And this while the comic book industry is in a sales slump. "I think there's a correlation between when an industry is in financial trouble and how well it's doing artistically," Vaughan says. Again, it's hard to argue: In addition to Vaughan, the skilled (and Portland-based) Brian Michael Bendis is writing a slew of acclaimed Marvel titles, while Buffy creator Joss Whedon is revolutionizing the Astonishing X-Men.
The artistic renaissance of modern comic books is perhaps most evident in Vaughan's apocalyptic Y. Chronicling the story of Yorrick Brown, Y begins with a disease that kills every man on earth--save one--and imagines from there, with startlingly meticulous and thoughtful vision, what the world would be like if only women reigned. The scope of the story's ambition, in terms of both plot development and philosophical ramification, appeals to audiences far beyond the fanboy stereotype.
"[Writer] Neil Gaiman always said about [his comic] Sandman that the book traveled like venereal disease in relationships," says Vaughan. "It'd be like a guy gave it to his girlfriend, they'd break up, his girlfriend would pass it on to the next guy. So we [Vaughan and Y artist Pia Guerra] wanted to do a book that'd have that possibility. If the book spreads and if it's enjoyed by men and women, it's because it's good and it's accessible."
Y is both of those things, but its success also stems from the challenge it offers its readers. "Pia points out that it's the same appeal of The Walking Dead, or Dawn of the Dead, or anything else of that survivalist fiction," Vaughan notes. "The idea is that it's very grounded in our time, but things have changed dramatically--and what would you do if you were in this position? Whether it's zombies, or the absence of men, or killer robots, or whatever, people [are drawn to] that, especially at a time in our lives where--despite terrorism or whatever else--things are pretty easy for us. People need to be challenged.
And challenge them Vaughan does, as well as himself. "Yorrick and I aren't identical--he has a good head of hair, first of all, which I lost a long time ago. But Yorrick, at the start of the story, is self-righteous, and naïve, and he's all the things that I was when I was 22. I didn't want Schwarzenegger to be the last man--I wanted it to be a guy who's a damsel in distress more often than not. I like starting with a character who's not a fully formed human being--not that any of us ever are--and taking them on a journey."
Vaughan's also just finished Pride of Baghdad, to be released later this year. "It's based on a true story about four lions who escaped the Baghdad Zoo during the most recent American invasion," Vaughan says. "So it's a talking animal book--but hopefully following in the footsteps of something like Animal Farm, sort of commenting on the Iraq War through the true story of these animals."
That apparent contradiction--fantastic elements reflecting upon real events--fits right in with Vaughan's modus operandi. "I like escapist fiction, and I write a lot of it," Vaughan admits. "But I like writing stuff more that sticks with you after you close the book, that makes you look at your world in a different way." Vaughan also takes advantage of the fact that comics are in a unique position to handle relevant themes. "In a post-9/11 sense, [there's] Bush in his flight suit, or Kerry running on his war record. I live in California now, and seeing--literally--the Terminator get elected governor… we do seem desperate to have heroes as leaders, whether or not those heroes are real. I think that's how superheroes work best--as a parable, as a metaphor for what's going on in our lives. The best way to address the real world has always been through fiction."