After Action Report: Marvel's S.W.O.R.D. w/ Kieron Gillen

After Action Report: S.W.O.R.D. #1

With angry aliens, cybernetic bounty hunters, and a star-spanning version of Beauty and the Beast, S.W.O.R.D. moves above and beyond the Final Frontier. But when outer space offenses mingle with Marvel's Dark Reign, as the first issue shows, anything goes.

With the wit and weaponry of Agent Abigail Brand and her boyfriend, the boisterous blue-furred Beast, dropping in comic shops this week, writer Kieron Gillen sat down with Newsarama to do a post-mortem on the sci-fi action/comedy's first issue, as well as to tease us on what might be on the way in future issues of S.W.O.R.D. Some SPOILERS for issue 1 ahoy.

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Newsarama: Kieron, for those who only know of S.W.O.R.D. because of the high-stakes space action from Astonishing X-Men, what would you say the mission statement of this book is?

Kieron GIllen: My Spacegirl Friday. Fury Nick and Green-haired Nora. Joss Whedon writes Deep Space 9. West Wing in orbit (plus zap-guns). 24 with the neo-con-agenda swapped for gags. The fastest-paced comic Marvel puts out, I think. We move at escape-velocity. IN SPACE NO-ONE HAS TIME TO BREATHE.

In short: we are your new mentalist sweetheart. Adore us.

Sorry. I've just ate an entire packet of chocolate digestives, and I'm a little hyper.

Nrama: No worries, we'll strive to keep up! This book had a very different tone than a lot of your previous work, like Phonogram, Stormbreaker, and Ares. How did you go from these books to doing what is essentially a space adventure/comedy?

Gillen: The inside of my head is an odd place, it seems. I admit, I love my current output. Ares is a very black action/comedy. Beta Ray Bill was heart-on-sleeve straight-faced with-the-necessary-wink cosmic mini-epic. Phonogram is unreadable indie-nonsense which sells three copies to people who've tattooed entire issues onto their body and theban-sigils branded onto their brows. Thor – though no-one's seen that yet – is straight Shakespeare-does-superheroes drama.

In tone, that's all over the place. That I get to change from piece to piece is enormously refreshing for me. I mean, there's no chance of getting bored at least – and I'm discovering so much about myself as a writer with every page. This is the best job in the world. I recommend it to everyone.

Nrama: It seems as though certain books fulfill certain functions for the Marvel Universe as a whole: X-Men has all their mutant characters, Avengers showcases the flagship characters, Annihilation and the following wars that succeeded it repositioned Marvel's more grandiose space-operatic characters. How do you feel S.W.O.R.D. fits into this, or what do you think its personality is within the context of the rest of Marvel's lineup? Do you think it's Marvel's street-level space book?

Gillen: That's a great way of putting it: “Street-level space book”. It's putting a ground-level eye on the cosmic scale. The example I tend to use – not that it's one I'm going to use – is that we spin stories off the after-effects of this kind of cosmic disasters. Where do those refugees go when a planet gets destroyed? People like S.W.O.R.D. deal with that, and there's all sorts of interesting material in that sort of terrain. NO TIME TO BREATHE – as the title suggests – motors, but there's all sort of fine detail which makes that stuff clear. The section in the second issue where we go through a mass of arrests very quickly imply a load of this.

Basically, we're looking for the human in the alien, if you will. It's telling that all our core heroic cast – barring the Beast – are aliens.

Nrama: It seems like, at least in this first issue, Abigail and Hank are what make this book run. Can you tell us what made this Brand/Beast relationship such fun for you?

Gillen: It's a beauty and the beast relationship. The irony being, Beast is the beauty and the beautiful Brand is the beast. Brand is a curt, rude and cynical monster on the outside, but Beast unlocks that gentler side hiding beneath the shades. That's touching for me. And Brand does things for Beast, which we'll get to eventually. I think they could be perfect for one another. The question being, can they get over themselves enough to actually make it work. Which is the story of any relationship, innit?

In other words, they're just two people I can see being together. Having something at genuine at the heart of S.W.O.R.D. ... well, it gives it a heart. I'm capital-R Romantic enough to think that matters.

Nrama: Something that needs to be asked: The page with Beast and the muffins. Between the dialogue and the look on Beast's face in that second panel, it's probably one of the funniest sequences in a Marvel book we've seen in awhile. What happened there with you and Steve?

Gillen: The wonders of comic writing. You know I was talking earlier about discovering stuff about myself as a writer? Stuff like the muffin scene surprised me as much as everyone else. I just had Beast bringing coffees up – the idea being, to show the move from earth to space, and set up the theme of the science-fiction rubbing up against normal life in a fairly direct way. So I have Beast with coffee and muffins. And I have Brand in a rush and angry. And... well, everything just comes flowing out. You know when writers annoyingly talk about the characters writing themselves in interviews, and you roll your eyes at them? Well, it was one of those moments. I was shocked.

(The only other time that happened was Ares' speech in Ares #1, which couldn't have come out any quicker than if exploded from my brain in bloody pulpy matter)

And then Sander's sad muffin-rejected Beast just sells it all. Yay comics!

Nrama: Moving on from that page to the whole book, what has your collaboration with Steve been like? You both seem to have such a quirky sense of humor to your work, we were curious if that might have translated into any funny "making-of" stories.

Gillen: Steve and I have been friends for years – my first US con before the launch of the first series of Phonogram I shared a table with him (He'd just released Five Fists of Science with [Invincible Iron Man writer Matt] Fraction). We've yabbered since, so doing a book with him is... well, it's different. We're on AIM every day. He's an incredibly inventive artist. I use the word “Inventive” in a really literal way. He invents things. I request a ship which does a certain sort of thing – like the interceptor STILETTO ZERO – and he comes up with something which pretty much works. I ask for a cell for our Hannibal-Lector-meets-CP-30 new character UNIT, and he's working out what all the vents are. And then he'll just drop something in the background which I fall in love with, and then spin off in a different direction. Hell, I asked him to make up a few alien races for that final page of the first issue, and he comes up with this glorious array of freaks. I'm obsessed at the moment with the one second from the bottom left, and working out the background for THE SATELLITE HOUNDS, brave and peaceful descendants of Laika. It's that kind of relationship. We're riffing off one another's excesses constantly.

We also spend too much time actually worrying about the science. We wasted a couple of hours theorising how STILETTO ZERO could actually cushion acceleration. We're thinking we'll fill the cockpit with breathable-fluid. Which makes no real scientific sense, but could look awesome.

Comics!

Nrama: Another thing that was surprising was the triumphant return of Death's Head. He's one of those characters that doesn't get enough love nowadays, and it was such a great surprise to see him return to the greater Marvel Universe -- what made you pull him out of the toy box?

Gillen: Pretty much “why not?”. I needed a bounty-hunter for the Lothi plot, and figured that there was already a perfectly acceptable bounty-hunter in existence, I should use him. I wasn't going to let a little thing like him being dead get in my way. If you can't bring back dimension-skipping time-traveling robot, who can you bring back?

Nrama: The back-up story you did with Jamie McKelvie also really caught our attention -- very sciency, but also very germane to the series, especially in the context of Lockheed's new status quo. What brought that on? Could you tell us what preparation, if any, you needed for this story?

Gillen: Thank you! But very little specific preparation was required. It's actually a script I wrote pretty quickly – we went from “Let's do a back up with Jamie” to “Here's the script” in less than a week, I think. I knew the basic science well enough to just write it – and taking a scientific approach to a lot of magical theory is one of the things I think about a lot. I mainly worked back to front. I knew they couldn't have rescued Kitty yet... but why not? I created problems, worked out what a sensible organisation – and you don't get much more sensible than S.W.O.R.D. - would do.

Nrama: Since you're also known as a big music man, with your work on Phonogram -- what have you been listening to to get into the S.W.O.R.D. mindset?

Gillen: The Go Team's first album. This enormous splurge of upbeat colour which always makes me want to dance. That's S.W.O.R.D. right there. I've also got a playlist which is pretty much any space-name-checking single, from the Final Countdown to the Beasties' Intergalactic to Bowie's Life on Mars. Which is less for mood, more for making me smile. That said “making me smile” is a lot of the mood.

Nrama: Wrapping things up -- are there any other space characters we might know about that you're planning on pulling out for S.W.O.R.D.? Or any X-Men, for that matter? Or are there any other fun moments coming up that you could tease?

Gillen: Ones who have more than a one-panel appearance? In the next two issues... well, Marvel Boy, Karolina from the Runaways, Hulkling and Warlock. The Warbound are a major influence on the plot of the next two issues. And there's one panel micro-scenes of – crikey! – lots more aliens. It's a high-speed plot, so we don't linger on anyone that much, but we're trying to give the impression of a global-scale deportation. Oh – and there's a few more heroes and villains who show up. Cyclops and White Queen in the second issue. The Dark Avengers are important in the fourth. That kind of thing.

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