Brian K. Vaughan Interview
The Last ManInterview by Garrett Faber
Brian K Vaughan a superstar in the realm of comic books. Although he's too cool to say that about himself, it's cool if I say it. He has won the Eisner, Harvey, and Shuster Awards for his critically acclaimed works Y: The Last Man (which is currently being developed into a movie with New Line Cinema) and Ex Machina (also being developed, at a much slower pace.) He's written such mainstream comics as Wolverine, Captain America, Green Lantern, Swamp Thing, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
In addition to these accomplishments, Brian also won the award for "2006 Best Comic's Writer" from Wizard Magazine. Most recently, he's broken out of the comic book writing medium and ventured into the realm of TV, writing for some show called Lost. Ever heard of it?
GF: Have you ever owned a GameBoy Camera?
BKV: I did, as a matter of fact! That's a weird question. I was obsessed with it, I wanted to take the photos and blow them up to like 20 times normal size, so they'd be all cool and pixelated, but I was too lazy to ever execute that idea.
GF: How would you of done that?
BKV: Take the little GameBoy printer, and print the little postage stamp sized photos, and then fuckin Kinko's em up, it would of looked crazy.
GF: That's a good idea! You wrote about that in Ex Machina, and I thought that was so cool.
BKV: Yeah, I'm stealing from my own mundane life.
GF: What other games did you like, anything besides the GameBoy Camera?
BKV: As a kid I spent many hours playing Tetris.
GF: How are the developments for the Y: The Last Man movie coming along?
BKV: The developments are okay, nothing really to report. It's a slow development process and I haven't heard anything new.
GF: Does it usually take this long for things to work out?
BKV: It either takes forever, or it happens instantly, Hollywood moves very slowly sometimes, which is fine by me. I'd rather they do it right than do it fast.
GF: Have they given you any ideas about it that you just shot down?
BKV: Well, they let me take a stab at writing the screenplay first. My attitude is that a movie is something completely different from the comic. You have to try and capture the characters and the scenes but it should be it's own unique thing. I wanted to come up with a completely original story, different from the comic, that's still true to the spirit of it. Everyone at New Line was huge fans of the comic, they really wanted me to stick more closely to the comic. It was sort of the opposite experience that screenwriters adapting their own stuff have, where we're all in the room and I'm going "No! We have to change it!" and they're going "No! We have to be more loyal to the source material!" So, we'll see how it ends up.
GF: Are they working from the script you wrote, or are they using another one?
BKV: I don't know what they're doing now, they let me take a stab at it. I know there's a new director attached, they might be bringing in a new writer. I don't know how much of my script, if any of it, they'll use, but I'm grateful they let me take a shot at it.
GF: When you were writing the actual comic, did you think about it in terms of how it could be a movie?
BKV: No, honestly not even a little bit. I'm always sort of annoyed when people think of comic books as glorified screenplays, where it doesn't count until it becomes a movie. For me, the comic book was always the destination, everything else is gravy. It would be fun to see a movie but at the end of the day all I really care about is the comic book, which I'm glad I got to finish, in exactly the way we set out to do.
GF: What about Ex Machina?
BKV: I don't know where Ex Machina stands, it's probably less likely than Y, but I also wrote a draft of that for New Line. I don't know where that stands right now.
GF: Why is it less likely? Because of the political elements in it?
BKV: Not necessarily, but it is a tougher film. It's a big-budget sci-fi extravaganza. It's also a more talky political thriller. I'm not sure if it translates as well to the screen, but I did write a draft that I'm really happy with. We'll see how it goes.
GF: What was your high school experience like?
BKV: I went to an all boys catholic highschool, which probably had an impact on Y: The Last Man. Look, I was the president of the circus club for two years, so that should give you some indication of where I fell in the social strata of highschool. It was a magic and juggling performance club, I was also a drama nerd at a very athletic school. I think I fit in okay, I found a comfortable place in the middle and kept my head down.
GF: What were your responsibilities as president? Wait! Is that where you got the Ex Machina idea, being the president of the circus club? Knowing what it's like to...
BKV: ...hold an executive position? [Laughs] Maybe a little bit. Well, my responsibilities...we performed about a hundred shows a year for nursing homes and schools, so I would round up the other hapless geeks, and my ragtag band of circus nerd would put on little shows. I organized that. It was cool. I really don't know what my duties were besides that.
GF: Awesome, I've decided I'm going to write a book.
BKV: My last semester of highschool, there was a class called "Writing the Novel", where this awesome teacher just went "That's it, all you have to do is write a novel. You don't have to show up to class or anything, just try and write a novel." So, that was insane as a high schooler trying to jam out a novel, I think I made it about halfway through, it was a science fiction superhero novel. It was a disaster, but it was really great practice. Just force yourself to write six or seven pages everyday, even if you had nothing to write about. You should do that, you can write five pages a day, every single day. The hard part is everyday, never getting a day off. You can't bail if you're not feeling up to it one day, you have to do it everyday.
GF: What was the name of the unfinished book you wrote?
BKV: That is a good question....what the fuck did I call it? It was sort of a vigilante superhero Alan Moore ripoff sort of thing. I don't remember the title. I'm sure it was terrible, whatever it was.
GF: Is it ever gonna resurface and become a collectors item?
BKV: I don't even own it anymore, I think there's a copy in a St. Ignacius library in Cleveland. A curious St. Ignacius kid can steal it and set fire to it and save me some shame.
GF: How did you get that Lost gig?
BKV: I'd moved to LA to sort of babysit the Y: The Last Man movie, and I met Damon Lindelof, who was one of the co-creators and executive producers of Lost. He was a fan of Y, and my other comics. So, when he heard I moved out here, and there was an opening in the Lost writers staff, the producers invited me in for an interview. I didn't even have so much as a sample script to show them, I thought the meeting went pretty well, but I thought there was no way they'd hire me. They'd have to be insane. They were either desperate or stupid enough to give me the job after the meeting, which I am eternally grateful for.
GF: Awesome! How much input do you have on the show?
BKV: I'm a pretty low-ranking guy on the totem pole. It's very much Damon and Carlton's show, they're steering the ship. It's more about me helping to make their ideas work, instead of trying to force my ideas into the show.
GF: I remember you wrote a Batman story about a character called The Skeleton. He never showed up again after that one story you wrote. What happened with that?
BKV: I threw it out there like "Wow, this is a character so awesome, that even though I've only got eight pages, I'm gonna make a character so awesome, and a mystery so compelling that every Batman writer would want to use him, or they'd have to hire me to write the story." I think at the end of the day, no one cared. Maybe I will still resurrect him someday. He didn't really go over with the kind of heat that I wanted him to.
GF: How was life in New York when you first moved there?
BKV: It was pretty spectacular. I had really only known New York from Marvel Comics. I had always thought it was so over the top that Spiderman would always land on these wooden water towers, I found it outrageous that this modern city would have all these old wooden watertowers everywhere. My first time in New York, taking the subway, probably the F-Train, there's a little part where it's elevated and you get to see out into the city, and I just saw all these wooden water towers. Then I realized that the real New York City was even more bizarre than Stan Lee's Marvel Comics version of New York City. That's when I realized I'd spend the rest of my life in New York. I did, I spent ten years there.
GF: Did you ever run into Stan Lee?
BKV: Yes, I did! I met him at a San Diego convention, it was awesome. I had won a No Prize. Do you know about No Prizes?
BKV: They used to have this thing where if you caught a mistake somewhere in a Marvel Comic, rather than complain about it, if you had a good explanation for their fuck-up they would send you something called a No Prize. The gag is that it was called a No Prize because there was no prize, it was just an empty envelope that said congratulations on it. One of my editors at Marvel said I had made a mistake on a script that I wrote, and I wrote him a lengthy explanation why it wasn't a mistake so he sent me a No Prize. I brought the No Prize with me to the convention and I had Stan Lee sign it. He signed it to "Bombastic Brian." He was the best.
GF: What was New York like on 9/11?
BKV: I was living in Brooklyn with my then girlfriend, current wife, we watched the towers fall from our apartment in Brooklyn. It was pretty horrific, unimaginable. It had a profound effect on everything I've done today, as a writer since then.
GF: Did you think about leaving then?
BKV: No definitely not. We didn't leave until 2003, then when we left it was somewhat reluctantly. I joke about selling out but it was when my wife was going to gradschool in San Diego, I followed her out here. The way that New York responded to the tragedy made me love the city more, and want to stay there even more.
GF: What's LA and California like?
BKV: It's not as bad as I thought it would be. I thought I'd be disgruntled pasty white New Yorker out here and I'd have to take up smoking to annoy the natives, but it's really not so bad. I'm lucky to get to work on a show that I really like, and I get to be surrounded by people who appreciate what I do. The traffic is lame and I miss having weather, every day is room temperature. It's not as good as New York, but its not the worst place in the world either.
GF: What new comic books are you working on now?
BKV: I want to do something new, [but] until Ex Machina ends I don't want to start up another long form ongoing series like Y. I've just been working on two graphic novels, more standalone things like Pride of Baghdad. Although they're very different in subject matter.
GF: What are they?
BKV: Well, I don't think I should tell you just yet, but they're pretty good.
GF: Can you tell us the names?
BKV: I can't even tell you the names, it's no fun. I try to hold off as much as possible to maximize whatever meager buzz I can squeeze out of it.
GF: How is the buzz? Are you ever on Wizard's top ten?
BKV: Sometimes, I'm usually at the bottom, in the Cindy Brady square. It's still a great honor though.
GF: Do you read Wizard?
BKV: They send it to me for free, so I'd be lying if I said I didn't get it and flip through it. Mostly just to look for things about myself because I'm an egocentric bastard.
GF: Do you ever go to ChuckPalahniuk.net?
BKV: Yeah I do, I hadn't been in a while, but when you got in touch with me I went and checked it out. It's great. As far as author sites go, it's as good as it gets.
GF: Did you read my Irvine Welsh interview?
BKV: Yeah I did, it was the most recent thing of yours that I read. It was great.
GF: Are you ever going to write a novel?
BKV: Yeah, I want to, but I don't think I'm good enough yet. I've got some ideas for things that would work as a novel and not a graphic novel. Someday that moment will come.
GF: What's the difference between writing a novel and writing a comic book?
BKV: It's much more heavy lifting. Writing a comic is relatively easy in comparison. You just write the dialogue, which for most writers is the fun part. All of the hard shit goes to the artists. You write two sentences "Please draw all of New York City being attacked by 100,000 Martian warships." That's it, you're done, you don't have to paint the picture in the reader's mind. There's literally an artist doing all that for you. It's much more difficult in that respect.
GF: You don't feel like you're ready to do that?
BKV: I think I could, but I'm already trying to figure out one medium, so I'll wait till I've figured it all out. Once I get good at something, then I want to tackle something new. It took me ten years to figure out comics, now I want to figure out television, then I'll figure out novels.
GF: What about journalism? Are you into that?
BKV: Very much so, I love journalism. It's probably something I could never do. I would interview people and be annoyed that they're not giving me exactly the quote that I wanted, so I'd be a douche reporter constantly making crap up, rather than doing the legwork necessary to be a good reporter.
GF: What did you learn from going to film school?
BKV: It's really different than writing comics, but there's some similarities. Learning screenwriting helps. Things apply to both, about getting into a scene as late as possible and leaving as early as possible. Getting out and shooting things. Learning how to talk to a cinematographer. Your actors help when it comes to learning how to talk to your artists. There are also some things you have to unlearn. It is really different.
GF: Do you have a website. And if so, are you gonna build it up to be super deep and intensive like Chuck's?
BKV: I'm pretty lazy so the BKV.Tv website gets updated whenever I have a new book coming out. I had a message board that I retired recently because I wanted to go into hiding for a little bit and get some work done. I can't imagine ever running anything as intense as Chuck's site. Never say never. Maybe someday. This interview to the contrary, I kind of like hiding out and letting my work speak for me.
GF: Why? Some people lavish in the limelight like "Oh, look at my socks today!"
BKV: Yeah I know, I love doing that but the nice thing about Chuck's site is it's not just about that, it seems that Chuck has a genuine passion in getting people into literature and helping young writers and I'm much too self-centered for that.
GF: Do you ever get the urge to make short films? Spend a crazy weekend making a movie?
BKV: Yeah very much so. I think I probably will do that someday. I'll probably take more than a weekend but I really want to do that.
GF: How do you feel about writing something like Ex Machina, which is your ideas, your characters and everything... versus something like Batman where you have to work within the confines of another character's legacy?
BKV: It's probably better doing my own stuff, it takes me a little while to find other people's character's voices. I don't approach them differently like "Oh I'm writing Ultimate X-Men, let me put on my superhero hat and phone it in for the cash." Ultimate X-Men was much harder to write then Y or Ex Machina, just because I'm not as good at it. It's a little more difficult but I approach them the same. I just want to write a good story.
GF: What do you think of Bruce Campbell?
BKV: He's the man. he's Bruce Campbell. I remember I was in college, and I was a dopey filmschool student. I found his email address online and I wrote him and told him about my screenplay idea. He actually wrote back. It was amazing. No one's nicer to their fans than Bruce Campbell.
GF: What did he say to you?
BKV: He was like "Yeah the idea sounds cool. Get some funding for the project, get it on some legs and get back in touch with me." It was insane to be a filmschool nobody and get a response from him.
GF: You should call up Bruce Campbell now and see what's up.
BKV: Maybe I will.
GF: How have your contemporary comic writers responded to your work?
BKV: Garth Ennis has always been really nice to both Y and Ex Machina. He was such an influence as I was breaking in and writing so that's pretty great. Everyone's been really nice to me. When you're breaking in to comics you're a miserable asshole because it's so infuriating because there are guys that you think are less deserving of you already there. But once you've crossed over to the other side, you've had all that rung out of you. So you're a lovely human being. I haven't met a single comics creator, artist, writer, whatever who's work I loved that I wasn't nice to me. So that's pretty cool.GF: What are you reading now? Do you have time to read at all?
BKV: Lost just ended, so I've been embarrassingly illiterate for a while when I was working there. I'm now in the middle of this book called "The Book of Other People." It's a book of short stories. It's been really awesome. Anthologies are always hit or miss but this one has a really high batting average.
GF: Out of all of Chuck Palahniuk's books, which one would make the best comic?
BKV: That's an interesting question. I think the most successful one would be if Chuck wrote a comic book. He's a prolific guy and he seems like he'd master that world. So if he's got an idea that doesn't feel quite right as a novel, he should make it a comic book and totally grace our medium with his presence. Totally rock out something new. It would be the best selling comic book of all time and I think he'd love it. I could find a good artist for him.
GF: How are you going to end Ex Machina. Is everyone going to die?
BKV: Ya know, with Y, everyone asked me "How is it going to end" and I'd say "You have to wait and see!" With Ex Machina on the very first page, it starts at the end of the story, with the guy going "Look, this might look like a comic, but it's a tragedy. This is the story of how everything went to shit." It's not going to be a surprise. Everything's going to go to shit. Hopefully in ways you didn't see coming.
GF: How do you make a pitch to DC? Let's say you have an idea about a box of shoes, how do you pitch that box of shoes to a company to make them want to read the story?
BKV: If I were a new writer trying to break into comics, I would not worry about pitching ideas to Marvel or DC. They're going to be like "That shoe is already in use, and we're not crazy about these shoes either." Go out and put together your own comic about shoes and then knock their socks off... terrible pun intended. Make a fuckin' shoe story that is so good that they love it so much they have to publish it. Marvel and DC are great, but its all about working outside the system, not inside.