Thursday, March 08, 2007

The state of Brian K. Vaughan

I know this makes it sound like I am about to give the guy a medical exam, but with last week's ending of both his Doctor Strange mini-series and his run on Runaways, plus his move to the writing staff of Lost and the impending conclusion of Y the Last Man, it seemed like a good time for a little Brian K. Vaughan assessment. In addition to all those farewells, he also wrote two of the most acclaimed works of 2006, the graphic novel Pride of Baghdad (from DC/Vertigo) and the Dark Horse mini-series The Escapists, a sort of sequel to every comics geek's favorite hipster novel, Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. And since I finally got around to reading both of those, I have to paradoxically say that while Vaughan is probably my favorite writer working in comics today, he's also gotten a little overrated.

While The Escapists was a perfectly nice little story about aspiring comics creators, isn't every other indie comic a perfectly nice little story about aspiring creators of something? It started promisingly enough, with some fun character interaction and a more low-key, slice-of-life approach from Vaughan, who usually goes for the more fast-paced and suspenseful. But then Vaughan's penchant for cliffhangers (which he's very good at) came into play, and it turned into a half-assed suspense story about whether the heroes would get caught staging their little promotional stunts for their revival of long-dormant character the Escapist (created by Kavalier and Clay), complete with an evil corporation trying to steal their work. And the scenes representing the new Escapist comic never really integrated into the story well, or offered the insight they were meant to. It definitely felt like Vaughan coasted toward the end, or that slice-of-life stories just aren't his thing.

The acclaim for The Escapists was nothing compared to that for Pride of Baghdad, which was glowingly reviewed all over mainstream outlets in addition to the comics press. And certainly it's a much stronger work, not least for being an original graphic novel and thus eschewing any episodic cliffhangers. It does have a quiet power to it, and some gorgeous artwork by Niko Henrichon. But let me say this (spoiler alert if you haven't read it): A great deal of the emotional impact comes from the ending, and it doesn't take any talent to wring sadness and horror out of having a bunch of adorable and likeable animals senselessly slaughtered by unfeeling humans. Sure, they may be more well-rounded characters than your average cartoon animals, but it's still a knee-jerk reaction that any hack could elicit. I did like the way the animal perspective sort of sidestepped politics and boiled down the conflict to basic, visceral elements, and just because the ending was easy doesn't mean it wasn't well-executed. But for all its praise, this didn't come close to the masterpiece of animals in comics, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's We3.

Lest it seem like I am all down on Vaughan these days, I'll point out that Y is still going strong, and has a renewed energy after the disappointing arc that explained the origins of the plague. I have every confidence that it'll end in just as fascinating, entertaining and unexpected a fashion as it started. Unfortunately, it may be a while before that happens, as Vaughan's new workload on Lost means that the final six issues are going to be parceled out bi-monthly. The one ongoing series that he'll have left, Ex Machina, is also still going strong, reaching its halfway point while continuing to improve. I still don't think it's as exciting as Y, or that it will have the same kind of impact over time. But it's gotten richer and more engrossing as it's gone on, and it tackles politics in much the same cut-through-the-bullshit way as Pride of Baghdad, while effectively using the patented Vaughan cliffhanger. Once it's my only Vaughan fix every month (which it looks like it will be shortly), I don't think it'll seem inadequate.

And that brings us back to last week's endings. The Doctor Strange series, which has also been widely praised, was to me a fun throwaway superhero story and little else. I'm not a longtime Strange fan, so I haven't endured the years of shitty stories that seem to have made this series such a relief for many. I came for Vaughan, and he delivered, but you can also see why he's said that it (and his long-delayed Wolverine mini with Eduardo Risso, due out later this year) will represent his swan song on company-owned characters. There just isn't the same feeling of investment from him. Of course, the opposite is true for Runaways, which is also company-owned, but created by Vaughan and clearly very close to his heart, as he often refers to the characters as his legacy in the Marvel universe. His (and artist Adrian Alphona's) final issue offered closure to their last storyline as well as a measure of same to many of the overarching plot elements of their entire run, including the fates of Alex Wilder and the Gibborim. It also opened new doors for upcoming writer Joss Whedon, and really did feel like Vaughan wanted to sort of set the characters free, trusting other writers to treat them well. I'm certain Whedon, at least, will be up to the task.

Although I'm glad that Vaughan is being embraced by Hollywood, working on screenplays for the Y and Ex Machina films in addition to joining the Lost staff, despite his protestations to the contrary it really does feel like he's leaving comics behind (other than the Wolverine series, which I'm pretty sure was written a while ago, he has no new projects on the horizon). He's a master of the longform episodic story, and short of creating and showrunning his own TV series, comics are the only way he's really going to get to showcase that talent. I have no doubt that he's got some terrific ideas to unleash, and all I can hope is that after being the one to completely untangle and invigorate Lost's muddled mythology (one can dream, right?), he'll be back at Vertigo or somewhere similar to showcase them all for his eager readers.

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