The title of this post is a variation on WWJWD? That acronym, standing for ‘What would Joss Whedon do?’, is a pretty well established thing online, it’s in the Urban Dictionary after all. I’m a big Whedon fan myself and both Firefly and Dollhouse are two of my favourite shows and I’m more than a little obsessed with Dr Horrible’s sing along blog too. With all three of those relatively short running shows I ended up actually missing the characters once the series ended. (I’ve recently started watching Buffy on Netflix, about a gazillion years after the rest of the world). I also really like Whedon’s comic work and hold his Astonishing X-Men run in high regard, along with his Serenity books and his work on Runaways.
As much as I love Whedon’s work, his contribution to comics has largely been based on existing characters, either those he established expertly on television first, or in the case of his Marvel projects, ones that had already lived a life in the hands of another writer or writers. So when I want to look at a writer’s work for inspiration, because my writing is mainly creator owned comics, I don’t think of Whedon first. I think of the person who he followed on Runaways, another of my favourite writers, a certain Brian K Vaughan – (WWBKVD?). You see, unlike my exposure to Whedon’s TV and film work, I’ve only ever experienced Vaughan’s writing in the pages of a comic. I’ve never watched Lost (apart from the first episode) and I’ve only seen about five minutes of Under the Dome.
I haven’t actually been reading Vaughan’s work for all that long. Aside from one random issue of Swamp Thing and his entry in Writers on Comic Scriptwriting Vol.2, the first thing I read written by him was the excellent graphic novel Pride of Baghdad.
Pride of Baghdad is a graphic novel written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Niko Henrichon released by DC Comics‘ Vertigo imprint on September 13, 2006. The story is a fictionalized account of the true story of four African lions that escaped from the Baghdad Zoo after an American bombing in 2003. The book won the IGN award for best original graphic novel in 2006.
It was last year that I started to read more of his output, devouring the first seven Runaways trades, along with all of Y the Last Man. This post was mainly prompted by his latest Image Comics series, as last week I re-read the first Saga trade, closely followed by the second one, which had me desperate to read more of the series. (I’m well aware that I need to get reading the likes of The Private Eye and Ex Machina as soon as I can too). All three of the books I’ve mentioned, Runaways, Y the Last Man and Saga have had the same impact on me as a reader and in turn a writer. Each one made me question my ability, wondering if I’m wasting my time trying to get more comic work published when this level of work, work that’s right in my wheelhouse, is already out there. Once that feeling lifted they had the opposite effect, reminding me what I love about writing and for this medium in particular. One of the things I love about Vaughan is that his work is emotional, without ever feeling overplayed, twee or sentimental. His characters, no matter how elaborate or unconventional the premise or setting, are very real and completely three-dimensional. Much like those Whedon creates, you want to spend more time with them and actively pine for them when they aren’t around. I still miss Yorick, Agent 355 and Dr.Allison Mann. He also has immaculate taste in collaborators, working with artists who are master storytellers and whose character designs and world building matches his vision. He’s the kind of writer I’d aspire to be like, even if he is actually younger, and far more talented, than I am. There are other writers whose work I enjoy just as much, for different reasons, but at this moment in time his work is resonating with me the most. His work inspires me to be a better writer.
I’m working hard on six different comic book titles at the moment, in a variety of genres, some with a co-writer, some with artists attached, others in their absolute infancy. When I go to write any of them now, I’ll be keeping this in mind. What would Brian K Vaughan do? What should I be doing more of, to have this kind of impact on my own readership?
1) Establish your characters and their motivations as quickly as possible so that you make the reader care within the first few pages.
2) Make every single character count, no matter how small.
3) Give each scene an emotional punch, even if it’s just a small one. Make them leave the page feeling something – empathy, revulsion, shock, compassion.
4) Don’t show off in your dialogue. Your characters and plot are more important than trying to look clever. Choose the words that suit the character and scene, not your ego.
I might have to get these four points printed out and put on the wall of my writing room to help keep me on track, and as I dive into more of BKVD’s work, I’m sure I’ll come up with some more pointers too.