd written the story before finding the artist, but we wanted someone who drew more realistically than Disney, but was still able to create characters who could express emotion.

What did Niko bring to the story?

He created the color palette, shaped the whole look. I put up a few samples of the art online and some guys coming back from Iraq said that it was spot-on.

Did you approach creating the characters of Pride differently than you'd approach creating human characters?

Well, I'm a comic book writer, and I broke in writing Swamp Thing, who is a talking plant. If you can do that, you can do anything. You just try and put yourself in that person's shoes. Make up lies until it sounds like the truth.

What about writing from a non-human perspective did you enjoy?

I wanted to write a book from a non-combatant's perspective, and talk about war from the civilian point-of-view. It's really difficult for Americans to sympathize with "the other," and I wanted to cross that culture gap. Emotionally, we're maybe not able to feel for [Iraqi civilians] the way we can feel for talking animals. So I was looking to exploit our universal sympathy with animals to tell a story about the suffering of Iraqi civilians.

It's weird. You can threaten and kill a baby in a movie, but put a dog in jeopardy and people will walk out. You make a more immediate connection to a giraffe than a person. It sounds psychotic, that you can feel more for an animal than a human.

When developing this idea, how much of an allegory did you want it to be?

Well, it's two things. [Pride] can be enjoyed on the level of Watership Down or The Secret of Nimh, which are amazing animal adventures. But those books were not as much an influence as Animal Farm. It's not quite as specific a parable because it's based on a true story, and the parallels between characters and what they represent aren't always as clear cut as they could be. But that gives readers room to empathize more profoundly.

I was impressed by how all of the lions came to stand for much more than one idea. For example, Sala [the older female lion] is much more than just "the one who craves security."

Yeah, you can't have one character represent all Iraqi civilians and their points of view. Sala [the older lioness] comes from an older generation that doesn't love captivity, but remembers what came before. It's living in chains, but there is something to be said for safety.

Do you see Pride of Baghdad as having a strong political message?

"Message" implies that there's a moral to impart, and that's not the case. I didn't want to shove beliefs down readers' throats -- I wrote this because I had conflicted options regarding the war. I wrote to ask myself hard questions, rather than to give readers answers. But I hope that people come away better armed to ask questions about the price of freedom, and the worthiness of this war.

Ex Machina and Y: The Last Man both have strong political themes. What inspires you to make political issues an important part of these stories?

Because I live a pampered, easy life, I'm less interested in purely escapist fiction. Because I don't have anything to escape from. So the stories I like best are those that engage us in the real world. But at the same time, I don't like writing preachy message comics. I'm a writer first and foremost and my goal is to tell entertaining stories. With Ex Machina, I don't start with "what issue can I teach people about," but "what's the most dramatic event I can tell." I like telling stories about the real world, but not setting out to change peoples' minds.

You're very conscious of including characters with different points-of-view in your work, political and otherwise. How does that help you in your storytelling?

Every character has a different point of view from my own. When you break into comics, you start out writing different people's characters, who have little in common with yourself. I don't have a lot in common with Batman or Wolverine.

In a lot of the last-man-on-Earth scenarios, as soon as all the men die, women go down to the United Nations and hold hands, which just seemed incredibly patronizing. So before I started work on Y, I read as many feminist writers as possible. Because if you put Andrea Dworkin and Naomi Wolf in a room together, they'd fight to the death.

Is there one particular character or story that you feel is the most representative of your beliefs?

No. I'm a simple and boring guy. I hope that my stories are complex, but I'm not trying to get myself across. Even with something like The Escapists, which is about a modern day comic book writer trying to break into the industry, everyone assumes that it's me, but that's not exactly the case.

I don't write escapist fiction. But I am trying to escape from myself in these stories.

All of your work orients itself towards real-world issues, with fantastical elements. Which of your works do you consider to be the most grounded in reality?

In terms of genre, Runaways is the most fantastic book I do, with telepathic dinosaurs and decoder rings. But emotionally, it's the most realistic, and connects to the most people. Because it's a story about kids who find out that their parents are most evil people on planet, which is something we can all relate to. Escapists takes place in real world, with real world elements. But Runaways is somehow more realistic.

At the time of this interview, we're two days away from the fifth anniversary of 9/11, which has clearly been a huge influence, especially on Ex Machina. What inspired you to create a series explicitly inspired by those events?

I was living in Brooklyn at the time with my then-girlfriend/now-wife, and we watched the towers fall from the rooftop of our building. You feel particularly impotent as a writer at that time, especially as a comic book writer, and you want to respond in some way, but feel like the medium maybe isn't the most relevant. Over time I realized that wasn't the case, and that I wanted to write about way in which we changed -- and didn't change -- after 9/11.

Especially the way we are looking for our leaders to be "heroes." George W. Bush on the flight deck, Governor Schwarzenegger, John Kerry campaigning on his war record. Is there really such a thing as a hero, or is that just a fiction we create and impose on the people we chose to lead us? Comics ask that question, all the time, and I found a way to specifically answer that question with not just comics, but superhero comics.

Is Ex Machina a superhero comic?

Yes. I'm not afraid to call it that, I'm not snobbish. After all, Watchmen doesn't transcend genre -- it is the genre. And Spider-man isn't about a kid bitten by a radioactive spider; it's about great power meaning great responsibility. Superheroes work best as timeless metaphors, and I'm able to have both. There's a guy with a jet-pack having adventures, but he also deal with potholes and real world issues. Ex Machina was born out of my reverence for that genre, not out of my disdain for it.

What kind of stories do you think you'd be writing today, if 9/11 had never happened?

You know, I write books like Ex Machina about how we haven't changed, but the post-apocalyptic nature of Y certainly came out of that. And there'd be no Pride of Baghdad...

My life would probably be different. I wouldn't be writing what I have been. So maybe that day has changed us more than I thought.

Did the idea for Y come before or after 9/11?

The idea came before, but changed after. I wrote the first script before 9/11, and 355's first scene was set in Afghanistan, with this obscure group called the Taliban and how no one knew about them. So Y changed in little ways like that.

And being in New York at that time, we all got to see how we'd respond to that sort of cataclysmic event. And Yorick changed a lot as a result. Because on 9/12, there was a lot of dark humor, and I got to incorporate that into Yorick, that lightheartedness-as-coping-mechanism. And that kept Y from being a dour book.

The world and character of Y have all evolved significantly over the past forty-odd issues, down to little details like 355's hair getting progressively longer. Did you always want to tell the story of Y as a complete narrative over five years?

First, the hair is definitely Pia [Guerra, the artist]'s doing. She's anal-retentive in illustrating these changes. But they definitely add to the experience of the book.

There are some Vertigo writers who are snobbish about the monthly comic, and suggest that you just wait for graphic novel. But I love it, something about this Dickensian art form, the serialized written word. Y is the story of the last boy on Earth becoming the last man on Earth. It's his developing from the age of 22 to the age of 27, which are the most important five years of a young man's life, and the most unexplored. So I wanted that to unfold in real time.

Have you known the ending since the beginning?

Yep. The last word of the last panel of the last page. Sometimes I wonder if I can come up with a better ending today than what that 25-year-old came up with, but I feel like I owe it to my younger dumber self to end it the way he started it.

Having planned everything out in advance, do you wish that you'd had more opportunity to explore this universe?

No, because we left just enough wiggle room in the road map to play around. I didn't have an artist before I pitched the story, so I wanted to make sure that there was some room for his or her point of view. And "Safe Word" was all Pia's idea -- she mentioned in passing that if Yorick is an escape artist, his great nemesis would be a mistress of bondage.

Is there a reason, you think, that more series aren't planned out so extensively?

Because it's a giant pain in the ass. [Laughs] Writers are lazy. We'd rather play video games than write too much. But I wanted to outline it to prove that I could do it. After getting Swamp Thing canceled and so forth.

And why don't more series end? That's just the marketplace. Superman and other books will always have the illusion of a third act, but can't really end. And The Simpsons shouldn't end; it should just evolve with its audience. But I really like stories that end, personally, so that's why I write them.

After the conclusion of the series, are further stories in the world of Y a possibility?

[Vertigo] would like it, but we have said no. No sequels, spin-offs, or miniseries. The ending is the ending.

Of all your series, Runaways is the most disparate in terms of audience, company, and overall structure. As you work on scripts each month, is shifting gears to write teen adventure a relief, or a challenge?

It's such a relief. It takes me about a week to write a comic -- sometimes more, sometimes less, but I like to dedicate a whole week to each book. So I start with Y, then cleanse my palette with Runaways, then Ex Machina. That leaves the fourth week for other projects like Pride of Baghdad or [the new Dark Horse series] The Escapist.

You've recently announced that you're leaving Runaways after Issue 24. Had you thought your run on that series would last as long as it did?

No. I mean, I'm always shocked when my books are not canceled on Impact. Runaways has been a really slow burn, but it's in a really solid place right now. And that's due to how well it's done in book stores, not comic book stores. The average comic book reader wants to read books with characters they grew up knowing. But the average 13-year-old doesn't want to dig through forty years of back issues to understand what's happening.

Even in Runaways, characters and situations changed with a great deal of frequency. Do you think you could now write a series like X-Men or Superman, where any changes to the status quo need to be approved by committee?

No. I love those corporate characters, but I'm not as good at writing characters that I didn't create, and I'm not a good collaborator with other writers. I'm very fortunate that creator-owned books are popular, and that I can make living writing them. Hopefully, this time next year, I'll only working on creator-owned books.

Now that you're finishing up with Runaways, will you be creating a new series, or writing more stand-alone books like Pride of Baghdad?

I've planted the seeds for some new creator-owned books -- graphic novels, not ongoing series, because the thought of another five-year book makes me sleepy.

I'm working on film and TV stuff as well, but not with an eye towards leaving comics. I'm a comics writer first, who happened to dabble in other media.