Page One, Panel One: How Brian K. Vaughan Builds Epic StoriesSaga art by Fiona Staples Comics Features Brian K. Vaughan
Page One, Panel One features in-depth discussions between Van Jensen (The Flash, Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer) and other writers diving into the creative process behind comic books. This week’s conversation features Brian K. Vaughan, who rose to fame with series such as Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina and Runaways. After working in TV on Lost and Under the Dome, Vaughan returned to comics with his acclaimed Image sci-fi series Saga and The Private Eye, a futuristic noir posted on Panel Syndicate, a pay-what-you-will comics site that Vaughan co-created.
As Vaughan is known for series covering several years and dozens of issues, we talked to him about how he builds those long-form narratives, managing the unexpected, parenthood, the insanity of standing desks and drinking too much with Garth Ennis.
Jensen: I was looking over your body of work, and it’s an interesting mix of both shorter stories and some really long-form series. I’m curious, when you initially have a concept for something, how do you go about deciding how long it will be? What are the things you see that make you think a project has the legs to go for multiple years?
Vaughan: Well, when I pitched Y: The Last Man to Vertigo, I was young and poor and just wanted some job stability, so I suggested that the series should last five years. Ironically, by the time the series reached that point, Vertigo really wanted me to make it longer, but Pia Guerra and I both decided that five years had been just right, the exact length of time it took for Yorick to transform from the last boy on earth to the last man. But now that I’m old and a little more stable, I can afford to let the story dictate the scope upfront. The Private Eye was 10 chapters because that just felt right for a self-contained mystery about the nature of privacy. Saga is really a story about my children, and watching them grow up, so I kind of hope it never ends.
Jensen: Well, now I just want to ask a million questions about how parenthood has affected your writing. I’m resisting, but just barely.
Vaughan: I’ll just say that young children have made it much harder to find the time to write, and much easier to find things to write about.
Jensen: When you’ve decided a series is going to be a long one, or at least you think it will go dozens of issues, what’s your next step? How do you build out the plot? Are there certain questions or templates you use? What tools do you use? Do you like to outline with paper and pen? Or is it all on screen? Or on a whiteboard?
Vaughan: I use the same cheap steno notebooks from Staples I’ve always used. And there are no templates; I just scribble ideas into them as they come. Truthfully, most of it is just in my head these days. I think about stories all day long, and I’ve found that I have a natural filter where the shittier ideas just get forgotten about, but the okay ones tend to linger. I greatly prefer my own insane process over the regimented whiteboard of the television writers’ room, though I completely understand why it’s necessary for that medium.
Jensen: As you go about this, how do you develop the characters? Do you build out a character bible? Do they inform the scope and shape of the story?
Vaughan: No bibles, per se. By the time I see an artist’s first sketch of a character, I feel like I know him or her really well. I usually have a clear idea where I want to take characters, but allow them to pull me in new directions if it feels right. Sorry, I realize most of these answers are probably enormously unhelpful. But after writing comics for almost 20 years, it’s become pretty intuitive. I don’t really understand how it happens, it just kind of does, which is one of the many reasons my professor wife assures me I could never be a teacher.
Jensen: No, it’s really interesting to hear how another writer approaches this stuff! Now that you’re working with Image and publishing online through Panel Syndicate, you’re pretty fully in control of these stories (though obviously your collaborators are very involved). Beyond the art teams, who do you rely on for advice as you’re building the story? Do you hire an editor?
Vaughan: I haven’t worked with an editor in several years. I just like to get as much input from my artistic collaborators as they’re comfortable sharing, and then lock myself in a quiet room until a script comes out.
Jensen: Do you share the stories with your wife or kids as you’re developing them? I know I rely on my wife as a sounding board, and she’s great about letting me know if something doesn’t make sense.
Vaughan: Not anymore. For the first 10 years or so of my career, I would always inflict early drafts on my close circle of confidants: my wife, my older brother David and a few trusted writer pals. But after 10 years, I realized I had completely internalized their critical voices, and could almost anticipate their notes before they even sent them. At a certain point, I think it’s important for all writers to finally leave their poor loved ones alone, and trust the strong guts that those same friends and family members have hopefully helped us develop.
Jensen: Basically a probiotic for writers. Gotcha.
Vaughan: The kind of fiction that excites me is really personal, so I’d much rather read something by creators that felt honest but unpolished than something that was focus-grouped into being more “professional.”
Jensen: As you sit down (or maybe you have a standing desk?) to write issue #1 of a new series, how detailed of an outline do you have for the whole series? Is the maxi story pretty well locked, or is there a lot of flex? Do you outline one arc at a time in detail?
Vaughan: Standing desks are for psychopaths. Writers are sad, strange creatures who are meant so sit down for endless stretches, and if that really contributes to our early deaths, it’s probably for the best. Sorry, what was the question? Yeah, I always have a detailed outline, even if it only exists in my head. For a huge series like Saga, I know exactly how the series will end, and I know dozens of major “signposts” between now and then, but I usually don’t know all the specifics about an individual arc until Fiona and I discuss it. At that point, I’ll usually know exactly how each issue of that arc will open and close, but I won’t know all the specifics of that chapter until I sit down and start outlining it in my notebook.
Jensen: When you break down an outline of a series or an arc into single issues, what’s your approach? How do you decide what to use as an endpoint for each issue?
Vaughan: I just want every issue to be “good,” and to hopefully end at the most interesting place possible, but I don’t have any rules beyond that.
Jensen: Your series have been notable for having some iconic, stunning moments. Big reveals, major deaths, some fascinating character developments. Are those big beats ones that you plan out in advance and dole out through a series in a planned way? Or do they evolve more organically?
Vaughan: Major deaths are always planned out long in advance, as are almost all big reveals. Little moments can still happen more organically though, and might contribute to bigger changes down the line.
Jensen: Is there an example of that from one of your past series that stands out, a little moment that popped up organically and had a surprising impact?
Vaughan: Hmm, in Y: The Last Man, I think the character of Rose, a love interest of Dr. Allison Mann, was originally only supposed to be a “guest star” for one brief arc, but she just didn’t want to seem to leave after Pia Guerra and I introduced her, and she ended up sticking with the cast until the very end.
Jensen: There’s a tension to writing that a lot of writers have talked about between outlining and creativity, that if you outline too extensively, you can choke the life out of the plot (the Stephen King thesis). What’s your view on that? Do you fall to one side or the other, or do you not really view that as a true dichotomy?
Vaughan: I’ll agree with my hero Uncle Stevie that too much outlining can kill a story, but I’d add that too little can, as well. Making it all up as you go along is always more fun, but I’ve found that the more fun I have while writing, the less fun people usually have while reading.
Jensen: I tend to outline extensively, but in any series, I’m always finding as I go along that the story grows and changes, and little new wrinkles lead to some unexpected directions. How do you handle that kind of change? Do you keep a working story document and let it adapt?
Vaughan: Sure, just because I believe in having a detailed road map at the start of the trip doesn’t mean that I’m opposed to taking fun side trips, or finding alternate routes if and when I inevitably come upon a collapsed bridge or whatever in my path.
Jensen: With comics, a lot of times the length of the series is going to depend upon external factors—the whims of a publisher, sales, reader reaction, etc. A lot of writers plan “escape hatches,” ways to get to the planned endpoint of a series earlier than hoped. Is that something you do? Have you ever had to end a story at a different point than you originally expected? How did you handle that, if so?
Vaughan: It’s been a long time since I had to wrap a story before I wanted to, but I warned Fiona Staples that if Saga’s sales were terrible, we would just kill Hazel and her entire family in a fiery explosion on the launchpad of the Rocketship Forest at the end of Chapter Six. Needless to say, I’m glad we didn’t have to do that.
Jensen: I think I can speak for most comic readers that I’m also glad that didn’t come about.
Vaughan: As I get older, I realize that escape hatches can sometimes become self-fulfilling prophecies, so maybe it’s best to just plan for the best and fuck the worst?
Jensen: Has your approach changed over the years? Did you build the story of Saga any differently than you did, say, Ex Machina?
Vaughan: It changes from story to story. With Ex Machina, Tony Harris and I knew that our story would cover Mayor Hundred’s first term in office as mayor, but because our story was set in the “real world,” we had no idea what the political landscape or New York City’s actual near future would look like, or even if the city would suffer another major terrorist attack before we got to our conclusion. Thankfully, the real world mostly cooperated with our original plans.
Jensen: How has your experience in television changed your approach, if at all?
Vaughan: I love television, but my experience in that medium has mostly taught me that I’m probably better suited to comics.
Jensen: What’s your favorite big, spanning story by another creator? Any medium.
Vaughan: I’m writing this one week before the finale of Mad Men, so I suppose there’s some outside chance they could still shit the bed, but for now, it’s probably been the most beautifully told piece of long-form serialized storytelling of my lifetime. I’d put Alan Moore, Gene Ha and Zander Cannon’s Top Ten up there, too.
Jensen: Is there anything particular about that series that you remember as something you learned and applied to your own process?
Vaughan: It reminded me of something I think I once heard Frank Darabont say, that there’s nothing an audience loves more than a well-executed setup and payoff, which is something that Top Ten did repeatedly and majestically. I just adore a carefully and subtly laid setup, especially when it’s established years in advance of its eventual payoff.
Jensen: What’s the best advice you ever got from a writer or editor or, well, anyone, on planning big stories?
Vaughan: Probably something Garth Ennis told me, but I got too drunk to remember it, which is one of the many reasons I will never do it as well as he does.