My conversion to Brian K Vaughan fandom came about through the old-fashioned way: reading a comic book from the shelf. It’s early 2003 and I’m standing in Forbidden Planet in central London (back when it was on New Oxford Street, before it moved to its current location on Shaftesbury Avenue), in the back room that had all the shelves of the new comic books, in a luxuriant amount of space. I’m reading the first issue of Runaways, written by Vaughan with art by Adrian Alphona. Or, rather, I’m reading it again – I had been in the week before and had read it, but couldn’t decide if I could commit to another new comic book to add to my list. However, I obviously couldn’t get the story out of my brain, and this was my way of breaking down my subconscious defences. The quality of the book made my heart persuade my brain to buy the book. And I’m very grateful for that.
Vaughan had been writing comic books since 1996 (after a Marvel workshop at New York University spotted his talents), working for both Marvel and DC on single issues, one-shots, a few mini-series (including The Hood, in which he created the character of Parker Robins) and a run on Swamp Thing. However, it was 2002 that sent his reputation into the stratosphere with the release of Y: The Last Man, published at Vertigo, with art by Pia Guerra. A story about a the extinction of every creature with a Y chromosome, except for Yorick Brown and his monkey Ampersand, and the world that develops afterwards, it was a fantastic 60-issue series that covered many themes, developed great characters and still managed to find humour and plenty of pop-culture references (a Vaughan trope and one to which I am drawn).
The double hits of Y: The Last Man and Runaways led to bigger things for Vaughan: in 2004, he took over writing of the Ultimate X-Men series, and saw the launch of the 50-issue series (plus specials) Ex Machina, with art by Tony Harris, about Mitchell Hundred, a former superhero called the Great Machine, who becomes Mayor of New York. In 2006, he would write Dr Strange: The Oath, a mini-series with art by Marcos Martin, and the original graphic novel, Pride of Baghdad, with art by Niko Henrichon, about four lions escaping from Baghdad zoo during the Iraq war (based on a true story).
His career then took a detour into television, when he worked on three seasons of Lost and the first season of Under The Dome, which was unexpected but shows his versatility and talent. He would return to comic books with a bang in 2012 with the launch of Saga, his creator-owned comic book at Image Comics, with Fiona Staples on art. The story of star-crossed lovers and their child set against a galactic war is multi-award-winning comic book (and Vaughan has stated that it will only ever be a comic book) that it a deserved critical and commercial success, which is currently on hiatus after the most shocking cliffhanger ending of all the cliffhangers that Vaughan put at the end of each issue.
In 2013, Vaughan created Private Eye with Marcos Martin as a pay-what-you-want 10-issue series on Panel Syndicate (although it was subsequently published as a hardback, the form in which I was able to read it). In 2015, Vaughan created the mini-series We Stand On Guard with Steve Skroce, and the 30-issue Paper Girls with Cliff Chiang (which has been picked up for television). It looks as if Vaughan is returning to TV because he’s been picked to relaunch Buck Rogers, which makes me worry for when we’ll see more Saga … So, on to my five favourite Vaughan titles (with special mention for Dr Strange: The Oath, just outside the top five, which you can read my thoughts on in this review):
5. Ex Machina
I recall the shock of the image at the end of the first issue – one tower of the World Trade Center still standing because Mitchell Hundred as the Great Machine had prevented the plane crashing into it (which would lead to his election as mayor). It was only a few years after the tragic events of 9/11 and it seemed too soon. However, this series was a response to that day and attempt by Vaughan to work through his reactions to what had happened, via the medium of a comic book about a superhero who could talk to and command complex machinery but decides to give it up and become a politician. Great art by Tony Harris (the cameo of the writer and artist in the book when asked to meet the mayor to write a comic book about his life always sticks in my head) and a fascinating story.
I’ve watched some of the TV adaptation of this series and haven’t been impressed – despite Vaughan acting as a consultant, the show seemed to miss a lot of what worked in the comic book and used it as the basis for something that wants to focus on something else (although full marks for including the dinosaur). I’ve mentioned how the story grabbed me and wouldn’t let go: six children discover that their parents are supervillains and have to go on the run is a great concept, and Vaughan kept up the surprises and twists, with perfect art by Alphona. I don’t think the second series of the book is as strong as the first (and the less said about the Whedon issues the better), but it was one of the best new titles at Marvel for a while and the strength of the characters justified by their continued existence in the Marvel universe.
3. Paper Girls
The lazy shorthand of ‘female Stranger Things’ always irked (although probably helped with the pitch to television executives), just because the story starts in the 1980s and concerns teenagers referring to things from that time. However, the story of four teenage girls who deliver newspapers who get mixed up in a war between two factions of time travellers is so much more than that, and really delivers an emotional punch amongst the sci-fi action. Vaughan captures the voices and characters of our leads, and it was great to see the wonderful art of Cliff Chiang on a regular series because you can’t get enough of his fabulous penmanship. A really enjoyable story that the TV series had better get right.
2. Y: The Last Man
I was late to Y: The Last Man, so ended up buying the trade paperback; however, they now hold a special place in my heart, not least because a man approached me on the tube a few years ago when I was reading one of them and asked to buy it because apparently you can’t get them anymore (and for someone to talk to another person on the London Underground when it’s not telling them to stop shoving them or get out of the way is an achievement). Runaways might be where I became a Vaughan fan but Y: The Last Man is where it became complete. I love this Vertigo-y of Vertigo books, with its killer concept, its perfect execution, its wonderful characters, its pop-culture references and jokes, and even its heartbreak. Absolutely great stuff, and another adaptation they better not mess up.
What can be said about Saga that hasn’t already been said by everyone else? It feels to put it at the top of the list because it’s not finished – Vaughan has said it’s at the hallway point – but it really is that good from issue to issue that it’s hard to argue otherwise. A space opera that is also an intimate drama about two people who fall in love and have a daughter who shouldn’t exist, it is also a great serial comic book – Vaughan loves a cliffhanger and the serial nature of comic books, and nowhere is this more evident than in every issue of Saga. It wins out because of the scale – it’s all bigger than Vaughan’s previous work, while still doing everything else right. And special mention to Fiona Staples on art – I adore her style and she is fantastic here, capturing everything from the family drama to space battles to aliens and different worlds and brilliant design of all the new stuff inherent to the story. Now, all they have to do is come back and finish the damn story …