While at New York Comic Con last weekend, I was lucky enough to sit down with a number of creators to discuss their work both past and present. The rest of these interviews will trickle out over the course of the next week or so, but for now we’re going to start, appropriately enough, with my first interview of the weekend. On Friday afternoon, I met up with Kieron Gillen to discuss the X-Men, Phonogram and everything in between.
Let’s start off simple: How did you get into comics?
It’s weird, I mean I read comics as a kid and I kind of drifted out as a teenager, and when I was about twenty one or so and I was basically waiting for a visa in Oxford Street in London, and I had about three hours to kill and I basically bought Watchmen from the Virgin Megastore at Oxford Street. I sat in a McDonalds and I just read it cover to cover while I was waiting. That was kind of how I got into comics as an adult, and then I was like a one- or two- trades a year sort of guy, really, really low level. And when I hit twenty five I found Warren Ellis’s comics of the period, which is about 2000. I just fell into the subculture, I immediately… I went from a guy who would buy one or two trades a year to a guy who was in the shop every week buying lots of different stuff and had kind of a whole crash course in the medium. And then like six months after that I got to my first con, and I come home drunk as is my wont and write my first script. About three in the morning, it was a little five page thing. I didn’t actually write it all, I wrote the main bits and then passed out. I got an artist to draw that, and that’s kind of how I got into comics. So I just did small press work, which led to more small press work and I got into a position where I met Jamie (McKelvie), which led to Phonogram, which led to small gigs at Marvel and led to large gigs at Marvel and led to Thor, Uncanny X-Men and now me being King of the World! King of the X-World! Well, not really, we share the crown!
On your first few issues of Uncanny, you were co-plotting with Matt Fraction, how did that process work?
It was weird, Matt had actually done the entire first issue by himself, so in other words the ground of the arc was already done. So eventually Matt had the story laid out and where it was roughly heading and I ended up pretty much executing most of it. You know, I did the first draft of the script and how we were going to resolve it, and Matt did some tweaks and it kind of came out there. So it wasn’t like… it wasn’t a complete co-writing relationship, it wasn’t like Dan (Abnett) and Andy (Lanning). It was pretty much like… Matt was like an architect – Matt is an architect – so he has the layouts and I sort of constructed it and then it came into focus along the way. And then he came in and said “No, that sofa’s in the wrong place,” and I said “No, I’m keeping the sofa, f–k off Matt, I’m taking over next week!” I’m just kidding! I was very, very professional! So that’s basically what it was like. The nicest thing about doing it was that I was in a situation where I was working on the X-Men, and it was a situation where I was able to get my initial scripting sort of, you know, up to speed quicker. So by the time we got to the .1 issue, I was kind of… not confident, but I was… okay, I was confident! I thought I could do this; I was able to come in clean and sort of do what I was interested in doing.
Thank you! He’s just one of the most interesting, philosophical characters to write. That’s what I thought was interesting about… you know, the .1 issue is essentially an entry point, and Magneto is a character that everyone knows, if only from the movies. That’s what I think is most interesting about him. If you know him in the movies, you know him as the Malcolm X character; you understand the philosophical depths. So the idea of somebody new coming and saying “Oh, why is Magneto an X-Man?”, I thought that was actually a useful thing to introduce where the X-Men are now, and also introduce my themes, you know, the themes of being hated and feared and that Machiavelli quote. That’s kind of been running through my process so far. And going through Uncanny 1, that is still there. You know, the idea of “What does being feared mean? Can being feared actually be useful?” But that was very much my thinking.
To jump back to the drunken night after the con when you said you wrote your first script, when was that moment where you decided, not just “I want to be a writer,” but “I want to write comics”?
Wow, uh, it’s hard to over-exaggerate how big that epiphany was when I was twenty five and I got really into comics. It was like, imagine if you were never really aware of music, or you were maybe aware of musical action, then you’re sort of “Oh my God, there’re shops full of this stuff!” Music! It’s on CDs, on vinyl, always a new sort of band, always something, and you devour it. And imagine if an art form like that existed. And for most people on this planet, comics can be that art form. You can fall into comics. It was fantastic. I felt this very intense love of the medium. I kind of come from a fanzine background; I used to be a journalist. I used to, before I was a journalist, I used to make my own magazines and be into the whole underground music sort of thing. I come from an idea that creation is a part of appreciation, that kind of thing, so it’s very natural for me to want to – you know, I did comic journalism as well, at the time – but to actually want to do it. I thought comics were interesting. When I say comics are interesting, what I mean is as opposed to novels. Novels are basically a dead art form, and you know, you’re never going to write, you’re probably never going to write one of the classics, all the major heavy lifting has been done. You’re not going to write Ulysses. In comics, there’s still room for the Ulysses if you try. I mean that’s not really where my actual interests lie, but there’s the chance to push things, do new things. I like the philosophy of it, I like discovering it, and it kind of suits my strengths as a writer, I think.
You mentioned music as a metaphor. I can’t let that pass without bringing up Phonogram, not in good conscience! And the central conceit of that was basically “music is magic”. How did you come to that?
I hate that question! It’s like, I’m really an analytical writer, I kind of know where almost all my ideas come from. You know, “x plus y,” and I ran the equation and it came out. Phonogram crept up on me. I can’t exactly remember why I thought music is magic, and doing it in a literal sense. I might have just been drunk and it came to me then. But you’ve got to go back into my music writing and into my writing generally. The human relationship with art and how it can be transformative is kind of what we mean by magic. I’ve been there, really all the way back into my mid-, late- teens, even. You’d see this is kind of the way I was thinking about art and the transformative potential of art. So it feels like a natural growth from where my head was previously, so it just kind of merged. The reason I started thinking about Phonogram was after I had done my first comics, small press projects and things, I wanted to do something a little bit meatier, something that’s really about how I see the world. At the time I was thinking it was just going to be like a photocopied ‘zine. It actually grew very quickly, me and Jamie got into a position where Image was interested. So yeah, it’s just a very natural extension of my thinking about art and humans. That’s what Phonogram feels like.
I know you’re quite busy with Marvel, any future Phonogram projects in mind?
Well, always in mind but sadly not in physicality. I’m pretty cheerfully in denial about Phonogram. In all reality, we probably won’t do another one. It’s less the finances as the fact that we’re just both so busy now and that trying to work out a way to do it… all those kinds of things. And we’ve both got so many other things on it’s very hard to find a safe stretch to do it. It’s a shame though. I think it would be a shame if there was no more Phonogram. On the more optimistic side, we did two Phonograms. There are people in the industry who work for forty or fifty years and never have a chance to do something that mattered or such a really personal thing, and I did two, you know? I’m lucky. There’s not going to be a third one, but really, I’m lucky.
Back to the not-quite-present: Generation Hope. How involved were you with the creation of those characters?
Matt had kind of done the groundwork. He had a rough list of about five people he was thinking of, and those five people bear very little relation to who those Lights were. So I saw his list, and on a long journey across England on a train, I wrote a list of things I’d thought up. Mainly body horror ideas, weirdly. We swapped notes and we ended up pulling in different ways and making our own twists. The only character I think who was very much identical on the list which Matt did was Laurie, Transonic. “Transonic,” that was my name. She was a high-achieving student, works hard in lieu of… you know, she’s not clever but she mainly works hard and she learns to fly. Kenji was probably mine, is a good way of describing it. Idie was Matt’s, he had an idea for a Nigerian character. She was originally the speedster. Ever since discovering about the Nigerian Witch Children situation, I was very interested in that and I thought it would be a great character basis for a mutant. It was like “the girl who didn’t burn” was originally the concept. They tried to burn her and she wouldn’t. And Teon was Matt’s idea. Teon was actually a late idea, he wasn’t in the original five. We just sort of started riffing on it and then suddenly I saw the character as very much the improvisational, instinctive intelligence, the idea that this was a different way of thinking. This isn’t somebody who thinks like us, and what does that actually mean? Gabriel is mainly Matt. Laurie and Gabriel were mostly Matt, Kenji and Teon were mostly me and Idie was sort of the one in the middle, which kind of spoke to us in different ways. Actually no, Teon was one in the middle and Idie was one slightly nearer me. But yeah, I was totally involved and then Matt introduced them. We had the five Lights and Matt asked “Okay, which one do you want to make your first arc?” and it was decided Kenji would be the first arc and the other four would be done in Uncanny.
Okay, I know this is probably like asking you to choose between children, but do you have a favorite of the Lights?
Actually, I’m going to do a “Goodbye Generation Hope” post on my blog soon, and the motif I’ll use is a bit in which the first line of every paragraph about each character will be “Laurie was my favorite; Kenji was my favorite“. Yeah, they were a bunch of kids that I feel like, I mean by the end of twelve issues I tried to explain who they were and why they were interesting, why anyone might give a toss about them. They all embodied different hopes and fears of mine, especially my teenage hopes and fears. I don’t know, maybe Laurie. Laurie I find… there’s something quite soft and sentimental about it, in that she’s definitely the person on the team who’s the most “right”. But she f–ks up. One of my favorite bits in issue ten, she argues with Kenji and Kenji’s being quite posturing about “Oh, I want to be Magneto,” and she immediately takes apart his argument about turning the other cheek, “You don’t understand what that means”. And she’s on the money there. But she goes on to explain the whole history of turning of a cheek in biblical terms, and she’s gone from knowing what’s right to just showing how much she knows. I even like the fact that she’s a coward. She’s only brave when she’s around Hope. All the other times she’s pretty much like I imagine most people actually are. I like the fact that she’s really very smart but she’s not like a genius, not like a Marvel genius. There was a scene I never wrote with her that I always wanted to do, in which they’ve got a lot of tech and they’ve got problems to solve, and they turn to Laurie: “Can you do it?” “No! I can’t do that! I’m not Tony Stark! I can tell you the capitol of Nigeria, but… you crazy people! What’s wrong with you?!” Or maybe Kenji. Laurie and Kenji are kind of the two poles of the book. And Idie’s character is most moving to write. Issue ten was a really hard week. It was like dragging an already f–ked up girl to an atrocity museum and pointing her to a position of mind where she actually decides she’s okay with killing some people. So yeah, it was like destroying a teenage girl; that was really hard work. And then Teon’s funny, both funny and creepy, I kind of alternated between the two. And Gabriel’s one I feel sorry for because in a way he was the simplest character, and the fact that you could get the idea of him very easily meant I maybe didn’t spend enough time with him. He was kind of, he was almost very motor-mouthy and very useful in the context of everybody else. I wish I did more with any of them. In the final issue, I think I gave them a few twists. And of course Hope.
And making the jump to Uncanny, was that just a matter of “right place, right time,” was that something you lobbied for…?
No, I’ve never lobbied for a book. It felt kind of like “What?” I like to act like I’m surprised. Basically, as far as I’m aware it was the co-writing thing. So we co-wrote a bit and I ended up taking over. And Matt was doing Fear Itself and Iron Man and Thor and Uncanny, and that’s a lot. And they looked at his schedule, something’s got to give. And it was “Okay, who would be interested?” The X-Office seemed to like what I did, they liked S.W.O.R.D. and you know, Gen. Hope. And then the fact that I was already working with Matt made a quite natural sense. I talked to Nick (Lowe) and they liked what I was thinking about it. They offered me the job before we’d even talked about the specifics. They came to me because they thought I was the right man for the job, which was complimentary.
Yeah, absolutely! …I just realized I’m going to have to transcribe all of this!
Well, there’s lots of things. What we haven’t talked about is Journey Into Mystery, which is my Thor spinoff book. That continues after Fear Itself. Fear Itself has been this… I’ve used JIM as a kind of counterpoint to Fear Itself. And after it comes out the other side it goes to its new status quo. So it’s Uncanny and JIM for Marvel. And Uncanny’s this very high, large-scale, superhero, political comic book. Very sci-fi tinged, as opposed to JIM which is this very sneaky, Machiavellian, manipulative fantasy book. So those are two quite polar ideas. As well as that, I’m hopefully having some indie stuff coming out next year, I’ve got a couple of books I’m doing for Avatar. One of those, I got it finished last year and I only hope that the artist’ll have it finished so it’ll come out next year, it’s called The Heat. It’s like a cop comic, it’s on Mercury, hence “The Heat”. And the other one hasn’t been announced yet, but it’s an ongoing series, should be interesting. And then there’s another couple of books that I’m not sure where they’re actually coming out from, because there’s a variety of options and I’m not sure which one I’m going to take. One’s a historical drama and the other’s an urban fantasy. And they all should hopefully come out next year.
Yeah, hopefully I’ll be able to talk about it soon.
Well, maybe next time!
I look forward to it, a pleasure to meet you.
I’d like to take this chance to once again thank Kieron for taking the time to chat with me. Having the opportunity to meet Team Phonogram (Yes, Jamie was there too.) was truly a highlight of the weekend, and I certainly hope there’s a next time!
Stay tuned to Comic Booked for more interviews and other supplements to our NYCC 2011 coverage in the coming days!