Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie have done everything from video games to musical warlocks to teen superheroes, and in 2014 they’re amping it up even more with new creator-owned series about pop stars as gods… or gods as pop stars, depending on how you look at it.
Titled The Wicked And The Divine, this soon-to-be-launched ongoing series was announced earlier this year at the 2014 Image Expo. The series follows a “super group,” so to speak, of gods taken from various mythologies who come to Earth every 90 years in the bodies of the young and go about changing the world. Supernatural? It’s a given since they’re gods, but what Gillen and McKelvie are bringing new to the table is seeing gods and their role to normal human society through the lens of pop culture. Told through the view point of one of the returning gods’ biggest fans, Gillen calls The Wicked And The Divine “Charlie & The Chocolate Factory with a death wish.”
Prior to the announcement of The Wicked and the Divine, Gillen and McKelvie were already in line to return to Image and creator-owned work with the previously announced Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl, the third volume of that creator-owned series. But this new project was pushed to the front of the line by Gillen and McKelvie as an opportunity to create something totally new in the wake of their successful run on Marvel’s Young Avengers. The duo still plan to create that third volume of Phonogram once the inaugural arc of The Wicked and the Divine is complete, but right now their eye is on the new by examining it through the ages-old concept of gods. If the mantra of Phonogram was that “music is magic,” then it might be apt to describe The Wicked And the Divine as “higher powers as pop stars.”
Newsarama: It’s a new year, you’re done with Young Avengers and you’ve got a new project. How do you feel about 2014, Kieron?
Kieron Gillen: Don't get me talking, Chris. I could talk all night. Let's just keep it to “Optimistic” and be done with it.
Nrama: Talking’s what we’re here for, but I’ll focus at the subject at hand – The Wicked and the Divine. Tell me – who are the wicked and who are the divine? Who are these gods?
Gillen: Who's wicked? Who's divine? That's right at the heart of the book. We were considering having it having a dual title, releasing one cover with The Divine and one cover with The Wicked and refusing to say which title was the book's real one. We didn't, as the conceptual fun wasn't quite worth the complete havoc it would cause, but that's still right into the core of the book. You read it and make up your own mind who you apply those labels to.
The gods? Every ninety years or so twelve gods reincarnate as young humans. They inspire crowds of admirers with their speaking in tongues, save lives (literally or metaphorically) and perform secretive miracles. And then in two years, they're all dead.
Or it could all be a hoax. Not everyone's a believer. It could just be hype.
It's basically “Gods as pop-stars”, though it's a little wider than that. It's a book about life and death, the desire to be a creator and the prices you pay. It's a state of the art fantasy comic cut in a bespoke fashion for the 21st century.
Nrama: So just who are the two women on the cover?
Gillen: Laura and Lucifer. Laura is the south-London girl with the dip-dyed hair. Lucifer (or Luci, as she likes to be called - far better than "Father of Lies" or any of those other ones) is the girl rocking the thin-white-duchess look.
Nrama: Laura is the eyes of the book, giving readers her perspective as a human fan of these gods. What’s her story?
Gillen: Laura's our way into the world. The story starts shortly into the two-year cycle, with the majority (but not all) of the twelve in the world. She's already a fan, a complete devotee. She starts just as a fan, but that rapidly changes.
She doesn't just love them. It's easy to love them, though not all do. She's one of the people who looks at the idea of “being brilliant for two years and then dying” and is more interested in the first half of the sentence than the second. She wants to be one of them. The question becomes “what would you do to make it true.” She's hardly alone in that.
Basically, you could think of the story as Charlie & The Chocolate Factory with a death wish.
Nrama: As anyone who follows music knows, fans of bands always have a favorite member – even for the Ringo Starrs out there. Who’s Laura’s favorite of the twelve, and why?
Gillen: As I said, as we start, not all twelve has reincarnated. Maybe one of the ones to arrive will be even better? Laura has thought each of the gods couldn't be any better, but she's perpetually surprised by the possibility they present to her, how good “good” can feel. Her current ultimate high when the story starts is Inanna.
The story starts with her going to see the latest God to appear, Amaterasu.
It's a gig that changes her life.
Nrama: And there's a thirteenth god, that’s different from the others, correct?
Gillen: There is – Ananke. She's different, in that she doesn't reincarnate. She basically is their advisor, helping each generation before returning to quiet and bitter seclusion. Think Gretta Garbo in I Want To Be Alone mode. She's enormously important to the mythology of the series. She's the woman who turns up at your front door and tell you what god you are. She's the woman who changes your life.
Nrama: The scheduling of these twelve gods’ rebirths – every 90 years – is interesting in what it does now but also the avenues it opens up for previous 90-year cycles (and even future ones). You’ve got more in store, eh Kieron?
Gillen: Heh. Well, it's a broad canvas. I know how the story ends, but I also know there's room for lots of diversions along the way. Our opening is actually at the end of the 1920s cycle, so you'll see the previous incarnations. I've got strong feelings about the 1830s version, and the 1760s as well. There's also some cycles that are much earlier I want to touch on. As I said, it's about the idea of Pop Stars of the period. In the 1830s incarnation, I'd be taking inspiration from people like – say – Lord Byron.
(Yes, he was dead by then, but you get the broader point. Who in the period resonates with the zeitgeist of the culture.)
Nrama: This book shows gods as pop stars – but not just the pessimistic take we see so much in media. From what I read you’re pulling archetypes as well as analogues to some specific celebrities from modern history. You mention David Bowie – when his various personas could fill an entire team book in itself. What would you say to this book being an exploration of celebrity personas and the public giving them so much sway?
Gillen: That's be part of it. In some ways, it's the flip of Phonogram. That was about being a fan – about the consumption of culture and what it means to you. It didn't really touch much on the creation of culture. The Wicked And The Divine is about that – the people who create, who they are, how they get there, how we treat them and how they treat themselves.
While we've namechecked Bowie a lot, the Gods are more archetypes than exact 1:1 analogues for pop stars. Yes, Innana has a heavy Prince influence – but he's also influenced by anyone working in that whole “Prince” type space. Baphomet's most obvious influence is Nick Cave, but it's hardly the only one – as tall, pallid, capital-R romantic, deadly is a much wider influence in pop than just the one Australian guy. And the someone like The Morrigan is actually almost a pop-universe implied by records personified. The characters are not just about pop stars – they're pop stars in themselves, and the aim is to treat them as icons rather than representations of other icons.
You're especially right about Bowie. Bowie's a pantheon by himself.
Nrama: Gods coming to earth – fiction or not, the world’s people are bound to have some cynicism and doubt. How does the general public see these “gods” and the cycle? How much are they aware of the larger construct of this?
Gillen: Generally speaking, it's been dismissed. The miracles have been very quiet. In an era before film, cynicism is easy. In an era with film, the actual performances just look like mass hysteria – especially so when many people simply don't respond when the gods perform. They spend the time looking around the room as if everyone else has gone insane.
In other words, they're responded to as pretty much every artform is ever responded to by society. Some believe. Some don't. Some despise. Some think it'll end society.
Nrama: This question might be totally out of sorts, but the title The Wicked And The Divine leads me to recall the phrase “the sacred & the profane,” which some people refer to religion as but also has ties back to Titian’s Sacred and Profane. Am I totally off the mark, or are you gaining some inspiration from that area?
Gillen: To a degree, you'll be correct. To a degree.
I've certainly been considering the Renaissance incarnations. I was in Venice the other week, and am deep in a Titian crush. Also oddly obsessed with Tintoretto, who seemed to be the hardest working man in Venice.
Nrama: The announcement of The Wicked And The Divine was shocking – one because we didn’t know about it before, hence the ”announcement” but also because everyone assumed the end of Young Avengers would usher you directly into Phonogram Vol. 3. Can you talk about that decision, and what was the tipping point that led you to this series first?
Gillen: Basically, one night a penny dropped, and I sent a ranty e-mail to Jamie basically saying “I don't think we should do Phonogram immediately. We should do this other idea.” Young Avengers was a book about the new, and trying to achieve it. From top to bottom, it was a book that was desperate to try and act as midwife to a future, any future. That was its strength, and that was its weakness. It was a pop statement that had a year to live.
So... after that, it felt kind of a betrayal to immediately go back to work that originated in 2003, is set in 2009 and was written in 2011 or so.
Basically, we wanted to do something new, built from the ground up. Not something we've been planning for years – something entirely fresh.
If we ever do some fancy collection of The Wicked And The Divine I suspect we'll include that fateful mail. It's quite the rant.
Anyway – that led to the planned structure for the book. Jamie does every odd-numbered arc and we have guest artists doing every even numbered arc. This allows Jamie to do Phonogram 3 when the second arc of The Wicket And The Divine is being published, before coming back for the third arc, then going and doing something else during the fourth arc. He'll be doing covers and design and the back-up story throughout though.
Nrama: You said this feels more new – can you give us a timeframe of when this story startled bubbling up from your metaphorical brook?
Gillen: Early 2013. The week after my Dad had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. As I said, it's a book about life and death and how little time we have.
As always with us, it's a big pop statement thing, but The Wicked And The Divine has got a dark heart.
Nrama: Jamie’s not just drawing your scripts – can you tell us about his involvement in the creation and in the off-arcs?
Gillen:Jamie doesn't “just” do anything. He's not a “just” sort of guy. You work with Jamie, and he brings you a world, an aesthetic and a finely tuned storytelling brain. You know the old argument in comics about who is the equivalent of the “director?” It's a bad argument in a few ways, but the best answer is really “it varies.” With Jamie, it's like working with the best cinematographer in the world, and the best leading man and woman and a whole supporting cast of brilliant character actors. He's that best thing – an artist who understands what a story is doing as well as the writer, and that always shines through.
There's a reason I'm mean to Jamie so often, because if I had to speak honestly, I'd have to say things like that.
In this case, Jamie is really the executive. It all builds on my scripts, but the point is that it builds on it. The script, as dense and overthought as it is, is the starting place, and we work where to do next. A character isn't finished until Jamie draws them.
Jamie's going to be designing all the characters, from the iconography onwards. He's a driving part of the story experimentation that we've become known for (And if people think Young Avengers was fancy, there's going to be stuff in The Wicked And The Divine which will immolate their pretty brains). He'll be doing the covers throughout, and in the issues he's not drawing, he'll be doing a short extra story in each.
It's “our” book, basically. I don't think saying it's written by me and drawn by Jamie a particularly useful or accurate way of considering it. It's the hivemind thing. We're a band. We've always been a band.
Nrama: Taking that anology further, every project you two have done is like a band doing concept album; From Phonogram to Siege: Loki to Phonogram 2 and on to Young Avengers. If so, how would this rank in those?
Gillen: You're right. It's kind of amazing that Jamie and I have managed to stay together so long and not be separated by the general industrial churn. There's not many writer/artist teams who've managed to do so much work together without actually having a 70-issue Vertigo series to connect them at the hip for five years. It's especially true for two people who came up together and did their first indie work. It amused Jamie and me at the Image Expo that while everyone else got a slide announcing their name, Jamie and I shared a single one. We seem to be creatively conjoined at this point. It really is a band thing.
How would The Wicked And The Divine rate? I wouldn't want to say. The aim is always to be the best it can be.
I'll say this – for all the ideas that are churning inside it, it feels the most pop, most accessible book we've ever done. We'll know when it drops what it is, but I'm hoping it's our Ziggy Stardust.