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NYCC: Brian K. Vaughan on Crafting the World of “Saga”

by  in Comic News Comment
NYCC: Brian K. Vaughan on Crafting the World of “Saga”

On Friday afternoon at the New York Comic Con, Ben Blacker (co-writer of “The Thrilling Adventure Hour,” “Supernatural,” “Puss in Boots” and Marvel’s “Thunderbolts”) of the Nerdist Writers Panel presented a revealing talk with fan favorite comic creator Brian K. Vaughan. Vaughan has long thrilled fans with his complex and innovative fiction in such books as “Y: The Last Man,” “Ex Machina,” “Runaways,” and his current run on the beloved Image Comics best seller “Saga.” Vaughan has also entered into the world of television with his work on “Lost” and “Under the Dome.” Blacker led a discussion on Vaughan’s career, his inspirations, his views on craft and his take on the modern entertainment landscape. Most importantly, fans at NYCC got a unique opportunity to look into the creative mind of a man who has challenged conventions his entire career.

The panel began with a question about how Vaughan balanced world building and crafting character while creating the first issue of “Saga.”

“I love that [Kurt] Vonnegut rule of don’t try to trick the reader,” Vaughan said. “Just give them enough information out of the gate as possible. Just using Hazel as a narrator, and I don’t think I’ve written a comic with narration before, I just wanted to not have ham fisted exposition. I just wanted a grown hero to give the reader everything. Have her say, ‘There’s a war going on, this is my babysitter, now let’s get to the making out.'”

Asked if anything changed between “Saga’s” initial concept and final product, Vaughan answered: “The sort of world that ‘Saga’ takes place in is a demented, imaginary land that just existed in my brain since I was a kid. I would just sort of take things I like from ‘Star Wars’ and Saturday morning cartoons. It was a stupid good versus evil thing with horns and wings and demons and angels. It was terrible. In math class, instead of paying attention, I would build on this world. I guess a lot of kids do that, but I’m broken inside so I didn’t stop doing it ever…I never shared this with anyone because it will get me committed.”

Vaughan then addressed the “trappings and the tropes” of the sci-fi genre, revealing how he has combined them with the metaphor of parenthood for the series.

“I recognize a lot of people that read the book don’t have children,” answered Vaughan. “[‘Saga’ artist] Fiona Staples is happily childless. I think through working with Fiona, it is a book about creation and just how hard creation is — whether it’s making a baby or a song or a new comic book. When I started to pitch ‘Saga’ after I had been away from comics for a little bit, everyone was like, ‘This is not the right time for an original non-superhero book. The market just isn’t ready for it.’ And similarly, I had friends when I was having kids who were like, ‘Why would you bring kids into this world? It’s a terrible time.’ I realized the world isn’t always rooting for you to make new things. It’s hard. That’s the metaphor for ‘Saga.'”

Vaughan then touched on his past works that dealt with the theme of parenthood. “I remember at the end of ‘Y: The Last Man,’ there’s stuff about parenting and people ask me questions about what kind of parent a certain character was…I’ve written ‘Runaways,’ a book for Marvel which is all about your parents are evil, which was easy to write. Then I became a parent. Then I was like, ‘Oh, no I get it now — parents aren’t so bad.’ It’s not a theme I explored before, but I guess whatever comic I’m going to write, it starts with something that scares me or confuses me. ‘Y, the Last Man’ starts with gender issues and women, ‘Ex Machina’ came from going through 9/11 in New York. It’s always just a cheap form of therapy. There’s something I need to work out so there’s a story hopefully with ray guns in it that I can use as a vehicle to discuss those fears.”

Blacker turned the floor over to the fans for questions, and the first fan asked if any progress had been made on the “Y: The Last Man” movie. “I don’t know,” said Vaughan. “The rights just came back to [‘Y’ artist] Pia Guerra and me. The rights are ours. There’s some complicated money shenanigans behind the scenes that would have to be worked out, but I think Pia and I remain open to do something. To me, it’s more important that no ‘Y’ movie would be better than a bad ‘Y’ movie or TV show.”

The conversation shifted towards Vaughan and Staples’ partnership, with Vaughan revealing how their collaboration began. “It started when I reached out to her,” said Vaughan. “I’ve followed her for awhile. I was thinking about reaching out to her for a different project. It was only when I asked Steve Niles and told him I was doing a sort of a pervy sci-fi space book that he said I had to get Staples on the horn. I reached out to her, we had one good conversation and I told her it might go five issues or it might go an incredibly long time — so be ready.”

Vaughan then discussed how he went about planning for “Saga” when he wasn’t sure how long it would last. “Each arc, Fiona and I sit down, and Fiona doesn’t like spoilers,” Vaughan revealed. “She says, ‘Don’t tell me who dies in this arc or anything because I want the emotional reaction fans will hopefully have reading it.’ We talk about what themes we’re going to explore, what Fiona hates drawing that I made her draw in the previous arc, what she likes to draw — it’s very collaborative that way. I have a really big picture. I know where this story is going to end, the major sign posts in Hazel’s life, but we also allow ourselves freedom if Fiona wants to do something some day. She once called me and said, ‘I just drew this little seal guy in overalls — can he be part of our book?’ and I’m like ‘Of course he can!'”

Considering all the literary references featured in “Y: The Last Man,” a fan asked Vaughan how he has dealt with not having those touchstones in an otherworldly book like “Saga.” “I’m incredibly poorly read, but it’s always a great shorthand to look smart,” Vaughan jokingly confessed. “Shakespeare references, having characters named after obscure Shakespeare characters. In ‘Y: The Last Man,’ I knew it would deal with an extraordinary situation so I knew I wanted to ground Yorick with pop culture references, but I knew it became his crutch or his gimmick. I wanted to force myself to write in a world where I couldn’t reference ‘Family Ties.’ I love fantasy and science and fiction, but I wanted everything to be clear. So I made it clear: one side has horns, one side has wings, the robots look like TV heads — it’s all immediate iconic shorthand so when you see a character, you know where they fit into this bigger picture.”

Vaughan has never shied away from writing about politics and religion, and one audience member asked the writer how he manages to write about those topics without “pissing off the whole world.”

“This is a running theme, I’m afraid, but not caring is a part of it,” Vaughan said. “‘Ex Machina’ was a very political book but I never wanted the main character, Mitchell Hundred, to be a mouthpiece for me. I disagreed with most of his politics… I always [write about] something I’m confused about or terrifies me, so hopefully it’s a little bit more balanced. I’m writing about these issues but I’m not telling you how to feel about them.”

Vaughan then revealed the impact his wife has had on his work — particularly “Y: The Last Man.” “My wife is in the audience,” said Vaughan. “I was not married but I was dating my wife.” When asked if writing “Y” gave him a different view of gender politics, Vaughan answered, “One hundred percent. My wife is sort of the biggest influence on me as a writer. She is a genius playwright and really well traveled and I’m an idiot from the suburbs of Cleveland who never saw any of the world. My entire body of knowledge is about ‘Star Wars’ movies and obscure characters. She definitely broadened my horizons. I think dating her was a huge part of ‘Y: The Last Man.'”

When asked about the differences between writing film and comic scripts, Vaughan talked about pacing. “It’s fun to write film scripts because you can be like, ‘Okay, a car screeches to a halt and a dude opens the door and dives out and opens fire with two guns,’ and your job is done,” said Vaughan. “You let the director figure out the rest. In comics, you have to decide if it is six panels, if it is seven panels, do you show the car? It’s just a process of revision, of removing stuff until you have the fewest words possible, which is never easy.”

Piggybacking off of an audience member’s question about “Y’s” accessibility, Blacker asked Vaughan if he tried to make that series particularly new ready friendly.

“It was something I attempted to do,” said Vaughan. “Like anything in life, it was just stealing from Garth Ennis. When I was in college, ‘Preacher’ was coming out and I was trying to get my friends to read comics. ‘Preacher’ just spread like wildfire through the dorms, and it was men and women — more women I think. When people try to target an audience and say that women require sixty percent romance and this type of protagonist, ‘Preacher’ had none of these things. It was just good and gripping and accessible. Steve Dillon’s art was so crystal clear, so if a person’s only experience reading comics was ‘Calvin & Hobbes,’ they were good. I think that those of us that grew up reading comics take for granted there is a type of learning curve for people who have only read prose… so yeah, it was trying to emulate ‘Preacher.'”

Vaughan then flashed back even further and revealed his own professional origin story. “I know I wanted to be a writer as a kid,” Vaughan said. “And I wished I could study writing comics in college, but in the late ’90s there was no such thing. I was at NYU for film school, and there was this Marvel editor named James Felder who started something called the Stanhattan Project named after Stan Lee. He was like, ‘We’ve got NYU right down the street with all these talented young writers who would probably work on the cheap for us.’ NYU would’t officially allow it to be a real course. They were afraid if NYU allowed a course of comics they would lose their accreditation. We had to meet in secret at night…I was lucky enough to be in the right place and right time to learn from actual comic editors.

“I wrote a really terrible Silver Surfer story that an editor was like, ‘It just wasn’t terrible enough, that if we’re comically behind on something we’ll just fax this kid a couple of pages.’ There was this bad issue of ‘Cable.’ It was bad because it was my fault. A talented writer wrote it, and at the time Marvel would do an assembly line where one writer would do a loose plot then an artist would draw it and another writer would dialogue it. So I got these pages that were like a ‘Choice Your Own Adventure’ story and I had all this art work and I had to put stuff over it and had to make sense of it. That was my first comic gig.”

A fan then asked Vaughan about the collaborative process he enjoys with his artists. “I love collaboration in comics, particularly intensely with one other person,” Vaughan said. “I would like to write some prose stuff someday but it seems so lonely. I need to talk about it with someone else. With Fiona, I thought ‘Saga’ was a diverse story. I thought with the horns and wings and shit it was plenty diverse. It’s great that Fiona was like, “White isn’t the default of a story, and if we are writing a story in a galaxy far, far away that is about us, it should look like us.’ That was one of many ways that Fiona helped. I never feel restricted. It’s a joy to work with a person like that.”

An audience member asked Vaughan if he had any wise words for aspiring writers that might doubt themselves. “Yeah, that just means you’re a writer,” Vaughan said. “When I hear someone say, ‘I love writing,’ or ‘I’m a great writer,’ I’m like, ‘I’m not sure you’re a writer.’ Writing is just a process of always being sad… You’re trying to organize this chaotic world we’ve all been thrown into. It’s good. It’s a natural way between the writer and the non-writer pushing though, and even if you don’t think what you’re doing is going to work, you push though. You write every day, seven days a week, even if it’s just a page or two. Just write. I wish there was an easier way.”

An NYU student asked Vaughan about transitioning from studying what he loves to actually living it. “I was a film student and I was having a terrible time my first two years or so because none of my dopey projects ended up looking like what was in my head…I did feel like, I started writing for Marvel when I was still at school and I thought, ‘What a waste!’ I started feeling like I hated film and TV and was only going to work on comics. Then through comics I met Damon Lindelof, who ran ‘Lost,’ and he was like, ‘Look, if you can do visual storytelling in one medium you can do it in another,’ so I weirdly found myself back in TV. I was glad college was a safe place to find out what I like and didn’t like. I found comics and even though they would never pay off my student loans, I still wanted to do it.”

The next fan asked Vaughan when he knows that a story has ended. “With any of the long form books I did, like ‘Y: The Last Man’ or ‘Ex Machina, I knew it just felt right,” Vaughan said. “Mayor Hundred, I knew it was going to be one term. ‘Y’ was going to be the story of the last boy on Earth becoming the last man on Earth. It’s just instinctual — and frankly, for ‘Y: The Last Man,’ I knew it would be great to get paid for the thing for as long as possible. When I went to [then Executive Editor of Vertigo] Karen Berger, she asked how long it would be and I was like, ‘Sixty issues?’ When I saw she didn’t flinch I was like, ‘Damn, I should have gone to seventy five.’ But when we got to sixty, Karen asked if we would like to go to seventy five and I knew it was time to put it in the ground.”

Speaking of endings, one fan wanted to know if Vaughan had an idea about how “Saga’s” lifespan. “I know the last panel of the last page,” Vaughan teased, but added, “Fiona and I left ourselves a lot of room to tell a lot of stories in there. My desire is that ‘Saga’ should be one issue longer than ‘The Walking Dead,’ so now that’s my sliding scale. I really want to stick it to Kirkman, so it’s up to Robert on how long ‘Saga’ will be.”

The next question came from a fan curious if the idea for Vaughn’s online comic with artist Marcos Martin, “Private Eye,” came about before the creators settled on the pay-what-you-want distribution method. “For people who don’t know,” Vaughan said, “Marcos Martin, who is a brilliant artist — we did a ‘Doctor Strange’ story together — we began doing this sci-fi mystery where you pay whatever you want. It was always Marcos’ idea, I thought it was a terrible idea. We were two old men, we didn’t understand computers. I guess when I pitched him the idea of a world where the internet can never exist, he wanted to double down to only put it on the internet and never in print. I was like, ‘It makes financially no sense, but thematically it’s kind of funny — so let’s do it.’ I’m really proud of that book.”

At the close of the panel, Blacker told Vaughan that every comic book writer that has appeared on an episode of the Nerdist Writers Panel podcast what comics they were reading, they would uniformly reply “Saga.” “So if everyone in comics is reading ‘Saga,'” Blacker asked, “What is the creator of ‘Saga’ reading?”

Vaughan laughed, thought about it and replied: “I’m reading ‘Saga.’ It’s really good!”

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