Writer's Workshop #7: The Uncanny Kieron Gillen
Preview: Phonogram 2 #1
You might not think it with his stylish suit and soft-spoken nature, but Kieron Gillen is a magician.
Think about it: Gillen has gone from the magic of pop music in the Eagle Award-winning Phonogram to Hel and back with Thor to the reaches of space with S.W.O.R.D. Creating something from nothing is the truest description of magic, and Gillen has shared some of his secrets in the seventh edition of Writer's Workshop, where we talked characterization, finding your voice and pushing through all the creative obstacles in your way.
Newsarama: Kieron, just to start off with -- how did you decide that writing was what you wanted to do? Were there any intellectual hurdles you had to overcome in order to get the creative juices flowing?
Kieron Gillen: When presented by an intellectual hurdle, I've always considered myself capable of getting past it. Mainly by getting on my hands and knees and crawling, like a shame filled dog.
There's a sort of two levels response to that question. I've always wrote. My first instinct was to write. I'd hammer out masses of gibberish. I'd build stories out of whatever fluff I had lying around. When I was a kid, I was the one who more often than not worked out what games we'd all be playing. I populated our school with fantasies and somehow dragged my mates along with me into this sprawl of mind-goop. It's just what I'm do. I'm full of nonsense have to let it out.
The second part is going from doing it from realising it's something I could do. As in, for a living. As in, can you seriously consider yourself a writer. I'm a working class kid. My dad's a builder. Most of his brothers are in the trade. I probably should be. It's one of the reasons why I tend to bristle at the word “pretentious”. Me even trying to write is a pretentious act. The idea of “just being who I am” was never an option for me if I wanted to do this. Writing was never a career option I even actively considered until really very late, even after people suggested it to me.
I'd actually got my first freelance work as a journalist before I'd really made the leap that it was something I could do. I didn't actually apply for it. A DJ in a club said his editor liked the letters I'd wrote to the mag and wanted to try me out on some stuff. Shortly after that, when reading a copy of England's Dreaming by Jon Savage, I hit a section where he describes putting together a zine in the bogs at lunchtime to let the A-bombs in his head out. And it was a moment of recognition. Oh God. That's me. That's how I feel. I can do this. l In fact, I have to do this. I don't need anyone's permission.
After that final piece fell into place, you couldn't stop me. I'd write and I'll break your knees if you try to stop me. Which I've done a few time. It's probably lucky that my critics tend to have spindly, crushable limbs.
Nrama: Before you started off your career in fiction, you had already built up a big fanbase for yourself as a games journalist -- particularly your "New Games Journalism" manifesto made the rounds. I wanted to ask, how did this background impact your fiction work? And how did you make the sort of cerebral jump from journalism to fiction in the first place?
Gillen: Fanbase is certainly one way of describing it.
I've always considered criticism as entertainment writing. I didn't primarily read the Melody Maker for recommendations. I read it to see the writers on the high-wire, doing their tricks. As such, I didn't really consider a difference between one and the other. It's all writing, so didn't have to jump any enormous psychological chasms on my thinky-bike of speeding. And coming from a fanzine background, I basically believed in “if you want to do something, do it and get it out there”. I was doing my first black and white photocopied comics at the same time I was working on games magazines. It was all just part of what I did as a writer.
Also, as anyone who was annoyed by a score I gave a game will testify, my reviews were mostly fiction anyway.
Nrama: And perhaps to piggyback off that last question a bit -- video games vs. comics. What do you feel that one medium has to offer the other? What do you bring to comics from video games, if anything?
Gillen: In short: very little.
In less short: games and comics are about as far apart as architecture is from prose (As an aside, there's several convincing arguments which would put games as closer to architecture than either comics or prose). What all these forms offer one another is more indirect – inspiration, in short. Little flashes of insight which leads you to thinking about trying something in another medium.
Specifically what I bring from games – the reductionist critical approach I apply to games. Interest in narrative as a big blob of possibilities which we pick a route through. World-buildling (that games have to actually work in a mechanistic way means that their worldbuilding can be really quite interesting). I can also name which videogames the X-men would like (Cyclops plays a lot of Civ. Pixie likes Just Dance).
Nrama: Getting to the process side of the equation a bit. For you, what's the most important part of putting a story together? When you're tackling a script, how do you approach it? Is there something you typically start off with first, and then build off there?
Gillen: I typically start which a state of panic, and see what I can build off there.
Okay. I'm generally working from a fairly tight synopsis. In the case of something like Phonogram, my synopsis is more like a mass of notes and gibberish which I somehow I can see a narrative running through. My start is looking at it, and working out how many pages I need for each scene in the synopsis. I total up the pages. In a happy magical world, it adds up to how many pages I actually have available to write. This is rarely true. What's more likely is that I've worked out I need a minimum of 30 pages to tell this story, and I've only got 22 pages available.
And then you sit down and have a little think.
Then you just bring what you know about the medium to bear. Yeah, ideally I'd like to do this fight scene in six pages, but I could probably do it in four. This conversation scene could work in a single page instead of the two. Double is page splash? Well, it'll work as a single page one. If it's still above that, you start to get more more creative. Could you have two scenes happening at once with clever cross-cutting between scenes and use of dialogue? Do you actually have to show this scene at all, or could you use extreme closure to get a similar effect? Necessity begats invention. And some of the stuff which I think works best in my comics comes from being aware the page budget is tight – take the fight between the Disir and Loki in the Siege: Loki special, for example. That one-page-22-panel-impressionistic-discoball-throwdown McKelvie-masterpiece is at least partially born of the desire to instead spend my available pages on having Mephisto and Loki lounging around and be bitchy to one another instead of showing the fight “properly”.
When I have those targets, the next step is usually dialogue. By which I mean, dialogue and action-verbs. I just hammer the whole issue's out quickly to give a skeleton of how it looks. So it may go something like...
Just a minute, Slim.
WOLVERINE STABS ONE DUDE
WOLVERINE STABS A SECOND DUDE
WOLVERINE STABS A THIRD DUDE
Now: you were saying?
Or in the case of Phonogram...
Just a minute. Can't talk. Being Mighty DJ.
SETH PLAYS A RECORD
SETH PLAYS ANOTHER RECORD.
SETH PLAYS A THIRD RECORD.
Now that's out of the way, let's talk! Go away. Your face disgusts me.
To answer the first part of the question: the most important thing is the big idea. As in, what's this issue all about? What's it meant to be doing? This can change as you're actually bringing it together, but marching off in a direction at least makes you think you know what you're doing, which always helps.
(To be honest, I'm not the sort of writer who tends to dramatically reconsider what the story is after I've started – mainly because even if I don't know anything else, I know what I'm trying to express. What more often arrives is understanding of the sort of emotional soup beneath the stories you're creating, which allows you to play with that and/or disguise it if you're feeling it's being a bit TMI. I mean – The Small Print arc, revolving entirely around diabolical contracts and perpetual bondage via the medium of a ring was happening at the same time of debating my Marvel Exclusive and getting engaged to my good lady. WHATEVER COULD HAVE BEEN ON MY MIND?)
Looking over that seems to be a little mechanical. That's because some of it – some of the absolute basics of craft – absolutely is. We're dealing with hard matters of space and time. If you have five panels on a page, it changes not just what you can do – but what you can do and be effective. There's some basic hard maths in your choices of panel layouts. Let's say you're working on an average of four-panels a page, which is fairly common for action superhero work. That's 88 narrative units to tell your story. Throw in a double page splash. Suddenly it's 81 narrative units. Or put it another way – by having three pages be 5 panel pages, you get to have one single-splash without a loss of narrative information. Abstractly – because that's not dealing with stuff like the page as narrative unit (i.e. you can only fit so many panels on any given page) or what different panel-sizes allow you to do (i.e. Some effects will only work as a splash page).
and just what different artists can pull off (i.e. Some artist's suffer if given too many or too few panels on a page.)
Nrama: I've read interviews with you in the past regarding Phonogram, and how it was really the most personal comic you've written so far. But I think drawing a bead onto what makes it "your" comic -- or what makes any comic "your" comic -- is somewhat hazy, outside of your obvious love of music. So I'll spin off that statement a bit: execution- and content-wise, how do you "make" a comic into something personal, something that truly exudes your "voice"? Or maybe to get even broader and more philosophical (and add in more quote marks to the equation) -- how do you determine your unique "voice" as a writer?
Gillen: I'm not sure if personal is the right word – which isn't to say that Phonogram isn't personal. What I believe I've generally said that Phonogram is the most “me”. As in, it's the most unique thing I could have produced. Not that it was a book about pop music and magic – but that it chose that particular angle and approach. Personal doesn't mean unique. I mean, most autobio is about as personal as it can get – but a fair chunk of it isn't unique in any way, entirely behoved to its non-genre genre conventions.
(Conversely, when you look at the absolute finest auto-bio creators, you can see how uniquely brilliant they are. The Alec books are the great rarely-referenced influence on Phonogram, mainly because I suspect no-one can ever see it.)
Basically, in form and content, Phonogram was about as close as I could get to a pure burst of how I believe a certain part of life operates. Not music, specifically – though Phonogram is enormously specific with its music. How humans interact with art, and why they do it and what it does to them. The sort of people who use art as a crutch, and why it's tragic and heroic (but mainly stupid). It's genre work with literary pretensions, because the magic of pop music is that it's a fundamentally stupid form which people try and force entire pantheons inside. Doing Phonogram as either more literary or more genre would undermine that central tenet. The best pop-criticism embodied what it describes and critiques, and Phonogram tries to at least follow in its lineage. It's a big mass of things which I believe and have observed, and tried to dramatize to share.
Or I could be simpler. I suppose what makes it the most “my” comic is that if I had to choose a single volume of anything to continue exist, it'll be the Singles Club.
On the general philosophical question, “Voice” is tricky. It's arguable it's something you either have or you don't. When you've metabolised all your influences into something which is clearly you, that's your voice. I mean, you can tell who people are influenced by, but you realise there's a coherent core of “them”ness there. How do you determine it? I think it's a question of recognising it. What's key to your work. What matters to you? What are the themes you return to? That kinds of naval gazing nonsense.
Nrama: Looking at the other side of voice -- one thing that's really stood out in your work, at least to me, is your dialogue. How do you approach dialogue, in making it both "read" in the visual sense and sound good as far as the reader's inner ear?
Gillen: Thank you. It's gratifying when people say that – and it always surprises me when people say that – because it's the bit which petrifies me. It's a cliché about writers felling like a total fraud, but when people say things about my characters having defined voices, I'm always looking at my feet and shuffling. You sure? Like, you really sure? You haven't got my books confused with Garth Ennis'?
Comics dialogue can do lots of things. There's some dialogue which looks fantastic on a page, but dies while spoken. There's some stuff which is perfectly naturalistic. Both work, depending on the aesthetics of the book you're trying to produce (Compare and contrast my Thor run to my SWORD run, and the dialogue choices I make). I suspect your choices here are the single biggest element of what will be identified as your “voice” in comics, because most readers identify a writers contribution with the dialogue and the dialogue alone.
How to do it? Listen to people speak. If your ear is a bit rubbish, look at how people write too – because as I said, comics don't have to be true spoken-style dialogue unless you want to, and turning a weakness into a strength is something well worth considering. And the basic rule that I think everyone who actually writes “realistic” dialogue does is “Read it aloud”. True rubbish will be cringingly obvious. If you can't really tell it, try reading it to someone else. Or – even worse – get them to read it. If they're tripping over the words, you're going wrong somewhere.
Nrama: Now, I can't let you get away without asking this question -- as far as getting your head in the right spot for writing, what music are you listening to?
Gillen: My music choices generally map directly onto what comic I'm writing. I do occasionally do stuff just because I want to listen to it, but it's generally at least tonally matching what I'm trying to do. Thor was everything from Wagner to Mogwai to Arcade Fire. SWORD was the Go Team's first album. That Sabretooth Origins story I did was all Nick Cave and Lift To Experience. Dazzler was Chic, perhaps obviously. Beta Ray Bill, as well as the post-rock, also leaned on Sergio Leone's western music (As I'd made some leap which made me imagine Beta Ray Bill as a space-cowboy who's his own horse).
As well as that, I've a tendency to map characters onto individual songs. As in, “This character is just like this”. Songs are a polyglot of meaning, in how the music and lyrics all merge into one another, and charactes can live in there. The first one who leaps to mind if Hope, who is These Dancing Days' Hitten. Clearly, this kind of thinking was much more to the fore with something like Phonogram.
Nrama: Talking about characterization -- how do you approach looking at a character? What do you do to really get in their heads, and make them three-dimensional? What do you feel you need to know about a character before you can really write them (or put your own unique spin on them)?
Gillen: I think the last part is the most interesting thing – the difference between just being able to kind of do it, and actually do them in your way. Surface knowledge versus deep understanding. Writing from the inside out and all that kind of jazz. That's a question of reading around – both their own stories and other associated texts – and just sitting there and thinking about them. What would it be like to be them? What are they really thinking about? It's a whole load of games of what-ifs. And – fundamentally – you find the part of them which is most like a part of you. That sort of empathic thread between you and them is absolutely key to writing their emotions convincingly.
I've said this before, but in the first Thor arc, you could easily map my position to both Thor and Doom. As a new writer stepping into big shoes, I was aware that it was a task which – by any objective criterion – I shouldn't be doing, but I'm going to have to find my way through this the best I can (The Balder position). However, another part of me believed that I was clearly THE GREATEST COMIC BOOK WRITER OF ALL TIME, infinitely better than anyone who dares judge me, and I'll drag them down to earth screaming if they dare look down their high Asgardian noses at me (The Doom position). Having an honest understanding of the less agreeable parts of you is particularly key for writing villains, I think.
Then there's cold hard critical analysis, which works especially well if you're writing a story especially about that character per se. I looked at Beta Ray Bill and saw a character who embodied the conflict between atheistic science-ficition and theistic fantasy (i.e. he's an alien with the powers of a god), which lead me towards the whole idea of him trying to hunt down Galactus (i.e. God). I looked at Ares and realised he was a god of a specific kind of war – and a type of war which we don't have much use for in modern ages, so a story based around him training HAMMER soldiers seemed a fruitful way to go.
A mixture of gut and brain, basically. One will find a way in.
Nrama: As far as writing goes, how do you approach it when things just aren't coming together for you? Are there any exercises or tactics you utilize when you need to either look at a character or a scene at another angle to make it work?
Gillen: Going for a walk normally works. Any form of exercise, in fact.
That said, I'm a big believer in the brute force approach. When things are really bad, I'll buy a packet of chocolate flavour hob-nobs and just eat them and power on through. Just don't worry if it's not working correctly and just get something down. It's all easier when you have something to work with, even if you have to throw it all out.
Nrama: Do you feel like there's been any lessons you've learned (or re-learned) over the course of your career? What should people who are trying to be the next Kieron Gillen know that they don't?
Gillen: Oh, just get me in a pub and get me talking. You'll get all the annoying homespun comic writer's wisdom you'll want, plus a load more you don't. I'm going to be unbearable after another two years.
The last bit actually focuses it down to one though - “The next Kieron Gillen”. That's one to dodge, and not just because being me is a rubbish idea. A typical hole you'll fall down when you start actually looking seriously at comic writing is just swallowing the methodology of other writers wholesale. The one which seems to hit most people is when they read an Alan Moore script for the first time.
At which point they think “I want to write awesome comics like Alan Moore. He writes his comics like this. Therefore, to write awesome comics like Alan Moore, I will do likewise”. The serious cases also grow an enormous beard.
This will only lead to disaster. By which I mean, artists punching you. Alan Moore writes the way he does for a reason. Until you understand the reason, you shouldn't dream of writing a script like that. You are not Alan Moore. You are not Grant Morrison. You are you.
You need to build your own toolkit. Keep on trying things and see what works for you. And when it works, remember to consider throwing it all out and starting again, because people are going to get bored pretty sharpish if you just keep using the same three hammers and a moldy old-saw.
I personally make all my stories out of Lego.