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Brian K. Vaughan

Best Comics of 2013: The Private Eye

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tpeye_01_smallNot content with writing Saga, one of the most universally-acclaimed comics around (and former Alternate Cover “Best Of” inductee), Brian K. Vaughan chose to give the medium another kick up the arse this year when he teamed with Marcos Martin to release The Private Eye, a noirish sci-fi tale set in a world where everyone has a secret identity and the Internet doesn’t exist.

But before we discuss the story, we have to discuss the form. The Private Eye is the first (and thus far only) release from Panel Syndicate, a digital-only publisher selling DRM-free comics. It was revolutionary enough for two of the industry’s top creators to be releasing a new and original work under that model, but the fact that they also went pay-what-you-like on it suggested that this was a serious attempt to find a new model for comics publishing, rather than a gimmick. It was, in no small way, hugely exciting, and may have been the catalyst for Image Comics to make their own store DRM-free, which they did just a few months ago. For committed digital readers like me, it’s been good to see. And with this much emphasis on the sales model, it helps that the actual comic is great too.

Fresh off his work on Amazing Spider-Man and Daredevil, Marcos Martin had been blowing readers away with his hugely imaginitive layouts, Ditko-esque figures and fluid linework. On The Private Eye, his layouts are more conventional, but it’s the level of imagination and detail that truly impresses – in a world where everyone is dressing as someone or something else there’s no such thing as a background character, and Martin doesn’t shy away from drawing every character as if they could be the star. Meanwhile, Vaughan has taken a simple theme of personal privacy online and spun it into an original and unfamiliar world that could still somehow be our own, populated with new takes on established archetypes that make it feel like a fresh read rather than yet another detective story.

Not everything about the The Private Eye works straight away – the idea that the press can function as a police force doesn’t really make sense if you try to analyse the execution of it, and the mechanics of the technical collapse that fuelled the series are glossed over a little too conveniently – but you can’t fault its attempt to do something different, both with the form and with the genre. There are too few books around you can say that about, and even if it wasn’t doing that, The Private Eye would still deserve a spot on this list merely for being the first of its kind. Let’s hope it isn’t the last.

Best Comics of 2012: Saga

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saga_8Only two things prevented Saga from being our number one comic of the year – firstly, the fact that there was somehow, inexplicably, a comic that managed to be just as good if not possibly even slightly better (of which more tomorrow); but secondly, the fact that James tried out issue #1, but – while admiring the craft – turned his nose up at the setting and concept. It’s true that at first glance, Saga‘s setting could be offputting to many – what, another sci-fi epic? What, another fantasy epic? What, another quirky-mixture-of-sci-fi-and-fantasy epic? – and a part of me expected, going in, to have a similar reaction to James. Fortunately, as it so happens, I’m enjoying Saga immeasurably, as the sort of comic that simply and hugely restores faith in the medium.

Perhaps this is because, despite appearances, the series really isn’t about the quirky-mixture-of-sci-fi-and-fantasy epic at all. Sure, that story is going on in its pages – but it’s largely a backdrop. Instead, in a twist, the “Saga” of the title is in fact the saga of one family and their lives – star-crossed alien lovers Marko and Alana, and their newborn child Hazel. The series’ narration – provided by a grown-up Hazel from an indeterminate point in the future – makes clear that for all the raging war and politics in the background, the heart of the story is this trio’s quest to establish their lives happily and safely. Along the way, a strong supporting cast – comprising robotic princes with televisions for heads, ghosts of murdered children and alien bounty-hunters with curiously intertwined personal histories – play out a story that threatens to take on ominous significance, but which never really overshadows the fact that Saga entrances through the reader’s desire to see this relationship, this family unit, succeed.

Brian K. Vaughan’s pedigree, despite not having had a comics title published since the end of Ex Machina, was already impeccable coming into this – but, and although it’s difficult to make a full judgement after just eight issues published (at the time of writing), it already feels like this might exceed his previous work. Where the sheer quality of character work, plot (complete with BKV-esque shock deaths, one in particular in this run coming surprisingly early even for him) and humour are of his usual standard, where Saga stands out is that, arguably for the first time, he’s created hugely likeable and sympathetic lead characters. Where previously the likes of Yorick or Hundred had depth but not necessarily immediate empathy, both Alana and Marko are, in different ways, made to be rooted for as heroes. Alana in particular, particularly following the flashback sequences in the most recent issue, is the kind of character it’s pretty easy to fall straight in love with.

Key to a lot of this is Vaughan’s collaborator Fiona Staples, who elevates the book from a strong, intriguing character piece into a work of genuine comics artistry. Her visuals, from character design to expression to scale, are simply phenomenal – beautiful, characterful, expansive. Little touches such as the in-art lettering of Hazel’s narration, the minimalist cover design and even the chosen paper stock (while guaranteeing, as part of Vaughan’s contract, at least 22 pages of story every issue for never more than $2.99) make Saga a series that, as with some others we’ve discussed in this end of year list, celebrates the comic as an object – and one that it’s a genuine thrill to pick up every month (or to see back on the shelves following the deliberate two-month hiatus it took between its first and second arcs).

Simply put, Saga is a comic that just makes you feel good about comics. It’s rare enough that a series feels this early like it’s going to be one of the unquestionable classics of the field, but that’s exactly what this charming, funny, thrilling, beautiful object has already become. Never mind best of the year – I’ll be amazed if we don’t look back on it as one of the best of the decade.

Seb Patrick | 30th December, 2012

30 Days of Comics #12: A comic you own but haven’t read


A problem I have (that I expect is common to every culture junkie) is that frequently, my appetite for new material exceeds my ability to consume what I already own. I read more comics than anything, and yet I have a pile of graphic novels that’s 5 books deep with unread material. I read novels more than I listen to music, and yet I have a pile of books 25 high that I’m trying to fit in before I buy any more. I don’t even want to think about how many albums I’ve got to listen to, and as for films? I’ve pretty much given up on watching films except at the cinema now. The sad truth is that even though I never buy anything just to own it, things can and do slip through the cracks – or in this case, onto the shelf – where they will be ignored in favour of newer purchases.

One such comic is The Escapists. The collected edition of the series that (as I understand it) span out of Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay. It’s written by Brian K. Vaughan, and features a line-up of artists that, under any normal circumstance, I’d jump at the chance to read material by. Which is why I put the book on my Amazon wishlist one Christmas.

However, once I received it, I decided that I should probably read Kavalier and Clay first. I’m sure there’s no obligation to in terms of the material – it’d be a poor comic indeed which couldn’t stand alone – but that’s the way I am. I’d prefer to read the source material first. I want the context.

Unfortunately, almost two years after I received the comic, I’ve yet to actually get around to buying Kavalier and Clay, let alone reading it. At this point, I’m not sure when I will. Other novels and books demand my time. But still, the idea that I might one day read Kavalier and Clay in turn prevents me from picking up The Escapists and cracking it open.

In fact, it’s been so long that now, if I read the comic, it’s like I’m admitting defeat – that I’ll never read the book. And if I admit that, I might as well admit I’ll never get around to reading any Michael Chabon, because Kavalier and Clay is easily the best entry point for me to start with his work, and if I can’t find time for that, I can’t find time for anything else he’s done. The question, then, is do I want to be the sort of person who writes off Michael Chabon’s entire output having never read any of his work? Not at all.

And that, friends, is why I haven’t yet read The Escapists.

James Hunt | 12th October, 2010

Ex-Ex Machina

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Big comics moment this week (today, in fact, if you’re ‘merican), as the fiftieth and final issue of Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris’ politics-cum-superhero masterpiece Ex Machina hits the stands. I should hopefully have a review of it up at some point (despite our recent quietness), but I thought this was worth remarking on – as, alongside the likes of Planetary and Powers, the series as a whole stands for me as one of the best creator-owned comics of the 2000s. Flying in the face of the general consensus that would opt for Y: The Last Man, I’d also call it by far Vaughan’s best work (and at times Harris even outshines the best of his Starman run) – and although it’s had its ups and downs in the latter part of the run, with some storylines that felt a little like filler, it’s generally been a compelling political, character-driven piece. It’s had shocking (and at times downright upsetting) moments along the way, and the final-page reveal of the first issue (which I won’t spoil, if you’ve never heard about it) is one of the all-time great comics gut-punch moments. It’s odd to think that there won’t be a dose of Mitchell Hundred, Dave, Bradbury and Kremlin every couple of months from now on – and I only hope Vaughan gives them a good send-off.

If you’ve never read the series, now would be the ideal time to start – the first trade, The First Hundred Days, is utterly corking and should hook you straight away. It’s never quite as good after the end of the devastating March to War (except for the brilliant metafiction of #40), but it’s still very worth your time checking out and sticking with.

Seb Patrick | 18th August, 2010

Capsule Reviews: w/e 16th March 2010

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One of the things that often presented a challenge to our “review a day” format at Comics Daily was the sheer inconsistency of comics shipping – the fact that, although there should really ostensibly be a fairly even spread of comics worth reviewing (whether a book we’re buying anyway, or one we wouldn’t if we weren’t reviewing but considered worth trying to say something about) over the four (or sometimes five) shipping weeks of each month. But that often wouldn’t tend to be the case, and we were frequently left scrabbling over B- or C-list main superhero universe titles that – and no disrespect to the creators involved – aren’t always the easiest thing to find an angle on if you’re not a fan.

Conversely, we’d often find ourselves with a week where there were lots of books we fancied covering, but simply didn’t have the time between us. Often, a lot of my favourite books – from Phonogram to Batman and Robin, Captain Britain to Ultimate Spider-Man – end up coming out in the same week, which makes for a fun visit to Forbidden Planet, but a difficult quandary when working out what to write about. Our “Sunday Pages” capsule review posts would help with this, obviously – and both James and I have also tended to find of late that these shorter reviews are quite enjoyable to put together. With that scheduled series of posts temporarily on hold, however (I, or we, may revisit it at some point – but for the moment one of the things we’re exploring with the new format is not having a specific schedule to stick to beyond “something every day”), there won’t be a regular set of capsules each week, but every so often a week may come along in which I feel the urge to ramble on about a handful of books. This is just such a week, so read on for brief reviews of Powers, Ex Machina, S.W.O.R.D. and more…

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Ex Machina #45

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exmachina45Recent issues of Ex Machina have promised a return to the “political issues mixed with retired-superhero-alien-conspiracy-gubbins” formula that served the book so well in its early days – and if the opening chapter of the final arc, “Pro-Life”, is anything to go by, that promise will be well and truly delivered upon. The twist that Vaughan lays down here, however, is that the issue in question is one upon which I’d bet a significant proportion of his readers (and, although I wouldn’t care to speculate too heavily, perhaps BKV himself) may not necessarily agree with Mitchell Hundred – the mayor taking an approach that would seem surprisingly at odds with his previously-demonstrated right-on, fairly liberal nature.

It certainly lays intriguing groundwork for the series’ finale – Hundred has been an easy character to root for throughout the run, but you just wonder whether, with the combination of this and the revelations over the “white box”, Vaughan is trying to show him as fallible in the eyes of the loyal reader as well as his electorate. All along we’ve assumed his downfall – alluded to way back in the very first issue – would be the result of the machinations of others – the suggestion here seems to be that if he’s imperfect in his political life (and I refer more to the potential election-rigging than his stance on the main political point of this issue, lest anyone think I’m automatically calling him out as objectively “wrong”) then perhaps he’s flawed as a superhero lead, too.

And of course, all of this is played out against a backdrop of utterly mental alien-technology-invasion weirdness, unravelling the Great Machine’s origin while building a genuinely terrifying threat to humanity. It’s always satisfying when a writer with a plan starts to slot his final pieces into place (I like to imagine a gratifying “ker-CHUNG” sound), and you realise here that the likes of January and Suzanne had significant roles to play all along (although I’ll be annoyed if we never learn why Journal’s death was as significant as BKV claimed at the time – if it was solely to drive the motiviation of January then I still feel there’s something lacking there).

The most notable aspect of this issue of Ex Machina, though, is simply that it’s an issue that I was excited in advance about reading. This used to be the case with the series a few years ago – I was genuinely desperate to find out what happened next, and never disappointed (if occasionally saddened) when I did. A few slightly lacklustre story arcs left me wondering if I’d ever feel that again – but all credit to Vaughan, because that’s exactly what he’s inspired going into the book’s last few issues. If anything, it may yet turn out that he was crafting something more taut and complete than Y : The Last Man all along and for me, at least, the signs are that this is still on course to cement itself as the writer’s defining work.

Seb Patrick | 23rd September, 2009

Ex Machina #40

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Metafiction in comics is something that tends to divide people. I’ve already spoken a few times on this site about my own feelings on the subject, and specifically Grant Morrison’s masterful use of the technique; but by the same token, there are people who find such devices as writers having themselves appear in a book, or simply making knowing references to the fact that you’re reading a comic, as gauche, or smart-arsed, and they don’t like to see it show its face in their carefully-constructed comics universe. Such people would be highly unlikely to get on with the latest issue of Ex Machina. Which is fine, you know, different strokes and everything. But it would be a shame to miss out on a late entry into the reckoning for one of the most enjoyable single issues of the year.

Admittedly, it’s an issue that’s firmly aimed at pleasing longtime Ex Machina fans more than anything else. The book’s had a habit of disappointing over the last fifteen issues or so – still an immaculately crafted comic, but something about the story has been rather less than gripping, and the slow publishing schedule has meant it’s struggled for momentum. What’s clear, though, is that Vaughan still has the ability to turn out good stories when he wants to – indeed, he’s proven that already with some excellent single issue vignettes inbetween longer arcs – and it’s only to be hoped that, with the series now standing as the only comic he’s currently working on, an increased level of focus will see the interest levels ramp up as it hurtles towards its conclusion. In the meantime, in telling an almost throwaway little story that’s apparently been kicking around his head since the start, he effectively captures some of the atmosphere of the more impressive early issues – even as he’s being playful and self-referential.

The basic thrust is that Hundred – already established as a one-time comics nut even before taking on a career as a superhero – is looking to tell a memoir of his time in office (while still in office), and to do so in the form that he loved as a child. We follow a writer and artist pairing auditioning for the job – and, of course, it’s Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris. This is largely an excuse for a bunch of light-hearted, self-aware gags (Vaughan responding to Harris’ suggestion that they appear in the book with “I’m not big into the whole Grant Morrison ‘meta’ thing”, Harris grumbling about the writer’s name coming first in the credits, Hundred mistaking BKV for Brian Michael Bendis) and references to the likes of Brad Meltzer and Starman. It treads a fine line alongside seeming too pleased with itself, but gets away with it because there’s something quite earnest about it. Vaughan seems to lack cynicism (in this, at least), showing a capacity for self-deprecation, and so there’s something quite charming about the whole thing.

In a series that follows the adventures of the mayor from his own perspective, meanwhile, we rarely get a chance to see how others perceive him. We know Hundred as a fairly ordinary (aside from that whole superpowers thing), basically decent but also fallible individual – and the plot is driven by his character (and, sometimes, his mistakes). It’s easy to forget, therefore, that he is a powerful man who holds a great deal of authority and commands respect – but here, our “eyes” are not Hundred, but Vaughan, and so the mayor is a more commanding, almost towering figure. Vaughan is intimidated by him – not because he’s mean, although he is a little brusque at times, but just because of who he is – and consequently, for possibly the first time in the series, so are we. It’s genuinely satisfying to see such a different perspective on a character we’ve come to take for granted.

That’s not to say the book would only appeal to longstanding fans, however. Although I’d never suggest starting to read a planned 50-issue series with issue #40, it’s nevertheless quite accessible as a standalone tale – it’s not really rooted in the book’s current storyline, and it’s worth reading as a fun piece of metafiction if nothing else. Of course, someone who isn’t a fan of the book probably isn’t as interested in the “characters” of Vaughan and Harris themselves – and an entire page of Vaughan rambling on about New York restaurants may not particularly appeal. It’s also probably going to strike less of a chord for those of us who aren’t New Yorkers, so rooted is it in that particular pet theme of the book’s. But there’s something engaging about these two wildly different characters whose distinct creative talents come together to make something special – and much of that has to do with the personality imbued in them not just by Vaughan’s dialogue, but by Harris’ art. He’s described by the “character” Vaughan as “a certifiable genius”, and while he’s also had his ups and downs on the book of late, he shows here why on his day he’s still one of the best in the business. He seems to particularly enjoy drawing himself, and there’s a brilliantly expressive sequence in which he’s sketching in his pad and running through the gamut of “concentration” faces.

All in all, it’s hardly the most significant chapter in the Ex Machina canon – a fact emphasised by the jokey nature of the “twist” at the end; and no, I’m not going to spoil the identities of the big-name writer and artist who show up for a couple of pages, but if you know anything about Wildstorm they’re not hard to figure out – but as a nice encapsulation of some of the book’s themes, a “breather” of an issue before the final storyarcs, a gentle piece of metatextual fun and a reward for those of us loyal to the series, it ticks all the boxes, and is a joy for it. Above all else, it shows that when it comes to finely-crafted comics, there are still few better going.

Seb Patrick | 19th December, 2008

Logan #1

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logan1.jpgOh good! Another Wolverine project. Just what everyone wants, apparently. Except it’s written by Brian K. “Buffy, Lost, Y: the Last Man, Ex Machina, Runaways, Ultimate X-Men, Pride of Baghdad” Vaughan. That has to be worth a look.

When there’s a movie approaching, Marvel’s practise has been to throw a massive number of tie-ins featuring the characters at the wall and hope they sell in the bookstore market. Of course, even without a movie, Marvel’s practise has been to put Wolverine in about every book they can squeeze his unbreakable Adamantium bollocks into. That Shamrock proposal isn’t going anywhere but the bin, but if you could somehow make it into a Shamrock and Wolverine proposal, you might well be onto something. With a Wolverine movie approaching, there’s plenty to suggest 2008-2009 are going to be even more full of Wolverine than we previously thought. After all, everyone knows that Wolverine is a completely awesome character.

Or, well, is he? Despite appearances, it’s very difficult to write a decent Wolverine story. His popularity means that he frequently ends up shoved in a generic tough-guy role, satisfying the basic need to have a heroic protagonist for villains to fight. It’s actually increasingly difficult to find a Wolverine story where you couldn’t easily replace him as the lead.

Vaughan’s Logan, however, looks like it’s going to be a properWolverine story. Awaking in a Japanee POW camp at the tail end of World War 2, Logan and an American soldier fight their way out. When they escape, they encounter a Japanese woman. The crazed American soldier wants to kill her, but Logan, ever the honourable fighter, prevents him. To thank him, she invites him into her home (while the American looks on suspiciously) and then they get horizontal, because Wolverine is one of the few Marvel characters allowed to have sex, especially in Marvel Knights imprint books.

Risso’s artwork has some idiosyncratic tendencies towards slightly over-represented character acting which makes some, especially the American soldier, look a tad cartoonish at times – his current style isn’t a million miles away from Kyle Hotz or John McCrea. There is fantastic use of stark shadows (particularly obvious in the B&W version) though, and Risso draws some incredibly peaceful looking Japanese countryside (although credit sure goes to Dean White’s colouring for that – aforementioned B&W version should is for Sin City fetishists only). To Vaughan’s credit, he’s found a story that fits Wolverine perfectly – one suspects this would’ve made a great issue of Wolverine: Origins.

While, minus the scenes from the present, this would’ve worked as a nice standalone issue, there’s clearly more going on. The appearance of a flaming skeleton in the opening scene and the suggestion that they’re currently in Hiroshima makes me fairly certain I can see where this is going, but nonetheless, it seems worth finding out, especially if you’re after a Wolverine story that doesn’t depend on superheroics.

James Hunt | 11th March, 2008

Ex Machina #34

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exmachina34.jpgI’ve lost touch with Ex Machina a bit lately. Not that I haven’t been reading it, just that as each new issue has come out, I’ve found myself failing to remember what happened in the previous part, or even if there was a story arc currently ongoing. My buying habits over the past few months have been so erratic that I honestly can’t tell you if there have been delays on it or not – but it certainly feels like there have been. Just as it feels like Brian K Vaughan hasn’t really been firing in top gear on it since the harrowing “March to War” storyline, presumably focusing most of his energy on finishing Y : The Last Man and writing for Lost.

But I’ve got a lot of residual affection for what was once my absolute favourite title on the shelves, and I’m also aware that unlike, say, Powers (with which there are a lot of parallels, actually), there is a genuine conclusion being aimed towards. It’s easy to forget, but the very first issue of Ex Machina began with a post-Mayoral Mitchell Hundred telling us his story in flashback. And I still want to know how he gets there.

It might be slightly unfair to draw the comparison, since flashbacks have been an integral part of the series since day one, but it’s hard not to see similarities to BKV’s telly work – this being a standalone issue that rattles through flashbacks of a supporting character’s life in order to round them out a bit. In the case of Police Commissioner Angiotti, it’s long overdue – and while her life story (wanted to be a cop as a child, became a bloody good one, and married a guy who worked in the WTC, was saved by Mitchell on 9/11, and cheated on her) isn’t particularly interesting, it at least humanises her somewhat, her role in proceedings up until now being little more than “by-the-book top cop and frequent clashing point for Hundred both as superhero and as mayor”.

Marketed by Wildstorm as an “ideal jumping-on point” (which strikes me as strange – Ex Machina is a beginning, middle and end story which is well into its second half, and the only real jumping on point is the first issue), it’s a nice change of pace, at least – largely inconsequential, but with a very neat last couple of pages that redraw the lines of Angiotti and Hundred’s relationship, with an excellent bit of comics pop culture referencing to boot. I get the impression a big storyline is on the way soon, and the series is building to a climax – and so issues like this one (and the next, which is also apparently self-contained) make for something of a breather. Although when issues are coming out so slowly, you start to wonder how necessary that is. Ex Machina remains a superb series, despite the recent stuttering, but I suspect it’s one that reads far better in trade than waiting for it every month or two.

Seb Patrick | 26th February, 2008