Brian K Vaughan on "Saga's" Success, Controversy & the Future of Digital Comics

Brian K. Vaughan wants to see what comics can do. The creator behind critically acclaimed, fan-favorite titles "Y: The Last Man," "Runaways" and "Ex Machina" has found his latest -- and possible biggest -- success to with "Saga." The sci-fi/fantasy/action/drama epic, created with artist Fiona Staples and published through Image Comics, hit the 12-issue mark in April, has two best-selling collected editions to its name and is looking ahead to the August 14 release of Issue #13.

Beyond the worlds of intergalactic bounty hunters and their lying cats, Vaughan has plenty of other irons in the fire, both in and out of comics. He and artist Marcos Martin recently launched Panel Syndicate, the website which digitally publishes their 10-issue, digital-only series "The Private Eye." Panel Syndicate's model is pretty simple: Offer the book in different digital formats and languages and ask readers to pay what they choose, even if that is nothing. The experiment seems to be going well, with a third issue having just debuted on the site.

CBR News spoke with about BKV about both comics as well as his lack of involvement in the "Y: The Last Man" film and his role as a co-creator of the ABC Stephen King adaptation of "Under the Dome," which debuted to big ratings on June 24.

CBR News: With 12 issues of "Saga" under your belt, what have you learned about the series and your characters that you might not have known when the book launched?

Brian K. Vaughan: Well, I had the first twelve issues fairly tightly plotted before I even started working on the series, so Alana, Marko and friends haven't thrown us too many curveballs. So far, the biggest surprise about "Saga" is how nice people have been about the series. This is a pretty fucking out-there book, and I never imagined it would appeal to anything more than a small fringe audience of likeminded weirdos. All credit to co-creator Fiona Staples for making this strangeness so inviting and accessible to so many different kinds of readers.  

You and Fiona have both talked about how collaborative your process is. Has your working relationship with her changed or evolved in this first year of comics?

It's pretty much the same as it's been since day one, which is to say absolutely perfect. Nobody in comics is designing cooler new characters and worlds than Fiona, so I hope I give her plenty of space and freedom with the artwork, because she does for me with the wordy side of the equation.          

"Saga" #13 hits in August, with Marko, Helena and Hazel hiding from Prince Robot in D. Oswald Heist's house. What do you have planned for the rest of the year?

Finally selling out with "Saga" merch! By popular demand, next month, we're releasing our first ever officially licensed something-or-other, a Lying Cat T-shirt! I don't know if it was Felicia Day sporting her own Lying Cat tee on "Supernatural" a few weeks back -- and huge thanks to that show's writers/producers for the sweet shout-out -- but initial orders for these things are through the roof.  And we're sharing a big chunk of any profits from these duds with our richly deserving letterer/designer Fonografiks, so please buy twelve.

Now that our first two collections are out, I hope new readers will consider joining the monthly train when we return in August with Chapter Thirteen, as we introduce some curious new characters before cruelly snuffing out a few old ones. Unless I'm lying. But the only way to find out without first being spoiled by some dick on Twitter is by picking up each issue of our ongoing series, which is also the only place you'll ever be able to read "To Be Continued," the sixth-best letter column in comics.    

Do you guys have plans to do other presentations for the series, like maybe a larger hardcover featuring all 12 issues?

No concrete plans just yet. Our first goal is bringing as many new readers to the party as possible, so for now, I want to concentrate on our insanely inexpensive trade paperback collections.

Prince Robot's facescreen caused a swirl of controversy a few months ago. Were you surprised by the uproar? 

I swear to God, the day before that issue came out, I was telling Fiona, "You know what the whole world is going to be talking about tomorrow? These guys." Fiona's greatest creations yet, Ghüs and Walrus Friend!  

Anyway, I clearly have a much higher tolerance for tiny images of graphic man-on-man love than the average fellow, because I didn't think those controversial images were the most shocking part of that issue, much less of the entire series. I feel like a bit of a failure as a creator that so many people seemed more bothered by that small detail than they were by the horrifically violent and senseless death of an innocent character in that exact same scene, but there you go.     

Do you have specific rules for what is shown on Prince Robot's face? Sometimes it seems like random thoughts, other times it seems like images he purposefully wants to convey to whoever's looking at him. 

Yeah, there are very specific rules for what flashes on Prince Robot IV's facescreen, and we'll learn exactly why he was revealing those aforementioned naughty images from Chapter Twelve in this next arc. It's probably not for any reasons you might be guessing.

Unlike a lot of stories, "Saga" seems to focus more on birth than death. Was that a theme you wanted to explore going in?

Definitely, though it's not just about childbirth -- which I realize is a subject that's spectacularly boring to many non-parents and parents alike -- but about all different kinds of creation.  

Moving over to "The Private Eye," you've said it was Marcos Martin who suggested going the digital/online route, but what made you guys decide to do it all on your own instead of going through something like comiXology?

I like comiXology a whole lot. They're a really well-run service that helps books like "Saga" reach a ton of new readers, but that, naturally, comes at a cost, and it's not just the percentage they take from the cover price of every issue they sell. Because they're a huge business, comiXology -- and some of their partners -- also understandably have their own content restrictions, as I learned the hard way during the whole "Saga" #12 boondoggle, which was embarrassing for everybody involved. I'm relieved it all seems to have been happily resolved, and that you can still find "Saga" on your iPad, but the experience also made me very grateful that Marcos came up with a site like Panel Syndicate, where writers and artists share 100% of any payments readers are generous enough to make, and where there are absolutely no content restrictions at all between creators and their readers.  

As we talked about with Fiona, you're known for giving your artists a lot of creative control when it comes to collaborating on these books. What elements of "The Private Eye" has Marcos been the driving force behind?

So much! More than anyone I've ever collaborated with, Marcos frequently adds and subtracts my suggested panels or changes the layouts and even page counts of entire scenes. He's out of his mind, but the results are way better than whatever I initially envisioned, so I'm thrilled whenever he goes off the reservation. He's always very respectful of the story, and I learn so much from the way he tells it. And dig those outfits! He and colorist Muntsa Vicente bring so much life to each and every disguise in our masked future.

How did you decide on the landscape format for the page and panel layouts?

The horizontal format was entirely Marcos' idea, but I supported it from the jump. We wanted to experiment with this story, but not by adding motion or sound or other bells and whistles that are fun, but start to become something other than the pure words and pictures we both love. "The Private Eye" is still just old-school comics, but formatted for our modern widescreen world.    

How has response been to the project so far, both critically and financially?

I don't know how the critical reception has been, but the financial reception has been unbelievable. Every time we add a new translation like Catalan or Portuguese to Panel Syndicate, we get a whole new round of readers from around the globe downloading our first two issues, and a majority of them pay us for the experience, even though they don't have to. I just hope it can continue to be successful over the course of all ten of our planned installments, especially because I think "Private Eye" #3 is one of the best issues I've ever been a part of.

Sci-fi stories have a long history of taking elements of modern society and twisting them to show how strange they really are. Was that part of the intent by setting "The Private Eye" in a world that has essentially the opposite ideas of privacy that we do now?

Absolutely, and thanks to the NSA's recently revealed PRISM program, I don't think privacy has ever been a more topical subject. Marcos and I argue about whether the privacy-obsessed future of "The Private Eye" is a nightmarish dystopia or a hopeful paradise, so I'll be curious to hear which side of the debate readers land on.

In the afterward of the first issue, you talk about doing more stories on Panel Syndicate with Marcos, and possibly opening the doors to other creators. Has there been any movement in that direction?

Marcos and I were just talking about that this weekend, actually. We haven't approached anyone yet, but there are definitely a few creators we both love whose next work we'd kill to host at Panel Syndicate. Stay tuned.  

You've answered this before, but there seems to be some confusion among readers and retailers about it -- do you have any plans to collect and print "The Private Eye" in a traditional trade after the series is completed?

Nope, no plans at all.  I love print comics, and I hope I get to write them for the rest of my life, but "The Private Eye" is something different.

Will you eventually collect the whole thing into one digital volume? Or is that the old way of thinking about comics?

Maybe? But I kinda like our serialized pay-what-you-want per issue model. Feels right for this story.

As a whole, what has your experience been like with digital comics? The worries early on were that they'd cannibalize in-store sales, but most creators I've talked to have said there's almost no overlap. Is that the case with "Saga" and your other books?

I think the digital distribution revolution is maybe the best thing that's ever happened to mainstream comics. I really miss the days when you could find a comics spinner rack in every drug store, but now anyone who owns a mobile device can have their own personal spinner rack, and it's always stocked with every issue imaginable. I don't know if creators at other companies are privy to exactly how many digital copies their books are selling these days, but the statements Fiona and I get from Image are pretty staggering. I realize that's not true for every book, but the day when many titles start selling more digital copies than print copies is not years away, it's months away.

And you're right; this doesn't seem to be cannibalizing print sales at all -- it actually seems to be helping. That means we're all bringing an entirely new audience to our beloved medium, and we're doing it much more quickly than I for one ever thought possible. A lot of publishers are already making a lot of money off this boom, so I just hope a fair portion of that loot is finding its way to the writers and artists who helped make it happen.        

Do you see Panel Syndicate as the kind of business or company that could evolve into a full-on, next wave digital comic book publisher?

Well, let's see how "Private Eye" #3 does before we get ahead of ourselves. The first two issues did amazingly well, but the only way Marcos and Muntsa can keep doing this as their full-time gigs is if generous readers continue showing up for the rest of our maxi-series. But I think our story is pretty damn great, so if we can really pull it off, I'd love for Panel Syndicate to publish more original comics from other creators.

As comics evolve to the point where you, Marcos and other creators are making your own books and just releasing them into the world digitally, how do you think the industry as a whole will change?

There will be a lot more comics, and a lot of them will be great. But I don't think traditional publishers like Image or Dark Horse or Marvel will ever go away, nor will brick and mortar comics shops. It's more of a massive expansion than a radical transformation.  

It was announced recently that the "Y: The Last Man" movie script is pretty close to being done. Have you read it or had any input on the story?

Unfortunately, co-creator Pia Guerra and I aren't involved in this incarnation of the "Y" adaptation in any capacity at the moment, so I don't know any more about it than you. But I wish the team much success with it, and I encourage them to take chances and make the story their own.  

Does the lack of involvement in the "Y" film stem from the fact that it was a Vertigo book and not fully creator-owned?

No, no, Vertigo has always been great. And when we optioned "Y," Pia and I were fully aware that the most likely scenario for any adaptation would involve us just cheerleading from the sidelines. But if they ever want us to be involved, I hope I'll be as classy a collaborator as Stephen King, who's always been kind and generous and supportive, even when we occasionally need to butcher his masterpiece to make it work in a different medium.    

Speaking of King, how was it getting back into the world of TV writing with "Under the Dome?" Was this experience different than on "Lost?"

I was only ever a small part of the excellent writing staff on "Lost," so developing and executive producing a show like "Under the Dome" has been a huge adjustment. Thankfully, I'm lucky to have the incredibly experienced and talented Neal Baer as our showrunner, and he's been very patient with helping me learn to balance the fun creative side of making television with the terrifying financial responsibilities, which is definitely a new experience. But we're blessed with the best group of writers ever, to say nothing of our awesome cast and crew, so I'm enjoying the challenge.

You've obviously still got "Saga" and "The Private Eye" in the works, but do you have any other new projects you can talk about at this point?

I'm thinking about writing a novel next. We'll see.

To see what Brian K. Vaughan has in the works check out "The Private Eye" #3 available right now on PanelSyndicate.com, "Saga" #13 on Aug. 14 and "Under the Dome" on CBS Mondays at 10:00 PM.

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