In the last and longest of my DICE interviews, I talked to Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie about their hit gods-as-pop-stars comic The Wicked and the Divine. Editor Chrissy Williams was also on hand to provide clarifications and additional wit.
We covered a lot of ground, including pop culture, the generation of ideas, cultural appropriation, and Kanye West:
I wanted to start by talking about the fan response to The Wicked and the Divine, because it seems like it’s been pretty big from Day One. People were cosplaying as Luci and Amaterasu right after the first issue came out.
Kieron and Jamie: Before!
Kieron: Before the first issue, actually; from Day Minus One. Like with Kelly Sue DeConnick and Pretty Deadly, there was Ginny cosplay before the first issue came out. It says a lot about the climate, doesn’t it?
Were you expecting that?
Kieron: We were demanding that!
Jamie: No, you don’t have control. We were hoping for it.
Kieron: It’s one of those questions that’s really hard to answer, because you want people to love your book, and if they weren’t doing that – “disappointed” is the wrong word, because that implies you expect it, but that we had failed is a better way of putting it – as in our point was to make people care. If people didn’t care, we fucked up. So it’s weird and complimentary and awesome.
Was there any part of the reaction that surprised you, or was it kind of what you expected, given how fandom has responded to previous Image books and what your fanbase is like?
Jamie: It was surprising at times, like the book selling out on the first day it came out.
Kieron: The level of sales was the main thing that surprised us. That individuals care about our books isn’t surprising, but the general amount of it – that’s something very different, I guess. We tried to do a lot of press and drum-beating on this one.
By the way, we just need to recommend this restaurant that we’re now in: the My Thai in the Fitzpatrick Beacon Hotel in Dublin.
Jamie: You have to say it out loud to get the pun.
The WicDiv style blog, the Tumblr, the writer’s notes – it seems like there’s a huge amount of direct fan engagement. Is that an important element of The Wicked and the Divine, or is that just how you roll in general?
Jamie: It’s kind of what we’ve always done, I guess, but we put more effort into it this time.
Kieron: I used to run a website called Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and one of the main reasons we launched the site is that we entirely believe that games journalism should be personal and subjective – well, not “should be,” but it was definitely stuff that we cared about. It was done for the purest and most idealistic reasons. However, it was also done because we believed that was the reason it would sell or would find an audience. So in other words, there’s this weird dichotomy between the idea of having to be artistic and also massively commercially failing, or selling out. This is bullshit. So this kind of fan engagement is very much our natural instinct.
J: It’s not Phonogram, basically. It’s more pop than Phonogram, but not in a way that – as you say – is deliberately trying to cash in.
K: This is most definitely us in our pop mode. And the fan engagement is because we believe in it. I mean, it’s a book about fandom in many ways, so all these things fly to each other. It’s the Ziggy Stardust thing; we want to create a world that people can lose themselves in. With Phonogram, we knew that if it was good, people would get tattoos of it. With WicDiv, if people don’t want to get tattoos of it, we’ve failed. If people do not actually want to do stuff with their bodies over this, we have not created a world that is compelling enough. Douglas Wolk, the critic and writer, described WicDiv as Lennon and McCartney sitting down and preparing to write a really big pop hit. And it’s so weird, you know; all my efforts to try and be accessible – I fucked up entirely.
But it does feel like The Wicked and the Divine is the project where you’ve had to be the most in tune with general pop culture. Phonogram has a really indie sensibility, and while Young Avengers has fictional Tumblr, they’re in space and fighting extra-dimensional beings.
Kieron: I’m not sure about this. I mean, maybe? The fact that we’re building our own mythology means we have a little bit of room to play, and the fact that we’re taking from fifty years of pop culture –
Jamie: And I don’t think you need to get every reference, who we’re inspired by, to get the characters. I mean, the characters exist in their entirety within the book.
So how did you select which gods were going to be in The Wicked and the Divine, and how do you approach the depiction of them so it wasn’t too culturally appropriative?
Kieron: I spent a long time going through these enormous dictionaries of every god ever in the world and making marks next to gods I liked, and then I thought about the larger cast. In some cases, like with Bowie or Amaterasu, I had a pop star or that kind of archetype that I wanted to include in the mix, and I thought, “Which god is appropriate?” Then there were gods where I came at them from the god side; I was interested in Baal and the multiplicity of names, and all the Phoenician and Carthaginian religions. So I knew I wanted to do a Baal, but I didn’t know exactly who the pop archetype would be. Same with Woden. I knew I wanted to do something touching on the Anglo-Saxon diaspora, but I didn’t realize it would be that until quite late. I always knew he’d be a producer god, but then I realized, “Of course; he’s Daft Punk!”
And the question of appropriation is really on my mind. I mean, Amaterasu is a story about appropriation.
That did stand out, because with Lucifer being from the Judeo-Christian cosmology, which is more often associated with Europe and the West, Luci being a super-white, blonde Bowie type didn’t stand out. Whereas Amaterasu comes from Shintoism but manifests as a pale redhead – how do you make sure you’re on the right track with that?
Kieron: As a guy who was raised Catholic, I feel like I can do whatever the fuck I want with Catholicism – it’s like, “This is my religion” – so with Lucifer I didn’t really bother. With Amaterasu, this story’s clearly about appropriation, so at some point you have to have someone appropriating something. I didn’t use any Native American religion or anything that isn’t a world religion, and Shinto has quite a history of wider interpretation; it can stand by itself. I really wanted to do a story with the Yoruba gods, but I could not do it at all without feeling appropriative.
Jamie: The actual character design for Amaterasu doesn’t take anything from the god or the religion. It’s the pop star archetype we were working with, and we approached it from that angle. WicDiv is as much about pop stars as it is about gods, and pop stars have quite a history of appropriating other cultures. When you’re doing a story about pop stars, you kind of have to have that be part of the story. And we have Cassandra call her out on it in issue #1. That’s part of Amaterasu’s story.
Kieron: It’s clearly appropriation, but we wanted to do it in the least offensive or least appropriative way we could manage. And I don’t know if we got it right, but we try to balance it as much as we can.
With regard to Luci, was the decision to focus on her during this first story arc based on the association of “the devil” with pop music?
Kieron: That was certainly an influence on what we were doing, but it wasn’t the only influence.
Chrissy: What happens is you have the bones of something and then you build up other ideas, and there’s a weird alchemy between them; it’s not all in your head at the start. But I just like the idea that when people ask questions – and they’re really good, intelligent questions – when they ask, “Did you do this on purpose?” the answer always has to be, “Yes! Definitely. 100%!”
Kieron: I talked about this in an interview before with you: when someone notices something that’s undeniably in the work, even if I didn’t plan it, I’d be a fool to argue that the evidence is not there. We got Luci quoting “Sympathy for the Devil” in the first issue; the “devil’s music,” the “devil’s chord,” the devil as scapegoat – these are key ideas.
Chrissy: It would be overstating it, I think, to say that that was the motivation for Luci.
Kieron: It was a motivation.
Chrissy: Exactly. It’s a motivation, and it involves the other gods and a lot of other things – it’s perfect, and when you have it as it is and they all fit together, it all makes sense.
Kieron: If a work can be explained with one “yes,” it’s not a very good work. All our works include multiple Yeses and multiple Nos – not just us, but every single work I like. If you actually say what it “means” in one sentence, it’s bullshit.
On another note, was it a deliberate choice to have Sakhmet look that much like Rihanna?
Jamie: She’s in the mix. She’s definitely part of that archetype.
Kieron: I think she ended up looking like Rihanna a lot more than we originally planned.
Jamie: Sometimes you just channel these things.
Kieron: We’re trying to push away from that as we go on, because where Sakhmet goes is not Rihanna.
Jamie: None of the characters are the people they’re inspired by necessarily, and as we say, they’re not all one-for-one a real person.
Kieron: One of my favorite comments on Baal, from a critic friend of mine, was that Baal’s a lot less cartoony than Kanye West.
Jamie: My favorite thing ever – I can’t remember where it’s from – is where Kanye West is walking past this restaurant and someone yells out, “You have no talent!” He stops, goes back, and says, “That doesn’t make any sense. I’m Kanye West!”
To stop myself from just talking about Kanye West, here’s an art comment for Jamie: one thing I really noticed is that you’re really good at drawing facial expressions, especially if people are disgusted by something.
Jamie: I’m used to seeing that face quite a lot. I don’t know; I just try and pay attention. I think a page is successful if you can sort of tell what’s going on without the dialogue.
Kieron: And that frees you up as a writer as well. You do different things with the dialogue.
Jamie: I mean, there’ve been times when Kieron has lost the dialogue completely because the facial expressions sum up what he’s trying to do – we don’t need it.
Kieron: Deleting dialogue is the best thing in the world.
Jamie: I do feel like in a lot of comics, if you were to take away the dialogue, you wouldn’t know how people were feeling. You wouldn’t know the general gist of what the conversation was about, and I feel like you should.
So much of the expressiveness in your work seems to me to be in the mouth. You don’t notice those things until you see someone really get it, and then you become aware of how important it is.
Jamie: It’s difficult at times, but drawing a person’s mouth is really cool – like, how do you show the tensions around the lips?
Kieron: How do you practice your faces, Jamie?
Jamie: I take photo references.
Of yourself, or…?
Jamie: Myself, mostly. Part of the thing about being a comics artist is that you have to be an actor as well; you have to be a lighting director.
Kieron: You have to be very patient.
By this point you guys have been working together for eleven years –
Kieron: Eleven years of beautiful matrimony.
At this stage of your collaboration, what is the process like? Have you now reached Indie Hivemind status?
Kieron: There are small changes in different parts of it. I think I’m a lot less anal than I used to be, maybe? I see less of the pencils now until they’re inked. The fact that I don’t see as much as I used to means that I must have some level of trust in you, because otherwise I’d be going, “Fuck’s sake, show me the pencils!”
Jamie: I’m digital now, and my process is quite blurred. There’s not necessarily a pencil stage or an inking one; it all varies. And when you’re doing big comics, doing full pencils when you don’t need to feels like kind of a waste. So we know how each other works.
Are you now at the point where you know what the other one is going to do before they do it?
Jamie: He writes stuff for me that he wouldn’t write for other people.
Kieron: It’s all the stuff I wouldn’t ask from other people – elements of spacing and timing, and the kind of stuff you would never try to write for somebody unless you knew they could pull it off. That level of trust takes a long time to build.
Jamie: And then beyond the scripting, there’s a lot of back-and-forth. We’re always talking about pages, storytelling decisions, design.
Kieron: Yeah, there’s a lot of that. As Jamie said on the Image panel about Nathan Fairbairn doing the original colors for the mural in issue #4 – we were trying to get Kevin Wada to do it, but the timing just didn’t work out. Weirdly, it’s a very “me” idea –
Jamie: But it was my idea.
Kieron: Yeah, that was you.
Jamie: I got the script, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun if somebody else colored the mural?” And it worked out, and Nathan did an amazing job on it.
Kieron: This is us entering our imperial decadent phase. “We’ll pay for a colorist to do an extra bit of décor for no reason!” We made less money on issues of Phonogram than it cost to get that done.
But for Nathan Fairbairn you have to pay Batman money, since he did colors on Batman Incorporated.
Jamie: He’s a really good guy.
Kieron: I wonder if anything else has changed? It’s an interesting question.
Jamie: Our ability has increased.
Kieron: Earlier today, someone brought us the first issue of Phonogram, and normally we kind of do a casual light mocking of it, but this time it was, “Look at that nice big caption there, Kieron!”
Jamie: And the terrible drawing.
Kieron: “You know what the caption was doing? Covering up all the art.” But I know the medium better now.
Jamie: Yeah, that’s what it is. I’m better at drawing some things, you’re better at writing some things, but the back-and-forth is pretty much the same.
Kieron: I’ve done more good to great work with Jamie – and by the way, that was the sound of me putting my fist in my mouth – than with anyone else on the planet. So there’s definitely something going on.
Jamie: I’ve done comics where I get the script and that’s the only contact I’ll have with the writer. The way we work is very different from that.
Kieron: We mainly work naked. We actually huddle for a while and then just go and do our own thing.
Thus confirming the Internet’s suspicions.
Kieron: We got that from Chip [Zdarsky] and [Matt] Fraction. That’s their method.
This is another question for Jamie. How does it feel to know that you’ll have to leave The Wicked and the Divine in the hands of other artists before coming back to it?
Jamie: Very depressing [laughs].
Kieron: I’m free! I’m free!…No, I’m not free. But [to Jamie]you’ve escaped from WicDiv and run into another cage, and then you’ll escape from that prison – it’s the eternal waking dream, like in Sandman.
Jamie: It’s not much different from anything else I’ve done, except a lot longer. I don’t really think about the long-term in that sense; I think about getting this issue done, then the next issue done, then the next issue.
Kieron: The thing is, if you look at Phonogram 2, with the guest artists in the individual issues, and the art jam session on Young Avengers – we’ve always had a kind of Wu-Tang Clan thing going on, in terms of bringing in people we like. And the same with the cover artists; the cover artists are our friends. It’s a gang rather than a family.
Do you have homemade tattoos with the Image logo?
Jamie: No, but I have a knife in my boot.
Kieron: We talk about getting a tattoo quite often – “DFU” on the inner wrist, for “Don’t Fuck Up”.
Jamie: DFA is cooler. “Death From Above”.
Now that we’re coming to the end of the first story arc, how much can you tell us about what’s in store for our favorite pop gods?
Chrissy: Define “favorite.”
Kieron: Well, the main thing ahead of them is death in two years…
Jamie: Issue #5 is one of those “everything changes” issues, so we’re in a position right now where we really can’t talk about what happens.
Kieron: If you’ve actually read the solicits for Fandemonium, the next story arc, it’s like, “Kieron dances around the story and isn’t going to tell you what happens here, and even the title’s kind of confusing!” Basically, the first five issues are a guided tour, and a murder mystery is a really good way to get all the characters talking to each other. And I’m not really interested in the murder mystery per se; it’s a character thing. It’s more like, “Here are some characters. Let’s meet them. And here’s a device which allows that to happen.”
Chrissy: And then you have Poirot who just sits in the middle of the room and talks to them about where they were.
Kieron: In issue #4, we’ve literally got all the gods in a room, but they go, “Well, there’s no solution, is there? We’re gods; we do what we want.”
The whole first arc has happened in a week and a half, so at this rate, two years of life would carry on until issue #400. And then we would be dead! So the second arc kind of flips it around; there’s at least a month between every issue in the story. And with the title – every issue is about a gathering of fans in some way.
Jamie: Lots of crowd scenes.
Kieron: Most of the scenes are in the toilet. Team Phonogram: given the choice, we put a scene in a toilet.
The first year, the first ten issues, are a statement. And then we go to the next six issues, which are these portraits of the gods – although that could be a statement too, I think. And then we’re doing something else up to issue #24 –
Jamie: Will that be a statement?
Kieron: That will definitely be a statement. And then we’ll go back and do a load of stuff across history, up to issue #30, and then everyone has a big fight for ten issues until issue #40, which is probably where we’ll end it. …They’re not actually going to fight. When I say “fight,” I mean “kissing.”
There’s twelve gods and we want to at least give some of them some face time – it’s a big story.
Kieron: We’re ripping off Fables and starting off our long story with a murder mystery. Don’t you guys understand anything?!
Jamie: And then Laura turns into a wolf…
Kieron: And then she invades Israel.
Do you have any deep thoughts on The Wicked and the Divine that you want to leave with our readers?
Jamie: I very rarely do.
Kieron: I very rarely think. But we really always had things to say. The first arc is kind of commercial; the characters speak nonsense and everyone falls down the stairs. This is a commercial structure, in a good way. Like how Daft Punk’s “One More Time” gets everyone on the dance floor. And we wouldn’t be doing a four-year book if we didn’t have things to say. I think that’s the best way of putting it.