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Brian K Vaughan: the king of "creator-owned" comics

He rarely speaks about the ethics of working alone as against for Disney or Warner Brothers, but Brian K Vaughan's work speaks volumes about the importance of creative freedom.

Ex Machina 50.
Ex Machina 50. Credit: Brian K Vaughan and Tony Harris.

It is, perhaps, a sad reflection on the American comics industry that "creator-owned" exists as a subcategory of it, treated as a genre in its own right. So many talented creators spend their lives working on characters and concepts owned by Disney and Warner Brothers (the corporate parents of Marvel and Disney, themselves the owners of the Vertigo and Icon imprints) that readers and publishers alike feel the need to highlight when their favourite writers and artists are doing work which is actually theirs – both in terms of the creative energy going in, and the rewards coming out.

It's an even odder state of affairs when you consider that the serialised, team-produced comic which seems typical of the American comics industry is in fact just a tiny subsection of it. Huge numbers of writers and artists spend their entire lives without ever touching that world, including world-renowned names like Chris Ware, Alison Bechdel and Joe Sacco. Despite, or maybe because, they are so disconnected from the world of super-corporations, capes and iconography, no-one thinks of describing their work as "creator-owned". It just is.

So it may sound like an artificially constrained complement to say that Brian K. Vaughan is probably the king of creator-owned comics, and in a way it is, akin to limiting you discussion of music to bands with two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer. But being the best four-piece rock band is still quite an accolade.

Vaughan's approach to his work is best articulated in contrast to the only other serious contender for his crown, Robert Kirkman, the author of (among other things) The Walking Dead and Invincible. Both men bounced between creator- and corporate-owned comics for a number of years in the early 2000s, before firmly deciding to focus on writing stories they control. Shortly after, Vaughan took a break from comics entirely, working as a writer in Hollywood on Lost, while Kirkman ploughed on with his two key series, pushing each of them over 100 issues.

While Kirkman seems to view working on creator-owned titles as a sort of moral imperative, going so far as to film a "manifesto", his work doesn't veer hugely from what he could do under the wing of a bigger publisher. It's a matter of economic and creative exploitation, and it's paid off: the returns from the phenomenally successful Walking Dead franchise (now including prepaid Visa cards as well as the TV and video game series) have accrued to him and his co-creators.

That's in contrast to Vaughan, who rarely speaks about the ethics of working for large corporations, but whose work says volumes about the importance of creative freedom. From the very first panel of volume one Saga, his current series with artist Fiona Staples, it's clear he values doing what he wants. The book opens with a full-page shot of one of the two protagonists, sweaty and in pain, asking "Am I shitting? It feels like I'm shitting!". Two books in, and the baby born in that scene remains a baby, but the narration never fails to remind us that the book is her story, not her parents. Vaughan is settling in for an epic, and the thought of being cancelled, censored or meddled with is not to be entertained.

(Sadly, even being creator-owned couldn't entirely prevent censorship; Saga was briefly blocked from a digital comic service over a scene involving pornography.)

The second volume of Saga came out this month, and shows a pair settling into working with each other and their characters. The major flaw in Staples' artwork in the first book was a tendency for her sketched-out backgrounds to hint at detail which just wasn't present, leading to disappointment if too much time was spent looking at the double-page spreads; that's disappeared as the action has shifted to new locales, and the book's stronger for it. With a run of well over 15 books planned – but also an ending in sight – the two of them have much more time to settle into each other's contours.

But the best argument for Vaughan maintaining his crown is when he pushes the business of creator-owned comics materially forward. And that's being done, not with Saga, but with his collaboration with Marcos Martin, The Private Eye. The innovation here is as much commercial as artistic: sold on a pay-what-you-will model, as DRM-free PDFs, it's hard to see how Vaughan could even have got the pitch in front of someone who could sign off on it at a major publisher, let alone actually gone ahead with it. But what good luck he did, because the resultant comic, three issues in, is a beautiful, funny and exciting exploration of our own reliance on networks set in a world where society has been forced to give them up. That it's being sold exclusively online (there aren't any plans to print it for the time being) renders the very business model a wry metatextual comment in it's own right.