Acclaimed writer Brian K. Vaughan sat down at his spotlight panel during this year’s Comic-Con International in San Diego a few minutes early. That may not seem like a lot of time, but when a creator is as in-demand as Vaughan is, every minute counts. With a relaxed smile, he welcomed fans that approached him to sign books, taking time to admire their costumes and answering questions.
It’s been a great year for Vaughan, who took home the Eisner Award for Best Writer while his Image Comics series “Saga” with co-creator (and fellow Eisner winner for Best Artist) Fiona Staples has been a consistent best seller and won the award for Best Continuing Series. “Saga” blends space opera with family drama into a beautiful, weird and wholly unique story. The room was packed with excited fans, many of which wore incredibly made cosplay of characters from the series.
“I am so nervous and sweaty right now, it’s so gross,” Vaughan said, kicking his panel off. “I have no moderator, no friends, so it’s just going to be us.”
Vaughan invited audience members to ask questions immediately, promising each one a comic book from a large stack he’d brought with him, including copies of “Saga” #19 with a black and white alternate cover. The line at the microphone immediately stretched toward the back of the room as fans eagerly waited for their turn.
The first audience member asked Vaughan if he planned on doing anymore “out of the ordinary” work similar to “Pride of Baghdad,” his Vertigo Comics OGN with Niko Henrichon.
“I love talking animals, whether it’s ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ or ‘Maus,'” said Vaughan. “Comics do that really well, and I miss doing self-contained graphic novels, so I think I would.”
“I drink too much,” Vaughan said when asked about his favorite gin and gin cocktail. “So that’s fun. I’m not picky. I just like well gin. My favorite cocktail is, like, half well gin and half tap water, get a straw, mix it all around, think about your problems and things you’ve done wrong then drink.”
The next question was directed toward Vaughan’s diverse cast of “Saga” characters and if he had any particular sources of inspiration behind them. “Well, I knocked up my wife and we made babies and it was really terrifying. Whenever I’m frightened and confused by something, I try to write about it. I know nothing is more boring than hearing people talk about their children,” Vaughan paused as the audience clapped in agreement. “All right, you dicks. We like to talk about them,” he laughed.
“I wanted to talk about the experience of fatherhood and childhood, but I wanted to sort of smuggle it inside something interesting. All of the characters are in some way based on my family or my idiot friends or the TV-headed robot that lives in my basement.”
An audience member called out, asking about Lying Cat. “Lying Cat? Yeah, probably a lot of Hamburger K. Vaughan, my beloved dachshund, sole heir to the K. Vaughan Empire. He’s a dog but he’s kind of more cat than dog. I have no imagination; I just steal from life and change the color. Then it’s a comic book,” the writer replied.
Vaughan was then asked about how he and Staples collaborate and if any characters or details change from his original plans. “I was just writing about this — we’re doing a ‘Saga’ hardcover for the first time that’s coming out in November and it collects the first 18 issues. It’s a big massive thing and we’re going to have a bunch of extras in the back, including how Fiona and I brainstorm from script to thumbnails. I was writing in the back about how every issue I have real concrete plans and sometimes they get blown up, but the biggest one was that I’d always intended Sophie — the slave girl — she was always going to be a big part of the series. When I got to the issue, I wondered if I was de-balling The Will by having him take on this girl. He’s a brutal murderer, he kills kids all the time, and so should he just off this girl? Would that be more dramatic?
“When I started writing ‘Saga’ my big concerns was that after creators have kids is when they write their crappy kids books,” Vaughan continued. “I wanted to write something really filthy and adult, so I had this big conflict about him killing her. In the end, it’s mostly the way Fiona draws The Will and Lying Cat. He’s just this big, dumb sweet idiot who just dresses up like a little kid. He couldn’t do that to that poor girl, but every issue the characters and I duke it out. They usually win.”
The next fan asked Vaughan how the “Lost” and “Under the Dome” veteran’s work in film and television was going. “Terribly,” he admitted. “I just quit everything. I was like, that’s enough of this nonsense. I’d been very lucky. I was a writer on ‘Lost,’ and I got to develop this great Stephen King book ‘Under the Dome,’ and it was great but actually, I escaped the dome. I quit back in March. It was the honor of a lifetime to adapt King, he’s my hero, but I realized that I’m really not as good at working on other people’s ideas as I am about making new stuff. After ten years of toiling away in Hollywood, I realized that there’s no better place for new ideas than comics.”
The audience immediately erupted into supportive applause.
“It’s cool working in film and TV. They bring you lunch for free everyday and you don’t get that in comics, but I just decided that show is in excellent hands without me so I stepped away,” Vaughan continued. “I think for the foreseeable future I’m just going to sit inside my flophouse writing studio and just write new comic books.”
While Vaughan paused to sign a book and take a photo, another audience member approached the mic and asked Vaughan how much it would take for him to go back to Marvel and fix the current state of affairs with “Runaways.”
“Actually, I like what they’re doing over there now. It’s fun. I broke into Marvel when I was relatively young and I made an okay living working off other people’s creations and it felt like I should throw something back into the toy box, as it were. ‘Y’ and ‘Ex Machina’ are things I’ll never return to, those had endings that I hope we earned and I think it would cheapen them to go back — that’s until I’m broke and my kids need braces someday,” he joked. “But ‘Runaways’ I always wanted to be something I started up that would live beyond me. I hope there will be some young creator out there with an idea to breathe new life into the series. I love those characters but I’m happiest making new stuff for now.”
Next up was an odd question — in the letters column for “Saga,” a fan had asked Vaughan if he would attend a ’60s-themed party if he were promised magic mushrooms. Had Vaughan actually done that?â€¨â€¨”Stay tuned, I guess,” he began. “If I did it, I’ll address it in a future letter column. If anyone wants to invite me to any other sort of drug-themed parties at their house, you’ll be shocked that I might show up.”
The next question was about what the day-to-day process of working on “Under the Dome” was like. “It was something I’m not great at, I realized,” Vaughan said of his experience as the CBS drama’s showrunner. “Whenever someone wins an award and they say it’s a humbling experience — that’s not humbling! That’s the opposite of humbling. Working for network TV is humbling. It’s hard because it’s a real privilege to get to work on network television and get millions of viewers, more people than have read all of my comics combined. You get a lot of money to make it look pretty but there are a lot of people to answer to, and a lot of moving parts. I just felt like a general who was fighting a losing war.”
Vaughan continued, “I just felt out of my depth, I guess, and I’m really happiest living life 22 pages at a time and putting things in little boxes on pages. I know that’s a wildly unsatisfying answer.”
Vaughan shared an anecdote about working on “Under the Dome” where the producers team had hired scientists and technicians to help determine what an actual dome falling over a small town would be like. At one point, they called King to discuss what the atmosphere in a semi-permeable dome would be like and the novelist interrupted them. “He said, ‘You know you guys can just make shit up, right?’ and I realized that was a valuable lesson,” Vaughan recalled.
Another fan asked Vaughan if he knew the endings to his stories ahead of time. “For things like ‘Y’ or ‘Ex Machina,’ I always knew what the last panel of the last page would be. I don’t start a story until I know where it’s going to end,” he explained. He shared that he worked from a detailed road map for the stories with major incidents along the way. “For the most part, I really try to know major deaths, when characters will be introduced and fall out.”
Speaking of major events, the next question centered on a particular turn in “Saga” where it seems like a major, beloved fan character might perish in space. The audience member commented that Vaughan had once said the back and forth was like a game between him and Staples — what kind of game was he referring to?
“Yeah, we do have a weird working relationship. We talk before each arc very generally where we sit down and I’ll ask what she hated drawing and what she’d like to draw more of, and what kind of themes she thinks we should explore. She’s always so helpful — like in the second volume, I never intended to do flashbacks and she was like, no, we really need to see how Marko and Alana came together. I think that ended up being some of the best parts of that volume,” he shared. “She likes to speak generally but she also doesn’t want spoilers. She’s my partner on this, but… you know. She likes to read the script like the audience is going to read it and to be surprised and put her shock and feelings down on the page. That wouldn’t be there if she knew every beat.
“I write the book for one person — for Fiona,” Vaughan continued. “I spend a lot of time just thinking how she’ll react to things and manipulating her into drawing perverse, horrific things. It’s a really weird job but I enjoy it.”
Building on the previous answer, the next question asked how Vaughan addressed foreshadowing with such loose scripting.
“I will give as much information as I can. If I know something is going to pay off or if Fiona missed out on something I’ll jump in to correct her. She’s never flying completely blind, but there’s room for her to be surprised while still knowing a lot of things. That’s a terrible answer.”
The same person followed up by asking about the status of the long-rumored “Y: The Last Man” film adaptation. “The rights finally reverted back to Pia Guerra and me. It’s complicated because we technically have the rights but I think if someone wanted to make a TV show or movie, they’d have to pay Newline all of the money that Newline sunk into it over the last ten years. It turns out that’s a shit-ton of money,” he laughed. “And I’m like where did all this money go? I didn’t get any of that.”
Another question was about Vaughan and how he approached the creation of non-human characters in “Saga.” “I’m extraordinarily lazy and I have no visual sense. So I’m like, ‘Fiona, the dad character is called Marko and he’s kinda handsome… and a sword! He’s got one of those, too. Alana should have some kind of wings and be pretty, and she’s a badass.’ Then Fiona goes away and makes something beyond anything I could’ve imagined. I’ve learned that the less direction I give her the better it turns out,” Vaughan said. “And then sometimes she’ll send me a picture like, ‘Here is a tiny seal wearing overalls. Can he be in our book?’ And I’m like, ‘Hell yeah he can be in our book!'”
The next fan commented that she enjoyed the narration by Hazel, the newborn daughter of Marko and Alana, in “Saga.” Had Vaughan always planned to tell it from her perspective?
“I don’t think I’ve ever really written narration in one of my comics before. After I knocked up aforementioned wife and the babies got big, I would read a lot of children’s books. I love good children’s books where the text is lovely letters directly over the page and it feels like the words and images are very married together in a way that sometimes comics don’t. I knew I wanted to have that style of narration. A lot of people thought it was a mistake, because we then know that Hazel at least lives to some point, and that it would take away a lot of the drama because we know that nothing bad will happen to her,” he said. “But I thought, I can do things like we do at the end of issue #19 where she can say — sorry for the spoilers — something like ‘This is the story of how my parents split up.’ It’s been a lot of fun writing her voice, it’s a great joy. I hope it doesn’t take away all of the drama in knowing that things will work out sort of okay for Hazel.”
The next question was about which comics Vaughan is currently reading, and luckily the writer had an answer prepared.
“Oh good, I wrote this down! Someone always asks and I always blank like an idiot,” Vaughan said as he consulted his notes. “‘Alex and Ada,’ by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn, no relation. It’s an Image book about a guy who orders a robot from the mail but it’s a lot more than that. The tone is perfect; it’s really audacious and lovely. ‘Caliban’ by Garth Ennis. ‘Moon Knight’ from Warren Ellis and Declan [Shalvey]. That team is doing another Image book coming up. ‘Ms. Marvel’ by my old pal Adrian Alphona from ‘Runaways.’ ‘Copperhead’ is a new book coming out from Image by my friend Jay Faerber. It’s a space western. And I guess ‘Walking Dead’ by [Robert] Kirkman. ‘Shaolin Cowboy’ was awesome, and ‘Usagi Yoimbo.’ ‘Y’ is such a Usagi rip-off. Stan Sakai is such a genius,” he said.
Vaughan closed the panel by sharing that he’s working on two new comics, one with an artist he’s previously worked with and the other is with an artist he’s never worked with. “Stay tuned,” he said. “I hope next year I’ll be able to tell you more about them.”