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By Tim Leong
POP GOES THE CULTURE GUY
Brian K Vaughan’s No. 1 piece of advice for young writers is to always be writing — advice he follows as well. He’s currently writing monthly installments of Y: The Last Man, Runaways and Ex Machina, a limited run on The Escapist, all the while he’s also juggling screenplays for Y and Ex Machina. And as of this month, his first original graphic novel, Pride of Baghdad, debuts. It’s evident that yes, he is always writing, but Comic Foundry was able to pull Vaughan away from his desk to talk about Pride, stardom and the last he got so angry he punched a wall.
Are you the same writer you were when you did Swamp Thing?
No, I mean, no. I hope not. I’d like to think I’m at least a better writer than I was back then. I think I learned a lot. Looking back at my first of Swamp Thing, I am definitely trying to be the retarded cousin of Alan Moore with nine-panel pages and cramming captions on top of word balloons — it was about density. I think I learned to write less and say more. And it’s interesting because people complain that it doesn’t take long enough to read a comic book but it probably takes three times as long to get through one of my Swamp Thing issues than it does than one of my comics. I think the new stuff better is because I’m not hiding. I was just hiding behind the words and now I trust myself enough to let the story speak for itself.
How did you get to that point?
I think it’s just natural progression. They say every writer has 10,000 dead pages in them. I think somewhere right before Y: The Last Man #1 and The Hood coming out I probably literally hit my 10,000th page. There are some writers that are born great writers and they’re almost great right out of the gate. For the rest of us it’s just hard work, so you do see a real change — it’s almost mathematically around that 10,000th page. You will see yourself start to change as a writer. I didn’t have an epiphany or learned some new trick, I worked hard.
Where do you think you’re weakest as a writer?
That’s a tricky question. It’s the interview question where they ask, “What’s your worst quality?” And you say, “Oh, I’m too hard of a worker.” I don’t want to sound like I’m a flawless writer because I’m clearly not. But if I see that I’m doing something too often I try and stop it. I’m aware that if you come to be known as Mr. Cliffhanger or you’re pop culture reference guy, no one wants to be known as that. Pride of Baghdad was partially born out of wanting to do something that was unlike my other work. I’m just not good enough, which is sort of a cop-out answer. I’m never happy with my stuff when it comes out and look forward to improving it. Just generally I need to write more and write better. I wish I could target something. My grammar is okay and I’m a pretty good speller. I wish my dialogue were sharper, I wish my stories were cleaner. I wish a lot of things.
You mention Pride of Baghdad; do you think you really did show people you’re not just the pop culture guy?
I’m aware of the audience, obviously and I read all my reviews, especially the bad ones. But when I say I want to show people, it’s really more about challenging myself. I don’t want to become too reliant on those things. So, no, I didn’t set out to prove something. And all of my books — and this is a writer’s cliché, but it’s true — I just write for myself. I just can’t imagine anyone else is interested in a story about a dude and a jetpack talking about legislative potholes. I just write stuff that interests me and I try and push myself in a way that it’ll be interesting to write.
In writing Pride of Baghdad, it’s not serialized form like your other books. What was the biggest difference for you in going to that format?
It was hard because I’ve been doing it the other way for so long, telling 22-page serialized stories that it just comes naturally to me. I’m at the point now where I don’t even have to do the detailed outline that I did to begin with because it’s almost organic. I know what fits into 22-pages that an artist can tell. Every story dictates the format and this story, focusing on someone’s world being changed overnight and how immediately things collapse around you, it was important that this be told in the kind of story you c an read in one sitting. So, I don’t know it. It was hard in some ways because it was a new form to learn — an original graphic novel, as opposed to a comic. In other words, it was a joy because we had more to do it — we had so much lead-time, Niko Henrichon and I. And you had the luxury of going back if on page 130 there could be something so much stronger if you could go back and change page number two, I can do that in Pride of Baghdad. With Y it’s a pain in the ass if at issue #50 and I suddenly come up with a great idea and you need that old writer’s thing — if you need to put a gun in a drawer, I can’t go back and put that gun in a drawer. Writing a graphic novel, I can. I loved it. I don’t think I could ever exclusively do just that, but I definitely want to do more after having done this one.
You’re writing somewhere between four and five monthly books — how much time does that give you to reflect back on your work?
Mercifully, almost none. Comics writers are like sharks, I think, and you don’t want to dwell too much on the past — it is all about that forward momentum. That’s not to say you’re not willing to go back and look at what your weaknesses are and how you can grow. But by the time a comic comes out and even if only takes me six or seven days to write a script, by the time it comes out I’ve spent six or seven days writing it the first time, then I’ll tweak the dialogue when the art comes in. Then I’ll proof before it gets lettered. Then I’ll check it after it’s been lettered. Then I’ll be so sick of my own writing by the time it comes out. I can even probably still recite issues of Swamp Thing that I wrote six or seven years ago. You just know it so well. You just get drowned in your own work that you don’t spend too much time thinking about what you wrote a while ago because you remember it so well. You’re just so relieved to get to write something new finally.
And with your monthly books you’ve got special stuff coming up like Dr. Strange and you’ve got The Escapist right now. How hard is it to focus on Y, Ex Machina and Runaways?
It’s not hard at all because I always stay enough ahead of schedule that I can always work primarily on one book at a time. I’ll never start writing three pages of Dr. Strange, then switch to Ex Machina. Right now is a Runaways week and while I might have to do balloon placements for another book or write solicitation copy for something else. I only have to write the actual book of just Runaways this week. You just sorta switch your mindset to that book, and it’s nice because they’re all different enough. I’ll start the month with a Y, then I’ll switch to something like Runaways, which is completely different. Then I’ll go to something like Machina, which is equally different. Then I usually have that bonus slot for whatever I feel like working on — if it’s a Dr. Strange miniseries or screenwriting. I try and structure my month so that each week remains pretty holy to one entity.
And talking about Y and Ex Machina, these are books where you already have the endings planned when you first launched the series. Is it harder to stay focused on those middles issues?
More so for Ex Machina than Y because Y really just wasn’t figuring out the beginning and the end but figuring out much of the middle too. We’ve taken the occasional side trips — usually inspired by a brilliant idea that Pia (Guerra, artist) will have. I think an arc like Safeword in Y, which was probably a highpoint for the book, was inspired by a suggestion from Pia. It’s something I’d never thought to tackle, so it’s definitely nice when your co-creator is a genius and can help you out in those middle sections. Ex Machina was more that I knew exactly how it ended and I knew how it began because it’s taking place in real time from this guy’s election at the end of 2001 to the end of 2005, I didn’t know if anything big was going to happen in New York that was going on. I deliberately left more room to interpret actual events. But now that we’re all caught up chronologically I have most of the middle of Ex Machina figured out too. So no, I’m a planner. Very occasionally I’ll write an issue and not know exactly what’s going on next issue. But that’s few and far between. I like to know exactly where I’m going with the freedom to diverge from that road map if I want to. But, no, I’m a planner.
Last year, it really seemed like the world really opened its eyes to you and you became this huge superstar and won all these awards. Why do you think that was?
I guess I’ve been fortunate enough to be working on a lot of good books simultaneously. Between Ex Machina being a new book — new books are always most exciting and I think in that first year there were people that were enthusiastic and had never seen anything like it, hopefully. I think Y had really just hit its stride. Runaways was the little book that could. It looked like it was going to die but had this fun resurrection. It was like this perfect storm of books. I don’t know. I’m grateful for the attention. It’s always weird when something like that hits and you hear a lot of “best new talent” or whatever. I’ve been doing this since I was 19 — almost 10 years. When you get all that attention you enjoy it and it’s flattering to get but I don’t think you dwell on it too much. In those 10 years I’ve seen people come and go when who were the flavor of the month.
How did that change things? Not that it would change you personally and you’d become a big diva or anything…
—I probably have if you ask my friends. They’ll think my bald head is much more swelled.
But how did everything around you change?
I would say that comics became less of a challenge. The 10 years prior, even when I wasn’t working I was pitching something. I’m pitching Adam Strange re-launch to DC, a creator-owned book to Oni. Non-stop trying to get something off the ground as a freelancer. It got to the point where I could say “No” to something, and that’s a huge change for a freelancer — to have the luxury to say “No.” My policy was always, “Hell yeah, you take whatever comes your way.” Whether it was an issue of Wonder Girl or a Ka-Zar Annual, you’re not too good for that and can learn from that experience and make that a kickass issue. But yeah, it’s really great to have the luxury to say “No” and only take the work that you’re most confident in. In that respect it was less challenging.
In another respect, it’s writing Swamp Thing issue #18 was a joy because I knew no one was reading it at all. And not even my editor was reading it at that point, I think. You love to really just experiment because what does it matter? My girlfriend is not going to look at this. It does change when you know the eyes are on your book and maybe it does put a little bit more pressure on you not to give them what they want, but to try and block out that thought and just stay true to writing books for yourself like you used to when truly no one was reading it. That becomes more of a challenge. I’m using the word “challenge” pretty liberally. It could not be an easier job. If you ever hear someone talk about it being a hard job, they’ve never had an actual job before. It’s the easiest thing in the world. Money for nothing and chicks for free.
Does this newfound “fame” come with any expectations?
There are so many great retailers who might be taking a chance on a book because it has your name on it and they might not have before, so I don’t know about the expectations. I have no idea what people expect from me. I just know I have a responsibility to put out a book that people are going to want to read. I feel that burden a little bit but I know that no good comes from trying to give people what they want or second-guess what the market place is missing. I really just try and stay true to my voice and hope for the best.
These retailers — do you ever feel like you’re being marketed instead of your books?
Yeah, and I’m to blame for that, definitely. By starting your own message board, you do make the conscious decision to market your personality. And “personality” should go in quotations because I’m as much of a huckster as Stan Lee ever was. You’re not getting the real person online. I’m there to plug my wares. And I’m not a big fan of that. I do think people should judge the art and not the artist. Writers should let their books speak for themselves and otherwise remain hidden. But at the same time I know there are a lot of people, when I was writing Ultimate X-Men, who may have liked the book but had no idea I wrote something else. Same goes for Runaways, or Ex Machina or Y. Especially with Pride of Baghdad coming out. There are very few people who read all of my books, and I wouldn’t expect anyone to — they’re so different. If you like Runaways, you’ll probably like The Escapist as well. If you like Ex Machina, you’ll like Pride of Baghdad. The whole hucksterism gag of getting out there and marketing yourself is less to get your ego stroked, though I do like that. It’s more of trying to get as many of my babies into as many hands as possible.
With this popularity, you’re always making sure you defer co-credit to the co-creators, you turned down the opportunity to create your own Marvel Universe and it seems like you have a habit of knocking yourself down (like in this interview). Do you ever fear becoming too popular?
My books, at least the monthlies, have a ceiling of about 30,000, which Mark Millar would slit his wrist if he had a book that sold that many copies. I understand where my place is. It’s sort of cult-like in the comics world. I’m grateful that the graphic novels, I think, do much better. I know it’s a marathon, not a sprint for me. I’m not doing big event books and I rarely do something big for Marvel or for DC. I’d like to think that I do books that will keep taking care of me and keep being discovered by new readers as years go on. That popularity is very minor in the grand scheme of things. I think the level I’m at right now is a fine level and I don’t need any more than that. There are enough readers to support the book. The Coen bros. are a huge inspiration. No matter what their movie is, they know they have a responsibility to make the money back for their investors, but that’s it. It doesn’t have to be the No. 1 movie of the weekend; it doesn’t have to be a blockbuster. You just need enough to keep going and keep making more. And I have that and that’s all I need.
What goals do you have for yourself?
I’d really like to write for some other mediums. Like I said, in some ways getting comics work isn’t a challenge and part of me feeds on that. I like getting rejected and having something to push against. I don’t want to surround myself with Yes men that just tell me every idea I throw down on a cocktail napkin is worthy of an original graphic novel. Living in Los Angeles and pursuing film work has given me that healthy rejection that I’ve been looking for. I do want to push myself in other mediums. I want to write a novel one day. I want to write more theatre. I want to always be writing. I’ve always said that I hope I’ll be a comic book writer who happens to write other things, rather than a screenwriter who happens to dabble in comics. I realize comics is what brought me to the dance and it’s my first and greatest love. I just want to keep making more new things. Once Dr. Strange wraps that’s probably going to be it, at least for a little while. Never say never, but I do want to take a break from work for hire stuff. Not because I don’t love superheroes that belong to the company — I do. I just don’t think I’m as good at them. I guess that goes back to my weakness. That would probably be my biggest weakness, writing other people’s characters. I’m just not as good at it. I’m not as good at finding myself in them as guys like Geoff Johns or Brian Bendis are. I’m much better suited for stuff of my own creation. My goal is to keep creating new things that hopefully people will be interested in.
“Always to be writing.” Is that advice you’d give to someone looking to break into the medium?
It’s the only advice. I wish there was one book you could read or one exercise you could do that’d make you a better writer. But unless you’re one of those rare creatures who’s just a genius right out of the gate, you’re going to have to work really hard. It’s training for sports, it’s analogous to anything. If you want to lose weight, there’s no magic diet you can go on. You have to eat less and do other stuff more. Writing is the same way. If you want to get better, live an interesting life. Read everything you can get your hands on. You have to write every day, seven days a week. When you have nothing to say you have to write. Eventually you’ll just get good. I think if you’re the kind of person who can write seven days a week, you’re a writer. If you’d rather play video games in your spare time, you’re something else. People will know in their hearts if they’re a writer or not. It’s sort of a calling. It’s a weird, creepy addiction, I think.
Pride of Baghdad comes out on Sept. 13. Now, it’s a couple days after 9/11, obviously. Is that meant marketing-wise to capitalize on patriotism through buying power?
No! That’s a horrifying thought. I honestly had not even considered that. We’d been working on it for three years and it’s been done for a while. I really wanted DC to put it out over the summer. I think it’s just because they really wanted to give it a shot in bookstores, as well as in comic bookstores. And believe it or not, this is the beginning of the book-buying season. The holiday season, I guess, and when booksellers do most of their buying. It had nothing to do, consciously, with Sept. 11 and everything to do with giving it a fighting chance with as big of a mainstream audience as possible.
In talking with you now and reading previous interviews, you seem like a pretty calm and grounded guy. When’s’ the last time you got really mad?
I’m laughing because if you ask my wife about me being calm and grounded…I’m moody and petulant. I really get depressed more than I get angry. I’ll get angry about creative decisions, if I feel I’m being pushed in a direction that’s bad for the story — I will get angry. And that hasn’t happened in a long time in comics, but some of the other stuff I’m delving into that happens. I think I might’ve punched a door recently, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had a crybaby outburst like that. It’s’ usually I wake up and I’m in an accessible mood or I’m just in a black, foul, I-hate-life mood. But rarely angry.
Going back to how you give generous praise to your co-creators, how do you approach your relationships with artists?
First off, it’s nice of you to say. I only ever read interviews where I’ve forgotten to mention how much I’ve owed to my artists and feel like a douche. Each relationship is different. My relationship with Adrian (Alphona, Runaways artist) is a lot different than with Pia and my relationship with Tony (Harris, Ex Machina artist). It’s different for each person. It’s as involved as they want to be. Hopefully that’s very involved, not just because I’m generous but also because I’m lazy and I can use all the help I can get. It’s weird. I’ll spend six days on a script, on average. And that might mean I wrote a page in 45 minutes, let’s say. That’s not the average I’m just throwing that out there. But Pia or Tony, they’re going to have to spend 12 hours looking out what I crapped out in 45 minutes. I guarantee you that any human being is going to come up with a better idea than what I had, especially a talented, professional, career comic book artist. You’d have to be an idiot to not welcome the participation of those artists. I usually, with each of them, talk with them before an arc and ask if there’s something they’re dying to draw or something they hated that I did on the previous arc. Then we usually send me spinning in a specific direction. Like in Ex Machina there will be a small bit player that Tony has drawn so well that I’ve decided to integrate them into the cast. Or Pia will make an off-the-cuff suggestion about a great arch nemesis for an escape artist would be Mistress of Bondage. All of my artists — my artists, as if I keep them locked away in a pen — my partners on the books. It’s not me being generous to say they’re as much part of the book, if not more so, than I am.
Was it like that from the beginning, or was there an ego moment? Because I can’t imagine that’d be the first thought for most writers.
It is definitely something I learned. I think when I came in I was Mr. Thumbnails and here’s how I envision the page being and you work to bring my vision to life. I did have to get that spanked out of me. It is such a dumb way to think. You just see if you give the artist freedom, you give them everything they need to do the page. If they have no ideas they have something to fall back on. But once you give them that freedom to interpret that page any way they want to, the work is so much better. If you just want control of every single word, you should write novels. This is a collaborative art. Even if you’re writing the most Alan Moore script — Alan Moore is much a collaborator as the rest of us. You have to learn to work well with others. If you’re not good at it, you’ll ever have it beaten out of you or you’ll be beaten out of the industry.
How did you have it beaten out of you?
It’s like everything — it’s gradual. It’s not like I had one book where I worked with one guy who’s like, “Look, you’re being an idiot.” I think you just learn it slowly. At the beginning I tried to picture each page in my head and I’d be disappointed if it didn’t look the way I said. And then just gradually you realize that yeah, it doesn’t look like what’s in your head because you’re a fucking horrible artist and you have no idea what you’re doing, and these artists are going to give you something so much better. It’s just this slow realization. And I’m dumb so I think I learned this slower than other writers. Just gradually you learn the powers of collaboration and just how much better it is to pick up the phone before any artist starts a job and just ask simple questions like, “What do you hate to draw? What are you best at?” You don’t always listen to them because sometimes they don’t even know yet and you might’ve noticed something in their previous work. But just opening those lines of dialogue, it’s crucial.
What do you think your fanbase is like?
I don’t know. You can never judge just the Internet, because it’s such a small percentage. The first year that Y came out I had a lot of guys coming up to me saying, “Thank you so much, this is the first book I’ve been able to share with my girlfriend or wife.” And that’s pretty cool, but it’s not nearly as cool as the last couple of years to have women come up to you and say, “Thanks so much, this is the first book I’ve been able to share with my boyfriend or husband.” That, I’m grateful for. Recognize though that that’s not always the case with every book that I do. I don’t think it’s 50/50, I wish it were and more that resembles life. I’m grateful, though, there’s a little more diversity in creator-owned books. And I think that’s not entire because I’m so awesome — although God knows I am awesome — I think it’s more that readers who are new to the medium are looking for two things. One is they want something good and two, they want something that’s accessible. They’d probably like X-Men if they didn’t have to have 40 years of continuity to understand what’s going on. I’m grateful for how many new readers my fanbase is made up of. I think that’s again credit to my artists. Pia and I talked about the beginning of Y, as much as I love a book like Promethea we weren’t going to do challenging layouts like that. We were going to do something so that the excitement was going on inside the panels. But if you only ever read the Sunday comics, you’d be able to follow Y. I think it’s trying to make books that are accessible and can be read by new readers. That doesn’t mean they’re not challenging or have no them to them, it just means you’ve never read a comic before it’s something we can put in your hands. You might not like it but you’ll be able to follow it.
Well, that’s interesting because you’re very tailored to generate new audiences, but compared to the rest of the industry your books aren’t bestsellers on newsstand.
Our books definitely do much better in graphic novel form than they do in issues. Y, the first trade is well over 100,000 and might even be in the 200,000s copies, and that’s in English. We have Spanish editions, our books sell to Norway, they sell to France. These book appeal to a truly mainstream audience. It takes a little longer to get to them but, I’m sure Ex Machina, Runaways and Y will all be, if they haven’t already, be read by many more people who ever read Ultimate X-Men when I was writing that.
And to close it up, what do you think is the most important thing you’ve learned since entering the industry?
An important one was when I was reading an Eddie Campbell graphic novel — it’s one of the Alec books. There’s a quote in there that I’m going to butcher horribly, but just to paraphrase: When you’re a young artist you spend a lot of time looking at the people who are already successful and you sort of hate them. And you spend a lot of time thinking about how much better you are than they are and how undeserving they are to be in that spot. I was definitely a bitter professional who thought the same thing. But in that book Eddie really encourages you to look at those people and be grateful for them and say, “If they made it, it’s only a matter of time before I make it.” It seems like a simple and obvious thing, but I have to say, that was right before the time Y and The Hood. It was such a change in outlook where you stop being bitter and you realize that art is not a competition, that there’s more than enough room for all of us. You give praise to the people who don’t write stories like you. You want there to be as much diversity as possible. Even though I am a depressed curmudgeon, definitely think of taking that positive outlook on being grateful to being a part of this industry. It really makes you a better person.
If I could piggyback something that Alan Moore talks about. It’s much more to be a good human being than it is to be a good writer, which I agree with completely. I’m not a great writer but I’m still probably a better writer than human being. The times I’ve pushed myself to be a better person has made me a better artist.