Comics Q&A: Brian K. Vaughan
As the final issue of ''Y: The Last Man'' hits stores, the series' author, ''Lost'' writer Brian K. Vaughan, talks with EW.com about his landmark comic: ''It's about how boys become men -- and why it takes women to make that transformation possible''
For many people, this is just another ho-hum day in pop culture. A new episode of American Idol to watch, an after-dinner showing of Rambo, nothing terribly special. But for a certain subset of the entertainment world, today brings an event as momentous as the finale of The Sopranos, one tinged with both triumph and a little sadness. We speak of the end of Y: The Last Man, which for 59 comic-book issues has chronicled the adventures, during a man-killing pandemic, of the planet’s sole male survivor and his pet monkey as they try to survive in a world that, for better and worse, has gone to the ladies. Issue 60, a double-sized capper/coda to the entire saga — completely different than any previous Y tale, and all the better for it — is on sale today.
Created by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Pia Guerra, the critically acclaimed, award-winning saga (available in collected form at your local book store) has been the definition of excellence in serialized comic-book storytelling since its debut in 2002. Yorick Brown is a hero for our times, a sometimes bright, often clueless out-of-work twentysomething shlub trying to make sense of himself and his catastrophe-wracked world. He thinks if he can reunite with his girlfriend, Beth, who was in Australia when the chaos-creating outbreak occurred, everything might be a-okay. But as he stumbles and fumbles and meanders his way to her — accompanied by the mysterious Agent 355, assigned to protect him, and Dr. Allison Mann, determined to cure the mystery plague — Yorick discovers…stuff. Lots of stuff. Stuff better experienced than explained.
It’s a weird, wonderful, deep, and freakin’ funny funnybook. A romantic epic that brims with provocative ideas about gender, identity, race, relationships, power politics, art, love, and hope — all of which makes us human. Also, there’s monkey poop, occasional sex, and hilarious pop-culture references. The series made Vaughan a comics superstar and brought him to the attention of Lost executive producer Damon Lindelof, who hired him last year to be a writer on the show. In fact, next week’s episode is written by Vaughan and Cloverfield scribe Drew Goddard. (Sorry: no spoilers.)
EW.com recently spoke to Vaughan about the origins of Y and its beleaguered, would-be magician/escape-artist hero, at which time he revealed his secret for writing about women as well as life on Lost.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the inspiration for Y: The Last Man?
BRIAN K. VAUGHAN: You know, the answer always changes. I don’t remember, so I try to come up with the most dramatic, satisfying reason. But I realized recently that it probably comes from going to an all-boys Catholic high school. We had a sister school that would occasionally put on plays, and I would volunteer to help out as a cheap way to meet girls. The experience of walking through the hallways of an all-girl school and the looks of derision mixed with titillation and confusion — I’m sure that had a huge impact on me and planted the seed for my interest in gender and telling stories about gender.
And what was the inspiration for setting that exploration within this dystopian, sci-fi context?
I love a good high concept. I think for too long high concept has become synonymous with lowbrow. But I like taking a simple, striking concept and really playing it out to its most logical conclusions — which meant in the case of Y, researching everything that could happen if you removed men from global politics and agriculture and engineering. What affect would that have on the planet? Why would it have that affect? It seemed like a cool way to get into asking questions.
How much research did you do?
Wayyyyy too much. I love doing research. I’m a film-school geek. I know very little outside Boba Fett-related trivia. I feel like any writing is an excuse to learn more about the world. And it was just fun. If this plague is going to hit and kill all the men instantaneously, how many female pilots are there, and what happens to the planes in the air? And as long as we’re talking about planes…how about submarines? Are there women in submarines? Every door opened up another door, and I just of fell down the rabbit hole. It was an interesting year of solid research into questions like those before I even started writing.
NEXT PAGE: ”All writing is the same: It’s just making up lies until it starts to sound like the truth.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you hook up with Pia?
BRIAN K. VAUGHAN: I saw some samples Pia had done and said, ”Whoever this artist is, we absolutely have to get him, because he’s perfect.” [Laughs. For the record, Pia Guerra is a woman.] I think everyone presumes that because Pia is actually a woman, we got her to balance out the ticket because we were talking about gender. That never had anything to do with it in my mind. I just wanted someone who could draw great performances, because humans were going to be so important to this comic. We didn’t have costumes or super powers or anything like that. We wanted this to be the kind of book that you could give to your non-comics reading friends. That’s a deceptively hard skill, to draw story clearly for everyone.
What was your collaboration like?
The broad strokes of the story were laid out from the very beginning. I knew how it was going to end, I knew who the characters were. But Pia changed the book significantly coming aboard, just because we would talk before every storyline began. For example, she said if Yorick was an escape artist, ”mistress of bondage” would be a hilarious antagonist to give him. That so spun out into ”Safeword,” which was a series defining-arc that really got to the heart of the character. [In ”Safeword,” Yorick meets a mysterious woman — part ex-secret agent, part female shaman — who forces an increasingly troubled Yorick to grapple with past demons and lingering guilt over being the sole male survivor of the global pandemic.] At every stage, her input made the book significantly better. It’s kind of like on Lost, you have a character in mind, but when we cast, we usually end up writing for that actor and his or her strengths. I think Pia was the same way. The way I wrote the characters changed the way she breathed life into them.
What was your key to writing female characters so well?
Well, it’s interesting: I used to write Swamp Thing, and no one ever asked me, ”How do you write talking plants?” So I always find it amazing that people want to know ”How do you write someone who is a member of the opposite sex?” It’s really not that radical from writing men. All writing is the same: It’s just making up lies until it starts to sound like the truth. That’s what I do. I’m sure it benefited greatly growing up with women and being married to a woman that I happen to love dearly. Imagination trumps experience for me. I just make s— up.
When you say the women in your life helped inform your writing…do you have sisters?
I have one older brother and one younger sister — Molly Hayes Vaughan, the inspiration for the Runaways character of the same name [from the Marvel comic book created by Vaughan] — and our ”stay at home” mother was and is a huge influence in our lives. (As is/was our father, to be fair.) The biggest inspiration for everything I do is, of course, my wife, playwright Ruth McKee. For all intents and purposes, she is Agent 355…but I’ve never told her that lest she get the wrong idea about recent issues. But ever since I was little, most of my closest friends tended to be women, which I suspect is at least partly because of my geeky disinterest in organized sports and most things stereotypically masculine.
How did the monkey-as-sidekick idea enter the comic? Do you have a pet monkey?
I wish I did. I like animal sidekicks. They seem to be a pretty cool trope of post-apocalyptic fiction — just because if you’re going to have this lone protagonist, they’re going to need someone to talk to. Dogs are overused, and cats are dumb. So that leaves monkeys. There’s a famous comics legend that whenever DC Comics would put a monkey or an ape on the cover of a comic, the circulation numbers would suddenly shoot up. So if you go back and look at the covers of old Silver Age Superman stories, Superman is always fighting all kinds of gorillas. Just a bizarre number of gorillas. So it was just a cheap marketing ploy on our part to be able to put a monkey on the cover of a book. [Laughs]
NEXT PAGE: ”I think guys like romance a lot more than they admit…they just like it best when they don’t know that’s what they’re getting.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So what percentage of Y‘s sales success would you attribute to Ampersand, the monkey?
BRIAN K. VAUGHAN: About 80 percent.
Your male protagonist, Yorick — how much of him is you?
I’d like to think I’m slightly less annoying and suicidal than Yorick. There’s probably more of me in Yorick than any other character. I was also a really crappy escape artist growing up, and I used to do lame magic tricks. When I started writing the book, I was an impoverished college graduate, living in my tiny Brooklyn apartment and not sure what to do my life. In many ways, my journey from being the last boy on Earth to the last man on Earth has mirrored Yorick’s.
Besides ”Safeword,” what were your favorite issues to write?
Early on, we did this two-issue arc called ”Comedy and Tragedy” which I would say 95 percent of readers really hated. We took a break — or seemingly took a break — from the regular storyline and started following an all-female theater troupe. Like I said, most people really hated it. But we made a decision to be the kind of book that could do stories like that, and Pia and I surged on it. Even though it was seemingly off the spine, the heart of the book is located in stories like those. Those issues reaffirmed our desire to tell stories we want to tell. If people wanted to come along, great. We were never writing it just for the audience.
One of the things I loved about this series was its romantic MacGuffin. Yorick’s goal, from beginning to end, was to reunite with his beloved girlfriend, Beth.
Well, ”boy loses girl” is one of the oldest stories; it’s always worked. If you’re going to tell a complex story with a lot of ideas, it’s good to pick a simple, emotional MacGuffin…. I think guys like romance a lot more than they admit. I think when you see well-intentioned quote-unquote ”women’s comics,” with a certain amount of romance and a strong female protagonist — it’s kind of nonsense. Pia and I always went against gender types. She really likes drawing motorcycles crashing through windows, and I like people sitting around talking about their feelings. I think in some ways, men might like romance more than women, they just like it best when they don’t know that’s what they’re getting.
Of course, in one of the series’ greatest twists, the main love story isn’t about Yorick and Beth at all. Did you know from the very beginning that Yorick and Agent 355 — his mysterious companion/bodyguard charged with keeping the last man on Earth safe — would ultimately fall in love?
Oh, yeah. And I think if you go back and re-read the first issues you really see the groundwork of it happening. There were some people who thought we were too on-the-nose about it. They were like, ”Enough with the Moonlighting bulls—, we get it!” And some people thought it came out of left field. Which is good. It means we did our job.
Two of my favorite moments from the final storyline. First, the big reveal of what Beth was planning to Yorick on the day the plague hit: She was going to dump him!
That was planned out, too. We tried to plant some red herrings, like maybe she was going to tell him she was pregnant or that she was having an affair or she had some secret. But I knew it from the beginning — probably stemming from the fact that I had been dumped just prior to starting the series. Any writer who gets dumped, that’s all they can write about.
The other big reveal was a non-reveal. We saw 355 whisper her true name into Yorick’s ear, but you didn’t share that info with the reader.
Would you like to know what it is?
NEXT PAGE: ”I think a certain amount of ambiguity is what brings beauty to work — which I know is scary to hear, coming from a guy who works on Lost.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I would love to!
BRIAN K. VAUGHAN: I’ll just say it’s hidden somewhere in the 60 issues. And if you really worked for it, it’s there…. I think there are certain answers that the audience demands and are owed. And there are certain other mysteries where whatever answer you come up with will be more satisfying than anything I would give you. I think a certain amount of ambiguity is what brings beauty to work — which I know is scary to hear, coming from a guy who works on Lost.
Who were your major storytelling influences?
Alan Moore, first and foremost. He made me want to write comics and be a writer in general. And more recently, I would say Garth Ennis. When I first broke into comics, I tried to write like Alan Moore’s retarded cousin — you know, nine-panel pages, beautiful prose captions laid over everything. Seeing Garth’s early work in Hellblazer, and the later Preacher, and seeing that almost cinematic way that you can just back off and trust your artist to tell the story…. Readers love looking at the images as much as they do reading the words. So it was learning to just back off and tell a story visually. Good writing is about editing. One caption can be more devastating than 20. That was also huge influence. Outside of comics, I’m a big Coen brothers junkie.
It’s almost impossible to ask you questions about the final issue, because the whole premise and context of this issue hinges an idea that would be criminal to spoil. But fair to say: It’s different, no?
It’s very different. I’m trying to say nothing at all. I think people are convinced that it’s going to be the St. Elsewhere ending, or Yorick’s been dreaming this all along. I think anyone expecting a big twist regarding the nature of the plague will be in for a disappointment. There was a reason we stopped talking about the plague and its causes a few issues earlier, because that was never the point. It’s about the last boy on Earth becoming the last man on Earth. That’s what the last issue is about.
Thematically speaking, what was this series really all about?
It’s about how boys become men — and why it takes women to make that transformation possible.
How did you get hooked up with Lost?
Damon Lindelof was a big geek for Y: The Last Man and I met him briefly a few years ago at the San Diego comic-book convention [a.k.a. Comic-Con]. We got along well, and I had been obsessed with Lost, a big fanboy for it. Then I moved out to Los Angeles, in part to babysit the Y movie adaptation [now in turnaround at New Line Cinema]. Damon heard I moved out here and there was an opening at Lost, so he asked me to come in for a general meeting. I didn’t have so much as a spec script for a TV show. That’s no way to get on a bad TV show, much less the best TV shows. It’s a testament to Damon’s genius — or his idiocy — that he said, ”Look, you can write great stories. I don’t care if they are comics or movies, you’d be a valuable asset.” So my comics served as an ambassador: He foolishly thought because he liked my comics, he’d like working with me. But too late, he’s already hired me.
What’s next for you in comics?
I’m wrapping up Ex Machina; our final issue will be No. 50. It’ll be nice to give that book a lot of love and attention in its home stretch. I’m thinking about new things. A graphic novel. Perhaps a new continuing series after Ex Machina wraps. I’m not a complete sellout just yet. I will never leave comics.