As the new millennium dawned, it was apparent that it was an exciting time to be reading comic books. Warren Ellis had just finished a VERY successful launch of the Authority (a series that saw even greater success under the guidance of Mark Millar). Grant Morrison had begun his run on New X-men -a series that would reimagine the X-men’s mission statement until Morrison left the title. And the Ultimate line of comics revitalized the entire concept of the Marvel Universe by starting everything back at the beginning. Comics at the dawn of the millennium began to explore the idea of cinematic over-the-topness that still permeates the medium to a certain extent today, but amidst this action movie mentality there was Brian K. Vaughan who was more concerned with telling little character pieces.
And now, he has completely disappeared from comic books altogether.
I have to admit that I wasn’t too impressed by Brian K. Vaughan’s work at first. After Mark Millar left Ultimate X-men (a run that, admittedly, would have been difficult to follow), Brian Michael Bendis had a six issue stint, and then BKV took the reins, but he never could quite recreate the high-octane action that the previous writers had brought to the title. It wasn’t until Vaughan’s last story arc (“Magnetic North”) that he seemed to really hit his stride. There were times that his Ultimate X-men was so bad that I debated about dropping the book altogether, but I stuck it out (a mistake) and then I foolishly swore to never read another Brian K. Vaughan title ever again. It wasn’t until after his two most famous comics had already ended that I came back to Vaughan’s work and immediately regretted my stupid vow to avoid his comics.
Y: the Last Man – A critically-acclaimed hit from the very start, Y: the Last Man completely changed the idea of what a comic book could be (comics published by Vertigo have a tendency to do that). Nearly everyone has heard of this comic, so I’ll spare the usually obligatory description of plot, and discuss the bigger issue of how it is constructed.
Y: the Last Man is the anti-comic book.
Whereas most comic books are power fantasies for males, this comic follows the last man on Earth as he tries to survive a world run by females. Even in the initial premise, the story is counter to the a-typical comic book story. Instead of the male being heroic and in control of his life, he is dependent upon females for protection and survival.
Second is the passage of time. Decompressed story-telling was immensely popular after the dawn of the millennium. Stories that could have easily been wrapped up in three issues in the 90′s were stretched out to six issue stories for the purposes of collection in the tradepaperback. While Y: the Last Man certainly has thrived as a trade, the story rarely stretches out too long in places. Vaughan seems to know when each story needs to wrap and move on to the next beat.
Finally, the ending to the series. I won’t spoil anything, but the last few issues of the series were incredibly powerful, imaginative, logical, and perfect. Vaughan subverts a few expectations, but does so in a way that felt right.
Runaways – No matter how great and subversive Y: the Last Man is, I will always love Runaways more. The comic follows the children of the supervillain organization the Pride as they run from their parents. These kids aren’t superheroes per se, but they care for one another, and Vaughan is so masterful in his characterization of these kids that it makes one forget that there isn’t a whole lot of action in the book.
What I love about this book the most is that Vaughan takes the typical superhero conventions (secret bases, decoder rings, etc.) and reimagines them. He takes all of the things that are inherently cool about comic books and repurposes them to be cool once again. All at once, the comic takes the standard archetypes (alien, robot, mutant, magic, inventor, dinosaur, etc.) and embraces them in a new way so as to make the series a wild and beautiful story about everything in comic books.
Furthermore, I’ve found Runaways trades at school libraries before and every time I see them, I get a smile on my face because its a series that teens would love if it was promoted correctly. Unfortunately, after Vaughan left the title, it fell apart. I know that Joss Whedon had a successful run and I won’t argue against that, but the series really went off the rails without BKV’s direction.
While Y: the Last Man was an incredibly special series that couldn’t go beyond the 60 issue run that Vaughan had planned (well, it could if BKV wanted to, I suppose), Runaways was a series that should have been more popular than it was. It should still be in print today with a new writer hammering out these beautiful and brilliant ideas that Vaughan had established. It should be Marvel’s answer to DC’s Teen Titans, but instead, it has disappeared.
So, seriously, whatever happened to Brian K. Vaughan? – I suppose one could say that Lost happened to Brian K. Vaughan. As his comics started wrapping up, BKV made the jump to TV as he became a staff writer on Lost (it should be noted that his episodes are among some of the best, but maybe I’m biased). His last regular comic series, Ex Machina, has finished as well and with that, Brian K. Vaughan is no longer putting out a regular comic book. Also, he isn’t working in TV anymore, so seriously, what is he doing?
The comic industry could really use Brian K. Vaughan back. Between the two series I’ve mentioned, BKV has done a lot to keep comics afloat. With Y: the Last Man, Vaughan was able to create a literary comic that brought in many readers that would have never read a comic book otherwise. With Runaways, Vaughan was able to appeal to a younger audience and create a gateway from school libraries into the Marvel Universe.
It’s my hope that Brian K. Vaughan will one day return to comics, because (as good as his work has been) it would be a shame if that is all there is.