‘I hope the world is big enough for us and Stranger Things’

Brian K Vaughan: 'Why do people who love comics see them as a stepping stone to film or TV?  It's so humiliating' (Getty Images for IMDb)

Brian K Vaughan: ‘Why do people who love comics see them as a stepping stone to film or TV? It’s so humiliating’ (Getty Images for IMDb)

Creatively, we are in the golden age of comics,” says Brian K Vaughan. “They were never more spectacular than they are now.” He does not mention this – prudently, perhaps – but Vaughan himself is an integral part of this “golden age”. Over the past two decades, the Ohio-born comic book writer has helped transform and enliven the art form through works such as the post-apocalyptic. Y: The Last Man (with Pia Guerra), coming-of-age science fiction paper girls (with Cliff Chiang), and the ongoing Saga (with Fiona Staples), an extremely popular space opera about childhood, parenting and pacifism. He has received enough industry awards to provide a sizable trophy room – among them 14 Eisner Awards, 14 Harvey Awards and a Hugo – and has built a wide and passionate following. (Sagathe series that most fans would describe as his masterpiece, has sold an estimated 7 million copies to date, in various forms.)

“I remember growing up in the eighties; you’d hear people say ‘comics have grown,’” he reminds me, speaking from his home in Los Angeles via video chat. “And would you recommend bad For people. watchmakers. The Dark Knight Returns. So you’re starting to get to the end of things that you could push for the mainstream audience. Now my daughter is 11 years old and has read more comics in her life than I have.”

I’m talking to him two days before the release of paper girlsthe big-budget Prime Video series adapted from his and Chiang’s comic book series. paper girls centers on four young delivery girls in the 1980s who are caught up in an intergenerational time travel conflict. Comparisons with Weird stuff have been constant and unavoidable, though the comic predates the start of Netflix’s brilliant sci-fi sensation (by about a year) and the differences are, he explains, superficial. “It started after Cliff and I had been working on the comics for a while,” he recalls. “I knew there were some superficial similarities. But in the first three minutes, you realize that they are completely different programs. I hope the world is big enough for both of us.”

Judging by the reviews and warm reactions to the series on social media, the world really does seem big enough. Vaughan, who serves as executive producer, is no stranger to television – his resume includes stints as showrunner on the CBS adaptation Stephen King. Under the dome and as screenwriter of ABC’s smash hit Lost – but says that paper girls required more of a hands-off approach. “My main job is at the beginning,” he says. “And that’s selecting the right partners to work with, having a say in the cast. But after that, it’s about giving creators the freedom to put a little bit of themselves into it. I didn’t want to see just the karaoke version.”

It’s been a busy year for Vaughan. After a four-year hiatus, January saw the return of Sagaan interstellar epic about a child born from a scandalous love affair between two aliens from warring planets. He is also currently working his way through spectators, a standalone experimental comic created alongside artist Niko Henrichon. Released via Substack, the comic is delivered to readers weekly, usually just one or two pages at a time. If the experience of reading something like Sagathrough monthly comic book releases, has roots going back centuries – to the serialized writing of, say, Charles Dickens – so spectatorswith its fragmented, molasses-slow distribution, it looks like something entirely new.

Working outside the constraints of mainstream comic book publishing had other advantages. While spectators is breaking boundaries with how it’s reaching readers, it’s no less interested in pushing the envelope when it comes to content. The story begins in a post-pandemic movie theater auditorium. A 43-year-old woman, bored and waiting for the movie to start, starts streaming pornography on her phone. Shortly after, the cinema becomes the site of a mass shooting; the woman becomes one of the victims. (If you come across spectators in its final printed form, this would unfold over a few dozen pages. For the comic book Substack fanbase, this has spread weeks.) While this is just the starting point for Vaughan’s inventive and conceptually unique exploration of the afterlife, it’s as fierce a statement of intent as you can get. “spectators it’s a lot about sex and violence, and the way we see both,” he says. “In the United States, we have an inexhaustible appetite for watching violence in fiction. While we’re horrified by the sex – although, if the statistics on Pornhub are true, we’re all watching both sex and violence. But we are watching it very privately, very shamefully.”

Such is the extent of the gun crime epidemic in the United States that the release of spectators overlapped with several high-profile mass shootings. According to Vaughan, previous attempts to exploit gun violence have been thwarted by TV executives telling him it can’t be done. “Because if we try to launch it, inevitably there will be a mass shooting in the United States that week,” he says. “And it would be heartless to release it. What you have is that kind of self-censorship. We have this plague of gun violence in the United States. It’s happening every day, and my kids are terrified of it, and I’m terrified of it, and everyone I know is terrified of it. And yet, we cannot talk about it in fiction.”

The four young protagonists of 'Paper Girls': Riley Lai Nelet, Camryn Jones, Fina Strazza, Sofia Rosinsky (Anjali Pinto/Prime Video)

The four young protagonists of ‘Paper Girls’: Riley Lai Nelet, Camryn Jones, Fina Strazza, Sofia Rosinsky (Anjali Pinto/Prime Video)

The fact that spectators was delivered straight to the inboxes of Vaughan’s loyal readers likely thwarted much of the controversy that would normally arise from a book like this. But the same cannot be said for some of his earlier work. Saga has been censored for its sexually explicit content in the past; Y: The Last Man was recently featured on a list of banned books in Texas schools. “To me, it always smells of being a butchery on both sides,” says Vaughan, discussing the ban. “I recognize that for many people this is not a laughing matter – it is a worrying trend. But the side that’s banning isn’t really interested in what their kids are reading. They’re just trying to get what in wrestling they call ‘cheap pops’. And so we lucky authors who are lucky enough to be banned inevitably see sales soar when that happens. Books become the forbidden fruit, the one thing you cannot have.”

It’s also this commitment to adult content that has left Vaughan and Staples reluctant to sanction a screen adaptation of Saga – despite the show’s incredible following. Even if you set aside the vast budget it would take for your interplanetary odyssey, the networks would still be almost certain to insist on reducing sex, violence – the fundamental humanity of it all. “People approach us every day to make Saga like a movie or a TV show,” says Vaughan. “But it almost always starts with subtraction. ‘We can do this as a movie if we do PG-13. If we take this character. If we don’t. Quite frankly, Saga it’s been so insanely financially rewarding for us that we don’t have the need to sell it just for the sake of selling it. But never say never.”

For many, an adaptation of Saga is seen as an inevitability. But despite his effusive support for adaptations of paper girls and Y: The Last Man, Vaughan remains critical of the comic book’s inferiority complex. “Why do people who love comics see them as a stepping stone to film or television?” he asks. “It’s so humiliating for this medium that we all love. Comics don’t have to be the roadmap to get somewhere else; they themselves may be fate.” I challenge anyone to read Sagaor paper girlsor spectatorsand tell me they haven’t arrived yet.

The first season of Paper Girls is now available on Prime Video. ‘Paper Girls’ and ‘Saga’ are published by Image Comics

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