That right there is maybe the worst title ever, but I just can’t help myself. It’s a self-control issue.
Anyway, there aren’t many people who need to be convinced that Brian K. Vaughan is one of the best comic book writers in the game. Y: The Last Man has reached legendary status, Runaways has one of the most passionate cult audience in superhero comics, and there was a time when you couldn’t walk into a comic shop without getting a Saga recommendation. Along with Robert Kirkman, BKV has revolutionized the way the comic book industry, pushing the limits of what a creator-owned book can be. The idea that a book like Saga could do Batman numbers would’ve been laughed at a decade ago. These days, that’s not so funny.
Besides the impact his work has had on the industry, what interests me most about BKV is the strength of his style. Though Y, Ex Machina, Saga, We Stand on Guard, Paper Girls, and Runaways are all wildly different books, they all unmistakably BKV. Though each of his works has seen his style advance, his instincts as a storyteller were remarkably strong from the earliest of his works I’ve read. He marries can’t-wait-to-see-what-happens-next endings with nuanced, unique, and diverse characters with motivations and perspectives that you’re invested in from the start. He peppers this all with an intensely readable pace and soooo many puns that, by the time you’re finished, you don’t really know that you’ve read something profound until the final note of the story.
There is, though, a Brian K. Vaughan story that doesn’t get its just due. It’s unlike his other major works, in that he didn’t have a long run and he did end up passing off the narrative to another writer, but everything else that makes a BKV story a BKV story is there. When I first read this comic, I felt almost as if I’d unearthed a hidden gem, and now I just want to share it so everyone can see how pretty it is – how it shines when you hold it up to the light.
The comic is Mystique.
Brian K. Vaughan wrote the title from #1-13, which is reprinted in Mystique by Brian K. Vaughan: Ultimate Collection. He was joined by a team of rotating artists including Jorge Lucas who kicks off the series with a style that reminded me a lot of what Aspen does, Michael Ryan who came with a more modern superhero style, and Manuel Garcia whose work was darker and heavier, giving the penultimate arc a gritty street-level feel. Oscar Carreno, Matt Milla, and Daniel Perez Sanchez were on color duties with Paul Tutrone, Rus Wooton, and Randy Gentile lettering. While it doesn’t have the visual consistency of BKV’s creator-owned stuff or even Runaways, the art on Mystique is fun, breezy, and kinetic enough to sell the big action scenes.
On the writing side of things, I was initially pretty surprised to see just how much of BKV’s unique voice was already developed when he was on this book. But check the dates. Mystique came out the same year as Runaways, which was many folks’ gateway drug into BKV’s library. Runaways has stood the test of time, though, while this Mystique series goes forgotten. I think it’s clear that Runaways is more personal, but the left-of-center flare and pacing is all here. Mystique herself is also compelling, as an unapologetic antihero who dares to say what the “good” Mutants won’t: that Mutants are better than humans. BKV explores the inherent metaphors of the X-Men without leaning heavily on the title’s classic stories, but instead lightly explores the psychology of terrorism, cultural appropriation, gender politics, and the idea of acceptable loss through Mystique.
Mystique never set out to change lives, but it did give me a hell of a fun time. By the end, BKV wraps up the character arc rather nicely, but leaves a good amount of the plot left hanging for the next writer: Sean McKeever. It’s an unusual series in the BKV canon, in that it’s longer than his popular minis like The Hood or Doctor Strange: The Oath, but his run on the title didn’t last as long as his big, epic, operatic stories on Runaways or his creator-owned books. Even so, just like the lead character, Mystique is a book that you overlook at your own risk.
PAT SHAND writes comics (Vampire Emmy and the Garbage Girl, Robyn Hood, Hellchild), novels (Charmed for HarperCollins), and pop culture journalism (Sad Girls Guide, Blastoff Comics). He used to work at Borders, and acquired the majority of his voluminous comic book collection, including Mystique by Brian K. Vaughan, by hiding what he wanted in a hole in the wall while the store was liquidating.