“Creatively, we’re in the golden age of comics,” says Brian K Vaughan. “They’ve never been more spectacular than they are now.” He doesn’t mention it—perhaps out of caution—but Vaughan himself is an integral part of that “golden age.” Over the past few decades, the Ohio-born comics writer has helped transform and revitalize the art form through works like Post-Apocalyptic Y: The last man (with Pia Guerra), coming-of-age sci-fi paper girl (with Cliff Chiang) and the ongoing saga (starring Fiona Staples), a hugely popular space opera about childhood, parenthood and pacifism. He’s been awarded enough industry awards to set up quite a sizable trophy room – including 14 Eisner Awards, 14 Harvey Awards and a Hugo – and has built a wide and passionate fan base. (sagathe series that most fans would consider his opus has sold around 7 million copies in various forms to date.)
“I remember growing up in the eighties; you could hear people saying, ‘comics have come of age,'” he recalled, while video chatting from his home in Los Angeles. “And you would recommend it Mouse to people. Guardian. Dark Knight returns. Then you start getting to the end of things that you might be pushing on mainstream audiences. Now my daughter is 11 and has read more graphic novels in her life than I have.”
I speak to him two days before the release of paper girlthe big-budget Prime Video series adapted from his and Chiang’s comic book series. paper girl focuses on four young delivery girls in the 1980s caught in a time-traveling generational conflict. Compare to stranger things have been constant and inevitable, though the comic predates the launch of Netflix’s shiny sci-fi sensation by about a year, and the differences, he explains, are superficial. “It started after Cliff and I had been working on the comic for a while,” he recalls. “I knew it had some superficial similarities. But within the first three minutes you realize that these are completely different shows. I hope the world is big enough for both of us.”
Judging by the warm reviews and reactions to the series on social media, the world seems big enough indeed. Vaughan, who serves as executive producer, is no stranger to television – his resume includes stints as showrunner on the CBS adaptation of Stephen King Under the dome and as a writer for ABC’s hit Lost – but says so paper girl required more of a hands-off approach. “My main task is at the beginning,” he says. “And that means choosing the right partners to work with and having a say in the casting. But after that, it’s about giving the creators the freedom to put something of themselves into it. I didn’t just want to see the karaoke version.”
It’s been a busy year for Vaughan. Returned in January after a four-year hiatus sagaan interstellar epic about a child born of a scandalous love affair between two aliens from warring planets. He’s also working his way through Viewers, an experimental standalone comic co-created with artist Niko Henrichon. Published via Substack, the comic is delivered to readers on a weekly basis, usually just one or two pages at a time. If the experience of reading something like sagathrough monthly comic book releases, has roots stretching back centuries – to the serial writing of, say, Charles Dickens – back then Viewerswith its piecemeal, molasses-slow delivery, feels like something entirely new.
Working outside the confines of mainstream comics publishing had other benefits. While Viewers pushes boundaries on the way to the reader, it is no less interested in going to the limits of content. The story begins in a movie theater after the pandemic. A 43-year-old woman, bored and waiting for the film to start, starts streaming pornography on her cell phone. Shortly thereafter, the cinema becomes the scene of a mass shooting; The woman becomes one of the victims. (If you would come over Viewers In its final printed form, this would span a few dozen pages. For the comic’s substack fan base, this spread weeks.) While this is just the starting point for Vaughan’s inventive, conceptually unique exploration of the afterlife, it’s about as gruesome a statement of intent as one can get. “Viewers there’s a lot about sex and violence and the way we look at those two,” he says. “In the United States, we have a boundless appetite for seeing violence in novels. Whereas we are horrified by sex – although if the stats on Pornhub are to be believed, we all see sex as much as we do violence. But we take it very privately, very shamefully.”
Such is the scale of gun crime in America that the publication of Viewers has intersected with several high-profile mass shootings. According to Vaughan, previous attempts to investigate gun violence were thwarted by television executives who told him it was not possible. “Because by the time we try to publish it, there will inevitably be a mass shooting in the United States by this week,” he says. “And it would be insensitive to publish that. What you have is this kind of self-censorship. We have this plague of gun violence in the United States. It happens every day and my kids are scared of it and I’m scared and everyone I know is scared of it. And yet we cannot talk about it in fiction.”
The fact that Viewers delivered straight to the inboxes of Vaughan’s loyal readership probably avoided much of the controversy that would ordinarily arise from a book like this. But the same cannot be said of some of his earlier works. saga has been censored in the past for its explicit sexual content; Y: The last man was recently included on a list of banned books in Texas schools. “It always smells like a little showman on both sides to me,” Vaughan says of the ban. “I realize that for many people this is no laughing matter – it’s a worrying trend. But the site that bans it doesn’t really care what their kids read. They’re just trying to get what they call “cheap pops” in wrestling. And then we, lucky writers lucky enough to get banned, inevitably see sales skyrocket when that happens. The books become the forbidden fruit, the only thing one is not allowed to have.”
It is also this commitment to adult content that led Vaughan and Staples to approve a film adaptation of saga — despite the series’ incredible following. Even setting aside the massive budget that would be required for his interplanetary odyssey, the networks would still almost certainly insist on restricting the sex, the violence — the fundamental humanity of it all. “Every day people come to us to do something saga as a movie or as a TV show,” says Vaughan. “But it almost always starts with subtraction. “We could make it a movie if we make it PG-13. If we take this character out. If we don’t.’ straight forward, saga was so insanely rewarding financially for us that we don’t just have to sell it to sell it. But never say never.”
For many an adaptation of saga is considered inevitable. But despite its ebullient support for customizations of paper girl and Y: The last man, Vaughan remains critical of the comics’ inferiority complex. “Why do people who love comics see them as stepping stones to get into film or television?” he asks. “It’s so demeaning for this medium we all love. Comics don’t have to be the roadmap to get somewhere else; they can be the target themselves.” I challenge everyone to read sagaor paper girlor Viewersand tell me they haven’t arrived yet.