Interview: Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples talk Saga

Although readers haven’t heard from him since the conclusion to his political/science-fiction thriller Ex Machina ended a year and a half ago, writer Brian K. Vaughan has not been idle.  On March 14th, Vaughan – creator of the beloved series Runaways and Y: The Last Man and a writer/producer on the hit TV series “Lost” – will be unleashing the first issue of his new ongoing space opera, Saga!  

Co-created with artist Fiona Staples and released through Image Comics, Saga tells the story of two people on opposite sides of a massive war who fell in love, had a baby, and are now on the run across the galaxy.  Vaughan has described it as “Star Wars for grown-ups” while Staples mentioned being influenced by animation and the Final Fantasy series as she worked to design the book’s many alien races and worlds.

We sat down with the creators at Image Expo in Oakland, CA to talk about the role of libraries in creating comic book readers, the thrill of launching a new creator-owned series, and breastfeeding on comic book covers.

NFNT: What roles do you see librarians playing in the comic book world?

Brian K. Vaughan: I have this weekend had, a dozen times, people come up and say “I started reading Y: The Last Man in my library.”  I don’t know what else to say other than that.  That is breathtaking. Ever since I started in comics and my first thing was collected, librarians have been so supportive.  And I’m so jealous because libraries were such a huge part of my life growing up, but they never had comic books in them! You know, oh my God, my childhood would have been so different if Porter Public Library in Westlake, Ohio had had graphic novels in it.  Which I’m sure they do now.

NFNT: Right!

BKV: Libraries have just always been such a huge part of my life.

NFNT: What do you think librarians and the library world can do to better reach out to comic book creators?

BKV: Geez, I think it’s more our responsibility to be reaching out to you guys! There are so many books and authors to be concerned that, I don’t know, I guess I’d ask you what more we can do. I’m not sure.

NFNT: I might have to think about that one…

BKV: Yeah, I feel like I have to think about it to.  Right now I think I take libraries for granted. They’ve just been so dependably good about it. I feel like it’s more up to the library patrons, that that’s where it comes from. They’re the people who talk to librarians. I think they may be better advocates than me going around and schilling my wares. I guess I depend on the kindness of strangers – of readers – to tell their librarians.

NFNT: One of the things that we librarians like about your work – Runaways and Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina – is you have these super-strong, really well-developed characters that are dealing with things that aren’t necessarily dealt with in the majority of comics that are out there. I know that you’ve said before that you start out knowing how your stories are going to end, but what comes first when you’re developing a story: the characters or the plot?

BKV: It’s always a combination. Each book has been different and started from a different place.  With my new book Saga, I knew I wanted to write about fatherhood in general, and I always had this weird science fiction universe in my mind. So I guess it starts with what is troubling me and what I want to say and I find the characters and story to be an outlet. With Y: The Last Man I’d just been dumped and it felt like the world was ending, and I wanted to write about my fears and hang-ups about the other sex. Ex Machina came from having lived in New York during 9/11, and Saga from having two kids of my own.  So I think whatever’s going on that I’m having trouble digesting, I’ll use a comic to help me out.

NFNT: You write for TV and movies as well as writing for comics. Which did you start doing first, or which one did you plan on doing?

BKV: Comics was my first love, that’s what I wanted to do.  But I graduated from high school in ‘94 and you couldn’t go to school to learn how to do comics.  I wouldn’t even know where to begin!  So I thought, “I love film and that’s also telling stories with pictures” and ended up going to NYU film school and not having the easiest time. It felt like every student film was a failed science experiment where just everything goes awry.

But while I was there I was fortunate enough to meet this editor at Marvel Comics, this guy named James Felder, who really took me under his wing.  It was like, “There are all these classically trained young writers at NYU!  Let’s bring them over.  If nothing else they’ll be cheap labor.” So I was sort of in the right place at the right time to jump back out of movies and into comics, and I was really happy to be there.

And then it was my comics that brought me into TV when Damon [Lindelof] and Carlton [Cuse, Executive Producers of “Lost”], who were big fans of Y: The Last Man, said, “We think that if you can tell a visual story in this medium you can tell it over here on “Lost”, too.  I’ve tried to escape Hollywood but it keeps sucking me back in.

NFNT: Do you think that your comics writing informs or influences your TV writing at all?

BKV: I wish it made it easier, but they’re such different skill-sets.  So, no, it really was like starting over from scratch joining a writer’s room.  As much faith as Damon and Carlton had, it really wasn’t true.  It’s tough!  It’s something else.  And I think that people who have gone from film and TV to comics have found it similarly hard.  It really is a totally different medium and mindset.  I guess it’s good to take a break from one art and try something else.  You can’t help but bring back something.

NFNT: Is there one that you like writing better?

BKV: Comic scripts are way better than movie scripts.  Movie scripts are going to hundreds of different people; comic scripts are more like a letter to the artist.  You can have a conversation with them and really get to play to their specific strengths.

Brian K. Vaughan, Jack Baur, and Fiona Staples

NFNT: So tell me about Saga!  What we can expect from it?

BKV: I hope a little bit of everything!  I really wanted to do a big, epic, ongoing series that’s sort of like what Neil Gaiman used to say about Sandman: that the book could be whatever he wanted it to be that month. Saga doesn’t have the same high-concept hook of Runaways or Y.  It’s a saga, the story of a family.

Specifically you’ve got two soldiers from different of a galactic war who despite being enemies fall in love with each other and have themselves a baby, and the rest of the universe does not think that’s a terribly great idea, so they’re on the run. And it is a big huge, story and I’ve never really done anything quite like it. And it’s so awesome to be working with Fiona Staples whose artwork is unbelievable.

NFNT: What can you say about working with Fiona Staples? You said at your panel that you don’t spend any time with each other, you primarily communicate over e-mail, that you give each other lots of space and there’s lots of trust.

BKV: Yeah, that is all true! And I guess it was just this sense I had when I first saw her stuff that this would just work, and it’s worked so much better than I hoped it could. She is a co-creator in every sense of the word, she has domain over every visual aspect of the story. You know, it’s not like when you’re doing a superhero book where you’re designing a costume, and then it’s like, “Okay, I’ve got my New York reference and I’m ready to go!” She is on every panel of every page inventing locations, worlds, spaceships, characters. It’s exhausting for me to think about but she approaches it with such good cheer and imagination. She’s been awesome to work with.

NFNT: As a writer, how much does the element of surprise of not knowing what you’re going to get from an artist factor into your excitement around working on a book?

BKV: The opening scene of Saga is the two main characters having a baby, and there’s a lot narration that’s about the act of creation and how hard it is to bring something new into the world. I realized that when I was having kids, it is much like comics in that I can’t do it on my own. I really do need someone else.  My leads, Marco and Alana, I thought I knew them well, but it wasn’t until Fiona drew them that they really had voices and personality. It’s not real until an artist comes on board and I do love that element of surprise, as you say. I need it, I can’t work without it.

NFNT: How does your relationship with Fiona compare to, say, working with Tony Harris on Ex Machina?

BKV: Every relationship is very different. Tony and I, we would talk much more and Tony would, I think, take more liberties (to his credit) with pages. He would draw something totally opposite sometimes of what I had written, and it was a great challenge. He and I would push and pull with each other. It’s different. Fiona loves drawing exactly what I’ve said in a completely different way than I’ve imagined it. I guess every artist I’ve worked with is similar in that they’re: A) smart — you can’t replace that, someone who will fill in the gaps when I’ve written something dumb, will know how to obscure it or play to my strengths. Then B) are just funny. She and Tony and everyone I’ve worked with needs to have a good sense of humor because it’s going to be a tough road. And then just be a pro. This is a job and we’ve got this obligation to these people who have decided to read this ongoing series, like “I’ll shell out three bucks every month if you’re here,” but we’ve got to be there. Appreciating that this is a train and we’ve gotta keep running, she’s got that in spades.

[At this point the artist of Saga, Fiona Staples, sat down at the table.  We couldn’t find her before the interview started.]

NFNT: Welcome Fiona! I would like to here what you are excited to be bringing to Saga.

Fiona Staples: I guess mostly I’m excited to have this huge, expansive universe as our playground where we have more artistic freedom than I’ve ever had before doing work-for-hire stuff.  I think the format of the book, the genre, the sci-fi/fantasy, and the fact that we’re doing it at Image gives me more freedom than I’ve ever had before.  I’m excited about the potential more than anything else.

NFNT: What have been your favorite things about working on the book so far?

FS: Pushing my artwork I guess, trying new things and experimenting with my technique.  Bringing in some new influences and trying to do something that looks unique, and is different from not just my previous work but from everything else you see out there.  That’s what I’m striving for with this.

NFNT: When 50 or 100 or 300 issues down the line when this all wraps up, what are you hoping that your readers are left with?

BKV: For me it’s always that you’ve been on an emotional journey with people that you genuinely care about who have grown and changed with you.  That’s the nice thing about serialized fiction.  You’re probably not going to be the same person you are when you started this series.  If you read a book or watch a movie you’re still going to be more or less the same person when you finish.  But these things grow and change over time, and Fiona and I are going to grow and change along with these characters.  I like knowing that, even though I have an idea of where the story is going to end up, we are all going to be so different.  That’s a very cool thing.

FS: I just want them to have a massive library of our work.  I’ve never done an ongoing series before, and I’ve never done more than six issues of anything else, so I’m looking forward to having a huge body of work of something I’m really proud of.  This giant monolith! [Laughs.] That’s my ego speaking.

NFNT: The cover image for your first issue is very striking in that it features one of your leads breastfeeding a baby.

BKV: I wanted to let people know before they even got to the first page that this might not be for you. Other people are going to love it, but this might not be for you.

FS: I’ve gotten some really nice e-mails from moms about the cover!

BKV: Saga: It’s a comic for your mom.

NFNT: Have you had any negative reactions from anyone?

FS: Well, there’s this one guy…

BKV: There’s some controversy online, someone took some umbrage over it.  But there’s such a wellspring of support from everywhere else.

NFNT: It’s nice to see that kind of support.  It’s not shocking or by any means dirty or anything.

FS: Yeah, so it irritated maybe one guy out there and the rest saw the response to the criticism and kept their mouth shut. [Laughter]

BKV: Maybe there are other people that hate it, but they’re not raising their voices now.

FS: I’m happy to put something out there that’s a different depiction of female power than just a woman with a massive gun with her tits out.

NFNT: Well, I mean, she does kind of have her tits out…

BKV: And she does have a gun!

FS: But it’s a small gun!

BKV: Yeah, a tiny gun…

NFNT: … and a big baby! [Laughter]

Our intrepid NFNT correspondents reporting from Image Expo are Jack Baur and Casey Gilly.