Spotlight Interview w/Kieron Gillen
Kieron Gillen has been tearing up the charts with recent hits DIE and ONCE & FUTURE. But as I said yesterday, in my Essential Reading List article, he's also known for his creator-owned comics PHONOGRAM and THE WICKED + THE DIVINE, both created with artist Jamie McKelvie and published by Image Comics. Not to mention his numerous projects for Marvel Comics, such as JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY, UNCANNY X-MEN, and YOUNG AVENGERS.
With the comic industry at somewhat of a standstill. Kieron was nice enough to take some time to answer a few questions about his books and what's next during the age of quarantine. Hope you guys enjoy!
RYAN: So first off, I just want to thank you for doing this. I've been a huge fan of yours for years. I just wanted to ask you, going back to the corona thing, has this affected your work at all or your daily life much, if at all?
KIERON: My life is as constrained as anybody else. As I was just saying before we started recording, I'm aware that if there’s an easy mode, I’m playing on it. As in, my work is still continuing. I'm not sure when the Image books are going to come out but we’re still working on it. There's nothing I'm doing which has been canceled. Me and Chrissy like each other, so us being trapped in the house is a relatively minor problem. There’s no immediate financial issues. We work from home anyway, and I'm not trapped in an explicitly hellish situation.
It's basically continuing on but at the same time it's the fear for everybody else as well. My various relatives were immunocompromised and various other people who I know are in a terrible situation financially, so it's trying to be supportive to everyone else. The thing that's affecting the work is the, ennui in terms of, “What's the fucking point?” You know what I mean?
I know a lot of my creator friends are having real trouble doing any work at all. I'm quite lucky in that I may appear to be able to mostly keep on kind of just traipsing on with my work, it's a stabilizing factor for me, you know, the work is kind of an anchor in a storm. I say that and I've barely done any work today. I still have bad days as well.
RYAN: Of all your work. It's probably your recent stuff, DIE and ONCE & FUTURE, that are probably my favorites. Maybe it's just because I'm currently reading them. Where did the ideas for each of those respective series come from and where do they stem from?
KIERON: They come from two places. One was, Stephanie Hans and I had been wanting to throw a book together since the end of JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY. I always knew that the world needed a fantasy world as drawn by Stephanie Hans. Then it became a question of "what"? I was at San Diego Comic Con 2016. I was hanging around with Jaime McKelvie and Ray Fawkes, having ice cream in the mall and we were just joking about “whatever happened to those kids from the 1980s the D&D cartoon”.
The idea sort of nagged at me. By the end of the night, I was having dinner with a bunch of people and the story just dropped my head like that. It’s a story about a midlife crisis. About people using a return to a fantasy world as a device to compare your teenage fantasies with your everyday grown-up realities and how your life has gone astray. Then Stephanie and I just carried on building. I think the core idea is quite elegant, but I did what I always do and over-engineer to the point of ludicrousness. The world we go to is a complete history of the fantasy role-playing game in a dramatized way, all that kind of stuff. At its core, is six characters, deep character portraits, ideally more intense and worked in, since it's a small cast you can do that.
ONCE & FUTURE, was an idea sticking around in my head for a while actually. I just found myself watching one of the Mummy movies and thinking how it was ethically off. How can you just turn like the founding rulers of another culture into monsters. Mummies are just a bit weird if you think about it. However, there's so much good stuff in fantasy/adventure comics. "Okay, how can you have everything that's good about that? While trying to lose some of the weird colonialist stuff". I had the idea to, basically, do a Mummy trope adventure plot, but use King Arthur as the mummy and of course The Once and Future King.
I left this idea lying around for years, then one day Boom! approached me. They said, " Dan (Mora) is interested in working with you. Do you have a project in mind?" I looked at Dan's work, which is just state of the art expressive action comic style. I thought "okay, what would I like to see Dan draw? I KNOW! That Arthur-as-Mummy idea I've got lying around". I started developing that. I didn’t even have an adventuring leads in the idea. Bridgette and Duncan grew from there.
I didn't want to just do a standard adventure guy either. I found myself thinking about what sort of relationships I had not written about. I realized that I was very close to my Gran as my Gran lived around the corner when I grew up. She was a first-generation Irish immigrant who came over when she was even younger than Bridgette. I was the first kid from my family to go to university. That kind of social gap and relationship, how people have very different lives, that's what I turned into Bridgette and Duncan. They are very different from me and my gran. At the very least, Duncan has upper body strength.
But doing that kind of relationship was what I was up for.
RYAN: How far out do you have each of those books planned out?
KIERON: DIE is planned to the end.I knew the end from the start. People always ask me how much I have planned. With something like WicDiv it was clear that it was always very intricate. As the reveals happened people realized. "Oh, no, they must have known that since issue one". For me, it's always a mixture between knowing where you're going while not knowing everything. I plot in terms of landmarks.
In the case of DIE, what happens is I know the end of the first arc. I'm going to march across the terrain towards there and discover what's happening there and what I need to delineate and reveal. Then I know the end of issue 10 and I march towards there. I also know what happens at the end of the third arc as well, so on and so forth. That's how I like to work. Know the big picture and explore the details.
ONCE & FUTURE is a bit different than that. I was deliberately creating something with more of an open ending. When I made it up, I was gonna do it like a series of movies. The idea changed when we decided to make it an ongoing project. Robin D. Laws uses the phrase "Iconic Heroes", as in, there are dramatic heroes like Macbeth and most movie characters. You have a defined character arc which changed the person. Conversely, an iconic hero is somebody who people don't come to see change, they come to see them do that iconic thing. Batman is an iconic hero, Sherlock Holmes is an iconic hero. You go to see Batman beat up criminals and chase the Joker. You're not necessarily going to see a Batman story where he understands beating up criminals may not be the point.
Most of the cast in DIE and WICKED + DIVINE, are clearly dramatic characters with an arc and an end. Whilst in ONCE & FUTURE, while I know where it's going, you could have someone else write this book. This grandmother and grandson are interesting characters that you would follow their random adventures. That said, I've got it planned for five trades now.
That's a good chunk of story and then it's kind of like where are the characters as a whole. Those five trades would form a solid arc. I could stop at the third trade if I wanted and then maybe pick it up again later because the third trade is also an interesting end point. I'm thinking five and then maybe see what happens next.
RYAN: Are there any other projects in the works or is it just these two for right now?
KIERON: Well, April 1st, was when the Direct Market stop shipping new books. I had a new book out on that day from Image called THE LUDOCRATS. That was a kick in the teeth obviously because it's a book that me and Jim had the idea of since 2003. I've been sort of playing around with those characters for all that time. It was originally with David Lafuente and it never happened for a variety of boring scheduling reasons and then Jeff jumped aboard
It's five years after we actually announced it. We are finally releasing it and on the very day the industry stopped publishing. Many people have asked me if I thought LUDOCRATS was cursed. I think the universe is cursed. But that five issue series will be coming out. It's me and Jim Rossignol, a game developer, who I used to be a journalist with back in the day. We always kept a close friendship, intellectual sparring partners. We're quite different aesthetically but LUDOCRATS comes from the place where we're trying to make each other laugh.
Jeff Stokely's drawing it, who's an astounding cartoonist, it's just berserk. Tamra Bonvillain, who is coloring ONCE & FUTURE, is being incredibly playful with the colors. It's going to be a miniseries, five issues, and perhaps more down the line. I'm not sure when it's actually going to come out, but when it drops it's gonna be a lot of fun.
There's a couple of more things I'm working on, which haven't been announced yet.
RYAN: Now we're gonna switch gears a little, a couple questions not project related So what's one thing fans don't know about you?
KIERON: It's tricky because I pretty much wear my heart on the sleeve a lot.
I've written about how one of my two cats despises me. I think she just hates men. They're both rescue cats, both are kind of nervous in different ways, but Bertha's especially nervous and especially nervous around me. It's a constant conversation based around where she'll set me in the room or when she'll run screaming. I think it's because I move around too loudly, especially that kind of thing. Okay, my cat hates me. I can't think of anything else.
Or how bout I used to dissect human brains for a living? If someone follows my Twitter feed closely, they might know that. I used to work in a lab for a year, dissecting and homogenizing human brains as part of a research project for a while.
RYAN: Oh, that's crazy. Okay, cool. What music, band or song gets your creative gears turning?
KIERON: Hahaha. Well, you know, the WICKED + DIVINE playlist, when we finished it, was 477 songs long, which is ludicrous. Music is such an intense part of what I do and I'm always using music and get riffing on it. I get inspired from all over the place.
I've just pitched a short story to a publisher inspired by The Riddle by Nik Kershaw, which is a 1980s pop record, a very weird video. I was watching and this idea kind of sparked off and I thought, "Oh, I can do that". I'm always reflecting off pop culture. That's a good you know theme tune. Every time we Jamie and I DJ we end with Total Eclipse of the Heart which is an iconic song for us in that way.
RYAN: Who are some of your biggest influences, comic writers, any writers or any specific people that may be an influence on your writing?
KIERON: Yeah. I came into comics as an adult really. So I never read stuff until I was a preteen. I read a little, a few things when I was a teenager. In terms of actually really coming to comic shops, I was about 25 and the five years before that. I got into Alan Moore. So Alan would be the first one.
My standard answer is ,the standard array of British and Irish men whose names begin with G, M and E. That's a joke answer but it's kind of true. I'm somebody who is born of that Vertigo school of writing. I'm interested in deconstruction in fantasy. I'm interested in that mashing between high culture and low culture. That there, in terms of mainstream comic writers, they're probably the main ones. I always say Eddie Campbell and since I came to the comics like there's other stuff. Eddie Campbell, you know, the Alec books were an enormous influence on PHONOGRAM. I'm trying to find a way to process Emily Carrol's Through The Woods or any of Emily Carrol really. UZUMAKI you know, Junji Ito is one of my big horror influences.
I'm looking around the room, just talking about stuff now. Yeah, and I'll tell you DOMU, to me Akira is less of an influence to me then DOMU. I think about its paneling all the time. I learned a lot of how to structure teen books from Milligan on BAD COMPANY: TO THE BEWILDERNESS in 2000 AD and Patty Mills writing The A.B.C. Warriors: The Black Hole
METABARONS, Juan Giménez who just passed recently. When I got into the METABARONS, how Giménez basically filled the page. I was reading that he had this sort of mechanic, I call Tableau storytelling. The idea is instead of doing panel by panel stuff, you create a one hyper detail moment and you juxtapose it just with a couple of captions, maybe just one. The point being, is you're meant to spend time and dwell in the panel. The panel becomes kind of timeless.
If you look at some of my early work, I mean if you look at my really early small press work, which is completely inaccessible now, so don't go looking. But you can sort of see what I had read the week before. If you're new to a medium, that's how you learn. You take stuff apart. Eventually it synthesises into a voice.
Outside comics, I'm also a music fan. A lot of journalists, music journalists, like Simon Reynolds and Neil Kulkarni. A lot of the Melody Maker crowd, I was enormously into them. I used to be a games critic, so J Nash - these were like big teenage influences Tolkien, Ian Banks, he is one of my big teenage crushes.
Yeah, it's that kind of stuff. I mainly like fiction, nonfiction is quite a big thing. I'm slutty is the best way to put things. I try to take widely. I think comics are a bastard medium. It takes from a lot of places and I think it is most interesting because it combines so many different kinds of things. So I'm always trying to look for input.
When people ask what influences me, in some ways it's easier to ask on specific projects. If I was talking about UBER, I've talked about how Garth Ennis is a very clear influence there and Anthony Beevor Stalingrad, Berlin they were kind of amazing pieces of nonfiction. I'm very much somebody who looks for a job and tries to work out what tools are appropriate.
That said, Shelly Bond completely nailed it. She was the only person who nailed me early in my career and many people still don't realize this, is that in terms of the person who I'm most like in comics is Pete Milligan. Partially because Milligan hasn’t quite the profile that his peers got, but the kind of slightly playful, culture mash of him and also the queerness in the world. That’s very me as well.
RYAN: Okay, and then if you could write one book for the rest of your career, what would it be?
KIERON: That sounds like a threat. Hahaha.
What I would love is something like CRIMINAL. I don't want to write CRIMINAL but what I love about it is that it allows Ed and Sean to just follow their instincts, it's so good. I know Ed and Sean personally now, but I knew them first through their work. Not to tell anybody that they are a direct influence on me, but I look at them and I'm in awe of how they put together the story so elegantly. Because I'm a mess. I'm somebody who's very formal in my technique, but I'm also like a spaghetti armed monster just flailing around. There's a kind of fun, nervous and twitchy energy to my stuff. Whilst with Ed and Sean, you're in such safe hands. They have the confidence of going for the story for it to come through so clearly.
But in a real way that kind of says something about it. I used to be a video game critic, but that was my 20s so I was allowed to be more awful and arrogant. Each writer on the magazine had a bio and they had one sentence saying what they are specialists in. You have to try to make people believe that we knew anything. We had a specialist in arcade games, specialist in first-person shooters, and my specialist was "specialist at literally everything ever" which of course was a joke. Also, I had a very playful tongue-in-cheek arrogance character back then.
But most importantly, I never wanted to be pigeonholed. The idea of just playing one type of game and having to judge them all would have just broken my heart and driven me out. My whole thing was always to be a generalist, always be able to be about widest possible definition of things - so the idea of literally doing one book for the rest of my life is like hell, hahaha. It's just not how my kind of creativity works.
However , it would have to be something like PHONOGRAM or DIE I guess.
The thing about PHONOGRAM was, it was designed to stretch according to my interests. There were some PHONOGRAM stories I wanted to do set in the 19th century. There was one that was said about 50 years in a single night club. And otherwise, it's about social study across 50 years. It's the voice which isn't really one story per se but a book that allows you to look at a variety of things you find interesting
So, PHONOGRAM and to be honest I know I said I knew the end of DIE, but DIE is unique in terms of my books. I know it has room for a sequel. In other words, DIE is a big enough concept that I could just go back and do my little meta fantasy stories forever. Which is quite cool.
RYAN: All right cool. So my last question is kind of to talk about just where the industry is right now, in such a state of uncertainty. I know you said yourself, you're still writing and your books are still going on as they were before. What's your opinion on the state of the industry as it is right now with the uncertainty and with no concrete answers except to "just keep working to all the writers and artists"?
KIERON: The "just keep working" is kind of different depending on the people. Some people are being told to stop working, some people haven't. Like you said, the uncertainties are big. To be honest, uncertainty is something which is utterly against human peace of mind. It is also something we're gonna have to live with. I distrust anybody who thinks they know what's going to happen on the other side of this. There comes a time where you have to step back and take a deep breath and go, "Okay, We don't know what's going to happen".
All we know is, we're in this gap we have to look after each other. I've seen a lot of like creators trying to do things and support shops. People trying to support publishers, people trying to support each other. Especially if your friends are in need look at them. So many people are aware. Shops which do mail orders, it's an order from your local shop, all those kinds of things to help your community. I think that's kind of where we are, in that we're kind of in triage right now emotionally.
I distrust anybody who's got any clear predictions on what's going to happen at the other side of this. At the same time I'll make some predictions. I think there will be some significant changes. I just hope we don't lose any of the many utterly irreplaceable things in the industry. That's the kind of way of putting it. As I said, in my case, my books sell well, so if there is a comic industry in existence, there'll be someone who publishes them. If the entire industry collapsed somehow, we would sell them online or whatever or do it as a webcomic.
I'm trying to avoid thinking about any alternative tactics until we're there. You have your ideas, but I think just looking after each other is the most important thing right now. Everything about this is awful, but at the same time you're seeing so many real acts of human kindness to each other. Sometimes we get very antsy with it, just look how angry Twitter's getting. We're all trapped in the same room, it's awful. At the same time there are positives, the emotional, the humanity's ability to try to care for each other, that's what I'm hoping we're going to see more of.
I mean, the #creatorsforcomics auctions that have just ended? They were an amazing thing to see, in terms of comics folks auctioning things to raise money for book shop support charity BINCs? That was great to see, and I hope that’s the sort of community works we see more of. And a great charity to donate to, if anyone wants to do something to support book shops during the crisis.