As a child, I read George Orwell’s Animal Farm after seeing my older cousin reading it for school. When he said it was a story about animals walking and talking as if they were humans, I thought I was going to be in for a fun time. Little did I know that I was about to expose my innocent self to the sad truth that while all animals are equal, some animals are more equal than others.
It might seem like a stretch to call comic book writer Brian K. Vaughan “Orwellian” — especially after I learned that using “Orwellian” to mean authoritarian was a gross oversimplification — but there are a lot of ways in which the two authors are similar, the “O” word aside.
Vaughan has penned stories for several mediums including television (Lost and Stephen King’s Under the Dome), comics and graphic novels, and even a few screenplays. While he has had several hits in his vast superhero comic oeuvre, he is most known for the original work he has released over the years. The most popular is perhaps Y: The Last Man (2002-2008), which was about Yorick Brown (or Y,) the last man to survive a global plague that killed all carriers of the Y chromosome. He also has an ongoing series called Saga (since 2012), which is an epic space opera featuring a love story between two warring races — a parallel of today’s racial tensions, set in space — brought to life by artist Fiona Staples, and garnering immense critical acclaim and fannish devotion.
Orwell, perhaps even more of a household name due to 1984 (the origins of the name and concept behind reality TV’s Big Brother), was known to have provided a rather bleak picture of the not-so-distant future, which was made even more terrifying by how close to his vision the world seems to have turned out.
Almost everywhere we look, there is a precarious surface on which our shared sense of equality is barely able to balance, creating a view of humanity that tends to favor one group over another.
We live in a version of Big Brother, in which we elect ourselves to be kept under surveillance, volunteering information about ourselves for no important reason, willing slaves to trends and some dangerous viewpoints.
Although both stories feature penned animals that mirror the viciousness of humanity among other things (Orwell’s Animal Farm to Vaughan’s Pride of Baghdad), it is in their seemingly shared bleak perspective of humans and the space they move in that we can draw parallels. One could say that Vaughan is a current-day version of Orwell, seemingly charged with the responsibility of delivering a horrific picture, or several, of what the end of the world would actually look like, now that Orwell’s version of the future has finally caught up to us. The bad news is that it’s probably going to get worse.
It often feels like it might be too late to turn back. Even if we could still fix what went wrong and change directions, would we be able to live peacefully with ourselves, knowing the things we’ve done? Does it matter that we’re sorry if it doesn’t really make a difference to anyone else but ourselves?
Are both of these writers simply in the business of crafting and disseminating cautionary tales to a public that won’t listen? Maybe, but then again, maybe not. Perhaps the human condition is, in some ways, cyclical, helplessly destined for doom and despair at our own destructive hands. Or maybe it’s too much to ask the general public to pay attention to silly comics and corny novels that are mainstays on schools’ required reading lists. Even if reading them sometimes feels strangely familiar, a bit like staring into a mirror that you can’t look away from. Besides, what does recognizing the path we’re on mean for us and, in effect, our future?
Vaughan’s heroes are often altruistic and selfless, determined to set things right, or trying to, at least, point them in the right direction so that the future will stand a chance.
No matter how futile and bleak and hopeless it may be. Maybe it’s easier to be heroic when you live in a fictional world. When you win a battle for good in the real world, progress is mostly slow and painful, sometimes not even amounting to much, if you look really closely.
Despite the warning signs from authors like Orwell, we are all still collectively walking into what feels like the same futures he warned us about. Like Orwell, whether intentional or not, Vaughan’s work provides commentary and insight into our world or what it could be. And he shows the possibilities when we follow the same trajectory — both the bad and the good — so that maybe a little part of us is allowed, again, to hope.