The last of my LSCC interviews is with Kieron Gillen: comics playlist compiler, prolific Tweeter, author of Über, Young Avengers, the Phonogram series, Three, that run of Journey into Mystery, the upcoming The Wicked and the Divine (and much more), and, of course, 2014 GLAAD award recipient (for Young Avengers).
I had originally intended to conduct this as a conventional interview, but it soon grew much bigger than that. Read on for end-of-con thoughts on youth, music, the power of stories, and how many fairies a video graphics card is worth…
I was going to start by asking about Über, but my main questions about it, such as what its basic premise is – alternate-history World War II/Nazis with superhumans–got answered during the Avatar panel. So these questions are going to be very general and thematic.
That’s cool. Über’s strange. I almost dread any Young Avengers fan reading it, in that there’s a rape on the third page–
This is World War II, and there were over one million rapes in this final campaign. I’m trying to show Berlin in its terminal state, and to not show the whole thing is a lie. I’ve never written a page more carefully than that third page, because this cannot be exploitative, this cannot be titillating. In fact, this cannot even be close. So you would be aware that this is happening, but I’m not going to show it to you in anything but that. It’s an ugly book because the war is ugly. But even in Über there are three major female characters who are leads so I’m still thinking along –sorry, I’m going to say “feminist” literally in the first question, and as a bloke as well. Terrible. But it’s really tricky. I wouldn’t suggest it to the majority of my fans unless they really wanted to dig into that side of it, which is probably my own problem. There actually are a crossover between the two in terms of readership, which fascinates me. I don’t think there’s any two comics that are abstractly inside the same genre that are further apart in aesthetics than Young Avengers and Uber. *
It seems like you have a fascination with revisiting and rebuilding narratives and histories, both personal and social. Über is an alternate history, and your Journey into Mystery run deals with what you would do if you could go back and rewrite who you are as a person. This even shows up in elements of Young Avengers: the idea of Billy as the Demiurge, and the idea of Leah being a sort of manifestation of Loki’s guilty conscience.
Am I obsessed with the concept of mutability of story, the mutability of narrative? I would say that’s sort of in there. I mean, when you point out the evidence, I would be a fool to deny it. In The Wicked and the Divine, there’s certain subplots which seem to be a bit more meta than I wanted to, but when I look at them, that’s completely there. That’s probably from sublimated, repressed anger about a variety of things. I mean, stories are interesting, and a lot of my stuff is about stories. I’ve never actually in this way separated and connected the rewriting of history in Über, even the rewriting of history in Three–
Oh, yeah, Three, of course.
Three is completely historical, but it’s that idea of our accepted narrative of history and who gets to tell that. You can link the story of Three, where helots are heroes, with the story of the Disir in Journey into Mystery, where basically women have been trapped in a misogynistic fantasy; they’ve been written into this hellhole that we’ve essentially made as such. So who gets to tell stories? That’s interesting to me. You know the whole Neil Gaiman “stories are wonderful” stuff? That’s a real brutal, unfair simplification–there’s more to Gaiman than that–but China Mieville has a good rant about the wariness of stories and how people should listen to stories, because who profits from that? Who profits is the people who write stories. Stories being wonderful–it’s a wonderful self-interested fantasy. So while that’s definitely something I might do, I think there’s a lot of questioning of the use of the power of narrative, the power of the word, the power of story. And, essentially, the misuse. That’s Phonogram, kind of. Phonogram is about, “how do you correctly list your records?” That’s a stupid question, but it’s the idea of how art is used to control and influence other people.
Would the ahistorical Über fit? I’m not sure. I think almost everything else fits into it. The question of free will interests me. Can anyone ever change? And that is the question in the story you tell yourself. And how do you frame yourself…and what is true? What isn’t? So you go back to Sartre, you know, “hell is other people,” the point of No Exit. And most people quote “hell is other people” to say “everyone’s a shithead.” That’s a complete misreading of No Exit. No Exit’s basically “hell is other people” because other people mean we cannot tell lies about ourselves, saying, “oh, I’m this guy,” and the other people in the room, they know the truth about you … you’re unable to actually self-delude. And therefore hell is other people because we are forced to face the truth about ourselves.
With work like Three, and Über, and Phonogram: Rue Britannia as well, there also seems to be what I think of as a crisis of national identity in your work. And I hesitate to say that, because it tends to be used by people who write books about “what is Britain?” but they do all tie in.
Rue Britannia is sort of who gets to tell the story of what Britpop is, and that’s what [David] Kohl’s crisis is. And if you go to my two dual pieces on Britain and official identity, which are Manchester Gods in Journey into Mystery and the Sinister stuff in Uncanny X-Men, they were deliberately conceived as almost anti-Britain–I think any British leftist has to be anti-Britain, because of our imperialistic nature, but Manchester Gods pretty much argued that the “hey nonny nonny” and the field and the green and the elves and the pixies is bullshit. The only thing of interest that’s ever happened in Britain, that’s ever been important about Britain, is the Industrial Revolution. And that is so much more important. Britain needs to be industrially progressive–I don’t want to say “progressive,” that’s a loaded word, but you know what I mean?
At the same time, the class structure and the utter arrogance was all there in Sinister; Sinister is the bad side of Britain, everything I hate about it. I mean, a lot of leftists, especially in the last fifty years, have been kind of anti-constant progress, partially in response to nuclear war and the failure of the Soviet Union. But as a working-class guy, I’d be dead, you know? I’d be dead at twenty-five if it wasn’t for science, because of my appendix, or I’d just be down a fucking mine, or whatever.
That did stand out to me a lot about Manchester Gods: the idea that it is important and it is necessary for people to survive, for things to move forward, but it does come at a price. And I thought it was a good balance, because as you say, it does seem like there is a lot of emphasis on, “oh, no! We don’t believe in fairies anymore and therefore everything is terrible!”
My PC video graphics card is worth about forty fairies. Fuck it! But this goes back, really, to The Wicked and the Divine, the fact we did the ninety-year thing, because if you keep going back, then you hit the Romantics. And you know, part of me loves the Romantics and part of me hates them. I must say, I was into Ada Lovelace before she was fashionable. Since the late 90s, she’s kind of been totemic to me, and the fact that she was torn between the science and the poetry of the 18th century, and that’s basically when science and art went their separate ways. Before that, they were kind of all the same thing. And that’s why I love video games, because video games put them back together. So that’s in my head, the Romantics and those kinds of narratives, about what science is, and about what art is.
An anecdote: I used to go out with a girl, and she was a very serious left-wing, socialist girl who was involved with the unions, and she was great, but she was very practically minded. She got organized, she was a public figure in the union and all that. Conversely, I really believed in the concept of rewrites, essentially almost the 1984 concept of rewriting thoughts, the concept of writing single ideas into discussion to change people, the ultimate power of art and making people think about stuff. It kind of informs your interests. And if you look at how our art and attitudes have changed in various things in Britain in a real progressive way–if you told me fifteen years ago that we would have gay marriage, I would have laughed at you. That’s partially to do, I think, with the narrative of culture, and artists have–not a responsibility, but an opportunity. So I was talking about meme warfare and this kind of stuff, these kinds of ideas, and she made me feel unethical and I made her feel stupid. And that was one of the fundamental flaws in our relationship. And that’s linking almost all my stuff, this big mimetic stew of ideas, and I think I am both changed by culture and want to change it.
You mentioned The Wicked and the Divine–can you tell us more about that?
Okay! Well, by the time you publish this interview, we’ll have done an advert which explains the concept in two pages. The basic concept is one line: gods as pop stars. It’s Dante’s Inferno meets Disco Inferno.
Every ninety years, twelve gods incarnate into the bodies of young people. They perform secret miracles, they speak in tongues before crowds and drive them into rapture, they’re loved, they’re hated, and within two years they are dead. And that happens every ninety years. And our story is about the current generation of gods, who are pop stars. Our main character is a girl called Laura, and Laura is a character who basically is a wannabe. She looks at that and thinks, “I wanna be that,” and she doesn’t really think about where it leads … She’s a desperately ambitious person. Not un-autobiographical.
She’s not as mean as Laura, but she’s in that area. It’s a bit like wanting to be greater. And basically Lucifer–Lucy– has a certain problem, and she and Laura come to a deal, and that’s what our story’s about; that’s where our story starts. It’s these twelve gods and their interactions therein. So that’s basically the concept; it’s all to do with a mythological superhero comic with a modern twist sort of thing, and trying to work out a way not to do a superhero comic like most comics, because they [the gods] are kind of self-involved so they don’t really want to rule the world or anything. They just want to do what they do: essentially, be gods.
And Jamie McKelvie is on art for this, right?
That’s the plan for the first five issues, and then for the next five issues, each issue will have a guest artist. We’re not ready to announce them yet, because they haven’t been finalized. Then Jamie comes back for the third arc, and the fourth arc is someone else, and the fifth arc will be Jamie. So Jamie will be every other arc. And that’s because when we’re doing the second arc of Wicked and the Divine, Jamie’s doing Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl.
We wanted somewhere to do Phonogram, but we didn’t want to do it first, because Young Avengers being so much about the concept of the new–it kind of felt like a betrayal to go, “oh, let’s do an idea Kieron had in 2003.” The idea for The Wicked and the Divine came up the week after my dad was diagnosed as terminal… it’s the idea that just because you’re immortal doesn’t mean you can live forever. So that’s something new and wonderful, and then we’ll get Phonogram done and everyone will be happy. For now.
In The Wicked and the Divine, Lucifer incarnates as a woman (Lucy), and this echoes a theme I’ve noticed in a lot of your work. I’m not going to say Strong Female Characters because that phrase gets terribly misused, but there does seem to be this emphasis on female agency and the female voice.
I think as a white male dude it’s tricky, and I’m aware of the process of appropriation and that I’m telling stories which may not be mine to tell, so I’ve always got that in mind. On the other hand, I don’t want to just write about men; there’s so many cool and unique women in my life, and I want to write in dialogue with them. So yeah, I just think if you’re creating a pop universe in 2014, which we are, there’s no fucking excuse to have a load of white dudes. Unless there’s a really good reason, like if you’re doing a story about a monk. I mean, The Singles Club is actually incredibly white, but it’s at an indie club in Bristol: the whitest place on Earth. And I get, not uncomfortable, but when people ask me about diversity in The Singles Club, I go, “I wish I could, but …” Verisimilitude is important to that.
However, with something like The Wicked and the Divine with all the pop music–I love that pop music is an incredible cultural and sexual and gender identity mix, so I wanted to represent that. And The Wicked and the Divine formerly was going to have all women. All the gods were going to be women. The first seven or eight characters, I thought, “she’s definitely female; she’s definitely female.” I got to seven of them and then I realized, “there’s no men in this cast. They could all be women.” And at that point I got the idea for somebody I wanted who was male. But it could have been. I mean, we gender-switch the names both ways. Lucifer is the closest to one of my archetypes–it’s Emily Aster [from Phonogram] meets adult Loki. Lucy’s one of those characters I’m quite comfortable with, and they all have different spins, but it’s that overly verbal, not very nice type of character, like Terpander in Three. With Innana, Prince is the main influence on him, so– I’m going to get this wrong; is it her or Ishtar at the bottom of the tree? But she’s on the tree that leads to Aphrodite and all those kinds of things, so that kind of archetype.
Isn’t Ishtar fertility and then Innana’s fertility and death, or something like that?
They’re slightly connected–
But I think they’re from different–
Pantheons. But in terms of people studying it, there is an overlap. I kind of wanted Ishtar because Ishtar means “star,” and “star,” of course, is very appropriate to this, and there was a god from that pantheon that I was already using, and for Wicked and the Divine there’s only one god per pantheon. I cheated a bit on Greece, because for Greece there’s different periods with different belief structures, so I used one god from each one of those periods. It’s one per one. And I also try not to use gods that have been overused.
In Phonogram, the premise is that “music = magic.” Does that idea influence the way you write about youth and the way you conceive of it now?
Yeah, a bit? When I’m writing for modern youth, if I’m trying to connect to certain feelings and certain confusions, I listen to their sorts of music, and that allows me to access that kind of stuff. The Wicked and the Divine is not just teenagers. Young Avengers was kind of up to twenty-one, so it’s slightly older than Young Avengers. And it’s also got an M rating; it’s like Phonogram in terms of the amount of rude stuff and drug abuse–you know, the whole “for teens but not rated Teen” thing? This is kind of the pop statement of “this is what teenagers do.” You know, as much as we’re able to legally.
Like Skins or something.
I’ve never seen an episode of Skins.
I occasionally use “Skins” as shorthand, but I’ve never gotten around to watching it. But you know, when we meet Laura, she’s a kid from South London, just really ambitious, a bit fucked-up. I wanted her voice to be nicer, but when I started writing her, she comes off mean. This is Bell Jar-y. It’s like Holden Caulfield; she’s quite quiet as a person, she’s really ethical at times, but the internal voice is angry. And that was surprising, but if you actually look at that deal–two years as the ultimate pop star and then die–if you look at that and think “that sounds okay,” then either you’re very, very, very fundamentally brainless or you have something fundamentally unhappy there. So I’m not surprised it’s gone darker than I initially thought. Also, I’m still really feeling around, which is nice.
In Phonogram, all the phonomancers are that sort of indie-kid age, but in real life, people who are no longer “indie kids” still have this really strong connection to pop music even if it isn’t always the stuff that’s coming out at the moment, and it made me wonder: are there any older phonomancers that we just don’t see?
Oh, totally. In Rue Britannia, Kohl is turning thirty, so he’s quite old.
But old as in fifty, sixty …
But in pop music terms, being a pop star is like being a gymnast, and the fact that it’s something that idolizes the concept of youth, even hitting thirty is a big deal. It’s like, “oh my God, I’m a thirty-year-old gymnast.” And to be honest, The Immaterial Girl is about Emily turning thirty. Subtextually, never stated explicitly, it’s about Emily going through a kind of similar thing to what Kohl did [in Rue Britannia]. And Emily, of course, is facing a different sort of barrage, but the central question is still, “what have I spent my life doing, and where has that got me?” Colin, who writes a blog called Too Busy Thinking About My Comics, one thing he noted about the weird anhedonia in Phonogram, he said, “no one seems to be enjoying music anymore.” And that’s definitely there. Kohl ends up reconnecting with music by the end. Music has really become something he just does; it’s basically a habit, which isn’t pretty.
So yes, there are older phonomancers. I find it very fundamentally autobiographical, and I still get story ideas and I scribble them down. And I still love the idea of me and Jamie being sixty, seventy years old–horrific broken old men and doing little Phonogram stories, and it’ll be awful because it’ll be seventy-year-old David Kohl, and a song reminds him of a girl he knew on the way to the funeral of an ex. Some awful Britpop record that he connects with a girl he slept with in 1994, and now she’s dead. And of course, it’s that sense of “I’m going to die as well.” That’s me writing a really fucking crap old man story, but you know what I mean? Phonogram is about how we use art. I use pop music because it’s easily accessible, it’s visual and–okay, music’s not visual, but there’s a lot of visuals attached. But it’s about all art and how we use culture and how culture uses us.
I heard that if you look at a teenager’s brain scan, their brain patterns are different from children and adults; they have this whole other mental process going on.
I’ve heard that, yeah. The concept of what teenagers think like, that’s all interesting stuff. I’m always careful about brain patterns, though–people kind of overreach. But I can believe that, because it’s a fucked-up time. I mean, what were you like as a teenager?
I wasn’t that bad, but I did stupid stuff because, well, I was a teenager.
You’re allowed to make mistakes! You’re learning; you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. I’ve got some notes for a Phonogram roleplaying system–
You’ve got a Phonogram roleplaying system?
Just something I did one afternoon. I did a sort of briefing idea about how it worked, and the way it worked is that people get less powerful as the game goes on. As in, you start off as a teenager and all you have is pure power and enthusiasm. You never love a record as much as you do when you’re sixteen, seventeen, because it’s incandescently brilliant. And as you go through the game, you start losing levels, essentially, and the question becomes, “what would you do to keep your power?” And you’re Emily; you’re Kohl–that is the weird darkness of wanting to worship pop. That is what Phonogram is. It’s a pretty dark book.
That question of power ties back into the earlier point about gender; in Rue Britannia, the goddess Britannia is a quadrophenized classic model of Britannia, but when people talk about Britpop it’s all men. It’s Oasis and Blur and so on, and you never see the women, although they must have been there.
It’s weird, because me and Jamie kind of reckon that there were enough female-fronted bands–I mean, “female-fronted bands” is a cliché, but it’s better than just a male band. But Kenickie, and all these kinds of bands that meant the world to us; they were there, and they weren’t just underground like The Slits or whatever. These were genuine pop bands, and they kind of made us see–that’s our universe. That’s how it was. And this is kind of one of the things in Rue Britannia: early Britpop was a lot less blokey than late Britpop. Early Britpop was, like, Suede–at least androgyny. And as it went through and essentially just aged, it became more blokey. And now we’re left with a very blokey image. And even Blur were never effete, apart from the bassist. Alex James really worked that angle.
The cheese guy!
Yes! Every girl I ever dated from 1992 to about 2004 wanted him badly. But you know, at least early Britpop released its femininity, and that’s the reason why I made it Britannia. And of course the name, Britannia. There’s actually a male god of Britpop in one of the B-sides: Albion, who’s kind of the other 60s mod god who died early…yeah, I raise an eyebrow as well. But one of my friends, Sarah, a political journalist, said, “I find it fascinating how men, when they choose to write insecurity they often choose to use female teenage protagonists.” That’s something I often think as well. And it worries me. What on earth does that say about how we see our concepts of weakness, especially men? I can’t really deny that, but I’m also a bit ashamed of that.
One more question: you have this ability to, when you write about things that kids are doing, to not fall into the trap of getting it wrong–and I’ve seen it go wrong a lot. In Young Avengers, for instance, the way that the Twitter-esque bits and the Tumblr-esque bits are written is quite close to what people actually do on the internet. Does starting out in PC writing and games journalism help with that?
I’m petrified [when] writing young people. From The Singles Club onwards, I’ve been petrified. Young Avengers was easier in some ways because they’re not teens who are buried deep in a subculture. They’re generally kind of like–
They’re not real, almost?
They are real in many ways, but–let’s say they were into hardcore DOTA culture. And I’ve played DOTA games, but I’m not sure I could write the intricacies of that community authentically. And in The Singles Club, I was writing these teenagers, and these aren’t just teenagers; these are teenagers who are deeply embedded in and obsessed with music. Therefore, the texture of it really mattered and that was very easy to get wrong, and I was pretty happy–no one actually complained–that I got away with that. Young Avengers was easier, but I’m still aware that I’m thirty-eight now, and I’m writing these people. I’m worried about fucking it up.
I’m not trying to be cool–that’s the thing! I write them as people; I write them from the inside out, and remembering what it felt like. I’m writing that with an understanding of what I didn’t know, but at the same time I’m writing remembering what I didn’t know and how I didn’t care. I remember what it was like to be twenty, what it was like to be fifteen. I remember being thirteen and being told that your next two years were going to go by in a blip, and they did. I’ve worried about dying ever since, because God bless Juliet. You know that kind of stuff? I get it. So I write authentically to the emotions. And I don’t ever really try to write too slangy. I mean, it really helps that I’m on the Internet a lot, and I’m exposed to a number of people… The joke is that I sound like a weird stoner kid half the time, but I speak much too quickly to do that. But yeah, I worry about it all the time, and I worry about the voices, and I worry about being patronizing–about being parasitic, actually–but I get very little critique of that so far. But The Wicked and the Divine, I think, will be the last thing.
The last thing about youth music, or the last thing about music and youth?
The last thing that’s so much about the concept of youth. Wicked and the Divine isn’t so much about youth; it’s about life and death. It doesn’t matter if it’s two years or seventy years; that’s how much time we have on the planet, and the question becomes how you choose to use it…[because] life and death are the only two options we have. So on some level I think Wicked and the Divine is quite a deceptive book, because the more people get into it they go, “oh, it’s about this,” or rather the surface isn’t the whole thing. But I almost semi-wish–maybe I should have pushed Wicked and the Divine to early twenty-somethings instead. Keep on pushing the age up. But Mercury Heat, the book I’m doing for Avatar, that’s pretty much about being thirty. A different kind of thirty, though. It’s basically thinking about wasting your twenties in a crappy job that doesn’t pay very well; it’s like my artistic thirty-something Kohl thing. Yeah, I worked a series of crappy jobs and tried to figure out what I wanted to be and never really got a job I liked, and now I’m thirty and not much different from when I went to university. And I know a lot of people like that. I have to bully my wife into having a kid now so I can write about something else. But I feel okay. I don’t feel the need to worry about being cool anymore, which is quite nice–not that I ever really did. I’m looking forward to being an elder statesman of comics.