Brian K. Vaughan – An American Comic Superhero

Brian K. Vaughan

Brian K. Vaughan, a writer who has been nominated for an Emmy in 2009 for his work on the hit show Lost, is not just a hot-shot T.V. writer.  In fact, Vaughan is widely popular for his outstanding graphic novels.   Although he has worked with many mainstream and well-known characters in Marvel and DC such as Batman and the X-Men, I particularly enjoy his original works.  These works include the co-creations of Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, Pride of Baghdad, and my favorite Runaways.

Perhaps it is best to start with a brief biography of Vaughan’s life and career.  Brian was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1976.  According to Wikipedia, Vaughan graduated from St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland and went to NYU where his comic book writing really began to take off.  As stated previously, Vaughan worked on major characters of DC and Marvel but has been quoted saying that “he prefers to write his own creations..because he doesn’t think he’s the best at using his ‘voice’ with company-owned characters”.  His original creations have made an impact and therefore he has rightfully received much acclaim for these creations.  In 2005 Vaughan received the Eisner Award for Best writer for Y: The Last Man, Runaways, and Ex Machina.  In 2008 he again was awarded the Eisner for Best Series for Y: The Last Man.  Besides this he was nominated in 2006 for 5 Eisners and was named “Comic’s Best Writer” by Wizard magazine in 2006.  As a relatively young artist, Vaughan is able to connect with a young audience, as well as an older audience, with his post-modern style of writing (which is littered with pop culture references both adults and young adults will enjoy).

Since I will mainly focus on the Runaways it is best to give recognition to Vaughan’s other works.  According to the New York Times, Y: The Last Man follows ” the adventures of the series’ hero, Yorick Brown, and his pet monkey, Ampersand — the only survivors of a gendercide that killed every male mammal on earth except for them” (New York Times).  A common trait in Vaughan’s comics is the subversion of  conventions.  In this case, the a-typical hero, Yorrick, according to Vaughan has “always been the damsel in distress” (New York Times).  In a world with no men, Yorrick must cope and find a way to survive within his devastating circumstances.

Ex Machina follows the journey of a man, who accidentally becomes a superhero, and hangs up his mask in order to be mayor of New York City.  According to a review by Tomm Knapp, Ex Machina is “a tight, edgy look at modern politics in a post-9/11 world. Sure, Hundred still has his powers – as well as a couple of former sidekicks to boot – but he’s worried now about the public relations nightmare of a racist painting on exhibit that was funded with public money. And the snowstorm that’s crippling the city. And the killer who’s knocking off snowplow drivers, making a bad situation much, much worse” (Knapp).  Rather then focusing on the story of a superhero, Vaughan utilizes Ex Machina as an opportunity to delve into the social and political problems facing our world today.  This subversion of the typical superhero story allows a closer look into the inner workings of modern society (this is done in a symbiosis of image and text as well as the plot line centered around a controversial painting).  Ex Machina was chosen by Entertainment Weekly as one of the ten best works of fiction of 2005.

Pride of Baghdad, released in 2006, is based on the real life event of four lions escaping a zoo in Baghdad.  Brian K. Vaughan utilized this piece to step out of his traditional style (still defying conventions, in a more serious way) and address the problems of the war in Iraq.  In an interview with Comic Book Resources news, Vaughan was quoted saying that “Comics have always had a pretty rich tradition of telling meaningful stories with anthropomorphized animals. I thought experimenting with that genre in a standalone graphic novel would be a good way to push myself, get away from my usual dumb pop-culture references and shocking cliffhangers.  At the same time, I was also hungry to write something that addressed my conflicted feelings about the Iraq War.  When I read reports about this pride of escaped lions, everything just kind of fell into place.”  Vaughan’s experimental style of writing is not only entertaining, but critically analyzes the current conflicts of our world.  This graphic novel takes a controversial issue and delves deep into the conflicting feelings that this war is causing (still today!!).

I was exposed to Vaughan’s work by Dr. Stallcup in my Tutorial class Childhood and the Fantastic.  In that class we read Runaways (2003) and I was blown away!  Not only was Vaughan able to portray the classic struggle between child and parent through rich dialogue and realistic imagery, but he was able to subvert the ideal image of parent.  Although the parents believe they are looking out for the best interests of their children, ironically they partake in evil acts for their secret society called “The Pride”.  In this graphic novel, the children have parents that seem normal, but they are a part of a secret super-villain group that is controlling Los Angeles.  The theme of appearance versus reality is fully explored through both images and text.  Reality has been flipped upside down for these six teenagers who must learn to take care of themselves when they discover their parents in the act of sacrificing a young girl by literally stabbing her to death.  In this teenage superhero comic, the twist is that the children must use their newly discovered hidden abilities to escape their parents and simultaneously try to save the world.  Physically (shown through images) and mentally (shown through text) each of the six teens is a characterization of a stereotypical adolescent, only they are anything but stereotypical.  The images not only reinforce the text, but add to the text by providing information the text is unable to reveal.

With the help of the artist Adrian Alphona, Vaughan portrays characters who look like they could be “that” girl or guy that went to your high school.  Whether it be the dumb jock, the hippie, the goth, the pretentious intellectual, the nerd, or the innocent young girl, in society’s mind these stereotypes dress and act a certain way.  In the Runaways Vaughan portrays these physical stereotypes through images and the expected diction through text.  These realistic images help the reader to identify with the character and it makes the characters believable.  Vaughan sets up the stereotype in order to subvert it with traits a normal teenager would never have (ex. The stereotypical hippie character realizes she is an alien when  she rips off her bracelet and rainbow light exudes from her body! Many of the other characters’ abnormal characteristics are also seen through physical embodiments).  The story also takes place in Los Angeles which is made obvious through images of traffic (and that’s definately one thing L.A. is known for!) and images of the Griffith Observatory.  These realistic images of the location excite the reader who associates these drawn pictures with Los Angeles.  With depictions of realistic characters and locations, the reader of this graphic novel identifies with this world and therefore is able to fully delve into the extra-ordinary occurrences in the teens previously normal lives.  Throughout the comic, Vaughan utilizes close up images as a means of truly connecting and getting inside each character’s head.  The text helps to further develop each character who many times express their deep feelings through clever one-liners.  Besides helping to understand character, the images work to further the story without unnecessary lines of explanation.  Instead of writing that the characters are now driving to find a location where they can hide from their parents, Vaughan utilizes images of his characters in vans speaking of their tentative plans.  Like any good graphic novel, the images and the text work together to create a clear story in the viewer/reader’s mind.

Here is an Interview with Brian K. Vaughan from YouTube where he discusses his graphic novels, including the “Runaways” and where he discusses his future projects:

Brian Vaughan is an influential American comic book writer who addresses real-life issues through his original and often times extra-ordinary situations presented through his creative imagery and text.

Links:

New York Times article: http://www.slashfilm.com/2009/07/06/brian-k-vaughan-leaves-lost/

New York Magazine:http://nymag.com/daily/entertainment/2008/01/lost_and_y_the_last_man_writer.html

Comic Book Resources interview: http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=8051

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_K._Vaughan

Good Reads Bio Info: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/24514.Brian_K_Vaughan

Review by Tom Knapp: http://www.helium.com/items/623522-comic-book-reviews-ex-machina-by-brian-k-vaughan-and-tony-harris

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