Kieron Gillen: A MARVELous Indie Success Story
Kieron Gillen: From Reader to Writer
Writer Kieron Gillen has burst on the scene in recent years, working simultaneously on creator-owned work like Phonogram and assuming a enviable role in Marvel’s stable of writers used often for miniseries and stints on ongoing titles. Although he’s only been active in comics for the past four years, he’s acculumated an eclectic mix of work – from the “music is magic” mantra of Phonogram to the godly-imbued stints at Marvel, and even some time spent in RPG heaven with a Warhammer mini over at Boom! Studios. Where did he come from? Where is he going?Rock, Paper, Shotgun. He’s also an avid fan of music, and that enthusiasm bled through with his first major comics work Phonogram. After years of being a casual comics reader, he got the comics writing bug after becoming immersed in the unique comics environment of Warren Ellis’ original forum, the WEF. That forum, which was the breeding ground for several current comic stars such as Brian Wood, Antony Johnston and Matt Fraction, set Gillen out to try comics on his own – first with work in small press UK anthologies, and then with his own proper series Phonogram with Jamie McKelvie.
Fast-forward a few years and the second volume of Phonogram has just finished, and Gillen is heavily involved with Marvel Comics with work on Thor, the Ares miniseries and the recently canceled S.W.O.R.D. series. With Phonogram coming to an end and his Marvel work on the rise, Newsarama sought out Kieron Gillen to talk about his career so far and his plans for the future. We talked with Gillen by email shortly after the Phonogram Wake – a release party for the final issue of the series’ second volume.
Newsarama: First off, an easy one Kieron. What are you working on today?
Kieron Gillen: I'm working on getting over a hangover from the Phonogram Wake last night. And then I'm answering these questions. This is about all I have the strength for today.
Nrama: How did you first get introduced to comics? Do you remember your first comic?
Gillen: I came to comics culture properly as an adult, in terms of actually going into comic shops, buying stuff on a mostly-weekly basis and obsessively pressing refresh on webforums. Which is about as early as I could do it, being from a town without any kind of specialist comics retailer.
As a kid, I read whatever comics were in the newsagents, from the Beano to Marvel UK reprints. Later, 2000AD and the Dark Horse Aliens reprint. But the earliest actual comic that sticks in the mind was a Broons annual (a popular Scottish newspaper strip). My mum's Scottish, and our earliest holidays were up to her homeland. Since they were reprints, they were all based on 60s Scottish culture - which, thinking about it, would be the culture my mum grew up in - as such, it was based on a totally alien world. I remember becoming obsessed with a strip to do them going to buy glue in a form that looked like chocolate. Wh... at? And the dialect. It was basically Trainspotting for the under-10s.
Gillen: It must have followed quite shortly. Marvel UK, in the manner of British comics generally, operated by using reprints of US material, but cut down to multiple parts. So a single US comic would be split up into 6 page pieces, and put with other six page pieces to form an anthology, which was then released weekly or bi-weekly. And there was no real attempt at continuity per se. As in, 60s X-men was side-by-side with 70s Kirby and whatever 80s stuff which was abstractly the main attraction. So I kind of got this patchwork idea of the Marvel Universe.
And superheroes stuck with me. Even when I stopped reading comics in my teens, they remain a part of my internal thought process. They're a useful genre and an interesting metaphor.
Nrama: Reading comics is good --- recommended even – but when did you decide to give it a go and do your own?
Gillen: Well, this is after I came back to comics. For the first half of my 20s, I was a one-trade-a-year sort of reader. When I was 25, I sort of fell into the subculture via the WEF – the Warren Ellis Forum on Delphi. That was an incredible crash-course introduction into the medium, with me being guided towards all sorts of material I'd never have found by myself. And when I'm in love with something, I start dissecting it. And, naturally enough, after I've dissected it, I wanted to put it back together, like the good doctors Frankenstein and Doom. I went to my first con six months after that first joining, came home that night and my first script fought its way through a vodka haze.
Thing is, coming from a fanzine background, it's just natural to do stuff you're interested in. I just put together my own comics and got it out there.
Nrama: Although you’d done some anthology comics prior to it, you’ve been quoted saying that Phonogram was your “first real comic”. Why is that?
Gillen: It's got my name on the cover, basically.
It was the real thing. This time I was playing for keeps.
Nrama: Let’s wait putting back on that “comics writer” hat and eek out some more of your own reading habits. Do you still get the same enjoyment out of reading comics as you did before you actively wrote them yourself?
Gillen: When I started dissecting comics, I stopped reading them in a natural way. I used to drive my girlfriend of the period mad by the way I'd sit there, counting numbers of panels on pages. However, now I've internalized all that stuff, I can approach comics more as a reader again. Well, as much as a reader as I ever was. I always lean to criticism. At last partially, I consume culture to think about it, to see if I can work out how it operates.
In terms of what I'm reading right now... well, I just re-read Casanova this morning, which reminded me I need to grab the new Daytripper. It's great to see DEMO back. The Unwritten is outstanding. Still working my way through the Alec Omnibus. I have my Scott Pilgrim calendar constructed, busily counting the days off. That kind of stuff. I'll read anything, me.
Gillen: I'll agree it's my signature work. And to be identified with it is great, really. It's what it's for. If you want to know about me and how I think of the medium and the world, you should turn to Phonogram. It's a pure blast of Me fired out of the McKelvie cannon.
Nrama: That’s be Jamie McKelvie, your Phonogram co-creator and artist On your website you talked about the uniqueness of collaboration in comics, where the defined roles of writer (you) and artist (Jamie McKelvie) bleed onto one another and how it’s more than just a assembly line approach. Is that unique to your Phonogram work, or do you get involved with artists on the other projects you’ve done?
Gillen: I'll stress that what I wrote in that post applies even if an artist and writer don't communicate in anything other than what's written in the script. The creative team forms a gestalt just through working together, and it's difficult to actually attribute full blame or credit for any individual story decision without knowing the entire internal mechanism.
But generally speaking, it varies. With guys like Steve Sanders - who I was friends with even before S.W.O.R.D. - we talk lot on IM, and bounced ideas back and forth. Most artists I exchange a couple of e-mails with. Some I don't talk to at all. As a general rule, only my relationship with Steve would be directly comparable to what Jamie and I did in Phonogram.
Gillen: A good example of something Jamie generally got the sole credit for would be the first series' covers. Especially on the ones which had a lot of fine detail - for example, the “Definitely Maybe” and “Modern Life is Rubbish” riffs - I'd gone through them all and determined how they should be changed. They were statements that were meant to be analysed.
Regarding Jamie... oh, man, too many to even mention. There was a great analysis of the dancing scene in issue 3 (which is showing what Jamie's doing with specific body language, and what that says about the characters. That's all about Jamie's understanding of the character, working off a relatively small brief from me. And there's a whole lot in the final issue - stuff like the Howling Forever on the penultimate page was a totally different execution from what I'd written. The third page in the issue was a very different approach to get a similar effect. The toilet sex scene in Issue 2 was Jamie worked out how to draw the undrawable. Issue 4's club-as-solar system is very much Jamie's riff of my original visual metaphor.
Nrama: With the second volume of Phonogram, “The Singles Club”, just concluding, let’s talk more about that. This second seriestook a big evolutionary step from the first, with you not so much defining the concept but more just doing character pieces in that framework. Was this the plan from the beginning – before you fleshed out the first series?
Gillen: It was something I wanted to do, but it wasn't necessarily the second story. Even “Rue Britannia” wasn't necessarily the first story - we were aware that a Britpop story could easily be rejected for being too uncommercial, so I had an alternative idea for the opening arc about punk and the meaning thereof. When Phonogram was under way, and I was thinking about what the second arc would be it was a toss up between what became “The Singles Club” and what we would have used as the third series (“The Word ‘Girl’”). We decided to go for “Singles Club” because... well, it felt necessary. “Rue Britannia” created this really limited idea of what we meant with the concept - Britpop, David Kohl, riff's-off-Hellblazer. The 7-headed structure allows us to demolish all that and show a handful radically different of ways which Music was magic. It was the best way to make the thing not about Kohl, if you see what I mean.
Nrama: Clearing the field so people don’t think Phonogram is a one man show.
Seeing as how the series just finished, have you begun analyzing it now that you’re done creating it?
Gillen: I can't think of a day in the last two years when I having been analyzing how Phonogram: The Singles Club worked. I had the whole thing written by July 2008, polishing each script up as and when McKelvie required it. As pages arrived, I took them apart. Phonogram's my comics test-bed, really. It's my place to see what's possible. It's only natural that I'll be paying close attention to the results.
Nrama: And with you and McKelvie’s other comics work growing by leaps and bounds, could you speculate on if the band – as in you and Jamie – will ever reunite for another Phonogram?
Gillen: The problem is money. As in, Phonogram doesn't make any. Jamie is too old to be starving for another year. C'est la vie.
In other words, if I find a chicken that can do the Golden egg thing, sure.
Nrama: Regardless, with two complete Phonogram series under your belt, at any point did you feel that you might be type-cast as “that comics guy that writes about music”? I remember me half-jokingly asking about Asgardian music when you signed up to do Thor – and you can’t blame me, as one of your first Marvel works was a Dazzler short for X-Men: Manifest Destiny.
Nrama Speaking of Thor, you’re already well into your six-issue run on the series. How’s it been to step into your first ongoing, with such an established character, with a movie on the way, and – deep breath – following up after a long run by J. Michael Straczynski?
Gillen: Somewhere between terrifying and totally petrifying, really. An enormous character, taking over from a critically adored run? Clearly, mental. I thought I was doomed, as no-mater what I wrote, it'd be damned for simply not being Mr. Straczynski. In some ways though, that was enormously freeing. I didn't have to worry about anything, as I was doomed anyway, so I could just concentrate on telling the story. So after getting used to being a fatalist, the surprise was that reviews have been enormously positive and I haven't been hunted and killed by strangers. Yet, anyway.
It's just a very exciting experience. These are fantastic characters, and I'm having a lot of fun with them.
Nrama: You’ve come in quite ably and took the reigns of JMS’ story while bringing in some new elements with Doom’s Latveria and some more dark vibes. What are your big goals with your run on Thor?
Gillen: Not to mess it up totally.
What I want to do is align it as well as I can to the zeitgeist. It's a time of change in the Marvel Universe, with the seven-year meta-plot coming to an end. I want to capture that. Equally, coming after Straczynski, I kind of see what I'm doing as concluding the plot-lines left hanging, tracing out those characters' future. I wanted to write the final act of this whole period of Thor, leaving the stage primed for writer Matt Fraction to start the whole next one.
Regarding the Latverian Prometheus arc, the goal of that was to try and re-examine the idea of the Promethean myth. As time goes by, our cultures look more favorably at the figure of Prometheus. Stealing fire from the god was a wholly good thing, and his punishment an awesome sacrifice. I wanted to paint a Prometheus figure who was more monstrous, in line with Mary Shelly's Modern Prometheus.
Also, fights. Big fights.
Gillen: It was another thing which freed me up my thinking with it. I wasn't going to worry about being fired or having to plan a long term future. It was a set-length which I could just concentrate upon. Hell, if I was suddenly asked to carry on my run, I'd have been in a cheery panic. I wasn't thinking about the future. I was thinking about the now. I knew the job, and I knew what I'd have to do to fulfill it.
That was challenging enough, of course. Coming in and wrapping up a previous run, before going into an enormous tie-in before setting it all up elegantly for Fraction is challenge enough for anyone, I think.
Nrama: Have you had any insight into what’s next for Thor, and the rumored writer Matt Fraction?
Gillen: I've read the first script. Everyone's going to love it. It's a very powerful and iconic idea. It's very much a "Why hasn't anyone done this before with Thor?" one.
Nrama: You mentioned the larger plot of the Marvel U, for which you’re bringing the title more in line with the larger Marvel epic storyline of Siege. What’s that like to work in concert with others on something as big as this?
Gillen: As it's the first event I've been involved with, I'm constantly fascinated with how it works on the inside. It's a glorious example of co-operative storytelling. It strikes me a little like watchmakers trying to assemble a clock when the clock is already running, with these skilled hands working out the best place to put another cog. It's intricate and fascinating. Oddly, it reminds me a lot of Phonogram: The Singles Club. Hell, you could look at “the Singles Club” as a cross-over between seven different indie-comics, if you see what I mean. That was good training for Siege.
Nrama: Does writing Thor pass the “mom” test? As in, have you told your mom about and she knows what you’re doing now?
Gillen: Yes, I've told her. In fact, when I finish writing this, I'm going to give her a call. She'll be glad you asked after you, I'm sure.
My mum actually directly influenced one of my Marvel scripts actually. When I was working on Ares, I mentioned it on the phone. She didn't quite get it, presuming I meant Aries, and said something along the line of "Ooh! An Aries like Dad?". I had to break it to her very gently, before stealing the core of the line and putting it in Cameron's mouth in Dark Avengers: Ares #1. And keeping all the money. And laughing.
Nrama: Although it’s been said that reading too many reviews of your own work can lead to madness, have you been paying attention to professional or fan reviews of this Thor work?
Gillen: Yeah, I have. And I shouldn't. I'm really trying to cut back, but there's something about my background in criticism which makes me just interested in what people make of it. Even with my thick skin to this stuff, occasionally something - and it's never the more vicious insults - just throws you.
But criticism is an art form. I'm interested in it. I'd hate to think of a time I wouldn't be interested in reading any reviews whatsoever.
Nrama: From hammers to swords.. or S.W.O.R.D. should I say, without being too punny. Although it was announced earlier this year that series was ending with issue #5, that’ll still turn into a great trade. Before we talk about the end – what about the beginning? How’d you get involved with this spinning out of Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run?
Gillen: Wonder-editor Nick Lowe, after doing a couple of small things with me, asked for a pitch. I gave him one. He liked it. Voila! I'm going to have to make up a better story for this one, as that's a very prosaic origin.
Nrama: This series came at a time when the S.W.O.R.D. organization and Agent Brand began a larger role in the Marvel U. They’ve both appeared in small roles in other books, but you got the job of fleshing them out – how’d that work out with you and the editors?
Gillen: This was one of the best things about writing S.W.O.R.D. It was an organisation which had been active in the Marvel Universe, but was still really mysterious. I got to really have fun imagining how it'll work. Regarding Brand, Nick passed me Joss's notes on her background - her mysterious father - which was the core of my reading of her psychology. Everything else was Steve and I riffing ideas and Nick liking them all.
Nrama: In this you’re seen going after one of the big mysteries in the X-men side of the M rvel U with the fate of Kitty Pryde after riding a planet-size bullet into the unknown. With that fate coming to roost in a big way in the Marvel U in the coming months – if I read Previews right – how does your book and its final issues play into that?
Gillen: The only place we actually touch directly on Kitty was the back up story professional unprofessional Jamie McKelvie and myself wrote. The idea of that was just to explain one simple question. That is, "why hasn't Kitty been rescued yet?". Her absence is most strongly felt in Lockheed's somewhat aggressive mood in the comic. He's missing her somewhat. Since the whole of the first arc actually takes place within a single day, it's not as if there's anything we could do to tie-in with it anyway.
Nrama: OK, now let’s put on some depressing music and talk about the series’ cancellation. How soon did you know?
Gillen: Probably best to say something like "Before it was announced".
Nrama: Have you been asked, or have you volunteered, to change anything in the final #5 issue to act as a series conclusion and not just a storyarc finale?
Gillen: I haven't changed a word. When starting, I knew how difficult it is to launch an ongoing in the modern economy. In other words, I designed the series with a telescoping structure. The first five issues would work as their own contained arc. The second arc would grow out of the first, based on stuff which I'd previously set up... but the hooks which I'd set up would be invisible. The third arc would have telescoped out of that and... oh, you get the idea.
The idea was that if the book had to come to an end suddenly, it'd always be a complete emotional unit. The reader wouldn't be left feeling unsatisfied. I wanted to make sure whether things went really well or really badly, people would still get a real narrative.
It'd have made a great intro to the ongoing. It's now a great little mini.
Sez I, Immodestly, high on seeing coloured pages from issue 5. I hearts Death's Head and Matt Wilson and Unit and Steve Sanders. Beast hearts Abigail Brand. I hearts comics.
Nrama: Going from that back into writing about gods and the godly, you’ve doing to the Dark Reign: Ares miniseries which got a big push from appearing in the opening pages of the Siege Prologue. You’ve described this as Ares’s Full Metal Jacket with Norman’s troops. Seems like a big switch for you – sure you got big battles with Thor and Beta Ray Bill, but they have accents. But this seems more gruff and … macho.
Gillen: It's a very macho comic, but it's a playful kind of macho. Its the 2000AD influence - you can mix a tiny element of irony with some of the most outrageous imagery. You can respond to things like Ares downing beers firing miniguns or surfing on a bomb either as FULL ON MACHO or a CRITIQUE OF FULL-ON MACHO. Some of my favourite comics are powered by presenting something is simultaneously ludicrous and awesome, and expecting people to experience both sensations simultaneously.
In other words, I'm not just made of Belle and Sebastian albums. If you've spent as long writing about videogames as I have, you must have something inside you which responds to burly gentlemen with large-caliber firearms.
Nrama: In Siege #2 we saw Ares pulled limb-from-limb from Sentry. Did you know about that going into your miniseries?
GillenI actually knew that was going to happen when writing my mini, and if you re-read the final issue, you'll probably be able to see that I was trying to foreshadow Siege a little.
Nrama: But there’s still a lot to be said about the character; Ares is one of those characters that got propelled into the big leagues of the Marvel U; one mini and then he was put in the Mighty Avengers line-up, before changing sides and joining Norman’s Avengers. so speaking How do you see him fitting in with the larger Marvel U? Sure, Paul’s the cute one – but what’s Ares?
Gillen: I think Ares' growth across this whole "era" of Marvel has been marvelous. He's a conflicted, complicated man who's simultaneously a fantastic vehicle for comedy. You can play him straight. You can play him light - well, dark comedy, but still relatively light. Very flexible. However, as everyone who's read Siege 2 will know, not flexible enough.
Nrama: And after Dark Reign: Ares, you’ve got two smaller bits coming up – a one-issue stint on New Mutants #11 and a story in the upcoming Mythic Hands of Dr. Strange. What can you tell us about those?
Gillen New Mutants ties in with Siege and sees Dani Moonstar starting to pay off her debt to Hela, which she picked up in the “Utopia” cross-over. Niko Henrichon is a phenomenon, frankly. For Strange, I'm finally working with comrade Frazer Irving - who is a man who was born to draw the Strange, however you care to define that. It's a story which inspired by combining the ideas of an obscure group of 1970s German terrorists with a much-more well known German literary figure, and is in the tradition of that sort of philosophic, questioning 1970s Dr Strange.
Nrama: We’ll leave those subjects open for further discussion when their release comes closer. After all the big talk about superheroes, can we get back into talk of your creator-owned work before we head out? I hear you’re doing a series for Avatar called The Heat. What’s that, Kieron?
Gillen: The Heat is a science-fiction mini about policing Mercury. The idea was about taking a traditional genre and noticing how it's transformed from where it's set. Whiteout is a police-procedural comic, but is totally altered by setting it on the South Pole. We're about how being set on one of the harshest environments on earth warps a more action-orientated take on a police series.
Okay - the best way to explain it would be an example. Mercury is famously hot - but that's only half the story. The side nearest the sun can melt lead. The side which faces away can liquefy oxygen. Mercury also turns extremely slowly, with a Mercury day being 88 or so Earth days. Since Mercury is so small, it means that it only rotates at 11km/h or so. In other words, you can outrun the dawn on Mercury.
Just not for long.
That's how we start The Heat. Someone, dumped on the surface of Mercury, desperately trying to outrun the flesh-searing dawn.