It's been a big couple of months for Iron Man, and a very interesting time to be the writer of his eponymous Marvel comic book.
Not only has Marvel Studios' Iron Man 3 now made more than $1 billion at the box office, the currently unfolding "Secret Origin of Tony Stark" comic book storyline has already brought some very interesting revelations to light about the title character's conception — specifically, that he may have been much more destined for his conspicuous life than he (or readers) originally thought.
It's all part of series writer Kieron Gillen's plan to bring major change to the character, in an arc he's already, in his words, "pretty aware that for good or ill, this is the story people will remember my run for." In the first half of our latest interview with the writer, he discusses the motivation to make a major impact with an iconic charater like Iron Man, working with artist Dale Eaglesham in recent issues, and his experience being the writer of an Iron Man comic book while an Iron Man movie dominated headlines across the globe. Courtesy of Marvel, we're also debuting the covers to July's Iron Man #13 and September's Iron Man #15 and #16, plus a brand-new interior page by incoming artist Carlo Pagulayan (inked by Scott Hanna) from issue #15.
Newsarama: Kieron, there are a number of things to talk about, but let's start in some relatively obvious territory. With Iron Man 3 now safely coasted over the billion-dollar mark, what's it like being the writer of the Iron Man comic during such a globally conspicuous time for the character? Both the experience of actually watching the movie (one would imagine you'd view things in a rather different way than you would have normally), and also just the process of seeing so much coverage of the character that you've been writing each month?
Kieron Gillen: The best thing about writing Iron Man in the middle of the year, is that mentioning you write Iron Man expedites your travel through passport control when travelling. This really is a major plus.
Of course, it's strange. To walk down the street and have the character you're writing towering over you from a billboard is an unusual experience. In terms of the movie, I actually watched it way down the line. It came out in the UK when I was off to the US, and started playing in the US just as I was leaving. I ended up finally managing to go see a Monday matinee.
I thought it was strong – at least on par with the first one, with very different strengths. As a writer, you find yourself dwelling on the similarities and the differences between the two same versions of the character. The strangest thing was the coincidences. I hadn't read the script or anything, so seeing little bits and pieces of Iron Man lore we'd both hit made me smile. That my first issue started with AIM is a pure coincidence, for example.
Nrama: That said, it's interesting that, by contrast, the "Secret Origin of Tony Stark" story that started the same month the movie came out is dealing with distinctly different territory than anything in the film. Was any of that deliberate? Or just the natural path of the story? (After all, a major Mandarin story had just concluded at the end of Matt Fraction's run, and you dealt with Extremis elements in your first arc.)
Gillen: I'll cop to the choice to open with Extremis being influenced by the fact it was in the movie. After I'd abandoned my original plan for the run as a hard-sci-fi piece about space colonization (as that was tonally untenable if he was going to be off in the Guardians Of The Galaxy doing romantic space opera at the same time). I was left with the problem of having five issues on Earth before he zoomed off to live his James T. Kirk fantasies, so being unable to set in motion any terrestrial plots that wouldn't have to be immediately abandoned.
I decided to go wider, more episodic and hit a variety of themes I wanted to explore, and needed a device to do that. The make-humans-what-you-want part of Extremis seemed to fit the role. And for someone to be able to walk out of the movie and pick up the latest trade which included some elements of what they'd just experienced, while also acting as an introduction to Tony Stark in the Marvel Universe, struck me as a fairly sound decision.
However, in terms of "The Secret Origin Of Tony Stark," I had a different aim in mind. I wanted to do something big and meaningful enough to be the movie. I wanted people to read it and think, "This could be Iron Man 5." To someone who only knows the movies, it's a case of showing something they haven't seen before. And even if you only know Tony from the movies, seeing how he deals with a situation this extreme is an obvious appeal. Even if you only know Tony from that, you know it's going to be an existential blow to his self-image.
When we're bringing in space-opera elements in the Best Offense, it's also amping up the scale. In issue 13 we introduce The Godkiller suit of armor, which is a suit unlike anything ever presented. In terms of scale, this isn't like anything else.
Nrama: To talk more specifically about "The Secret Origin of Tony Stark," you've mentioned that you're readying for something similar to the type of reaction that Dan Slott has gotten for Superior Spider-Man. That certainly speaks to the scope of the revelations still to come in the story (and it's already moved in some surprising directions) — coming into your run on Iron Man, was it always your intention/goal/hope/etc. to shake things up in a major way? And how have you gauged the reaction to the story thus far, in this very early point?
Gillen: There was a bunch of machinery moving around me earlier in the run, and I felt it was time I really tried to hack a clearing in the wilderness and stake a claim. As I've said before, I'm pretty aware that for good or ill, this is the story people will remember my run for.
The response is pretty much what I expected. The people who hate it are responding exactly as they should — in fact, they're having Tony's response to the revelations, which is kind of my point. The people who like it are buying into the, "Actually, that does explain a lot of things" aspect of the story. I think it's strong. I think even people who dislike the idea initially are going to be talked around to what we're doing by the time we reach its epilogue in issue #17. I think what I do only helps Tony as a character, even as it fundamentally alters his position in the universe forever. It's a big, existential sort of story.
I smile at myself as I write that, as it's the Nothing Will Be The Same Again sort of hype we've all heard. I don't, as a rule, often say things like that in interviews. I think this is one case it's justified.
Nrama: More to that point — while you could probably have a very successful and acclaimed run doing well-executed, straightforward Iron Man stories, what motivated doing something more bold with the character? In a recent interview I did with Rick Remender, he discussed how you can't be afraid to "bend" the bigger characters (in his case, Captain America), and in fact, it behooves a writer to do so — are you of a similar mindset?
Gillen: I'd agree with Rick. That said, I'm not sure that I agree with your point. I don't think you can have a successful and acclaimed run doing well-executed, straightforward stories about any character in the superhero mainstream without being more bold and creating a vision. Look at the biggest writers in the last decade and look at how they climbed to their current prominence. Look at Jonathan [Hickman] on Fantastic Four and [Scott] Synder and Batman. Even creators who are established are best hailed for the hefty, re-imagining roles. Warren [Ellis] on Iron Man. Mark [Waid] on Daredevil. Ed [Brubaker] on Captain America and so on.
I think you can do okay by just doing well-executed and straightforward. Maybe even do well.
But that's not really enough.
Nrama: Dale Eaglesham has illustrated the first two issues of "The Secret Origin of Tony Stark," and clearly he's a very different type of artist than Greg Land (who I believe is coming back on the book soon). What have you enjoyed about collaborating with Dale, and what do you think makes him well-suited for the first part of this story (especially with the flashback/Las Vegas sequences)?
Gillen: As much as he's clearly a modern artist, Dale's got a certain classic style which helps evoke the sense of being a period piece that is incredibly important to "Secret Origin." That whole timbre really helps it all. He also goes to town on all the luxuriant, decadent details which sell Vegas — the drinks, how the grey gangsters hold themselves. I particularly like the fleshiness of his people, like the corpulence of the alien boss. He's also clearly killing himself with all the detailing on 451. I was almost tempted to put 451 in a suit jacket just to give him a break.
Yes, Greg's back for the next arc — "The Best Offense" — which is really the second "book" of "Secret Origin." He's actually splitting duties with the awesome Carlo Paguyan however, which is great. Carlo did the design work on the Iron Man suits in the first arc, so for him to actually draw sequentials at the conclusion of the book's first "Year" is great.
Nrama: One more "Secret Origin" question — Death's Head has shown up, and looks to continue to play a role in the story down the line. Given his origins with Marvel UK, he's a character I think a lot of American fans still don't know too much about — what interested you in writing the character, and how have you enjoyed getting the chance to pit him against Tony Stark?
Gillen: When planning all this, I knew I wanted to have a bounty hunter in the mix. The "Godkiller" arc was evoking a lot of pop-science-fiction. 451 is both R2D2 and C3-PO in the first arc, for example. I wanted a Boba Fett, and the ideal of using a perfectly good MU bounty hunter struck me. I also liked using his size to try and quietly kick against the "everyone is human sized" element of the universe. At the least, it gives a justification for why so many alien environments are so towering. They never know when they may have an enormous mechanoid for a guest.
There's a sort of theme of robots in "Secret Origin." This arc Tony has three main foils — the antagonistic 451, the friendly P.E.P.P.E.R. and Death's Head, who is neither. The good, the bad and the ugly, and all mirror Tony's feelings in different ways.
Yes, I'm entirely capable of waxing lyrical in a pseudish fashion about including a giant robot with a detachable hand. I am awful.