C2E2 2017: Kieron Gillen Talks High Fantasy, “Self-Hatred,” and Music Spoiling Comics
Through his creator owned comics Phonogram and The Wicked + the Divine with artist Jamie McKelvie and colorist Matthew Wilson, Kieron Gillen has masterfully melded the fantastic worlds of music and urban fantasy into an exciting read experience. He has also conquered the worlds of Marvel with the delightful Young Avengers and way too sad Loki solo series Journey into Mystery among others as well as comics set in a galaxy far far away, like Doctor Aphra and Darth Vader. He’s also one hell of a DJ and has quite the Twitter pun game.
At C2E2, I got the opportunity to chat with Kieron about being a fantasy writer, and how the characters of WicDiv have all become terrible people. We also preview the upcoming WicDiv 455 special set in ancient Rome and ponder the fate of Phonogram‘s David Kohl (and his fiction suit wearer Kieron Gillen) in 2017 as well as strain out some of that book’s autobiographical bits.
Graphic Policy: I guess you could classify WicDiv and Phonogram as urban fantasy. (And Journey into Mystery, now that I think of it.) What has drawn you to the fantasy genre over and over again, and do you have any particular books or fantasy films that have influenced you?
Kieron Gillen: Back when I was starting to write comics, I used to call myself a speculative fiction writer. The person I was seeing told me, “No, you’re not, Kieron.” She said, “You’re a fantasy writer. Making a world where music is magic isn’t speculative fiction.” Being a speculative fiction writer is much cooler because science fiction writers are genuinely cooler than fantasy writers in my opinion. It’s real work as opposed to fantasy, which is just making shit up.
It took me a long time to accept [being a fantasy writer]. I burnt out on a lot of fantasy as a teenager. I had a kind of “come to Jesus” moment where I was like “What on Earth is this shit?” A lot of fantasy is just shit like the travelogue school of fantasy where there’s a map, the heroes will go around the map, and the big mountain. At least, Tolkien had a degree of originality.
So, the idea of me identifying as a fantasy writer is anathema. But then there’s the whole idea of urban fantasy. I used to write essays about this when I was a music writer before I realized [urban fantasy] was what I wanted to write. It was the idea of the transformation of an environment. The magic in Phonogram is that we have a world, and then you add something over the world. Like augmented reality.
People tell me that Phonogram gives them permission to view listening to music and going to clubs as a magical space. It always makes me think about parkour. My favorite thing about parkour, at least when it started, was the idea that buildings are designed as prisons for people. But, in your imagination, it can turn into a playground. They’ve chosen to see the world differently, and there’s always things to traverse.
This is kind of what urban fantasy does. You have a world and overlay it. There’s magic here. It’s like when I was a kid and loved Transformers. That car [Outside the convention center] could be a fucking robot. It’s like the Kurt Busiek core idea about superheroes. We have this magical thing in the world, and the world doesn’t change. The point of Superman is that you can see him fly past you in the skyline. If you take superheroes too seriously, you become something alternate history like Uber or science fiction. Add a superhero, and the world changes enormously.
I’ve actually been digging into primary world fantasy, like Middle Earth, as opposed to Narnia, which is a secondary world. It’s something I want to do in the future.
GP: You doing high fantasy would be awesome.
KG: I’ve said in a few interviews that I’m working on my next big, spangly thing. It’s a very literary high fantasy. It’s very grown up. I say grown up as a very loaded term because high fantasy is trashy in many ways. But I want to dig into some bigger themes and see what I can do with the genre. That hate fuck, that passion I have for fantasy means something.
GP: One thing I really enjoyed about “Imperial Phase” was that you and Jamie [McKelvie] gave Minerva and Baal a lot of character development. Why did you leave them out of the last issue of the arc?
KG: I get asked questions like “You’re very efficient with your storytelling. You hit stuff very cleanly and elegantly.” A lot of that is necessity, which is a word that is very fucking loaded in the context of WicDiv.
GP: Oh yeah, good ol’ Ananke.
KG: I’ve got 14 primary characters across the series and quite a few smaller, supporting ones. I ask what we can fit in an issue. The previous issue where we did the “phased” bit was me responding to the fact that I had so much shit to do. How can I do it in an artful way that speaks to the theme of the book.
Baal and Minerva just weren’t in this issue. The thing about “Imperial Phase” is that there’s parts one and two. When I originally planned “Imperial Phase”, I was thinking that we don’t have a cliffhanger. What’s the most unexpected thing for a WicDiv end of arc to be? It just stops, and we continue it. But when I ended up plotting it, it had a climax, but just a different kind of climax.
There was no room for Baal. If you remove Baal, you remove Minerva as well. The reason that Baal wasn’t there was a soft story beat. “Oh poop, Baal isn’t coming” leads to Persephone’s “Why do we hurt people?” The reason that Baal wasn’t there was because Persephone was there. It’s that moment when you realize that someone’s not coming to a party because they don’t want to see you. Baal not being at the party is kind of the point.
Baal is a sensitive man, and I love the dichotomy between him and Minerva. In other words, there’s more from Baal and Minerva in “Imperial Phase Part Two”. At the end of the story, Baal will be one of people’s favorite characters. He and Minerva are some of the most interesting characters, and knowing the whole story means I put him low in the mix early and then bring him up later.
GP: Good metaphor!
KG: I’m always a DJ. And since I know the whole thing, I want to build him up at different times. Dionysus is stepping forward and is one of the key players in the next arc. He’s got a scene in issue 30 with the Morrigan, which is one of my favorite things to do with the character
GP: I am really looking forward to the WicDiv 455 Special. Why did you decide to set it at the end of the Roman Empire instead of the Augustan Age with Ovid and Virgil, or during the time of Nero?
KG: If you set it at the end, you can include anything earlier. Everyone at the end knows what happens to Nero, Sulla, and Caligula, and you can reference all those people. If you’re doing something about Rome, set it at the end, make it about the end of Rome. Of course, WicDiv is about endings and the death of an empire.
This is minor spoilers, but the basic plot of 455 is that 455’s Lucifer has decided to not be involved in the Ananke pact and says, ” We don’t need Lucifer, we need Julius Caesar (Who was a god.), I’m going to save the empire.” You imagine that goes well.
The way I researched this special as opposed to the Romantics’ one [WicDiv 1831 Special] was different because the Romantics were a small cast of people, I could go relatively deep. Rome is so big that I had to do a very broad sweep and look at the entire history of Rome, which interests me. There’s some stuff I wished I gotten into, like Tiberius, who did Goth parties where everyone was in black. The slaves are painted black, he’s wearing full black, and they spend the entire party talking about death. And he’s killed people so everyone expects to die. It’s the most Gothic thing I’ve ever heard. But we had to cut it from the story.
GP: Why was Andre Araujo the perfect artist for this story?
KG: The way to phrase it is that I had a core image based on a Roman triumph, and I needed an artist willing to draw a Roman triumph. A triumph is a blaze of color and shape. Andre and I were talking when his comic Man Plus was out, and he said that he was working on a creator owned Rome pitch. In my head, I thought he was a [Katsuhiro] Otomo-esque cyberpunk guy because of Avengers A.I. and Man Plus, which is basically Akira reimagined in Portugal.
He had fantasy, sci-fi, and medieval pitches. And I said, “You like historical stuff and like drawing enormous landscapes. We can use this.” I asked him, and he was working on Ales [Kot’s] new book Generation Gone. So, we’ve derailed the work on another Image book in WicDiv’s favor and are very grateful to Ales. Also, Matt Wilson is doing the colors, and it works very well in the issue.
GP: The first 12 issues of WicDiv seemed to be about the relationship between being a fan and a creator, especially through our main character, Laura. How does her turn to the “dark side” in the past arc fit in with that fan/creator dynamic?
KG: “Imperial Phase” has been solipsistic. It’s about the gods being quite navel gaze-y. You get bits of fan stuff, like Persephone having her own fans. And that’s fun. I love how creepy everyone wearing a Persephone skull is. That transition from being a fan to having fans, and the responsibilities and duties that lie on that access and how well you navigate it.
WicDiv is based on a format of four years. The first year is a fan trying to become great, the second is this weird thing and ends with you getting your big hit. The third is you’ve got your success, and now what the hell is it for? The third year is about many things, but mostly my ambivalent feelings about WicDiv‘s success. When you get to the end of WicDiv, you’ll get that. There’s spoilery stuff I don’t really want to talk about yet.
GP: It’s like your “Ashes to Ashes”.
KG: A little bit, yeah. To go with the Bowie, we start out with Ziggy Stardust with some Black Parade, then you’ve got the Berlin period for “Commercial Suicide”. Then, it’s Let’s Dance, and “Oh yeah, we’ve got an enormous hit.” We’ve done the “Bad Blood” Taylor Swift everything explodes thing, what now? The idea that you can remain successful and use your craft to do a trashy pop thing, and everyone will love it.
But how can you look in the mirror? It’s basically the stuff that killed Cobain. That’s kind of what “Imperial Phase” has been about. There’s lots of self-hatred. That’s what we do.
GP: I don’t really get a Nirvana vibe from WicDiv, but it makes sense now.
KG: Everything’s in there. I don’t want to do too much because the gods are disappearing down their own holes in their own different ways, which is kind of the point. They have their own hamartia. This collapse is how we delineate whether people are wrestling with their demons or not.
GP: Right now, Amaterasu is basically evil. When in the past issues of WicDiv did you start to seed in her heel turn and realize she would turn out this way?
KG: It’s like one of those questions, “How do you define evil?” Amaterasu is somebody who has been easy to forgive her foibles because she’s nice. She’s Cassandra’s opposite. Cassandra is easy to dislike, but is mainly right. She is very abrasive, and it’s the irony of “the Cassandra”. People aren’t listening to her because she’s annoying, but she’s mostly right.
As opposed to Amaterasu, who’s very sweet, very kind, and a coward. And she looks great. She’s a pretty white girl, and people let them get away with things. If you look back at the first speech she gives [in WicDiv #1], it’s creepy as hell. Amaterasu is someone who knows stuff, but isn’t great at putting the them together. She’s got her practiced lines, but her interview [in the first issue] falls apart when she panics.
I’m always worried that I make her IQ drop too much. But she just doesn’t get it. One thing I love about Amaterasu is that apart from the loss of her parents, she’s had a nice life. She’s 17 and the second youngest of the Pantheon. She’s slightly younger than Persephone.
GP: I always forget she’s so young.
KG: It doesn’t make her behavior forgivable, but you understand it. If you reread WicDiv, you’ll go, “Oh yeah, that was kind of coming.” But I think might be easy to miss what we’re trying to do with Amaterasu until you got to her solo issue and that image of her immediate rage when someone tried to take a toy from her. That’s Amaterasu in two pages. This is mine, and fuck you if you try to take it.
The darker side of the characters has started to come out. And, in the last issue, she’s a fucking monster. There’s some stuff that she does that is amazing as in “Wow, you actually did that.”
GP: Like the whole “ShinTwo” thing.
KG: I always knew she was going to lean into that, but only got the pun while writing her first scenes. ShinTwo, oh no! That’s so bad, and it’s completely the right thing to do [for the character].
The thing about WicDiv is that it’s all very planned. I know the characters’ arcs. But the specific execution is what I keep free; otherwise it’s just typing for four years. It’s got to surprise and delight me, or it gets boring. And if gets boring for me, it’s even more boring for the readers. A bored writer is generally a shit writer.
GP: Moving onto the recently released Complete Phonogram, what is David Kohl up to in 2017?
KG: I imagine he’s being interviewed about his glorious career as a phonomancer. He’s settled into being a complete has-been, which is kind of the weird joy of it, I think. That final story I did with Tom Humberstone when we pull away the mask a bit and let Kohl become Kieron, and he’s like “Yeah, you got me”.
And the weird thing is you’ve got this push and pull between Kieron Gillen the writer and David Kohl the character. There are bits, like when Michael Jackson dies, and that segue between time and space. Those panels are very clearly about me, Kieron Gillen, as opposed to the panels that are about this fictional character, David Kohl, who is a critique of my own writing of a certain period. I think David Kohl is about me.
GP: Phonogram: Rue Britannia especially has that autobio comic vibe to it.
KG: I’ve learned to hide it better. When I was writing Rue Britannia, I was influenced by Joe Matt’s The Poor Bastard, Eddie Campbell, and of course, Grant Morrison with this quasi-fiction suit sort of thing. That’s what I wanted to do with Kohl.With Rue Britannia, I hid [the autobiographical elements] less expertly than I did later. Like I gave Britannia some of the same outfits as someone I dated. It’s kind of funny when people come up cosplaying as one of my ex-girlfriends.
I realized that in Singles Club, which is more autobiographical in a real way.There’s more facts in Rue Britannia and more emotional truth in Singles Club. By splitting the stories into the seven characters of Singles Club, I could hide it better, which is what WicDiv is doing as well.
GP: I have one last musical-based question. I’m a big fan of the WicDiv playlist, and it keeps me sane during work. I was wondering what albums or artists you were listening to while scripting “Imperial Phase Part 2”.
KG: The easiest way is to look at the playlist, but there are songs I want to add that aren’t on Spotify, like “Shocked” by Kylie Minogue. And then there’s others I can’t add because of spoilers. You need to be an obsessive WicDiv fan to see what I’m adding, but sometimes I have to wait until various [story] beats hit to drop it in. Like if there was a song called “Sakhmet’s Eating Some People,” I would add it to the playlist.
If you look at the more recent stuff on the playlist, there’s ANOHNI and her track “4 Degrees” that’s amazing apocalyptic awfulness. Blood Orange’s album Freetown Sound is on there and very Persephone in its sadness. Then, there’s Downtown Boys and their cover of “Dancing in the Dark” [by Bruce Springsteen]. I was obsessed with that track for a week and kept breaking into tears about why this record meant so much to me.
[Downtown Boys] are an X-Ray Spex-like bisexual punk band from New York, and their cover of “Dancing in the Dark” reframes the sheer anger of the lyric as a song about depression with dancing in it. You’ve got the beat and the line, “I wanna change my clothes, my hair, my faces”, and it’s like someone carving their face off. It feels very political.
And you can scan the playlist for more great stuff.
Kieron Gillen is currently writing “Modded” and Uber: Invasion for Avatar, Doctor Aphra for Marvel Comics, and of course, The Wicked + the Divine at Image Comics.