Last Wednesday, like thousands of others, Brian K. Vaughan went to a comic shop and bought a copy of "Y: The Last Man" issue #60, the series finale. Unlike all those other readers, though, Vaughan couldn't bring himself to read the issue. Over the last five years, the series became one of Vertigo's best-selling titles and helped usher Vaughan into the elite of comics writers, and eventually a gig as a writer-producer of the hit television series "Lost."
In addition to his work on "Lost," Vaughan continues to write the Wildstorm series "Ex Machina," and this Spring, Marvel will publish the three-part miniseries "Logan," Vaughan's take on Wolverine with artist Eduardo Risso. While plenty of projects lie ahead, for the moment Vaughan's focus is still largely on the book that brought him international acclaim, "Y: The Last Man."
In a lengthy interview with CBR News, Vaughan explained why it was so hard to read the last issue of "Y," why he decided to kill off Agent 355, how writing comics relates to writing television, how he's spending his time during the writers strike, and what new projects he has on the horizon.
I'll get right into the big, crucial question of the day. What's more important in becoming a famous comics writer, is it the shaved head, or being named Brian?
That is a question for the ages. It's a tie, I think. Or is it being from Cleveland? Azzarello, Bendis and I are all bald guys named Brian from the same area in Cleveland. Don't forget to add that into your equation.
That aside, it's been a big run for you lately with "Lost" Season Four debuting and the final issue of "Y: The Last Man" coming out. When did you get to read a finished copy of Y issue #60?
I actually didn't get it until Wednesday. DC didn't send out final colored copies to anyone. I didn't even get one. So I had to go to the store and buy it myself. Late Wednesday night was the first time I actually held it in my hands.
What did that feel like?
I haven't even brought myself to open it yet. It's been very much going through the stages of dying. Ending the script and getting to type the last word is sort of the first stage – denial – because I think it's not really over. It has to be penciled and inked and colored and lettered. I've been through bargaining and anger and I guess I finally reached the acceptance stage, but there's definitely still some sadness.
So the issue is just sitting there, staring at you?
It is. It is. I mean, certainly I've read it a thousand times because I've proofed it at each stage. I've looked at the colors. There's something about reading the finished product that will really be an end to it. I'm sure I'll do it this week before Y: The Last Party.
It's interesting to summarize that feeling as a death of sorts, because a continuing theme of "Y" seems to be coming to accept mortality.
That I think is fair. It's definitely something that's kind of unique with "Y." Most people who love comics, we're used to things like Spider-Man and Batman, things that have an illusion of a third act. There will never really be a last Spider-Man story or a last Batman story, even though people have tried it. It'll never really end. And we get spoiled that way. But I think finales are what give stories their meaning. The stories need endings because all of our lives have endings. So a death is such an important part of drama, so how can you tell a story that doesn't involve death?
Issue #60 was used to summarize the last two thirds of Yorick's life. Looking back, what kind of a life was it that Yorick led?
I think he led a life like most men. He took a difficult journey from boyhood to manhood. It was a life with a great deal of sadness and a lot of loss, but it was also a lot of fun. He had crazy adventures. It's life. Alan Moore has a good quote that life doesn't have a genre. It's not always a western or a tragedy or a comedy or pornography. It's little bits of all those things. Yorick led a very full life, I guess is the easiest way to say it.
That transition from boy to man, it seems to be very popular, especially in alternative comics. What makes that process so important?
There's an arty farty term that the older Yorick uses called Bildungsroman. It's basically just a fancy way of saying "coming of age." I think that's kind of every story. That's why we have stories. We need things to help us and guide us through this thing that all of us will experience, no matter how fantastic or mundane our life is. The story of getting older is all of our stories. I don't think it's something that's just independent comics or just comics. I think even the X-Men or Spider-Man are stories of difficulties of getting older. It's hard to not write about that.
You've said that Agent 355 had to die (in issue #59) as part of Yorick's story. That surprised and upset more than a few readers. Now that the series has ended, do you want to explain that choice?
It's hard. I never like to explain or defend the work. It takes some of the magic out of it. And, in a lot of ways, I don't really know other than, when I came up with the story as a young man, I knew that was important. It was extremely difficult because I love that character so much, and I think she was important to a lot of people. But it was the story that I needed to tell. I think it's more interesting for each individual reader to lay their own interpretation onto it rather than to hear my intent and be stuck with that. It's fine if you don't think she did. It was senseless and tragic and heartbreaking. And if you see it as betrayal, that it's completely meaningless, I wouldn't necessarily disagree.
In the same way, you let people decide for themselves what caused the near-extinction of mankind.
That's something we always said from the beginning that we were going to provide a definitive answer for what caused the plague. And somewhere in the 60 issues we did. But we never said we were going to tell you when. So there's lots of different answers. There were mythical reasons given and scientific reasons and military reasons. I know in my mind what I believe to be the true cause. But I think it's more interesting for people to get to choose their own.
Is the cause behind the plague nearly as important as the journey it led to?
It's very much the MacGuffin. At the end of the day it doesn't matter. It's probably not something that's going to happen in our world. It doesn't have the same relevance that these characters and these relationships did. I think that's something we can all identify with. It's much more a story about people than it is about the plot.
It's funny you mention the MacGuffin. I talked to Jeff Smith recently, and he used the same term.
Yeah, it is a necessary evil of all storytelling. I think some people get caught up with it. I don't think stories are puzzles needing to be solved. It's not something that has one right answer. It's very much a collaborative process between the creators and the readers. I like that dance that I get to do with them. I'm not just here to yell at you and you have to listen to what I say. I like that participation.
The series is very accessible, particularly to non-comics readers. Did you think it would be so open from the beginning?
I knew it was a story that I wanted to read, and I was hopeful other people would be into it. I thought it was a very interesting high concept. Whenever I met someone and I mentioned it to them, it seemed to immediately spark some kind of conversation. I knew it had that chance. But it wasn't until I saw Pia Guerra's artwork – I've said this before, and this is not me being humble. It's always been a great story, but it was her art that made it so accessible. A lot of times we long-time comics fans take for granted how difficult it is to read comics. It is an acquired skill, especially with complicated layouts. I think Pia's artwork is so accessible and her storytelling is so clean that even if you've only read the Sunday funnies, you immediately can fall into one of her stories. When I saw her artwork I knew we'd definitely be able to reach a lot of people.
One of the things that comes up with a story about one gender almost being wiped out is that the world has endless supply of gender issues. It was interesting how in some respects in "Y," women replaced the roles of men, and in other ways you emphasized differences between the sexes.
When I first came up with the idea, I thought it was fairly original and nobody had ever thought of anything like it. But it turns out to be a very old story. Science fiction writers have been talking for a very long time about one sex or the other dying. It seemed to me that it was either all of the men died except for one and it was just sort of this sex fantasy, or it was this sort of well intentioned nonsense where all the men died and the women immediately go down to the United Nations and hold hands and declare an end to war and suffering. That seemed to be equally insulting to women. I think there are as many different kinds of women as there are women. And that the world would continue to be just as complicated and complex as when there were men around. I don't think women think with any kind of hive mind, and we never wanted to say this is how all women would respond. Pia and I wanted to show as many different responses to this as possible. It was trying to show many different viewpoints instead of just imposing our one boring viewpoint on everyone.
Looking back on the series, what storyline or moments are your favorites?
I'm really happy with issue #60, the final issue. I really think we stuck the landing. I think it's the culmination of everything Pia and I learned as artist and writer. So, that I love. And, I think early in the series there was an arc called "Safeword" that was sort of a psychological exploration of Yorick that I really loved. It was sort of born out of a great suggestion that Pia had. Before that, I think the book had had great writing and great art but we really started to work together as a team on "Safeword."
Do you have any particular favorite pieces of art or panels?
It's usually quiet ones. I think dramatic moments are what everyone remembers – that first shot of Yorick hanging upside down in his straightjacket. For me, it was just quiet little scenes between Agent 355 and Yorick. With any other artist it would have been a really boring scene, but because Pia is such a great actor and she breathes so much life into her performances, that just a quiet panel of Yorick saying nothing... I guess those are my favorite, the silent ones. Because usually with most artists you can write something as silent, but you get the artwork back in and facial expression doesn't quite get it or the framing doesn't convey the mood. And you usually end up having to write something to go into it. There are so many silent moments in "Y" because Pia's artwork just speaks volumes. So, yeah, it's those times I just got to back off as a writer and let her tell the story.
What was your favorite red herring?
A red herring? I don't know. I think red herring conveys there was sort of something just there to manipulate the audience or get you off the track. I don't think anything was purely a red herring. Even if we were introducing a character to make you think one thing, that character was still an important person. I think Rose – the eye patch clad submarine agent – was a good example of that. She seemed to be like she was just there to undermine our group, which turned out not to be true. But she wasn't just a plot device. We really came to love her, and she made Dr. Mann a more interesting character. As far as red herring's go, I thought she was a pretty complete fish.
I hear you have a couple other projects, some TV show on Thursday nights called "Lost?"
I heard something about that.
I guess there's not a lot going on other than watching it air?
That's true. We had a nice party [for the first episode of 'Lost' Season Four]. The writers all got together to watch it, but there's not much more we can do than that. We are currently on strike, so we walk the picket lines and we support the WGA. That's all we can really do right now.
The room-writing approach to TV, are there any ways that helps out your comics writing? And does comics writing help with TV?
Sure, they're very different mediums, but definitely one informs the other. Comics, just that idea that you need to be creative on a deadline. At my fastest, I was probably writing four or five comic books a month. If you got dumped that week or your grandfather died, it didn't really matter. You had to put a book out. That's the nature of comics. We don't even take a hiatus like TV shows. Sixty issues of "Y" came out in roughly sixty months. So that forcing yourself to be creative on a deadline, and just learning that there's really no such thing as writer's block has been hugely helpful in the transition to television.
And the reverse commute, I guess what I've taken back to comics from TV is the benefit of having to work with six or seven writers instead of alone in a quiet room. That's forced me to really defend and articulate my choices. Not just to go by instinct, but to convince other people, and that has made me a stronger more confident writer.
How are the other comics coming along?
Good. Right now, "Ex Machina" is my one monthly book. So it's really nice to just be able to devote all of my love and attention to that. We're just about to enter the final year of that series, and its last 12 or 14 final issues. I'm really enjoying concentrating all of my energy on that. But I'm definitely talking about starting some new creator owned books as well, so that should be exciting.
You're working on a prose novel too, right?
Yeah, during the strike I have plenty of time to think up new projects. I've been thinking about prose novels and future TV and movie stuff and comic books – a little bit of everything.
The novel isn't going to be about Welsh wedding parties, is it?
No, no, I think that is best left in Yorick's world.
With so much going on, is it hard to organize not only your time but also your ideas?
It's true, but at this point, when you're not on deadline, it's a chance to just be creative and have fun. It's nice. As long as I'm ahead of artist Tony Harris on "Ex Machina," the rest of the time is mine. I just sit there and say, yeah, whatever idea I have. It's not really very organized. It's not really very structured. I don't think, I'm going to spend an hour on this project and an hour on that one. You just, you go where the muse takes you, and it's a real blessing to be able to do that at this point.
Thanks very much, Brian.
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