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.

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.

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

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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