An Ultimate Fifth: Brian K. Vaughan on Ultimate X-Men

With his run having started just a touch over a year ago, Brian K. Vaughan has called Ultimate X-Men one of his handful of creative homes over the past few months, putting words in the mouths of the Ultimate Universe’s mutants.

Catching up to date, Vaughan is midway through “Magnetic North,” with pencils by Stuart Immonen, telling the tale of the Ultimate Lorna Dane, and the battle being waged over her by Charles Xavier, Emma Frost, and Magneto.

As part of our ongoing series of articles looking at the Ultimate Universe, five years in, we spoke with Vaughan about his time in the mutant trenches, as well as his impending departure, and more.

Newsarama: First off, take us back a little - how did you get the gig? Did you have any second thoughts before accepting, other than the usual “how can I find time in my schedule for this?”

Brian K. Vaughan: I definitely had second thoughts about following Millar and Bendis, but those two guys have always been very supportive of me, and when Brian was getting ready to leave the book, I think they both encouraged editor Ralph Macchio to let me pledge for the Ultimate Fraternity.  After much homoerotic hazing, I was allowed to join the club.

NRAMA: What was the appeal that caused you to say yes? I mean, you’re a busy guy, so writing this is time that you could be working on something else – why did UXM win out?

BKV: I’m able to write roughly a book a week, but to keep things fresh; I don’t like to work on the same kind of book twice in one month.  I already had my teen angst book with Runaways, my political thriller with Ex Machina, and my post-apocalyptic road trip with Y: The Last Man, but I really didn’t have a balls-out superhero action-adventure book, which sounded like a good challenge.

And while I love the characters, the real appeal for me was the people I’d get to work with.  I’m sure Ralph Macchio’s forgotten about this, but way back when I was part of the “Stanhattan Project” comics writing workshop at NYU, I sent samples of my writing to just about every editor at Marvel, and Ralph was the only one who called me back.  He had some very honest, very helpful advice for me, and I always promised myself that I’d try to work with him if I ever succeeded in breaking into the industry.  He’s an excellent editor, and I’ve learned a lot from him - and from assistant editors Nick Lowe and John Barber, too. 

Along with great editors, you’re also guaranteed the chance to work with great artists in the Ultimate Universe.  In the time I’ve been on the book, I’ve been fortunate enough to get to collaborate with Brandon Peterson, Andy Kubert, Stuart Immonen, Tom Raney, and Steve Freakin’ Dillon.  You can’t beat that lineup.

NRAMA: Going back to your earlier comment about following Millar and Bendis, that made you one of the earlier “non-founding’ Ultimate writers to come into the universe. What were the guidelines that were given to you from the start? Or were there any?

BKV: To be fair, I was actually the fourth writer on the title, as Chuck Austen wrote two issues a while back.  I know it’s fashionable to knock Austen’s stuff, but I thought his two-part Gambit story was really, really good.  One of the better stories starring that character, I’d say.

NRAMA: True, but still, you’re part of a small group of writers…

BKV: Oh sure. As for “guidelines,” there really weren’t any.  I think readers remember so many creators leaving X-books in the ‘90s because of “editorial differences” that they presume there’s still a lot of interference, but that’s really not the case.  I get a ton of support from editorial, but my only marching order has been to tell good stories.  If you’ve hated my run on Ultimate X-Men, I’m the only one to blame, because I’ve only ever told exactly the stories I’ve wanted to tell.  

NRAMA: You’ve worked in both the regular Marvel Universe and the Ultimate – for you, what’s the difference? Aside form the heaps of continuity, is there a difference in “tone” for lack of a better word? If anything, it seems to be more realistic with a heightened sense of paranoia…

BKV: You can’t dismiss the relative accessibility of the Ultimate books.  To me, that is the major difference between the Ultimate Universe and the Marvel Universe: the fact that anyone can pick up any trade of the Ultimate books and fall right into it, without having done years of continuity “homework.”  Readers sometimes ask if I’ll ever work on a “real” X-book, but to me, the Ultimate Universe is the real universe.

Well, not the real universe, but you know what I mean…

NRAMA: That said, regular Marvel Universe vs. Ultimate Marvel Universe in regards to X-Men. What would you point to as the major differences between the characters?

BKV: The Ultimate Universe X-Men are students, the Marvel Universe X-Men are teachers.  ‘Nuff said.

NRAMA: But still, there seems to be a difference in “face time” for lack of a better word. Why the differences in the characters and their relative importance in the series? Is this your preferences, or something mandated?

BKV: Again, no mandates, I just use whatever characters I think will work for the story I’m telling.  I love writing Wolverine, for example, but a little Logan obviously goes a long way, so I try to use him sparingly.

Ultimate Dazzler, on the other hand, may very well be Bendis’ single greatest contribution to the free world, so I use her way too much.

NRAMA: Along the accessibility lines, is there a stress on keeping this X-Men team/universe as close to the movie version as possible, in order to make an easier entry point for people who come to the comics via the films?

BKV: Nah, accessibility is always a goal with the Ultimate books, but I’m worried about all new readers, whether they’re familiar with the X-Men from the movies, the cartoons, the video games, or even if this is their first exposure to the characters.  The comic is its own thing.

NRAMA: Going back to your preferences, in your run, you’ve introduced Sinister and Apocalypse, Yuri (with hints at Storm’s Ultimate wild past), Lady Deathstrike, Longshot and other characters from the ‘80s regular Marvel Universe X-Men. What’s the appeal to those characters and that era for you?

BKV: All of the good characters were taken!

Seriously, I didn’t start reading X-Men until relatively recently - I was more into solo characters like Spidey and Batman when I was a kid, so I don’t have any real affinity for a specific era.  Still, I know enough about the X-Men to realize that it would be stupid to try to write the “Ultimate” Dark Phoenix Saga.  That story was already perfect once, why write it again?

I’d rather take characters with cool powers or interesting designs who maybe never got a chance to fire on all cylinders, like Sinister and Deathstrike, or fun characters who were sort of shoehorned into the old X-Men comics like Longshot and Mojo, and find ways to update and streamline them, or just more organically integrate them into the X-Men’s world.

NRAMA: Moving to your most recent arc, “Magnetic North” - you’ve got Magneto and Xavier, along with Emma acting as the three larger puppetmasters – each with their own philosophy, with Lorna the prize. Is that about it?

BKV: More or less, yeah.  Basically, Lorna does something awful with her magnetic powers, and the only cell on the planet that can hold her is the one currently housing Magneto.  Lorna’s boyfriend Havok - as well as some other familiar faces from Emma Frost’s school - want to bust her out, and it’s up to Havok’s brother Cyclops and the rest of the X-Men to stop them.

Oh, did I mention that Magneto’s cell is inside the headquarters of the Ultimates?

For Ultimate X-Men, I always wanted to write several different arcs that would stand very well on their own, but then bring all of the new elements that I’d introduced over the last twenty issues or so crashing together in one explosive conclusion, one that I’ve been quietly setting up since the first page of my first issue.  And like I said, I’m a big fan of Mark and Brian’s time on the book, so I also wanted to incorporate some lingering mysteries form their runs: What’s up with Xavier’s cat?  Who sent Wolverine into that cave?  Whatever happened to Emma Frost and Havok? into one final epic adventure.

NRAMA: Well, let’s see how much we can get out of you along with those teases. In the arc, it was revealed that Scott Summers (Cyclops) had dated Lorna as well…when was that and for how long?

BKV: They dated shortly before Scott joined the X-Men.  And yeah, Lorna was able to control her powers back then… better than she can now, it seems.

NRAMA: Catching up with Magneto’s goals – is he still all about the rise of mutants at the cost of humanity, or has his time in prison helped him get rid of that notion somewhat?

BKV: I hate spoilers, so I’ll plead the fifth.  But I will say that Magneto is probably one of the ten best fictional villains ever created in any medium, and I’m having an absolute blast writing him.

NRAMA: Okay – but with their Odd Couple situation one of necessity, does Magneto have any interest in Lorna at all, aside from swaying her to his cause?

BKV: Stay tuned true believer.

NRAMA: Okay – how about looking towards next issue - Scott and Alex fight…over Lorna? And the X-Men have to bust into the Ultimates HQ?

BKV: I don’t want to give anything away, but yes, there will definitely be a showdown between the Ultimates and the X-Men. 

It’s pretty cool.

NRAMA: Chart things out for us a little – after “Magnetic North,” is there another arc with you before you start with Bryan Singer, or that not yet officially on the books at this point?

BKV: Actually, I’m afraid “Magnetic North” is going to be my last arc on the book for the foreseeable future.  I had always planned for this to be my big finale, but when Singer’s run got pushed back a few months, Marvel was nice enough to ask me to stay onboard.  Still, after much consideration, I decided that I’d rather go out with a bang than potentially overstay my welcome.

Thankfully, the Ultimate office has hired a much better writer to take my place, someone who I’ve been dying to see write the X-Men for a while now.  It’s not my place to say who it, but I can say that he/she will unquestionable kick ass, and will most likely continue to plant more seeds for Bryan Singer’s upcoming story.

Either way, I’ll definitely be doing more work at Marvel - including a very cool top-secret thing with 100 Bullets artist Eduardo Risso, as well as continuing to come up with some all new ideas for more creator-owned series at DC and elsewhere.  Keep checking my dumb blog and insane message board at www.bkv.tv for more details.

NRAMA: Well – that’s a change from what’s been reported. You were at one time supposed to be working with Singer, correct?

BKV: Yeah, and before you ask, sorry, I can’t say anything other than it’s excellent, an even better story than X2.  I think Bryan and screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris want to take the time to really make this something special, and as soon as production on the Superman slows down a bit, Ultimate X-Men will be their number one priority.

Thanks to Ex Machina being optioned by New Line, I’ve suddenly become busy with screenplay stuff of my own, so depending on our changing schedules, I’m not sure if I’ll still have time to assist Bryan & Co. in adjusting their scripts to comic-book form, but honestly, they never needed my help.  Their story is tight as drum, and some of the stuff they have in store is going to blow readers away.  It’s very, very dark.

NRAMA: Also in terms of present rather than future stuff…Ultimate X-Men Annual hit this week…Rogue and Gambit, Vegas…and…

BKV: Rogue and Gambit go to Vegas to steal something from the evil Fenris twins.  Juggernaut, who has a bit of a history with Ultimate Rogue, shows up. 

Very bad things happen.

Please don’t hate me.

NRAMA: Finally – with wrapping things up at just over a year – is this about how long you expected to stay on the series, or were you thinking it would be longer? Shorter?

BKV: Well, I was originally going to write just four issues, but I ended up having such a good time that I stuck around for twenty - and one annual!

Ultimate X-Men is a tricky book, because while your target audience is theoretically people who’ve never read an X-Men comic before, in reality, the vast majority of your readers - at least those of the monthly issues - are hardcore X-fans who’ve been following these characters for years.  If you don’t reinvent a certain amount of the mythos, long-time readers get restless, but if you change characters and relationships that already work very well just for the sake of changing them, you risk alienating those readers who are discovering this world for the first time.

But somewhere around the middle of my run, I decided to just stop worrying about that, and instead started simply trying to tell great stories about young people who are feared and hated because they’re different.  I think some of my arcs worked better than others, but I’m proud of all of it - especially that Steve Dillon standalone [#58], and I think Stuart and I have saved the best for last with “Magnetic North.”

Writing characters that I didn’t invent is usually very difficult for me, but Ultimate X-Men has been nothing but fun since day one, so I’m extremely grateful to everyone who’s supported my run.

Related articles:

Ultimate Time Capsule
Early, Ultimate Days
The Coming Ultimate X
Brian Bendis, I
Mark Bagley
Brian Bendis, II

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