How to Ruin Swamp Thing: The Brian K. Vaughn interview
By Tom Waters
TW: In an industry with a crutch for capes and cowls, how in god's name did you pitch Ex Machina as a bankable series? It seems like it would have been a hard sell.
BKV: It was actually the easiest thing I'd ever pitched. I think it was because I pitched it shortly after Y: The Last Man came out and Y was a book that everyone was certain was going to fail because I'd never really done anything successful before then. I'd just gotten Swamp Thing, a big Vertigo series, shit-canned, I sort of got that franchise killed.
TW: That's one of my upcoming questions.
BKV: Well, we'll talk about that more, but yeah, Y which I pitched sounded like a late night Cinemax wank fest. Women on motorcycles and a guy and a monkey, but Y was a big hit. Everyone was surprised. When it came time for my next project it was Jim Lee (the head of Wildstorm) that I pitched to and I suspect deep down that maybe he thought the idea of Supermayor was probably stupid. I like to think post-Y that he figured 'We might as well roll the dice." So he went with it. All of my projects which have been successful have been things that were profoundly dumb-high concept, but I like to think good execution.
TW: Was Ampersand (the monkey in Y: The Last Man) a throw-back to the doomsday scenarios from the Twilight Zone and science fiction b films of the '50s and '60s?
BKV: The animal sidekick has always been a troupe of travel fiction, even comics. Sandman had his bird and Preacher had a dog and you can't go wrong with a monkey, right?
TW: I pointed out to Don at Don's Atomic Comics that the humor in Y as well as the cross country trip remind me in a way of Preacher.
BKV: Definitely. Garth Ennis is a huge influence on my writings. So yeah, Preacher is very influential.
TW: What differences do you see internally between Marvel and DC in terms of creative control, pay rates, company philosophy, etc?
BKV: Almost none. There's an editor at Marvel who once told me that if you took the best attributes of Marvel and DC and combined them you'd have one pretty good company and if you took the worst attributes of the two and combined them that you'd have the worst corporation on the face of the planet. And that's about right. Both companies have their ups and downs but I think it's more about trying to find the good people at each company and working with them. But at the end of the day, two sides of the same coin for me, which is why I'm not exclusive. I'm happy to be a gun for hire and work for both of them and other companies. I'm doing some Dark Horse stuff now and whatever. Wherever I can tell my stories I'm happy.
TW: Reading Y up to this point an undercurrent of feminism has emerged which is refreshing since, as you've said, 'it could have turned into a Cinemax after-hours wank fest.' Would you consider yourself pro-feminist?
BKV: Definitely. Sure. Pia (Geurera, the artist and co-creator of Y) and I were talking about it and she doesn't like to be described as a feminist. She prefers to be called egalitarian, but I'm happy to be a feminist if at the end of the day it means men and women should be treated as equals.
TW: Why do you feel like you ruined Swamp Thing?
BKV: (laughs) I don't know. Swamp Thing's an almost impossible book to get right because you're following Alan Moore. Along with a lot of great creators, Alan Moore's shadow casts so large that you sort of have to make a decision early on and it's 'are you going to try and do something completely new which will kill you out of the gate because readers wanna see what they loved about Alan Moore's run' or are you going to try and ape Alan Moore where you stand an equal chance of failing because you're not Alan Moore, probably. So I definitely went in the direction of let's try something completely new, so I think that's at least a more noble way to fail that I didn't just try and re-hash Alan Moore's Swamp Thing. It wasn't successful, but it's fun now that I've had some books that've done okay where people go to quarter bins and find them and now they say they like them. I don't know where they were the first time around, but Swamp Thing has always benefited from, well, with Alan it was his first monthly comic, it was one of Mark Miller's first monthly comics. So it's a good book for young guys to get in and experiment and take what they've learned into their own thing.
TW: If you could throw a wrench in the works with any existing superhero franchise by introducing a new element to their legend, who would it be?
BKV: Everyone always hates this answer, but I'm not sure that I have one. I just, I'm sort of done. I've been writing for almost ten years now for comics and I've been lucky enough to play with Batman, Spiderman, X-Men and Wonder Woman. I think I've hit just about all of them now. At this point, I'm much more interested in making new characters than adding something to the pot. So yeah, there's not a franchise I'm dying to get my hands on. I'd rather make a new one.
TW: Speaking of franchises, I saw 'The League of Extrordinary Gentlemen' today and was thinking about what a tragedy it is that Alan Moore's movie adaptations have been misinterpreted into flops.
BKV: That's the pain, right? That everyone thinks it's so cinematic, they read it and they think it'll translate so easily, but that's the genius of Moore. He's so specifically, uniquely comic book.
TW: Yeah, Frank Miller is all brass balls and bragadoccio which translates well onto the screen whereas Alan Moore's work is a bit more cerebral.
TW: You display a an encyclopedic grasp of pop culture through the mouths of your characters. How much media do you digest and name some favorites:
BKV: I do know a lot, I guess. It's weird because I know a lot of people hate the pop culture references that pop up in my book. They feel that it dates the work, and I always thought that was silly. If you didn't have those references, the clothes and the way people speak would date the book. Books are always of the moment and it's like old Warner Brothers cartoons. Even they were making fun of celebrities and movie stars that we don't even know anymore but because they're specific I think they have a lot more lasting power than the Disney cartoons of the time. So I love pop culture, but that said, I oftentimes will make a reference to something that I don't know anything about. In the same way that I'll have Dr.Mann talk about some biological chemistry thing that I could never understand or 355 some historical factoid. A lot of the time it's just faking it and hanging out with young people who are much savvier than I am. But you know, I guess I watch a fair amount of tv and my Netflix list is long and I'm fairly well read, so I try and do as much as I can.
TW: You've admitted being a Cohen brothers fan. What's your favorite underdog hit of theirs and what do you think has gone wrong with them since 'The Big Lebowski'?
BKV: Everything outside of 'Fargo' I guess is an underdog. 'Miller's Crossing' and 'Barton Fink' are probably my top two, but then, it's hard to compare 'Raising Arizona'. That's equally spectacular, but post-Big Lebowski, 'The Man Who Wasn't There', that's post-Big Lebowski, right? 'The Ladykillers' was a pretty shocking dissappointment. I guess their batting average is so high and they had such an unbroken string of magnificence. Everyone's allowed to have a clunker or two. The next movie will determine that, but I'll be there opening day.
TW: What was your impetus for the Great Machine saving one of the twin towers in Ex Machina?
BKV: I was living in New York during the attacks and I watched them from the roof of my apartment in Brooklyn and I knew I wanted to write about it in some capacity but I know there were a lot of tribute books to raise money for the victim's families immediately afterwards. I really wanted to contribute a story but comics felt really ill-equipped to deal with something of that magnitude and it was sort of frustrating. But I guess over time I definitely wanted to deal with the political ramifications of that day. And it seemed the more time went on the more appropriate the comic books would have this world of Bush in his flight suit and Kerry running on his war record. Then I moved out to California right as an action hero was getting elected Governor. So it definitely seemed like the world was at this place where it wanted heroes whether or not they were fictional heroes and that's what comic books have been discussing since day one. So Ex Machina was sort of born out of that idea. When it came time to talk about 9/11, that was really hard. We don't have a great deal of distance from that day, and I could have written a parable or an allegory to discuss it but I thought it had more impact to have a twist on that day and I thought it was haunting, the thought of that one tower standing there. I like that it bothered me. Everyone asked me as they read it, 'Is it too soon?' I'd always rather discuss it too soon than too late. That one tower standing there, the world of Ex Machina is supposed to be one DNA strand away from ours and I wanted to see that DNA strand still standing there.
TW: You've attributed Tony (Harris) and Pia (Guerera) as being co-creators of Ex Machina and Y, respectively. What is the process like with both teams and what does the co-creator status mean on paper?
BKV: On paper it means that it's 50/50, we're complete co-owners and that definitely translates in the execution. A lot of it was in the inception. Ex Machina specifically, Tony brought a lot to the table, cause I sort of had half formed ideas and I pictured the Great Machine as a mayor with a superhero past. I pictured more of a Superman archetype and it was more Tony who said that if he had this power over technology that he should be technological. And we wanted to come up with a design that would look cool but sort of clunky, and the way it would look if you had to wear all this garbage in the real world. So the tone of the book changed under Tony and sort of evolved with him. And Pia was the same way. Because Pia happens to be a woman everyone presumes that I bring the hi octane action to the book and she does the thoughtful scenes, but it's completely the opposite where left to my own devices I would have twenty pages of characters sipping tea every month.
TW: Whereas she pushed 'Safeword'.
BKV: Exactly. She loves to have a good motorcycle chase and what have you. So she brings the masculine side to the book and I bring the feminine side. The happy marriage.
TW: How do you recommend getting your significant other hooked on comics?
BKV: It was Neil Gaiman who described Sandman as traveling like a venereal disease through relationships. That a guy would give it to his girlfriend to read , they'd break up, she'd take it to the next relationship and so on. It's not that hard. You can't start by, people always presume that women need sixty percent romance and twenty percent this and it's nonsense. Women if anything have slightly better taste in general than we do. Like I've said before, my ex-girlfriend was obsessed with Preacher. If you know your significant other well enough and you know what they're into, you should pick one of the one billion books out there that they'd be interested in. Don't cram it down their throat but leave it out for them and if you buy it they will come. Everyone grows up reading comics and one of the things that Pia and I stole from Preacher was the layouts. Steve Dillon was comfortable and had a lot of life within the panels but the layouts weren't any more complicated than the Sunday Comics. Left to right, up down. I think Promethea as brilliant as it is is a lousy choice to give someone as a first comic. You have to graduate to something that complex. Try to find something that's a good opening course in the world of comics.
TW: As evidenced in The Hood, your turn on Doc Oc and the aforementioned Swamp Thing/Tefe issue, you enjoy writing villains. Do you have any plans to create more or put another spin on some other classic ones?
BKV: In Runaways, I was just writing a scene with a ridiculous new villian named Pusherman who's a super powered drug dealer who works out of an alternate dimension he can access through Greenwich Village that the Runaways have to fight on a trip to New York. So I do. I love villains and I like creating new ones and I guess I haven't done too much Joker in my time, so there's a character. I wouldn't mind taking a stab at Joker before I would any of the superheroes out there. I like villains and I have an easier time identifying with them, certainly than Superman. If you plunked most of my protagonists, Yorick or the mayor from Ex Machina into the DC universe they'd probably be considered villains because they have so many more flaws than the average DC hero. Villains have always felt more human and relatable to me but maybe that's just because I'm a bad person. I've always been a big Joker fan.
TW: If Yorick draws heavily from your own personality, who did you use to wind up Mitchell Hundred?
BKV: It's probably and amalgamation of a lot of different people from my life. I spent a long time researching the book before I started writing and just past New York mayors, I suppose there's a dash of LaGuardia and a little bit of Mayor Linsey from the '70s. I think he owes a lot to his mayoral predecessors. Our politics, though, really have very little in common. I knew going into it that I didn't want this to be a book where I could shove my own stupid views down your throat. I try and pick whatever's most dramatic, or will reveal my characters in the most interesting ways. He and I are not much alike. I think I'm probably more of an idealist at the end of the day and he, being a former civil engineer, is much more practical. His views shift and change much more than I do since I'm an old man.
TW: How did you brainstorm on Hundred's unusual super powers when planning Ex Machina?
BKV: Originally, the book was just called The Machine. It didn't get it's obnoxious latin title until I found that there was already a Dark Horse book from a couple of years ago called The Machine. I liked the idea that the political system is one giant machine and I liked the thought that this guy's power was to manipulate it figuratively and literally. I always wanted to have a character's power that was his voice again figuratively and literally. It was just sort of born out of that, what would be a symbol of a politician's power, and machine talk was born.
TW: And here is the final bonus question for the daily double.
BKV: Man, I need these points!
TW:As an Adrian Tomine fan, don't you think he could generate enough revenue from one short story collection to create comic vignettes independently for the rest of his career?
BKV: You think he should do like a mainstream thing?
TW: Yeah, like a book. It's an ongoing argument I have with someone.
BKV: No. If anything, I'd like to have Optic Nerve come out more regularly. I don't fuck with people's system, you know? If it takes the guy two years to write 22 pages then god bless him. In two years, I wrote something like 2,000 pages worth of comic script. I'm not sure that there are 22 pages in there that were half as good as 22 two of Adrian's average pages. Let 'em come out slowly and I'll be fine with it. Whatever he has to do to make a buck on the side, god bless him.
TW: I didn't even notice your Cleveland connection (with Brian Azzarello and Brian Michael Bendis) until I read an interview of yours today. I talked to Azzarello a couple months back and trying to get responses out of him takes a lot.
BKV: (laughs) It's funny, he is the tersive bastard in the world. I met somebody who pointed out that Azzarello's front is just because he's a shy comic book geek like the rest of us and he would just start stammering nervously if he gave longer answers. Don't misinterpret his terseness.
TW: He opened up after a while. Surprisingly, it was when we were talking about outdoor grilling.
BKV: Most writers would prefer to talk about that because none of us have any goddamn idea where our ideas come from or any of this stuff. So we always end up lying and writing more fiction in interviews about ourselves than we do in our actual fiction that we're supposed to write. You probably would get more honesty out of a guy when you were talking about barbeque.
TW: Well I hope I threw you a couple curve balls.
BKV: There were at least two honest answers that I gave you. Good times. Thanks, this was fun.
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