Sunday Geekersation: Brian K. Vaughan juggles comics, TV
Brian K. Vaughan now officially has more offices than kids.
The executive producer of CBS’ newest hit show Under the Dome, based on the Stephen King book and following a group of people having to deal with a strange dome over their town, has a place to work in Los Angeles with the writing staff and his own desk in Wilmington, N.C., where the series films.
Then there’s Vaughan’s home office, where he pens his award-winning Image Comics sci-fi/fantasy series Saga as well as the digital title The Private Eye at night and on the weekends.
“I have way too many parking spaces right now but it’s a fun life,” says Vaughan, dad to son Alec, 3, and daughter Wilhelmina, 2.
A writer, story editor and producer for three seasons of Lost, Vaughan has found a place in Hollywood, but he made his mark in comics with titles such as Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina. Vaughan may not be as busy in that industry as some of his colleagues, but it’s a matter of quality over quantity.
With artist Fiona Staples, Saga won two Eisner Awards last month for best continuing and best new series, plus Vaughan picked up the honor for best writer, adding to his four previous Eisners.
Saga centers around Marko and Alana, a married couple from two warring alien races, and their baby daughter, Hazel. The third arc kicks off Aug. 14 with Saga No. 13, which has the family on the run from their individual people and a bunch of bounty hunters while heading to find their favorite one-eyed novelist.
And with illustrator Marcos Martin, Vaughan created the website Panel Syndicate earlier this year to host their digital comic The Private Eye, a futuristic story featuring a paparazzi protagonist available to download for whatever fans want to pay for it.
Vaughan talks with USA TODAY about all that he has going on, including Saga‘s recent sexually charged controversy, how The Private Eye has been weirdly prescient, when he’s joining Twitter and what he’s learned from Stephen King.
Q: The last issue of Saga left readers hanging, with Marko and Alana’s clan in hiding at this oddball author’s place. How important will he be overall in the upcoming story arc?
A: Oswald Heist is this sort of a paperback writer and not very famous, but there’s one book that Marko and Alana really bonded over. They seem to understand or interpret it in a way that a lot of people haven’t. They’re looking for answers — how do we survive in this war-torn universe? — and maybe this writer has all the answers.
As a writer, I can warn you that authors do not usually have all the answers.
Q: Did you base Oswald on anybody in particular?
A: Nope. He is not supposed to be anyone other than my own experience as a writer. I’ve heard people say, “Oh, is it Alan Moore because he’s got a beard?” or “Warren Ellis because he swears too much.” He is just an amalgamation of lots of different writers I’ve met over the years.
Q: What will the family’s life be like in that week?
A: The big part of what’s coming up is going to be an emotional journey. A spoiler alert for those who haven’t read the second trade, but we learned that Marko loses his father — so Hazel has lost her grandfather — and there’s going to be some mourning along the way.
It doesn’t sound like the most exciting comic book story of all time, but part of the process of growing up and becoming a father is sometimes saying goodbye to your parents. That is what Marko is going to have to endure.
Q: What you do so well with Saga is balance those emotional moments with action and intrigue.
A: I definitely wanted to write about the experience of fatherhood and parenthood while also recognizing that’s extremely boring for most people. How do you talk about these mundane topics in an exciting way? Hopefully setting this story in a wacky sci-fi fantasy universe has given us room to tell this story with some visual spectacle and just Fiona Staples being awesome.
Q: The comics blogosphere blew up after issue 12 came out for certain small sexual images on Prince Robot IV’s TV faceplate. Were you expecting some controversy when you and Fiona were doing that issue?
A: Maybe I am incredibly naïve but no. I told Fiona I thought the thing most people would take away from issue 12 is the adorable little seal character Fiona had created for the book. We’ve had some really insane things in the book — sexually explicit and graphic and strange — so no, I didn’t think two little images that flash on Prince Robot’s screen in the backgrounds of shots would cause any of the problems that it did. But there you go.
In the scene where that happens actually, there is an innocent character who dies in an extremely violent, horrific fashion. For me, that was always the point of the scene and the takeaway — American audiences in particular, we are laser-focused on sex, and we have an extremely high tolerance for violence.
That’s sort of what Saga is about. We live in a universe that really likes destruction but has problems with creation. That’s a theme we’ll be delving into more in this next arc.
Q: Sci-fi has always been great for using metaphors for social issues and culture, and you seem to be taking advantage of that tradition.
A: It’s definitely true. I remember Neil Gaiman always saying about Sandman that when he set out to do a monthly ongoing series, he wanted to write the kind of book that would become whatever he and his collaborators wanted it to be that month.
Similarly, that’s what Fiona and I wanted to do with Saga. Every time we visit a different planet, we can shake it up — we can become a different genre, we can become a horror book, or we can become a comedy book. That’s one of the benefits of telling a story in a universe as big as ours.
Q: The Private Eye is another intriguing universe you’ve created. When it launched, no one was expecting it, and it’s a surprise every time an issue comes out. It feels like you’re trying to bring excitement back to comics.
A: I remember when I was a kid and I would go to the comic-book store, I would have no idea what was going on in that month’s issues. Sometimes I wouldn’t even know what comics were coming out until I walked into the store. And these days, we’ve all read the solicitation material and we’ve seen previews, and by the time the issue finally comes out, it feels like we’ve already read it.
The Private Eye partly was this idea of doing something that’s fun that we could put it out any day of the week — it could come out on a Tuesday or Friday. The point was definitely more about doing digital comics in a place where we could own and control it completely. And every penny we make stays with the creators.
Q: Have you made quite a few pennies thus far?
A: (Laughs) We have! Many more than I thought. It was Marcos Martin’s crazy idea and he said, “Look, when comic books were originally created, they were designed to be the most inexpensive form of entertainment for the most people possible.” It seems like that sort of flipped over the years and now comics are incredibly expensive and they’re for only a very few people and a shrinking base.
It was Marcos’ idea to put a comic online that cost whatever you wanted it to cost — whatever you thought would be fair, with the option of also paying nothing. I told Marcos, “I don’t even think that Radiohead model worked for Radiohead, much less comics,” but he said, “Let’s give it a try.” And it’s been great.
More than half of the people who download pay us at least something. Most people throw us a dollar or two, a few people more than $5, but there’s been enough each issue that we’ve been able to make another issue. I hope it will continue to work for all 10 of our planned issues.
Q: There’s an urban legend that when you put the first issue up, the ensuing Web traffic crashed your site.
A: It did. I heard some people saying we crashed PayPal, and that is not true. We’d have to be a billion-dollar business before PayPal would crash. We’re not quite at that level.
There are a lot of comic sites where you can download Saga, for example, but you don’t really own that. We wanted to do comics that you could download in any kind of file you wanted to and once you download it, you own it completely. It’s not stored on a cloud somewhere that could disappear if we change our mind in the future. It’s really yours, and that’s really rare in digital comics. I’m glad we can help lead that charge.
Q: Storywise, The Private Eye is very old school at its core — a noir tale with a private eye but with a lot more color and people in masks.
A: I love that balance between old school and new school, and I like this idea that we store all of our photographs and important documents and even our music and TV shows all on a cloud. What if that cloud just went away someday? Maybe we would go back to loving our analog creations.
Even though The Private Eye is set in a future that has magnetized flying cars, we’ve also got cassette tapes and VHS tapes, everyone reads books and newspapers are important again.
My parents grew up during the space race and I think they imagined the future would be us living on moon bases and everyone has rocket shoes. I don’t think that’s always the case. We think that, oh, now the Internet is going to control our future and we’re moving toward the singularity, but The Private Eye is saying maybe that’s not the case. Maybe were going to be something a little different.
Q: Speaking of the cloud, that’s one of the best plot points of The Private Eye — the cloud’s pretty much burst, info’s been disseminated and everybody knows everything about everybody else in this future. All this NSA stuff and Edward Snowden intrigue has been in the news recently, but you seem to have been ahead of it in this comic.
A: It’s something I wanted to write about because I’m obsessed with the idea of privacy and it does feel incredibly topical now — not just because of Snowden and the NSA and how much is the government listening to our phone calls or reading our e-mails. It’s also how much are we willing participants in this? Are we sacrificing our own privacy by putting stuff up on Facebook and Twitter?
I think there is a possible future where maybe we do just take a hard turn away from the Internet and we do start valuing our privacy again.
Q: Is that mind-set what keeps you off Twitter when many of your colleagues in comics are avid social-media mavens?
A: I do like my privacy and for the most part writers should probably be read through their work and not through their online ramblings. That said, I love following a lot of creators on Twitter. It’s just not for me. I’m really a lazy writer — writing is really a difficult, arduous task for me. Why would I possibly do that for free? It’s hard enough when I’m getting paid to do it! (Laughs) I’m happy to not be on Twitter or Facebook or anywhere online.
Q: You also probably also don’t have the time due to Under the Dome.
A: It’s difficult. My bosses at Lost, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, I’ve learned exactly how hard their job was. It’s not just handling the creative side of it, but also the practical side — financial concerns and what happens if we get rained out to stay on set or what if an actor suddenly finds out she’s pregnant? We have to take her out of a scene we put her in.
There are a lot of day-to-day challenges that mostly make me appreciate comics. A writer and an artist have total control over their universe. Television is really something where you just try to hang on and do your best. But it’s been a very exciting challenge so far.