2003: NOT A BAD YEAR for writer Brian K. Vaughan! Y: The Last Man, Vaughan and Pia Guerra's excellent series about the last man on Earth, was gaining powerful word of mouth. Runaways, Vaughan and Adrian Alphona's tale starring supervillains' teenage kids, was bringing a much-needed freshness to Marvel Comics. And on the horizon: Vaughan and Tony Harris' West Wing-meets-Iron Man saga Ex Machina; a riff on Michael Chabon's The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay; and Pride of Baghdad, Vaughan and Niko Henrichon's acclaimed graphic novel set in and around the Baghdad Zoo amid an American bombing. For a while, Vaughan wasn't just comics' hottest writer—he was helping make the medium as good as it's ever been.
A few years later, Vaughan's comics slowed to a trickle: a too-brief run on Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 2007, Y and Ex Machina's final issues in 2008 and 2010, respectively. And then Vaughan's comics just stopped: Despite a stint as a writer for Lost and murmurs of possible film projects, Vaughan fans have been left with... well, not much. Which perhaps explains Marvel's recent publication of Mystique Ultimate Collection.
Mystique's one of Vaughan's lesser-known comics from 2003: one starring an X-Men character best known for giving Hollywood an excuse to trick Rebecca Romijn-Stamos into being spray painted Smurfette Blue™. Here, the shape-shifting villainess works as a spy for the X-Men's resident mentor/grumpypants, Charles Xavier, and Vaughan crafts an espionage page-turner crammed with mutant-y twists. Quoting Oscar Wilde nearly as often as she morphs into scantily clad disguises, Mystique holds her own in a comic that bears more of Ian Fleming's DNA than Stan Lee's.
This 13-issue-long run isn't Vaughan's best work—both Mystique-as-series and Mystique-as-character don't gel until several issues in. But it's not hard to guess Marvel's motives: On the cover, Brian K. Vaughan's name is as big as the book's title. Once lost in the shuffle, Mystique now pops off the shelf precisely because there's no new Vaughan to be had.
For those of us wondering when, or if, Vaughan's particular type of stories—full of sharp dialogue, surprising characters, high concepts, and clever plots—will return to comics, this collection is a nice-enough surprise. As even Mystique proves, comics were better when Vaughan was around—here's hoping the next time his name is splashed across something on the new arrivals rack, it's the cover of something genuinely new.