Brian K. Vaughan on TV's Comic Book Evolution and Why 'Y: The Last Man' Is More Relevant Than Ever
The comic book favorite talks with THR about bringing his beloved Marvel property 'Runaways' to Hulu and what's next ('Saga'?).
Comic book fans have waited almost 15 years for Marvel's Runaways, dreaming about the hopeful day that the world at large would know the likes of Alex Wilder, the Pride, Fistigons, the Staff of One and Old Lace. Seeing the six teens at the heart of the new Hulu series (launching Nov. 21) gathered together for the first time in poster form was certainly a surreal sight for anyone tracking the beloved comic's live-action adaptation process — and that includes Brian K. Vaughan, the writer who brought Runaways into existence.
"I cannot begin to describe it," Vaughan tells The Hollywood Reporter. "When I helped create the book, I was much closer in age to these actors playing the Runaways. Now, I'm much closer in age to their parents. It's surreal to meet my fictional children when I've brought my actual children to the set, to meet my fictional kids. It couldn't have been cooler. They're all so nice. It feels like they're ripped right out of the pages of the book. It's fantastic."
For the uninitiated, Marvel's Runaways tells the story of six teenagers who, like most adolescents, have long suspected their parents are the worst — only to have those suspicions confirmed in all-too-real fashion, when they discover their mothers and fathers are part of a deadly organization known as the Pride. For the fully initiated, some changes have been made in the adaptation process. Molly Hayes is now Molly Hernandez, for instance, while one character's secret nefarious agenda does not appear to have made the leap to television. These changes are fully supported by Vaughan, who serves as a consultant on the TV series, co-created by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage (The O.C., Gossip Girl).
"It was important to me that we do something where people can't go online and read how this ends or what's going to happen next," says Vaughan. "If you're a fan of the comic, you're going to be surprised. If you've never read the comic, you're going to be surprised."
Vaughan, who launched the Marvel Comics series in 2003 alongside illustrator Adrian Alphona, is the mastermind behind some of the most beloved comic books of the millennium. The list of achievements includes Y: The Last Man, the Vertigo Comics series he co-created in 2002 with artist Pia Guerra, set in a world where virtually every male mammal on Earth dies in an instant, save for one man and his pet monkey Ampersand; Saga, co-created by Fiona Staples, an ongoing Image Comics space opera about two star-crossed lovers evading fantastical forces intent on capturing their young daughter, the product of a forbidden love affair; and Paper Girls, yet another ongoing Image series, this one co-created by Cliff Chiang, a Spielbergian suburban epic about four 12-year-old newspaper delivery girls in Cleveland.
Beyond comics, Vaughan is a seasoned veteran in the television landscape, having written for ABC's Lost during seasons three through five, and serving as executive producer and showrunner of the CBS adaptation of Stephen King's Under the Dome. Over the years, he set out to adapt his own works, writing screenplays for feature iterations of Y: The Last Man and Runaways, both of which reached varying stages of development, but ultimately never materialized — at least not in film form. Now, both beloved comics are on their way to the small screen, with Michael Green (Starz's American Gods) tapped to adapt Y as an FX television series — and much more imminently, the 10-hour first season of Runaways, the first three episodes of which arrive November 21 on Hulu.
In a sprawling interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Vaughan charts Runaways' journey from underdog comic book to much-hyped television series. Additionally, he provides his views on how dramatically television has shifted even in the two years since Under the Dome ended, updates on the status of the Y: The Last Man adaptation, and why he still thinks the world isn't ready for Saga to follow Runaways into the live-action arena.
Who was Brian K. Vaughan when he first created Runaways?
Well … I was a lot younger! (Laughs.) I was a really naive young creator. I was desperate to make my mark and break into the world of comics. I also probably had more hangups about adults. I was a much more cynical young man. But I have to give the kid credit. He came up with this whacky idea that I'm not sure I would have been able to come up with in this day and age. I'm both humbled by his limitations, and grateful for his imagination.
When you think back to that time, what was the genesis of Runaways?
I love Marvel Comics. I revered Stan Lee. I continue to, obviously. I really wanted to know what a 21st century Marvel comic would feel like. I love the simplicity of Marvel's concepts, and also the integrity of intent. Spider-Man is: "With great power comes great responsibility." Daredevil is: "Justice is blind." Hulk is this exploration of the monster trapped within the man. There's just such clarity and force to it. I wanted something that was simple, but also felt a little bit subversive. If the DC characters always felt a little austere and more like your dad, it felt like the Marvel characters were rougher-edged. I wanted to reverse-engineer what Stan Lee might make if he was [starting to make] comics in the early 2000s.
Which brings us to the high concept of Runaways: Kids often suspect their parents are secretly the worst people on the planet, and in the case of these kids, it turns out their fears are valid. What was the genesis of that idea?
I knew I wanted to do a book about young protagonists. At the time, it felt like most other superhero characters revered their parents. Bruce Wayne is always staring up at the portrait of his dead parents. Peter Parker is obsessed with his guardians. I felt like they really loved their parents. I always thought if Bruce Wayne's parents hadn't died by the time he was 16, he would probably be a selfish shit, getting into fights with them and yelling at them. I wanted to take a bunch of characters who instead of revering their parents, rightly didn't trust them. It felt like an exciting change, and something I thought a lot of young readers would be able to identify with.
Did it start with a character? Is there someone within the Runaways, or even the Pride, who came to you first?
Alex Wilder's parents are named Geoffrey and Catherine, and those are my parents' names, too. But I have to stress that my parents are just the loveliest human beings in the world, particularly now that I have children of my own. I look back on them with nothing but reverence for what they put up with. But weirdly, Alex and his parents were the start of it: three people who didn't necessarily have any kind of superpowers, but were crafty. It spilled out from there. After that, I knew I wanted to do a book where males were in the minority. It always felt like team books had one, maybe two female characters. At best, you would have parity, and have an equal number of both. But I knew I wanted the women to outnumber the men.
How much room did you give yourself to create the story on the fly?
I always go in with a pretty detailed roadmap, but always with the freedom to diverge and take side trips. For example, before Adrian Alphona came on board, I always expected the book going in a more conventional direction, and the characters eventually getting costumes and using their code names all of the time. As soon as I saw Adrian's artwork, it was so unlike anything you had seen in a Marvel comic before. The teenagers felt so real and well-defined that it felt like we didn't have to put them in costumes. They could have backup code names they rarely used. For the most part, it's Chase and Nico. They felt like real people. The book definitely changed, always for the better, after Adrian came on board. It never would have worked without him. Especially because he was and obviously remains younger than I am, and was just so much cooler than I am. He was in tune with culture, but not in a way where he was ever trying to ape any one particular style. He was just so unique. If the book feels dated at all, it's because of my dialogue and references. The look of his world is so fresh and unique. It felt cool. With anyone else, it would have been a competent, fine superhero book. But with Adrian, it really became special.
What was the reception to Runaways like at the time of its publication? Did any part of you imagine it could have the legs to eventually become a TV series?
I was certain it would be canceled by issue number six. Comics is very rarely receptive to wholly new ideas, and they certainly weren't very receptive to wholly new ideas from creators they've never heard of. The book came out, and at first, it felt like it landed with a bit of a thud. It was there. I felt like it would evaporate relatively quickly. But it seemed like once the book started to be collected in these manga-sized digest formats, it really exploded. It started reaching kids who sit in the aisles of Barnes and Noble and devour these manga books. It was maybe an audience Marvel wasn't reaching at the time. A younger audience that didn't know or care too much about the complicated and complex histories of the Marvel Universe. After that first collection happened, it felt like it was starting to catch on. So, it was a slow build. Even at the height of whatever our success was, I thought it would be a cult book. It always meant the most to me when someone would come up to me and say something nice about Runaways, as opposed to Y: The Last Man or Saga. It always felt like the least loved step-child of my books. The fact that it's the first to cross the finish line, to get this mainstream adaptation, is completely unbelievable.
Runaways was even briefly canceled while you were working on it, right?
Yeah, with issue number 18. That was it. It was over. I wrote it thinking it would be the end of the last Runaways story anyone would ever read. Shortly after I wrote it, I don't remember if I wrote it before it went to print or not, but Marvel started looking at the numbers of collections and started saying, "Holy shit. We might have something on our hands here." So it got quickly uncanceled, and we were able to come back. And the book is back once again at Marvel now [written by Rainbow Wilken and illustrated by Kris Anka], which is very cool. I remember hearing when I was young that that had happened to the X-Men. It was kind of a weird cult book that disappeared, and then it was uncanceled and it had a new life. The fact that we got to take a much smaller version of that X-Men resurrection journey for our comic book was incredibly cool.
In your creator-owned comics like Saga and Y: The Last Man, there's no scenario in which someone comes in after you and writes further stories. Those are your properties. With Runaways, it's different. Joss Whedon succeeded you on the title. Was it difficult for you to leave these characters behind, to be passed along to new creators?
No, not at all. I broke into comics through Marvel. I was 19 when I started writing there. I broke in writing other people's characters. I got to write Spider-Man and Wolverine. I felt like I owed Marvel Comics a lot, and I owed the creators whose work I got to write on. I wanted to throw something back into the toy box. With all of my other books, I love that the artist and I get to control them on our own terms. But with Runaways, I wanted to create something that I would then eventually put up for adoption. I think they've been treated very well by their other foster parents after I abandoned them.
And now you're back with these characters, engaging them through this entirely different medium.
It's the last thing I ever expected to have happen. It feels like it happened very quickly! In some form or another, I feel like I've been hearing about a Y: The Last Man adaptation for almost this whole past 15 years or so. With Runaways, it feels like it was just the other day that Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage sat down with me and said they were thinking about doing this — and now, pow! The red carpet premiere is any day now. It happened very quickly and very surprisingly.
Early in the first arc, Chase has a great line: "You've been watching too many WB shows, bro." It's really funny in retrospect, now that Runaways has linked up with the architects of The CW's Gossip Girl. Was that any kind of knowing reference at the time, that this would be a fun way to take the series if you ever had the chance?
No, I've never thought that way about any of my comics. A lot of creators look at comics as kind of a stepping stone, and then film and TV validates your ideas. For me, comics were always the destination, not the roadmap. To me, Adrian's interpretation of the characters was all I ever imagined. I don't know if it's a lack of imagination on my part or what, but I never really thought about TV. If anything, I think I thought I was doing stuff that could never possibly be done on television. It's got a psychic dinosaur and giant flying aliens. It's incredible that television as a medium and the effects television can accomplish have gotten to a point where you can realistically put the show on the air. That's not something I could have conceived of way back when.
There have been several attempts to adapt Runaways for the better part of a decade. For a time, it looked like it was going to be a Marvel Studios film. You were attached to the script at one point …
I was, yeah. I was thinking about doing that at Marvel. And then they were very nice about it, but they decided they were going to go in another direction with this obscure book called Guardians of the Galaxy. I thought they were crazy. Guardians of the Galaxy? That's less well-known than Runaways! (Laughs.) That's just another indication that [Marvel Studios boss] Kevin Feige is a genius and he knows exactly what he's doing. I'm glad, though. As much as I love Marvel Studios, Runaways feels like it's much more at home on television than it would have been on the big screen.
What was it about Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage's take that really speaks to the concept of Runaways, in your mind?
First and foremost, they are terrific writers. That's all I care about. Can you write lovely dialogue and characters we care about? In the book, I wouldn't say our parents are two-dimensional, but they are pretty clear-cut villains. My loyalty was always with the young characters. I liked that right away, their thinking was: "How much more interesting would this world be if we came to care about the parents as much as we care about the kids?" Having become a parent in the last two years, I've looked back on some of the ways I judged my parents. Parents aren't gods. They're sleepy, dizzy human beings trying their best to do an impossible job. I have much more sympathy and empathy for adults, particularly parents in general. Getting to show another side of these adults was a fantastic opportunity. [Schwartz and Savage's] level of sophistication and the care with which they took for all of these characters meant a lot to me.
How involved with the show are you behind-the-scenes?
I have to say, they have been so generous — they give me a lot of credit — but in reality, this is very much Josh and Stephanie's show. They have assembled an incredible group of writers that I have been lucky enough to sit in with. I have a consultant title. They certainly consulted with me at every stage. The reality is, they didn't really need my help all that much. It was a lot of asking questions about, "How the hell do we do this? How do you pronounce this character's name? What do you think about us changing this?" I feel my job was to give them the cloud cover, the freedom I guess, to make it their own. If this is going to succeed in 2017 as a television show, you can't treat the 2003 comic book as storyboards to be adapted exactly. It needs to evolve. It needs to change. I was hopeful that they would make it their own, and they very much have.
In terms of the changes they have made, is their one that's particularly striking to you — an improvement even, in your estimation?
All of our kids were only children when we did the book. The cast was already so huge and I didn't want Adrian to have to draw more people. But I loved the addition of giving Nico a dearly departed sister, and how her death has affected all of the Runaways and brought them together. I feel like that's enormously clever, and a change for the better.
Molly is another character who has changed; in the comics, she's a mutant, but we're not seeing any mutants in the Marvel Cinematic Universe due to Fox possessing the rights to the X-Men. What were the most important aspects of Molly Hayes from the Runaways comic book that needed to be translated to Molly Hernandez of the Runaways TV series?
I know the concern is that we were freighting a lot of parents. What if there was a mystery around Molly's parents, and making her Gert's adopted little sister? I thought that was terrific. It was a very clever and economical change. I also loved how Runaways has a relatively diverse and inclusive cast. If we're making a show about a contemporary Los Angeles, can we make the show even more inclusive — so she's not just another white kid, and I thought that was terrific. In terms of actors, I think it helps when you age them up a little bit. Instead of Molly being a precocious ten-year-old which works on the page, aging her up a little bit like they have works great. Those are all changes that I approved of very much. Molly Hayes was based on my little sister, whose name is Molly Hayes Vaughan. Even she's hugely supportive of this change to Molly Hernandez. If the woman who inspired the original Molly gives the thumbs up to this Molly, then we're on the right track.
In addition to being a prolific comic book creator, you're a television veteran as well, between Lost and Under the Dome. First of all, as a Lost nerd, thank you for "The Shape of Things to Come."
How do you feel television has shifted as a medium since the last time you were fully steeped in this world?
Oh, man. It's changed so much. I remember when I left Lost, I was going around trying to find a home for something original. Even back then, there were so few opportunities — even with the cable outlets — to really do new and ambitious work. It's changed completely. There are so many streaming outlets. There are so many opportunities to go somewhere. It's not about broadcast and reaching the widest audience possible. You can do something very specific and very unique, and your audience will find you. I know I'm not the first one to say it's the golden age of television, but it certainly feels that way.
Does it make you want to dip back into that well, and develop something brand new for TV?
It's certainly something I think about. I get a lot of nice offers. For right now, I'm so deep into [writing the comic books] Saga and Paper Girls. I love that those books afford me a chance to still hang out with my children. That's something television doesn't do as much. It's so time-consuming. I'll return to it someday. But right now, getting to balance little league with comic book deadlines is perfect for me.
Do you prefer seeing characters you have created come to life in the hands of people you trust? For instance, Y: The Last Man is currently in development with Michael Green, whose body of work speaks for itself …
No kidding. He's incredible.
Do you prefer having someone take the wheel on one of your creations while you can experience it almost as a very involved spectator?
Yes, for sure. It used to be that I'd think: "I want to do all of these adaptations myself! I worked in film and television. I know how to do this shit! Just give me the ball, coach. I'll go out there and do it!" I read recently a quote from the novelist Richard Price when he was being asked why he doesn't adapt his own work anymore. He said something along the lines of: "Adapting your own work is like giving yourself a root canal, just because you happen to be a dentist. You would be well-advised to let others handle that." I'm very grateful to have other people doing this dental work, and as you say, I get to just largely enjoy it as a fan.
What can you say about Michael Green as a dentist, drilling into Y: The Last Man?
Again, he's a beautiful writer. Wow, can that guy write. I wanted to find someone who loved the source material, but didn't feel so indebted to it that they would be afraid to change it. When he first pitched his take on it to Nina Jacobson, our producer, and me a long time ago, he came in saying he wanted to do something about toxic masculinity. It felt very relevant, and unfortunately I think it's only become more relevant with each passing day. His take on it was really brave and very different, but exciting as well. I really admire how audacious he's been with his translation.
You've talked about Saga as being almost unadaptable, where you and Fiona Staples are designing this story to be a challenge to bring to life outside of comics. Has your experience with Runaways, and the experience you're having with Michael on Y: The Last Man, changed your opinion at all on Saga and its ability to be adapted? Are TV and film even ready for a story of Saga's size and scale?
(Laughs.) You know, I still probably think not yet. But I wouldn't have imagined what was possible with Runaways now being possible 15 years ago … so, maybe in 15 years we will have caught up. I still think for now, I flatter myself to think Fiona and I are doing something that celebrates what only comics can do, which is the scope beyond a Hollywood blockbuster in terms of the visuals, but also a challenging grown-up story like you would get in a long-form TV drama. I think it's still very difficult, with what we're trying to say and do, for that to be done in film and television. I remain not completely opposed to it. But for me, it's so not the goal. I would rather just keep my head down and keep making a great comic book, then get out there and chase a great adaptation.
Can you describe the experience of living in the trenches with Alanna, Marko and Hazel, and expanding this epic and moving story on a day-to-day basis with Fiona?
Well, it keeps me sane. (Laughs.) Hazel is growing up at the exact same rate that my daughter is growing up. Every storyline, I deal with a new challenge of parenthood, watching your kids go off to their first day of school — or, god forbid, their first medical crisis. I'm able to channel whatever my fear or confusion about my real life is into this fictional world. Saga is my ongoing cheap form of self-therapy.
Saga is on one of its infamous hiatuses right now. What's coming up in the next arc?
Volume nine is about fake news and genuine terror. Fiona and I talked about how we haven't done an arc yet that has a real horror film feel to it. This is about horror, and also about the world of news that these tabloid reporter characters Upsher and Doff come from coming to the fore with the rest of our crew. We'll be exploring news in the universe of Saga, and what that's going to mean for our family's future.
Marvel's Runaways premieres November 21 on Hulu, with the first three episodes of season one released all at once. Stay tuned to THR for more coverage of the new superhero series.