A look into the making of space opera comic ‘Saga’ and Canada vs. U.S. war story ‘We Stand On Guard’

The world is ruled by women when all male mammals (all but two) die suddenly. A group of teens discover their parents are part of an evil crime organization. War-torn Iraq is seen through the eyes of lions escaped from the Baghdad Zoo. These are just some of the tales spun by Brian K. Vaughan, one of the most compelling, creative, thought-provoking writers in comic books today.

Issue #4 of Vaughan”s “We Stand On Guard” hits comic book store shelves today. The mini-series imagines a war between the U.S. and Canada about a century into the future. It centers on 18-year-old Canadian Amber, who”s survived on the run for 12 years when her older brother is captured by the American army.

The series will run for a total of six issues, though Vaughan told HitFix that he and artist Steve Skroce “are already talking about what we”re gonna work on next. There might be a possibility that we”ll return to the Great White North.”

Also released today is the first issue of Vaughan”s new series “Paper Girls,” with art by “Wonder Woman” artist Cliff Chaing. The new comic is about four 12-year-old newspaper delivery girls in the suburbs of 1980s Cleveland, Ohio (Vaughan”s birthplace). Vaughan said the new on-going series is “both the most personal thing I”ve ever written and also the weirdest thing I”ve ever been involved in. It”s nuts.”

Fans of Vaughan”s work are also eagerly awaiting the 31st issue of “Saga,” his multi-Eisner Award winning epic about Alana and Marko, parents on the run from both sides of a galactic war as they struggle to care for their daughter. Issue #31 will be released on Wednesday, November 25, after what feels like a long wait since the release of issue #30 this past July.

Vaughan has thrived in the comic book world, but he”s also done some work in Hollywood. He was a producer and writer for “Lost” and showran the first season of “Under the Dome.”

Read on to to learn what Vaughan had to say about how he collaborates with “Saga” artist Fiona Staples to create the book”s alien characters that are quirky and gorgeous and frightening all at once, what”s to come in “We Stand On Guard,” and how he feels about the inevitability that his young kids will someday be old enough to read his decidedly not-family-friendly comics. He also talks about the possibility of a “Y: The Last Man” television show – the film rights reverted back to the Vertigo comic”s creators last year when New Line Cinema”s a big screen adaptation couldn”t get off the ground.

HitFix: Where did you get the idea for “We Stand On Guard”?

Brian K. Vaughan: My wife was born in Canada. She”s from Ottawa. And Fiona Staples is Canadian, and Pia Guerra who drew “Y: The Last Man” is Canadian, and Adrian Alphona “Runaway””s co-creator is Canadian. And Niko Henrichon who drew “Pride of Baghdad” is Canadian. All of my favorite collaborators, whether it”s for making children or making art, have been Canadian. I guess I”ve always had such close friendship with them, and I thought it would be interesting to invert that premise and see what would happen if these close friends were forced to go at each other.

So do you feel like you have to get input on the comic from all your Canada experts?

You”ll find that no two Canadians agree about most things. So I have not forced them to check all my scripts, but Steve Skroce, he”s been very good at fact-checking, just telling me when I”ve stumbled too close to cliché or something that”s boring or familiar.

You have all these great Canada Easter eggs in the comic, like the year 2112 for “Rush” fans.

Some is just through Canadian osmosis, having enough Canadian friends that I”ve picked up on this, but there are some deep cuts that Steve puts in himself. There's a gag – a Canadian couple watching a futuristic show called “The Littlest Robo,” which is about a robot dog, and that”s kind of referencing a beloved Canadian show about a dog called “The Littlest Hobo.” That is far beyond even me. I have to give Steve a lot of credit for that.

Tell me why you wanted to tell a story where – at least as far as we can tell from the first three issues – the U.S. is the bad guy invading their polite northern neighbor.

We will before the end of this get a better sense of exactly what the Americans are up to. But, yeah, when I was working on “Pride of Baghdad,” it was really a desire to talk about non-combatants, what it”s like for civilians to live through war. And for this story, it was, about an insurgency, what it”s like for the people on the other side of an invasion, an occupation. Instead of setting it in the Middle East, where you have to bridge a language divide and a cultural barrier, by setting it in Canada – from the States, it is easy to identify with Canadians. Despite our differences, they are so much like us. That was a way to explore the idea of invasion a little bit closer to home.

Tell be about writing Chief McFadden”s torture in issue #3. The drowning/burning alive at the same time over and over again, followed by this horrible thing with her father – why did you decide those would be the most impactful torture tactics for this point in the story?

I think it's just reading about any kind of enhanced interrogation that has been done in the real world. The threat of physical violence and sexual violence — that”s as old as incarceration, particularly when it comes with the War on Terror. It was trying to hold up that sort of fun house mirror to the way the world is now and finding that a way that, perversely, you can do torture in a way where someone”s body is kept perfectly safe, but their mind is assaulted. It feels like kind of frighteningly real thing we might have to be dealing with in the not-too-distant future.

I wanna talk about Amber and her brother. Looking back at “Y: The Last Man,” Hero and Yorick is a very compelling brother-sister pair. I”m looking forward to seeing more of Amber and Tommy. I feel like well-done portrayals of brother-sister relationships are rather rare in pop culture stories. Great brother-brother, sister-sister stories are much more common. What do you think it takes to get that brother-sister relationship right, to make it relatable and compelling and complex?

I think about it -“Saga” is a story about Hazel, who”s an only child, and “Runaways,” they're all only children. So I haven't had the opportunity to write many siblings. But it helps having a brother and sister myself. And now, having a son and daughter myself. I have non-stop opportunities to see the violent and fascinating ways that brothers and sisters interact. Couldn”t help but end up in my stories.

What can you tease for us about issue #4 of “We Stand On Guard”?

In issue #4, we'll see, first of all, maybe my favorite cover of anything I”ve ever worked on. Steve just really outdid himself with this image of our coywolf – which is a real thing that's happening in the world with coyotes and wolves interbreeding – versus a robotic dog, this insane, nutty, beautiful cover. And probably the most complex, ornate action scene I've ever been involved with. It's really fun to see Steve sort of take the regulator off and take everything he's learned from decades of storyboarding. This will be the end of the Two-Four”s hideout, I will say. It ends in spectacular fashion in #4.

How do you decide which artist to collaborate with on each series?

It usually starts with a collaborator, [but] Saga was an idea I had before I knew who I wanted to work on it. With “We Stand On Guard,” it was more an opportunity of meeting Steve and talking with him, and though our interaction, this was born. Every project is completely different. I think back in the day when I was doing “Ex Machina” and “Runaways” and “Y: The Last Man” that it felt like it had three totally different audiences for each book, and it feels similar now to work with Cliff Chaing and Steve Skroce and Fiona. Each collaboration is so different that the books end up being wildly apart from each other, which is fun. 

Working with Fiona Staples on “Saga,” what is your approach to working with her to create these awesome, odd creatures and aliens on different planets and moons?

It”s me doing the least amount of work possible. It was realizing early on, “Holy s—, Fiona is one of the great designers of her generation,” so it is my job to give her the least information necessary and then get out of her way. The Stalk is a woman who is beautiful and alluring from the waist up and nightmarish horror from the waist down. It feels like those kind of base descriptions is where Fiona does her best. I try to keep it simple and just ride her coattails as far as I can.

What description did you give her for Ghüs?

Ghüs is the least Ive ever given Fiona, and then she brought him fully formed to me. Didn”t have a name yet, but just said, “This seal character wearing overalls, could he be part of the book?” I was like, “Not only can he be part of the book. Suddenly he's a vitally important part of the book.”

And a very adorable part of the book.

Thank you. He is a joy. Just anytime you get a page with him on it is a treat. I think the book has just gotten to a nice place where Fiona and I have that sort of effortless interaction. Her artwork just works in this world. 

What other species or characters with cool designs will we see in future issues?

Well, we just saw a glimpse of her, but this next storyline is going to involve Hazel starting kindergarten, among other things, so we have Noreen who is a preying mantis-like alien teacher. So we will be seeing much more of her. And we will be seeing some very different kind of residents of Wreath. There'll be some other surprises. I”ll say this next arc is a lot about revisiting old friends.

Will we get to meet any more Freelancers?

Um, that is always a possibility. It”s a dangerous world out there. We know at the least that The Will has been re-activated. The most dangerous Freelancer of them all s back out there.

Will we get to meet Alana”s father, beyond just a wedding photo, anytime soon?

Anything is possible.

You sound like someone who”s written for a super-secretive J.J. Abrams show.

Well, the joy of ”Saga” – and I think part of the reason people like it – is that when we kill off a character that that character”s gonna be gone forever. Characters aren”t gonna get a spin-off series or anything. You don”t know what's going to happen inside the pages of our book, and that”s rare. We try to protect spoilers as much as possible.

How has being the father of two children influenced your writing?

My kids are really young, and they”re roughly the age that Hazel is now at this point in the story, starting kindergarten. The effect has been profound. “Saga” started right around the birth of my first child. Without my kids, that book definitely wouldn”t exist. Writing this book has been my way of trying to process and understand what it means to be a parent. It is sometimes more difficult to find time to write when you have two small kids, but it is much easier to find things to write about. The second one “Saga” storyline ends, my kids go through some sort of fascinating developmental leap forward – I just know if I add in rocketships and ray guys, it”s a story built to go.

Have you given any thought to how things will go the day your kids are old enough to read your work?

I”ve not thought about that too much. I would worry I would censor myself since I always wanted “Saga” to be a story about family, but it is not a family-friendly story. I can think as far ahead as getting my kids started on “Runaways.” There”s a book about how your parents are evil, which is something I”m sure my kids already know. No, them reading “Saga,” that is a nightmare I”ll have to face someday.

While we”re on the topic of family, I wanna ask about an idea that”s explored in “Saga” – this idea of a parent taking a job that they hate, that”s soul-sucking, to support their family. Alana hates that her father did that, and then she goes and does that herself. Why was that a concept you wanted to explore, though your own lens – I assume – of earning a living in a way that you do enjoy?

Yeah, but I”ve certainly worked jobs that were less than ideal. I had ups and downs working in Hollywood. I”m sure a lot of that has made it into that Alana Open Circuit storyline. At the same time, my life has never been as challenging or as difficult as Alana”s. I have mostly had just a pampered, cushy existence with jobs where you always get free lunch. A lot of “Saga” is me thinking about the worst case scenarios of my life.

With “Saga,” and with your other work too, I find myself identifying with characters with competing agendas. Part of me hoped the robot prince would succeed in his mission just so he could get back home in time for his baby”s birth. Tell me how you juggle and play off of these competing sympathies you”ve created for readers to have for different characters.

Oh, well, thanks. First of all, it is Fiona creating visually characters that, even if you don't like them, you identify with them immediately and you recognize – even if they have a television for a head – their body language and the way they carry themselves, they just feel so real. Secondly, I just try to write approaching everything with the idea that heroes and villains are fiction, that those are just terms that we impose on people, that no one is a good guy or a bad guy. That everyone in life is just trying to make it through the day, and if they have a family, to look out for them. It”s been fun to see that some of readers” favorite characters are the people who are supposed to be murdering our protagonists. But you end up caring about them as well.

How big of a time jump is there between issue #30 and #31 of “Saga”?

We already got a hint of it by seeing that Hazel”s about 5 years old, kindergarten age now. So we”ll be picking up not long after that jump. It”s been over a year. We”ll get to see how each character has changed over that time.

Will Hazel still be with her grandmother, or have they been separated?

Hmm. That”s a fascinating question. You will have to wait to find out. You will have an answer to that question and how alone Hazel is with #31.

I read that Fiona Staples is actually not a big fan of drawing technology.

It”s something she warned me about when we had our early discussions about “Saga.” She said, “I”m willing to draw anything. Whatever you need me to draw, I”ll be happy to do,” but technology was not her favorite thing. I was panicked because I knew this was gonna be a comic with rocketships and ray guns. But it was great because we came up with things like the Rocketship Forest, specifically, as sort of a work-around to cater Fiona”s strengths.

What”s it like to see cosplays of your characters?

Oh, it”s great. There”s nothing more surreal than having something that”s a figment of your imagination walk up to you at a convention to shake your hand. That will never stop being cool.

Do you have any favorite cosplays or ones that have particularly impressed you?

At New York Comic Con last year there were two people who went as somewhat obscure characters, these reporters Upsher and Doff. Two people came separately as these characters, and their eyes met across Comic Con, and they ran up to each other, and they were like, Aren””t you-” and “Aren””t you-” It was really fun. They came up together to introduce themselves. Cosplay bringing people together.

Did you see that in an episode of “Supernatural” this past season, Felicia Day was wearing a Lying Cat T-shirt?

I did. That is the coolest thing of all time. I was working on a TV show at the time, and it was not as cool as Lying Cat showing up on a T-shirt in someone else”s show.

Do you know for how many issues total will “Saga” run?

No. I keep saying that my goal is to do one issue longer than “The Walking Dead.” So it”s whenever Robert Kirkman hangs up the hat.

You have a lot of catching up to do.

I”ve got my work cut out for me. But no, I know exactly how the story ends, but I don”t know how long it will take to get there, but I don't want it to be any time soon. Realistically, if the day comes that Fiona says, “I can't draw another panel of this nonsense,” that will be the end of it, but right now, we have plans for stories for many years to come.

What”s the status of a potential “Y: The Last Man” big or small screen adaptation?

Cautiously optimistic, I think, on the television front for “Y: The Last Man.” Nothing concrete to share, but it seems to be moving in a slow but positive direction.

[Update, Oct. 14, 2015, 3:37 p.m. ET: Indeed, Vaughan had good reason to be optimistic about a television adaptation. The Hollywood Reporter revealed today that Vaughan is developing a “Y: The Last Man” TV series with FX.]

Fans have been very vocal about whether it”s better suited to a film or a TV adaptation. Why do you think TV is the best medium for it?

Well, I”ll say the best medium for it is comics.

Yes, of course. But after that.

Pia and I have never seen “Y” as “oh, these are the glorified storyboards that we”ve finished, and we just need someone to get it over the line.” We did it. The story is perfect. So I”ve always been open to – when filmmakers saw a vision for it as a movie, it”s been exciting, or as a TV show – I”m open to either. For me, it”s still comics. That's where it”s at. It continues to get the majority of my focus. It's the best place to make new things. And that”s what makes me happiest. I”m just focused on comics now.

So you”re focused on comics now, but if the opportunity came in the future for you to work on a “Y: The Last Man” TV show, would you take it?

Both Pia Guerra and I are open to being creatively involved. I”m open. Can”t say much more than that.

Who”s your dream cast or Yorick, Agent 355 and Allison Mann? You gotta have some people in mind.

You know, not really. It”s fun to read other people”s lists, but some people”s lists have not changed since the book came out in 2002, and some people that I thought would be incredible for Yorick are now grandfathers, old farts like me. A largely unknown cast would be terrific. I just want good people. I don”t need familiar faces.

From those lists that we know aren”t going to happen now since it”s not 2002 anymore, are there any specific names you thought would be compelling casting ideas?

It would not be very diplomatic to start throwing out names. “Oh that person has to live up to that-” It should be my secret shame, my own private “Y: The Last Man” Shame List.

Alright. We”ll let you keep that secret. We”ll leave it to the fans to come up with dream casts. Fans do enjoy playing casting director.

I understand the appeal.

I saw that you attended St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland. Personally, I”m curious, having had a Jesuit education myself, would you say having a Jesuit education has had any influence on your writing?

Unquestionably. I went to an all-boys Catholic high school in Cleveland. And I”m sure the seeds of “Y: The Last Man” were planted in me going to our sister school to act in their plays since they needed boys to act in theirs. The weird experience of walking through their hallways. But definitely receiving a rigorous moral education is a fascinating thing for a young person to go through. A lot of that Ignatian teaching has ended up in my comics. My poor mother would say not enough of my Catholic education has made it into my books. But it's in there.

What does your mom think of your comic books?

My parents, both my mother and father, are the best, and even though Geoffrey and Catherine Wilder, Alex Wilder”s evil parents in “Runaways,” are named after my parents, it is not because my parents were villainous. It is just because they have an excellent sense of humor. It seems like they”re two of the few parents out there – particularly when I was growing up – who had no qualms at the idea that their son wanted to be a comic book creator, that they never pushed me in another direction, that they were just insanely supportive. They still show up at their local comic book store every Wednesday to pick up my stuff. They're the best. I would not be in comics without them.

“We Stand On Guard” #4 and “Paper Girls” #1 are available today in comic book stores and digitally. “Saga” #31 will be released on November 25. All three series are published by Image Comics.