Kieron Gillen Talks Creator-Owned
The intersection of music and comics is a subject we’ve tackled more than once here on Comic Booked. Given that, it was only natural that sooner or later we’d catch up with Kieron Gillen, and New York Comic Con was the perfect opportunity! Though he’s made a splash at Marvel over the past few years (with acclaimed runs on Uncanny X-Men and Journey Into Mystery to his credit, as well as the impending Marvel NOW! relaunches of Iron Man and Young Avengers), he first made his name with Phonogram, a beloved indie series in which music is magic – literally. Along with the upcoming third Phonogram volume, Kieron is also working on Three, a historical epic announced at NYCC’s Image Comics panel.
Kieron Gillen: Hello!
Comic Booked: Okay Kieron, in general how do you approach the first issue of a run and how does that differ between your Marvel work and your creator-owned material?
KG: It differs really in finesse. You can’t introduce the entire Marvel Universe in a first issue, so you kind of have to accept that you want people to understand that there’s this thing called the Marvel Universe and things work a certain way. It’s like if somebody starts using powers, it’s not suddenly “Oh my god, the guy can fly!” So it’s a very different story if you start from a universe where you’re going from first principles. In terms of real specifics though, I try to treat them very similarly. It’s like “This is why this book exists,” is normally my first issue. It’s why this book exists in a real way, what’s interesting about it. In the case of complete creator-owned, you’ve got to build the universe from scratch, which is arguably a trickier job, for most situations. For Uncanny you’ve got to explain “These are the X-Men, this is what they are, what they do, they’re from a world where mutant prejudice exists, they live in San Fransisco, and here they are.” The first page of my relaunch of Uncanny was a tourist shot of San Fransisco, not with any superhero influence until the second page, and the point being this is fundamentally the real world, here they are, and the X-Men are also part of it. That tells you things about the real world. Something Rick Remender says, he thinks the best… Have you ever watched The Shield?
CB: I haven’t, no.
KG: The Shield was a particularly good first episode. And it pretty much ends – brilliantly – as the lead character shoots a fellow cop, just to basically silence him. And then that’s the story of the show, very much “This is what the show’s about. This is about dirty cops, covering their asses and we’re gonna go this far.” And you know, even if you’re doing a quieter book, you kind of do that. “What’s this book about, what’s really going on?” And I guess Three – which I’ve just announced – I was dealing with space issues. Like you think “Okay, ideally I would have liked the first issue of Three with the moment where they send the Three Hundred after the killers, and I realized “No, I’m not gonna be able to get there, that’s going to have to be a little later, part of the second issue.” So I’ve got to then work out a different thing. And okay, you do the maths. So you do the maths in space and time, and how much information you can fit in and what is meaningful – and you do that – and occasionally there’s not enough. Some things are not actually perfect, and you don’t get to have everything how you want, but you work out the best compromise. And choosing between impossible choices is kind of what being a writer’s about. That wasn’t really a very efficient and precise answer, but yeah, that kind of thing!
CB: And moving on to Phonogram, you’ve actually given a perfect segue into my first one. You’ve often seemed a bit critical of Rue Britannia in hindsight.
CB: Looking at it now, is there anything in particular you wish you’d done differently?
KG: I don’t know if there’s really… I don’t do that very much. I don’t like Monday quarterback it much, because the way that… Of all the problems I have with Rue Britannia, they’re so deeply woven into the entirety of the thing I’d have to go back to first principles and a complete reconception of what the book was. As in it’s not like I would just change a couple of lines and it would be fine, it is fundamentally a problematic… built right into the fiber of the thing. And it’s… I will say this. As you said, I’ve been quite down on it. I think it’s good, I think it’s, you know, it’s the rough and ready first album, and I’m still really fucking proud of it. But I was reminded of Colin, from Too Busy Thinking About Comics, did a really long series of six big essays on Rue Britannia. And normally when people review Rue Britannia – and people have written some very good stuff about Rue Britannia – I’m like “Yes, I know that.” In many things, Rue Britannia is well thought-out and knew what it was doing. And when people do a contrary reading, it’s suddenly a case of “No, that’s wrong. As you have actively misread the book, because this bit contradicts this bit.” And it’s fine because – and that’s probably my fault for not explaining it well enough – however, you’re reading isn’t based on something that’s in the text, it’s about you. And Colin, however, in these six enormous fucking essays, amusingly titled “My First Response to Phonogram” or something like that. And so it’s like “First Impressions? [laughs] It’s not first impressions Colin!” He said stuff about the book I didn’t know, which is… As in that is not something I thought about, but yes, that is buried in it. Mainly the theme of anhedonia, a more critical reading of Kid With Knife, who I think people tend to be quite fluffy with, lots of stuff like that. But I think it was the book that it had to be, it had a lot to talk about. And it’s all in there, it’s a complicated meditation on age and popular culture and what anything really means. If I adapted it to a film, I would approach it very differently. And if I wrote it now, there’s some stuff I did that I wouldn’t have done. There are some things I find slightly troublesome that I did in terms of the autobiographical content. I would have hidden it a bit better. Like there’s a bit where I – where Kohl lists a number of girls. Sorry, Kid With Knife asks Kohl about a list of girl’s names, and all of those are real girls that I went with, you know? I wouldn’t have done that. So apart from that, no. Rue Britannia is Rue Britannia, I’m still very proud of it. It’s just not as good as Singles Club!
CB: Right, and I understand that Immaterial Girl is largely focused on Emily, digging into her identity and so forth, though of course I’ll be surprised if Kohl doesn’t pop up at some point! Given that, can we expect to see any of the extended cast from The Singles Club?
KG: Yeah. I think everyone gets… This is kind of the end of Phonogram, as in if I do any more Phonogram it won’t be with these characters, or it won’t be this setting or it won’t be going forward, I think. I don’t know if anybody sees me actually doing a David Kohl story when I’m seventy or something. I mean Kohl is kind of my literary device I use to examine myself. But yeah, it’s the end of Emily’s story. It’s kind of like Emily has a Rue Britannia story. And you know, the first Phonogram was Kohl wrestling with all that sort of stuff, this is Emily wrestling with her stuff. Pretty much Rue Britannia was about Kohl turning thirty, Immaterial Girl arguably is about Emily turning thirty. And all the other characters… I think everyone gets a send off, you kind of get to know where everyone goes next, essentially. But what was the question?
CB: The extended cast from Singles Club.
CB: In particular, you seemed to be setting up parallels with Laura. I read it as “She’s Emily ten years earlier.”
KG: Yeah, and Lloyd’s Kohl ten years earlier, or at least a certain take of him. So yeah, you can say that. It’s issue four, we kind of break away from the main plot – which is all based around London and the coven and Emily and all kind of that stuff – and issue four is very much a standalone story. I think I’m currently calling it The Ballad of Black Laura and Mr. Logos. Or “Professor Logos,” whatever I called him. It’s pretty much Scott Pilgrim parody. “Let’s make this Precious Little Life or something like that.” It’s all about what they’ve been doing for the last – because it’s set in 2009 – so it’s fundamentally about what they did between 2006 and 2009, and it’s basically them having a war. So yeah, they’re useful devices to talk about these sort of archetypes of pop obsessives across time.
CB: And you’ve been experimenting with Marvel Style (for those not in the know – a style of scripting developed by Stan Lee in which the artist is given a rough plot and draws the issue with the writer adding dialogue to the finished pages) scripting of late. As someone who’s chiefly written full script (imagine a movie script with descriptions of individual panels and so forth) has this changed the way you approach scripting in general?
KG: I don’t think it has, my scripts tend to bend according to the artist anyway. My thought is that I haven’t really gotten full script properly yet, because when I’ve written full script it’s always for Jamie (McKelvie, Phonogram artist extraordinaire). No, I’m lying,I did one for Jim Cheung for the Versus book. But it’s more like a commission. If I was writing for an art staff, I’d say “I would like this page a bit like this,” with some type of presentation ideas. So it’s not just me telling a story, this is me saying “I would like an art work like this.” But the results are good. I’ve been doing it with Young Avengers as well, the action scenes are done in this method. And here (Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl), there’s kind of like an alternate dimension, almost like the memory kingdom scenes in Rue Britannia, though it’s not a memory kingdom, it’s something else and I don’t want to say what it is. All those scenes are done Marvel Method. And all the other scenes are sort of a standard Phonogram grid format. You know, it’s heavy eight-panel grid stuff, it’s just how I do stuff.
CB: Okay, and in terms of plotting those… let’s call them “memory kingdom portions” of Phonogram 3, how did you come at that instead of writing a full issue in one style or the other?
KG: It was magic. Phonogram’s about these kind of leaps of faith. You try things not because they are sensible but because they kind of mean a bit too much. Everything in Phonogram doesn’t make much sense in terms of… It’s a leap of faith. And it fundamentally has to be about a leap of faith and that’s how we do it. It’s the fact that these are different universes, they have to look different and we’re trying to evoke different things. So yeah, it’s all basically about trying to impart a proper thought.
CB: It’s interesting that you say “leap of faith” when you’re basically… That’s what Marvel Style is, you giving the artist – in this case Jamie – more leeway than he normally would have.
KG: Yeah yeah, that’s true! Basically. Yeah, um, it’s something that’ll be much easier to talk about after people see the images and realize “Oh, that’s why he’s doing it.” But yes.
CB: Well, I’ll have to follow up with you then!
KG: Yeah, basically the story was I came home drunk one night, picked up my copy of 300, started flicking through and during one of the interminable speeches about “We’re the only free men the world has ever known, etc, etc, etc.” I went “Fuck off! You people declared wars on your slaves, you had death squads that just killed random slaves to create a climate of fear!” and even, you know at the point of Thermopylae and the three hundred that died there. Each of those Spartans had Helot slaves with them and they died too. They died for a freedom they never once possessed, and I just had a moment of incandescent rage and the whole story just downloaded. The basic structure is to invert the Thermopylae story, make it be three slaves on the run from three hundred Spartans and use it as a device to talk about everything I’m interested in with Sparta. I even knew how it ends. I knew everything about it. Actually I’m lying, I researched it so much! But the basic structure, the device that would allow me to talk about all the things I wanted to talk about has remained pretty much constant from that drunken epiphany. It’s a political story, fairly obviously. It’s meticulously researched. I’m talking to the University of Nottingham’s classic department as historical consultants. And it’s quite laconic, you know normally my characters are quite mouthy, they’re very verbal. It’s not like that. It’s a bit more Spartan, no pun intended. Actually, maybe pun intended. So yeah, it’s very completely different, but I’m very excited about it. I’m working with Ryan Kelly, who is a guy I’ve loved forever. I was introduced by a friend at New York Comic Con, we had dinner and I was already thinking about Three then.
CB: And can you tell us a bit about how you’re structuring the story?
KG: Five issues; it’s kind of a classic. Because I want it to be very easy with all the research to… The classic British working class story is all this fucking grimy kitchen sink drama, and I wanted to do a story as mythic and heroic as the story of the three hundred versus the million about these people who never got stories. No one told stories about Helots. So yeah, I wanted to embrace the arch-plot. It’s pretty much they kill an ephor, who stays overnight, and… there’s a slaughter, basically is the best way of putting it. They go on the run. This is set in 364, so it’s about a hundred years after Thermopylae. It’s about a hundred years after Sparta’s been dominant in Greece. So this is kind of Sparta at the end of the Spartan heyday, so they’re actually really paranoid. By setting it then I’m going to talk about where the Spartan’s values actually got them. Around the time of Thermopylae, they had about 10,000 or so Spartiates, and in this period they had a thousand. Their numbers fell enormously. And this is all basically about their system. The thing about the book is it’s not about “Spartans bad, Helots good.” It’s about me actually looking at the whole thing. I mean fundamentally, the Spartans were the greatest warriors of the period. Why were they the greatest warriors of the period? Because they had ten people doing all their work. Sparta was a machine. And they were very aware, and they were a machine run by fear. That’s true for the Helots and that’s true for the Spartans. And they’re all trapped in this machinery, and that’s why they’re doomed. So yeah, it’s this big epic action story and it builds toward a proper climax, but it’s talking about all this shit I’m interested in.
CB: Do we have a release date for the first issue?
KG: I don’t know. I think summer next year. Like Phonogram’s delay, I don’t want to actually say it.
CB: The last I heard, The Heat seemed to be caught in limbo.
KG: Yeah, it’s strange!
CB: Any updates on that or any other creator owned projects?
KG: Let me think. The Heat, basically the two issues were drawn by the artist and there hasn’t been much movement in while, so last I understand it, it might be a case of them trying to find a new artist or I’m not sure if the artist wants to continue ever. With The Heat, it was… I don’t even remember when I finished writing it. Was it 2010 or 2009? It was a long time ago, either way. Three I mentioned before, Phonogram hopefully summer of next year. I don’t even want to say it.
CB: Fingers crossed!
KG: Yeah. What else? Oh, there’s another book for Avatar, Avatar Project 2, and just shy of seven issues have been drawn of it, so that’s a lot in the can. And I’m surprised they didn’t announce it here, actually, since they’ve got so much in the can. But I presume that’ll be early next year. Or maybe even San Diego next year, I genuinely don’t know. But yeah, all this stuff is basically done, and I’ve got twenty issues of creator-owned stuff that’ve all been written which hasn’t come out yet. And I’ve only half-written Three, so all this stuff is in the can which just means I’m in a position of deciding what I want to do next creator-owned-wise. Which would basically be… probably 2014. But it’s exciting, you know? “What next?”
CB: Any final thoughts? You can plug your Marvel work if you like!
KG: [laughs] Well, me and Jamie, that’s the other thing we’re doing: Young Avengers. Which is basically “Team Phonogram does the Marvel Universe.” It’s a very, very pop… it’s done in the same combined full script/Marvel Method and it’s a superhero book about being eighteen. And we think it’s really good. I’m also doing Iron Man, which is basically my more mainstream work. And that’s basically very high-velocity “Iron Man as superhero” and very into his isolation with women. Problematic gender relations is kind of a theme across a lot of my work, I think anyone who actually looked really closely would see that. So Tony’s a great character to look at for problems, and that’s where we’re going with it. We’re looking forward to it, it’s all good shit.
I’m sure it will be! Thanks once again to Kieron for taking the time to chat. And remember, just because the creator-owned material we discussed won’t hit the stands for a while doesn’t mean you can’t pick up some of his books. In addition to his runs Uncanny X-Men and Journey Into Mystery, he will be taking over Iron Man next month and relaunching Young Avengers in January. But if you really want to do yourself a favor, you should check out Phonogram. Start with the second volume, The Singles Club. You won’t regret it.
If you’d like to hear more from Kieron, be sure to check out his podcast, titled Decompressed, on which he interviews comics creators with a focus on the question of craft. It can be found through iTunes or his blog.
Until next time, stay tuned to Comic Booked!