Joss Whedon & Brian K. Vaughan talk "Buffy"

On sale now, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Eight" #6 begins the second arc of Dark Horse Comics' best-selling continuation of Joss Whedon's fan-favorite television franchise. The new storyline, "No Future for You," is written by vocal Whedon fanatic and Eisner-winning author Brian K. Vaughan ("Y: The Last Man," "Ex-Machina"), who famously left Marvel Comics' "Runaways" in the hands of its biggest fan… Joss Whedon!

With the universe working in such conveniently cyclical ways, CBR News thought it only fitting that the eminent pair get together and talk comics, movies, TV shows, books, "Buffy," "Runaways," family life, and the worst ideas they ever had.

We'd like to extend thanks to Joss Whedon and Brian K. Vaughan for taking the time to contribute, and to Dark Horse for facilitating this very special interview.

Joss Whedon: Dark Horse set this unholy union up, so we should probably start with "Buffy." I've heard --- and read -- about why you took the book, but what turned out to be the hardest part of writing it? The worst part? Best?

Brian K. Vaughan: The hardest part was definitely writing Buffy and co. for the dude who invented them, even though you were all sunshine and life-support throughout. I wrote an issue of "Tom Strong" a few years ago, and the thought that Alan Moore might read my fucking terrible dialogue coming out of his beautiful characters' mouths drove me so insane that I would just throw up repeatedly the whole time I wrote the thing. The bucket never came out while I was writing my Faith arc, but there were definitely a few dry heaves.

The worst part was doing all this while working at "Lost" with ["Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Alias" writer] Drew Goddard, who feeds on my sadness like that shitty villain from "Hannibal" who drank martinis made of orphans' tears. At every stage, Drew would remind me that whatever I was doing was wrong and bound to disappoint you and Buffy fans across the world. He is an awful man with an awful mustache.

The best part was working with all the Art-Scoobs you assembled for "Season Eight," especially Georges Jeanty, who tells the hell out of a story. I also like this promising new cover artist you discovered! Wherever did you find her?

JW: You've said this was your non-created-by-Bri swansong, but if in the fullness of time you were lured back to the Buffyverse, who -- besides dear Faith -- would you want to fixate on?

BKV: Man, I sure do love Oz. Not to get all "Chris Farley Show," but remember in "Earshot," when the editor of the school paper apologizes to Oz for writing, "Dingoes Ate My Baby played their instruments like they had plump polish sausages tied to their fingers?" And Seth Green stares him down for this perfect beat before saying, "No, that's fair."

I've always wanted to be able to have that kind of Zen response to a cruel review, and it's one of the many reasons why Oz is such a great character. I'm sad he never got to have scenes with later additions like Andrew, but I will give you 40 dollars to write that story for me, cool?

JW: And in that vein, quick team-up one-shot: one Scoob and one Runaway. Who would be fun?

BKV: Spike/Molly is too easy, and Willow/Nico is too predictable, so I'm going to go with Xander and Chase; two dudes who would normally hate each other bridging the geek/jock divide with their mutual lack of powers/breathing love interests.

How about you?

JW: Well, my Willow/Karolina fic is a little… hemn… derivative, so I think I could rock out a Buffy/Xavin story. They both have a certain distance from the people around them, they're both very focused, and Buffy would be freaked out by Xavin's powers every single time. "Aah!" Every time. Gold.

You have an extraordinary range of esoteric political, historical and cultural knowledge; the Australian Navy, The La Brea Tar Pits, and obviously New York City legislation. Something's always coming up, either as fun factoid, great plot device or, in the case of "Pride of Baghdad," a perfect story idea. How do you find all this? Are you a news-hound? Have you always been? Give a little on the BKV process.

BKV:Thanks, but I definitely haven't always been a news junkie. When I was in college, I was belittling the woman who later become my wife for not knowing who Boba Fett was, and she responded by asking me if I knew who the Prime Minister of Israel was. Surprisingly? Not Mon Mothma.

Film school was pretty important for the development of my craft, but left me not exactly awesomely prepared to contribute anything meaningful to the world. So I started treating every new writing project as an excuse to further my somewhat narrow education.

But now I'm old and lazy so I hope my next ongoing series will just be about trolls and wood nymphs and other crap I won't have to research.

JW: [Who/what are] a few of your bigger influences -- not from the comic world.

BKV: Most of my characters are thinly veiled analogues of friends and family, so they're at the top of the list.

Film: Coen Brothers, obsessively. Literature: Orwell, even the nonfiction. Theater: Chekhov, especially "The Seagull," which contains the best writing about writing ever written.

JW: I just saw "The Seagull" for the first time this year, with Chewitel Ejiofor as the writer and you're right. Kai and I kept looking at each other in astonishment: It's me! It's exactly me only I'm attractive and resemble Chewitel Ejiofor!

I'm with you on the others as well. Coens, obviously, but " Down and Out in Paris and London" smoked me as a child.

BKV: Less pretentiously, I'm also really influenced, probably to a fault, by talk radio of any political or sociological bent, so long as it's relatively freeform and has open phone lines for nutty Americans to speak extemporaneously about crap. I hope it gives me a better ear for dialogue, because it's the only way I can justify listening to as many hours of it as I do.

Are you a radio guy at all? I smell an NPR tote bag somewhere in your home.

JW: And it's my wife's. I have an aversion to talk radio – or radio of any kind – based on my mother blaring 1010 WINS -- "You give us 22 minutes, we'll give you the world…"-- every morning on the way to school. But Kai did get me onto some "This American Life," which is crazy good. Plus there's a weird "Buffy"/"American Life" crossover where we're all fans of each other, which led to me getting to be friends with Sarah Vowell and reading "Assassination Vacation , " "The Partly Cloudy Patriot" and "Take The Cannoli," all of which are delightful and mean I can take my radio in book form.

Name an artist you'd love to work with -- and don't wuss out because you're afraid of offending other artists. They know you love them. But pick one.

BKV: David Mazzucchelli. You?

JW: Frank Quitely never doesn't blow me away.

Your wife is a playwright. Do you guys read everything of each others? Are there notes? Are there fights?

BKV: When people hear we're both writers, I think they picture us typing back-and-forth sides while face-to-face at matching laptops, but we actually never collaborate, and pretty rarely talk about our process with each other. She works on highbrow stuff downstairs and I work on lowbrow stuff upstairs, and we meet on our steps a few times a day to talk about affirmative action or fight about 50 Cent lyrics or whatever. 

We always see and usually enjoy each other's finished projects, but even though we both work in very collaborative mediums, I think Ruth and I are fairly private writers who like to be left the hell alone while our stories are in that fragile early gestating period.

Why, does Kai help when you're stuck on something? If so, wanna trade?

JW: Not for the wide world. Kai has been so helpful – not just as a sounding board, but at getting to the heart of an idea – that I doubt I'd have written a word this summer without her. The only downside is that I'm starting to feel like W.P. Mayhew from "Barton Fink." In my defense, I have occasionally helped her with architectural issues as well. Mostly foyer placement. I'm a madman with foyers.

Are there any trends in mainstream hero comics right now that you don't love?

BKV: I know the complaint du jour is that events blow, and while I agree that big crossovers almost always cannibalize our dwindling readership while alienating the new readers we so desperately need, I'm not a fundamentalist about it, and if a writer as good as Greg Pak can do something fun with an event like "World War Hulk," I'll see him at [Hollywood comics store] Meltdown on Wednesday.

I hope I save my frustration for more important stuff. Like, when I used the great Cloak and Dagger in "Runaways," Bill Mantlo, the man who helped create them, didn't get anything, to the best of my knowledge. Not even a credit. And I'm not blaming my friends at Marvel (or DC, for that matter), all of whom are good people who've always been beyond fair with me. It's just indicative of the broken system, one that I'm very much a part of.

For the record, Bill Mantlo was struck by a hit-and-run driver a few years ago, and now requires expensive daily care that's way beyond what modest means he was left with after dedicating much of his life to our industry. And while things like the Hero Initiative, an absolutely worthwhile cause that I totally support, exist to help comics creators in financial need, those creators should not be in financial need.  

I know the Writers Guild of America isn't a perfect union, but I was afforded more benefits and protections in my first few months with the WGA as a work-for-hire screenwriter than I was ever given in a decade of working in comics. And again, I've been treated pretty honorably throughout my career, and have made more money than I ever deserved to doing this "job," but that doesn't mean that I can't still be concerned about the generations of writers and artists before and after me.

Anyway, I know that smarter people than I have tried and failed to do things like unionize in the past, so for now, we'll have to help creators like Bill Mantlo by donating directly to organizations like the Mantlo Project, or to the aforementioned Hero Initiative. But it would be nice to see the day when they weren't necessary.

Sorry to get all dirty commie on you, but you asked.

JW: And are you reading much? Anybody you're reading who deserves a little more attention?

BKV: Not that he needs the plug, but Michael Chabon's "Yiddish Policeman's Union" is pretty great. And I still can't believe you haven't read "Kavalier & Clay," which I will bet you a thousand dollars is going to become your new favorite novel.

Truthfully, I mostly read the funny books, and I recommend my five favorite each week over at my stupid website and MySpace thing. I think most people already know that "Scott Pilgrim" and Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home" are the greatest things of all time, but if you're down with the capes, my friend Jay Faerber has an excellent new Image team book called "Dynamo 5," about the five illegitimate kids of a Superman-like character, each of whom inherited a different one of dad's powers. I wish I'd thought of that.

"The Perry Bible Fellowship" is the funniest comic strip I've ever read, and our pals at Dark Horse are finally putting out a collected edition next month. I'm not as well versed in manga as I should be, but ["Y: The Last Man" artist) Pia Guerra recently recommended Tokyopop's "Planetes," a series about astronaut garbage collectors who clear Earth's glut of orbital space junk so everyone else can have fun exploring the galaxy. It's fantastic.

And I just heard that Adrian Alphona is returning to comics to work on "Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane" with Terry Moore, so that pretty much made my year.

JW: " Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane" artist Takeshi Miyazawa took over "Runaways" for a couple of issues, right? And now Terry comes after me. Our tiny incestuous dance continues….

You have a singular style of presentation in your scripts. Can you describe it -- and your relationship with artists in general?

BKV: I guess my scripts are fairly detailed, but always explicit that my panel descriptions are just suggestions. I learned early on that good artists will spend at least an entire day working on a page that I may have dashed off in an hour, and they'll invariably come up with brilliant ideas in that time. So while I like to build each individual page as its own specific three-act story, I also try to allow the artist a lot of freedom in interpreting it.

I throw in a ton of annoying Web links in my scripts, but that's just because it's much easier for me to find reference photos of what I'm talking about than to explain it with my ham-fisted prose.

And yeah, I like to think I tailor my style, panels-per-page ratio, etc., to each artist, knowing stuff like Adrian hates to draw action and Tony Harris loves it, though I'm sure both will tell you that I still give them too much/too little.

But either way, I try to talk with my collaborators as much as they'll let me. Having seen my stuff hurt by the wrong pencillers for certain books in the past, I know full well that I owe whatever success I've achieved to my current and recent co-creators. Anyone who thinks of comics as a "writer-driven medium" should be banished to the land of novels.

JW: But on "Buffy" you also write every page of the book on a single page of the script. Do you do that on all the books? Howcomewhy?

BKV: A couple of reasons:

First, I've found that if it takes me more than one typewritten page to write both the panel descriptions and all the dialogue for one page of a comic, I'm usually overwriting. And my first drafts are all spectacularly overwritten; it doesn't even approach acceptable until I really start editing. I know that there are some readers who think that they're not getting their money's worth out of "decompressed" comics--or comics that they just choose to read quickly--but my earliest, caption-heavy comics would take forty-five minutes to read, and I assure you that those were forty-five minutes you'd probably want back. What's that old Twain quote? "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." The more I write, the less I write.    

Secondly, and more pragmatically, when I've visited collaborators' studios, I've found that many usually start their mornings (or evenings) by tacking the page of script that contains that day's work to their drafting tables. And I imagine it's nicer for them to look up and see just that day's mission ahead of them, as opposed to simultaneously fretting about what stupid crap I'm going to throw at them tomorrow (which many have already had to fret about when doing thumbnails or breakdowns for the whole issue).

Finally, the few times I do spill over to an extra page of script are invariably the times when the artist has accidentally missed the additional panel(s). Or maybe they just made an executive decision that seven panels of my boring-ass talking heads was more than enough for one page, and cramming an eighth and ninth in there would be a bridge too far, no matter how much I may want my fill-in issue of "Brother Voodoo" to rival "Watchmen."

Wow, that was the longest answer about brevity in the history of irony.

JW: If I give Xander a deathwish, can you have 711 come visit him? Please oh please?

BKV: Only if Zoe can escort Yorick through the outer rim.

Also? Nerd.

JW: I'm very particular about titles; I often can't write a piece -- or don't fully understand it -- until I have the title. Your titles are often perfectly thought out: "Fait Accompli," "Standalone," "Eighteen" (single manly tear). They really do enhance the experience-- particularly when, like those, they come at the end. Where in the process does that come for you? Is it part of the inception, or does it come later?

BKV: That's nice of you to say, but I think I mostly just luck into good titles, and they stand out only because of how many lousy ones I have."Kimono Dragons?"Seriously, I should kill myself.

JW: Have you ever had an idea for a comic so bad that you'd tell us what it was and laugh and laugh?

BKV: The worst idea I've ever had was a story about the last living dude and his pet monkey being chased by one-breasted women on motorcycles. Plus, a ninja.

I think that the vast majority of ideas are essentially neutral in terms of potential awesomeness. It all comes down to execution. In Alan Moore's hands, "Swamp Thing" wasn't just about a talking plant; it was a life-changing exploration of the horrors that spring from love. In my hands, it was… cancelled.

JW: You kill characters more blithely than any writer I know except maybe one whose name escapes me. Everyone has someone they're not over (for me it's Journal, you bastard.) Do you want to talk about it? Why do you kill? Why?

BKV: Well, Willow had it coming.

Oops, spoiler alert?

JW: Finally, do you have any advice for up-and-coming firemen?

BKV: They're called fire fighters, Mr. Equality Now.

JW: I know. I went back and forth, but the rhythm wasn't as funny. I sacrificed my principles for the gag. As it should ever be.

Thanks for the jawin'! And for alerting people to the serious issue of Drew's evil mustache. Bye-ee!


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