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Brian K. Vaughan uses his comics as a 'cheap version' of therapy

Brian K. Vaughan is the author of the comic books
Brian K. Vaughan is the author of the comic books "Saga" and "Paper Girls."
Brian K. Vaughan

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Comic book writer Brian K. Vaughan probably doesn’t sleep all that much.

He’s the author of several comic book series, including “Saga,” an intergalactic love story, and “Paper Girls,” which follows a young group of newspaper delivery girls whose lives change after an alien invasion.

He also has his own online comic book publishing company, Panel Syndicate, which follows a “pay-what-you-want” model. Vaughan has released several comics from that site, including “Barriers,” which deals with border patrol and immigration in the United States and is written largely in Spanish — without translations.

While he’s had an accomplished career in the comic book world, Vaughan has also written on the the hit TV show “Lost” and was the showrunner and executive producer of the CBS series “Under the Dome.”

The Frame’s John Horn spoke with Vaughan about the difference between writing for television and comics, striving to put diversity on the page, and how he puts a lot of what he’s going through in life into his work.


On shifting from writing comics to writing scripts for TV and film

The hardest part about switching media of moving from comic books to film and television is that film and TV are obsessed with a consistent tone. I have always hated a consistent tone. The thing I like about comics is it seems to most accurately mirror life. You can have a page that is humor and then it can take a hard left turn into horror, and then it's a more conventional drama. I just feel that's every day of my life. And comics had combined everything that I liked about film and television in that, you could have the spectacle of a big Hollywood blockbuster, but you could also have the intimate drama of a good long form cable television series. In [comic books] you could do both without having to worry about budget.

On how his sci-fi epic comic “Saga” is about Vaughan becoming a father

“Saga” is this crazy science fiction fantasy story that I'm working on. It was basically that I had just become a father and I wanted to talk about fatherhood. But I think any parent who's tried to talk about parenthood with other people, you see immediately how bored they become. I think using genre as a way to smuggle in something personal — to Trojan horse a way to talk about what I was going through that's maybe a bit more accessible or exciting.

"Saga" is an epic sci-fi comic book series illustrated by Fiona Staples and penned by Brian K. Vaughan.
Brian K. Vaughan/Fiona Staples

On how his comics are inspired by his life

I think it always starts with theme, in that whatever I'm struggling with in my personal life in the moment. I guess “Saga” is about dealing with fatherhood. And I think "Paper Girls" was just dealing with getting older.

I just turned 40 and I'm a parent now and sort of thinking about nostalgia, I guess, about my own childhood, and do I look back on the 1980s as the place that made me and yet is a place that horrifies me. I think I'm trying to talk about the experience of how it feels to be 12 years old.

I just remember in the late '80s thinking about the Cold War, and I didn't have any understanding of what that was, but I just felt that I might be a victim of this someday: Is there going to be a nuclear war that could happen at any moment? You feel kind of powerless and terrified and confused, but also excited. So this comic is trying to simulate the experience, regardless of what age you are reading it, of how it feels to be 12.

On the therapeutic effects of writing down his emotions and feelings through comics

I've never been to therapy before and I always think of comics as the cheap version of it. Each issue helps me tackle what it is I'm still confused or terrified about my own past. And they pay me for the privilege, so it's a good deal all around. 

"Paper Girls" is one of the latest comic books by artist Cliff Chiang and author Brian K. Vaughan.
Brian K. Vaughan/Cliff Chiang

On the attention to language in his collaboration with Marcos Martin on "Barrier"

When [Marcos Martin and I] started working on [my online comic book publication company] Panel Syndicate, one of the benefits we learned of releasing comics digitally is when I do comics like “Saga,” they'll have adaptations in French, Russian and Spanish, but it'll take years for those adaptations to come out. With Panel Syndicate, we could release comics in a bunch of different languages simultaneously all around the world at once. It was exciting.

Then to get to go to conventions all around the world and meet people who loved the books — it just made me think about the way that language unites us, but that it also separates us. Marcos, my collaborator, is bilingual. I'm a dirty American who barely speaks English. So I recognized that there's a sort of push and pull between us. So we thought we would do a story about that.

Especially because comics, as a visual medium, can kind of thread that needle where it transcends language, in that you can have a story that, even if you don't speak English or Spanish, you'll be able to follow along what's happening. So we wanted to do a story about immigration and thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about language and immigration and crime. 

On the lack of white men as principle characters in his comics

I think it certainly helps to work with diverse collaborators. I remember [comic book artist] Fiona Staples. When we started working on “Saga,” I said, “It's going to be about these two parents from warring planets. One's a guy with horns and one's a girl with wings. I don't really care what they look like, but she probably shouldn't be a redhead because there's a glut of redheads in comics right now.” Fiona stopped and said, “Do they have to be white?” It was such an obvious question, but especially working in fantasy and science fiction, white is just your default.

I thought, "I'm making them diverse. They've got horns and wings. Isn't that diverse enough?" And I'm so glad that Fiona said that, because she said, “Why don't we make these characters biracial and with an unexpected background?” And there have been so many readers who've been so grateful, saying to us, “It's so nice and refreshing to see protagonists who just aren't conventional white people.”

I live in Los Angeles, and this is just reflecting my daily life. It's not that I have some sort of quota that I'm trying to fulfill. It is just that I'm doing my best to do writing that reflects the world that I live in. And I don't live in a world with predominantly boring white guys like me.

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