This week on Multiversity Comics Presents, we have one of our favorite up-and-coming writers – Kieron Gillen. Matt chose him as his favorite writer for the month of December, and that decision is a hard one to dispute. Gillen’s recent work includes the exceptional (and recently cancelled) S.W.O.R.D. from Marvel, Image’s Phonogram with frequent collaborator Jamie McKelvie, and much, much more.
This interview is a highly entertaining one, and if you enjoy it please, by all means, pick up Gillen’s work. The more the better I say.
Kieron Gillen: Crikey, start with an easy one, don’t you?
Shortform: beautiful underdog medium. Always give me an underdog. Relatively new with a long adolescence which it’s stretching elegantly out of. Still has enough of the possibility of THE REAL NEW about it. Novels are dead. Movies are capitalist money-sinks. Mainstream games are capitalist monkey-sinks which you have to spend a decade working the equivalent of factory work before you get a chance to do something you may want to do — and maybe not even then. Underground games involve the clever and the patience, two attributes I’ve never been overly gifted with. Comics are ideas and paper — or a virtual equivalent thereof – the greatest, freest, most democratic visual storytelling medium the world has ever seen. Why would I choose anything else than comics? It’d just be second best.
I also get to bully Jamie McKelvie.
Who are your biggest influences on your writing, or your “over-verbal theatrics” as you called them to CBR?
KG: The over-verbal theatrics are a family trait. I’m the shy one. If you’ve met me, you can only imagine what my extended Midlands Catholic family are like. In terms of influences… crikey, I did a Q&A over at Warren Ellis’ forum before Christmas. Rather than give a short answer, I’ll cut and paste what I wrote there.
“This is a question I hate almost as much as “What are you listening to right now”. To ask me is to just the moment of total brain-freeze. What are my influences? Do I have influences? OH GOD! I’VE FORGOTTEN EVERY SINGLE THING I’VE EVER WRITTEN. I AM A BLANK SLATE. THERE IS NOTHING HERE. LEAVE ME ALONE.
In comics it’s the usual array of writers from the British Isles with names beginning with “M”, “E” and “G”. Of those, the one which barely anyone has ever noted – exception: An editor who had worked with him, and that’s all she mentioned – being Milligan, who’s enormously under-rated. Less obvious ones, especially for Phonogram, would be… oh, Eddie Campbell (No Alex, No Phonogram, in a very real way. The B-sides in 2.6 may actually show bit more of that), Dave Sim (No Jaka’s Tale, no Phonogram either), Bryan Talbot, Joe Matt (I wouldn’t have been brave enough to have Kohl be so fucking horrible if I hadn’t seen THE POOR BASTARD), Jessica Abel, Bendis’ indie work.
The thing with influences, I often feel like I’m refocusing my influences depending on the project. I think that’s natural. You’ve seen an aesthetic effect elsewhere, and you’re going to use that as shorthand in your thinking. I think that’s common. Between FREAKANGELS and SUPERGOD, you can see Mr Ellis has had John Wyndam on the brain recently. There’s people who I wouldn’t think of an influence, but become enormously important depending on what project you’re doing. Sometimes you need to be Margret Atwood. Sometimes you need to be Vonnegut. Sometimes you need to be Burroughs, but without the missus shooting, ideally. Sometimes you need to at least pretend to think of yourself as Dostoevsky, at least for 10 minutes. Sometimes you need to be whoever wrote the text for PONG.
(AVOID MISSING BALL FOR HIGH SCORE = ultra writing)
In terms of deep genetic influences which underlie a lot of what I do… Tolkien is there – though I sometimes think it’s much more the idea of Tolkien that excited my pre-teen self than the stuffy actuality. I did the maths recently, and worked out that I must have been reading Iain Banks – both with and without the M – when I was 12, as I read Player of Games when it came out. Ultraviolence, sex, fiercely-aggressive progressive politics – all good thing to get into your base structure. The idea of Banks as a productive writer, straddling genres, and deliberately not actually fitting into social conventions (i.e. Sci-fi writer who also wrote mainstream literature) are stuff that informs me. I suspect he may have been my surrogate moorcock, as like many comics writers, the idea of this superhuman physical effort of production is inspiring.
(Also in personal iconic memory banks: Those few months where James Cameron wrote both the Terminator and Aliens, which strikes me as an enormous contribution to make to pretty much everyone else working in the pop-entertainment field in a concentrated space)
And give me an underdog medium every day.
Pop music is the heavy influence. I don’t often write a comic until I’ve found some musician who informs it. As in, the musician creates this mood. I’ll try and work how to translate those feelings into this completely divorced medium. Always give yourself an impossible task. Success is the mind killer. Lots of lyricists influence the way I think – and before I decided to actually make my interview-persona basically be based around “transparency” (Which is evidenced even by that sentence) I was considering trying to essay Andrew Eldritch and be a right old bastard. I want a cane and mirror shades.
Journalism is there, especially on a sentence-by-sentence-basis. Culture journalism. While I love the big classic boys – Yer-Lester-bangs-and-all – the ones who are influences are the ones who were producing masses of stuff when you were in your teens and devouring the mags. In my case, for Games Journalism it’s people like J Nash and Stuart Campbell. For music journalism, it’s Neil Kulkarni and Taylor Parkes. Oh – and throw Simon Reynolds in there too, who always scared me. The old British Inkies were, as far as this small-town-English boy was concerned, the liberal-education-class for working-class kids. Before the Internet, where on Earth would I have heard about – say – Situationalism in Stafford?
(I’m a big fan of art and culture as a gateway. Follow the paths)
Lots of pulp, in every genre. Chatting to the Comics Daily guys, they’ve been surprised by my Marvel work like Ares, because it’s not a side of me you see in Phonogram. You must always remember I was a games journalist for over a decade. You don’t do that unless that stuff moves you deeply.
Comrade Rossignol always drags out Ballard’s quote…Continued below
“My advice to anyone in any field is to be faithful to your obsessions. Identify them and be faithful to them, let them guide you like a sleepwalker”.
Which is something I’ve always agreed with, even before knowing the line. I’m influenced by Gogol and Games Workshop in about equal measures. I don’t see the problem. I see that as the point.
(Okay – I’m lying about the Gogol, specifically. I just wanted the alteration. You know what I mean.)”
Crikey. That was a lot of wibble. I was probably trying to show off to Warren’s fans, or at least try and justify myself, which is showing off for insecure people.
How did you make the jump from a guy who reviews video games and writes about music to a guy who writes comic books? With Phonogram it was probably much easier, but with titles like Thor or SWORD it seems like it would be more of a leap.
KG: It’s kind of in the influences section — you don’t actually move in the circles of pop-pulp culture unless you care about it. In terms of emotional engagement, it’s already there. Mentally, it was surprisingly easy to make the adjustments. I do a double-take when I realise I’m actually doing it (“Surely they’ll find me out soon and send me back to Stafford to work on Building sites?”), but that passes.
In terms of the more career-path stuff… well, when I was a journo, I was also doing self-published small-press photocopied zines. Doing stuff lead to more people wanting me to do stuff with them. Going through a decade of that and the people wanting me to do stuff with them are Marvel editors. As in, work creates doors. I don’t try to think about anything other than the work. I’m a terrible careerist.
Were you friends with Jamie McKelvie before starting up Phonogram? How did the creation of that title come about?
KG: I’m not friends with Jamie now, let alone then.
More seriously, we actually met at one of the aforementioned small-press cons. He showed me his portfolio. I say I have an idea for a comic he’d be perfect for. Fast forward a few years and we’re doing the first series of Phonogram. It took so long to actually do that we actually did become friends in that process — in fact, partners in crime — but we met over Phonogram.
The idea came from a mysterious place. I can’t recall the exact moment of inspiration — I suspect I was drinking — but if you look at all my writing, both journalism and fiction, all the way back to my late teens and you can see fragments of it. How we consume and are transformed by culture is one of my big themes.
KG: I’m pleased you describe the music we cover as pop. A lot of interviewers class it as Indie, and there’s certainly as much pop in there as anything. Well, there’s not definitely any more Phonogram — which I’ll answer in a couple of questions — but there’s certainly other genres I’d abstractly like to write about. And there’s B-sides which touch on other genres than what we tend to. I mean, part of the point of Phonogram is for people to sort of transfer how these people feel about music which they may or may not know (or like) and apply it to their own tastes.
What would a metal phonomancer work with? What about a post-rock phonomancer?
KG: It’s less about the genre of the music and more about what they actually use the music for. All the effects of magic in Phonogram are direct metaphors for what music does to you. Without wanting to give a spoiler for the final issue… well, I recall back in the early nineties, just as the Prodigy were crossing over to more alt-circles circa Jilted Generation. Bumped into a metal head mate of mine who was throwing himself around to No Good Start the Dance or whatever. This is an unusual thing to see then. “It’s the energy!” he says excitedly, and gets back to throwing to it. He was using the hardcore Prodigy in the same way he used his faster metal. This is something to power him. It fulfilled the same urge and gave him the same thing.Continued below
Point being, a metal phonomancer and a post-rock phonomancer would use it entirely based upon their own personality. Look at Lloyd in Issue 6 — he uses music as something for self knowledge. Something to examine and think about — and by doing so, discover more stuff about himself. He could have very easily been a post-rock fan, dissecting this intricate music for knowledge’s own sake. Alternatively, the post-rock guy could have been a posturing scenester who uses the exact knowledge of his music to cast seduction spells on girls, like Kohl does in the first issue of Rue Britannia. The magic is as much about the person as the music — though certain music does tend to lean towards different effect.
There’s an example of someone using metal in a way which you wouldn’t use many other sorts of music in Issue 7, by the way. Becky Cloonan draws. Blood Mountain, inspired by the ever-awesome Mastodon.
What does the future of Phonogram look like now that you’re working a lot at Marvel?
KG: It looks pretty bleak, but that’s not because of working at Marvel. Phonogram simply doesn’t make enough money for Jamie to eat. There’s no chance of a third series of Phonogram happening in the current way. Which isn’t to say that I’m not thinking of alternative plans, but the idea we’d just stick out another six or seven issues is highly unlikely. Annoying, I know.
How did your current work for Marvel come about? Were you a fan of the House of Ideas before working for them?
KG: Yes, I was. While I actually came to comics as a proper medium as an adult, in terms of American comics, all my childhood experiences were with Marvel comics. My hometown doesn’t have a comic shop, so the only access I had was the reprints Marvel UK did of Marvel US — a random mix of 60s, 70s and 80s material. When I actually got into comics properly circa 2000, the new regime of Marvel was enormously exciting for me. Alias, X-Force, New X-men, Marvel Boy — all that kind of stuff. In terms of the main universe stuff since, I’ve always leaned towards Marvel.
What was so initially appealing about working on Marvel’s space frontier?
KG: That Nick Lowe seemed to think I’d be good at it.
I’m not even joking. At this stage, I’m still amazed any editor thinks I may work with anything, and I come all a flutter. After that neediness passed, it was just a great set-up for a book which fit into the larger structure of the Marvel Universe. I liked Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men a lot, and being able to actually go out and define something that has only recently been created was exciting. I like making stuff up. Also, His Girl Spacegirl Friday. The more I thought, the more I loved the cast. Especially, Beast and Brand at the heart of it.
Given the snippets of your reactions I’ve read about SWORD‘s cancellation so far, it seems as if you do not really feel bad and definitely are not surprised by its cancellation. I’ve also read that you managed to predict this event and even write the first arc to wrap the series quite tidily. How did you come up with the decision to do that?
KG: Plan for success, plan for failure. I’m thinking about everything when launching a book. In the current market, it’s not easy and assuming that it’s going to even get twelve issues is a recipe for readers being left hanging and unsatisfied. AND THE READERSHIP MUST BE SATED. As such, I went for a telescoping structure. The first 5 issues were always planned to be a self contained plot. However, in the process of doing that, it also sets up where I would have been going next. The pieces in place aren’t obviously loose ends — I doubt anyone will realise what they are when issue 5 finishes — but it’s something I’d have picked up and span out the rest. In other words, I haven’t changed a single panel of SWORD after its cancellation. It’s a lovely little five-issue mini and hopefully people will like it.Continued below
Regarding not feeling bad… well, it’s more that I’m philosophic. You can’t allow yourself to get upset about things which are beyond your control. That way leads to madness.
KG: The telescope could be extended at various rates — and this metaphor is going to become unwieldy pretty soon. So the next two arcs were formed, but could be expanded or contracted as required. I could have done them in 12. I could have done them in 18 — though that’d have involved adding a lot of stuff to that central spine. I like my telescope flexible.
See — the metaphor fails. Weakness.
Fan response to SWORD so far has been small but boisterous. Do you see a future where the series could return in some regard, especially with the grassroots campaigns that were already taking foot before the axe fell?
KG: It’s good to see people who enjoyed the book say they enjoyed the book. As I’ve said elsewhere, just letting a publisher know that you enjoyed something they released is a worthwhile thing to do.
How did shorter projects like the Beta Ray Bill mini and Ares mini come about?
KG: Lovely editor Warren Simons asked me if I had any ideas for a Beta Ray Bill one off. I gave him one, he said yes. I wrote it, he liked it. He then asked for any ideas of a Beta Ray Bill mini. I have him one, he said yes. I wrote it, he liked it. Half way through that, he asked whether I had any ideas for an Ares mini and…
It’s very much the answer I said earlier. Doing stuff and not making a complete pigs ear of it tends to lead to other stuff. Unless you start hitting editors with beams of wood. That tends to ruin everything.
What was it like to write a Beta Ray Bill story that was actually 100% worth reading? What did you reference to properly capture the character?
KG: Crikey. Thank you.
I did what I do when asked to write most characters. I sit down, and try and work out what makes them tick. With Bill, there’s the obvious cosmic high-concept madness of him, but I started breaking that down. I mean, he’s an alien. That’s a science fiction conceit. And science fiction is, fundamentally, atheist. However, he’s an alien with the powers of an ancient god. That’s fantasy. Which is fundamentally, about the irrational. In other words, he embodies these two contrasting world-views. After checking the current status quo with the character, I tried to make a story which was powered by that culture-clash. Wrestling with the problem of Galactus seemed to be perfect for that.
I may think about this stuff too much.
With Thor, how did it feel to take over the reigns of one of the most recognizable characters in comic history, especially after the revered team of JMS/Coipel/Djurdjevic team left the title?
KG: Petrifying. Not least because my brother is an enormous fan of the previous run, is about six-foot four and could punch my head clean off. But in some ways, it was such an enormous gig that it was too big to really worry about. I was expecting to be slaughtered by people for simply not being JMS. In a perverse way, that took the pressure off a bit. It just became about wanting to do the best story I could. That people have responded so favourably to it was both surprising and enormously gratifying.
It seems so far with the limited run on Thor that really just wraps up JMS run, the Beta Ray Bill and Ares minis, and the quick cancellation of SWORD, we haven’t really been given much of an opportunity to see you spread your wings at Marvel. What projects do you have coming down the path?
KG: Nothing major I can talk about, alas. In terms of what’s been announced, I’m doing the New Mutants Siege tie in with Dani Moonstar rocking the Valkyrie look. Also, I contribute a story in the Mystic Hands of Doctor Strange, where I’ve tried my hardest not to have Mike Carey and Pete Milligan write rings around me. Outside of Marvel, I’ve a mini coming out over at Avatar in the summer called THE HEAT. It’s a sci-fi police story set on Mercury. Lots more on that nearer the time.Continued below
If you were given free reign on any title, what title would that be on? Any characters and other creators you’d like to work with in particular?
KG: I actually try to avoid thinking of characters I don’t own which I haven’t been asked to pitch for. Because… well, if you start thinking about it, it takes over your mind. You discover you’ve spent a day thinking about characters you don’t own, creating a story you can’t write unless someone else gives you permission to do so. I mean, when doing interviews for the first series of Phonogram, we knew people would ask “What superheros do you want to write”.
Which is a totally fine question — but when we’re trying to publicise our doomed indie book, we want to keep the conversation on topic. So we had a sort of standard answer which would get a laugh, and then we can move on. The standard answer was “Dazzler, obviously”.
Just the process of making that joke a few times was enough to start my creative engines and I ended up with a pitch for a Dazzler mini — the first thing I pitched at Marvel, I believe. In fact, Dazzler was the first Marvel Universe character I ever wrote.
In other words, I don’t like to think about it. I know how my brain works. If I say something like “I’d like to do a story about Doctor Doom and Emma Frost stuck in a lift” part of me will start trying to work out how to do it and… oh no. It’s off. Curse you cerebellum. Why must you torment me so?
I feel similarly about talking about artists, but in a different way. If I start talking about how much I’d love to work with Bryan Hitch, Brendan McCarthy, Phillip Bond or any of dozens of others, I’ll start working out plans of how I can kidnap them, keep them in a box and make them obey my writerly will.
I really loved your list of Best Tracks of 2009, and it really made me want to give Florence and the Machine a second look. What albums did you enjoy in particular from 2009, and which ones are you really looking forward to in 2010? (our origins as a comic site actually stem from a music site)
KG: Thank you! Man, I hate people asking me for musical advice, as my mind always goes blank. In this case, a lot of the albums I loved were also ones with tracks in the Top 40. The xx album is a wonder. The Horrors Primary Colours. The Future of the Left’s album was brutal. I thought the Lily Allen was was actually a pretty smart collection of snarky pop. Luke Haines’ 21st Century Man saw England’s most ascerbic almost emotionally open. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart were the sort of band which makes you want to wear badges. Oh — and Fever Ray was perfect at any time post midnight, when you were alone, or you wanted to feel like you were alone.
In terms of this year… Interested in the Chew Lips album. Los Campesinos’ new one. Art Brut’s new one. And that’s just January, innit? Man, I’m still catching up with the back end of 2009. The end of year lists always lead to me devouring everything I missed. I only started really trying to process Girls early in the year, and… I’m still not sure. What do you think of them? (Note from David: I like the album)
Do British people like cats? (that comes from our feline obsessed founder)
KG: They do. Though cats don’t always like us. I present something I wrote the last time I was living in a shared house. Mainly, shared with cats.
But cats don’t share.