Kieron Gillen is the superstar writer of The Wicked + The Divine and DIE. On a whim, I emailed the letter section of Wic+Div and asked for an interview and Mr Gillen was kind enough to email me back and answer this rather long questionnaire I sent him. Now, I really only read his indie stuff, so this is mostly about Wic+Div, DIE, and my favorite work of his, Phonogram. Enjoy.
David Harth: First off, thank you for the interview. I'd like to talk about Phonogram just a little bit. I wasn't necessarily a fan of Britpop, it wasn't nearly as big a deal here in America in the 90s, but this book really spoke to me as a music fan. So, my question is this- did you write Rue Brittainia merely as a love letter to Britpop (with an amazing story attached) or were you trying to say more about the dangers of nostalgia?
Kieron Gillen: Heh. I'm often struck that people take Rue Britannia as a love letter to Britpop when every single member of the cast (except the explicit bad guys) spend all their time talking about awful it was and how they hated it. It was just a thing they hated which was hugely important to them in part of their life. I suspect it's an easy one to understand why - it's the "You just won't shut up about that person, so you're clearly in love with them." That's natural.
Phonogram, as a general tactic, believed in writing about specific situations to best illustrate universal experiences about pop culture. In the case of Rue Britannia, it was someone who always explicitly hated nostalgia culture dealing with seeing their own formative experiences fed into that blender 10 years later... and worse, having to deal with it moving you. Rue Britannia was about the intersection between history, nostalgia and personal memory, and that is a wider experience than the case study we use. We joked that if Rue Britannia was ever turned into a movie, it'd be moved to the USA and made about grunge. The double level of the joke is that it wouldn't matter - the story would work in much the same way.
Even that is a pretty short form take. Rue Britannia was saying a lot.
David Harth: Grant Morrison talked a lot about using the character King Mob as a "fiction suit" while writing The Invisibles. How much of David Kohl is Kieron Gillen? Is any of Emily Aster Kieron Gillen? Or is Kieron Gillen Kid With Knife?
Kieron Gillen: It's the tedious writer answer, but I have to say it, because it's a fundamental truth: all the characters are me.
Kohl specifically is my 20-something music-writer voice given reality, and painted in my least flattering colours. Most of the other Phonomancers were my take on various friends' and acquaintances voices - which, of course, in the process become transformed into me. A lot of lovers of criticism are used to arguing with writers in their head. Most of the cast are those voices.
Emily ended up being a lot more me than the voice that inspired her.
Kid-with-knife is kid-with-knife.
David Harth: The Singles Club is probably my favorite volume of Phonogram. It really captures the feeling of a night out from multiple perspectives and works wonderfully as a look in the heads of disparate characters. When you started writing it, what were your thoughts on the type of story it would be? What was the kernel of an idea that grew into that amazing volume?
Kieron Gillen: Rue Britannia was a success in lots of ways, but did lead to lot of misconceptions. It was about Britpop. It was about musical elitists who are better than normal folk. It was about a guy called David Kohl. It was about retro culture. Lots more too.
Singles Club was basically designed to systematically show how none of these were true. It was a multi-protagonist story about the music that was literally happening in the club on a single night, as close to the present day as possible, and positing that these are musical addicts, and less than other folks. And, most of all, it is about an unalloyed love of music, in all its forms. You make your own magic system.
But the kernel of the idea was already there - there's a short story I started when I was 19-20 which had a similar high concept. I was just interested in the idea of perspective, and how people see things. Rue Britannia noted that crowds are made of individuals, and Singles Club showed it. A story about subjective experience of a single musical event. Everyone's a reviewer, and the review is ultimately yours.
David Harth: The Immaterial Girl is very much a story of shifting identity and how people change themselves, the things they leave behind and what comes next. How much of it is personal? Are there any Kieron Gillens hiding behind the screen that could come boiling out at any time?
Kieron Gillen: That Phonogram became a three volume triptych rather than an ongoing concern definitely warped it. We did consider doing Immaterial Girl as the second story, but went for Singles Club for all the reasons I describe above... plus the fact that it's a similar story to Rue Britannia. As in, it's a story about someone wrestling with their constructed identity falling apart as they get older. Emily just has it much harder than Kohl did.
It's a weird one. I said that Kohl is about the performance of me, but I think Emily is a lot closer to the reality of it. Some of it just becomes from a few more years of experience. Some of it is that Emily is further from my direct experience, meaning I can hit it harder. I honestly don't know.
But shifting identity and exploring them? I mean... DIE, right?
David Harth: Last Phonogram question- will we be getting more? You set up the birth of a new coven by Laura, Mr. Logos, and the Marquis, so is there any chance you'll lasso Jamie McKelvie back in and do something new with it?
Kieron Gillen: Nope. For me, setting up Logos and Laura as essentially Kohl and Emily a decade ago was showing how the process we'd seen is cyclical. The weirdest thing is knowing that it's 2019, and by now, both Laura and Logos will have gone through their own Immaterial Girl and Rue Britannia.
David Harth: You've said The Wicked + The Divine is about the artist's struggles in the world. Since most of the Pantheon has become pop stars, would you say Ananke represents the actual art itself, since she is the source of their empowerment (or at least that has been my reading, seeing as how you've shown that she's kept the Recurrence going for her own good for millennia)? Or does she represent the greedy managers and such who attach themselves to artists?
Kieron Gillen: There's all sorts of reads of what the gods and Ananke represent. I would be a fool to say that one of them was right. I rather think of these observations as occasionally useful filters to look at a book. It's like the X-Men are a bad metaphor for any individual real life persecuted minority. However, they are very good as a device how it can feel to be marginalised, or even alienated in the widest sense.
I do suspect people's takes on Ananke and the gods will change towards the story.
David Harth: How much do you and Jamie work together on the creation of any given issue? Does he make plot suggestions and are there any you can remember that stood out as important or memorable?
Kieron Gillen: It's not that sort of collaboration. This collaboration is about execution, not conception. The script is the start of a conversation about how to actually do the story. We chew over options, chat, and work out what we're going to do. Jamie asks questions about what isn't working, but it's more a veto. There was a moment I had Inanna smoke, and he didn't like it. He was right. It's a similar relationship I have with my editor - it's about questioning rather than that sort of input. There's been times I've asked if there's anything particularly he wants, but these are relatively rare - I'm aware of his art style, and the places he wants to push things. In terms of the actual ground level construction stuff, me asking Jamie if there was any pop star who I hadn't included a riff on who he wanted, and him suggesting Prince is the only real thing that comes to mind. Even then the specifics of Inanna's internality were mine - my inner Prince, to steal a line from a friend.
I stress: for all the weird architecture of WicDiv, the execution is the key of what we do. is about how we do it as much as what we do.
David Harth: Who is your favorite member of the Pantheon and why?
Kieron Gillen: I don't tend to see characters individually. I love seeing how they interact. Cassandra and Amaterasu always rubbed up against each other amazingly.
But I'll admit this - the second I got to write Lucifer again, it was oh god, did I miss you.
David Harth: With Wic+Div ending soon, how do you feel about the whole series? Do you feel like you've gotten across what you set out to? Any missteps you can talk about now?
Kieron Gillen: It's still too early to talk about the missteps. WicDiv is just this grand sprawling thing. Even at the moment, with Issue 43 about to drop and just 2 issues to go, you still don't really see what it is. It's faults are small compared to its virtues. I'd have to really fluff the last issue to ruin it now.
"If I could do one near-perfect thing, I'd be happy" as Belle and Sebastian once sung. I'll tell you this, kids. I have and it doesn't help.
The last five years we've been in one state of WicDiv - where it is a living thing, and people are travelling along with it. When issue 45 is released, it moves from a living thing to a static thing. As in, they can look at the whole thing and get it. WicDiv is a book which has transformed every few months, with re-reads taking on different meanings - for us, when comics are as expensive as they are, giving something people can come back to time and time over and get something new was such an important thing.
In terms of us getting what we wanted across? We threw a party with our friends at Bombsheller at ECCC, and it was this queer pop joyous spectacle. There's not many comics which have created a space for people like WicDiv have. I'm proud of it, and I'm proud of everyone who's joined us on the weird journey. It's been five years, and now we can sleep.
David Harth: I don't know if I can phrase this as a question, but one of my favorite aspects of the series has been the way you reveal things while also laying out new mysteries with each reveal. Did you have all of the story and the secrets when you started or did you let the story go the way it went and tailored your plans as such? How much was script and how much was improv?
Kieron Gillen: I talked a little about this earlier, but the meta structure was always there. End of issue one, this happens. End of first trade, this happens. End of second trade, this happens, and so on and so forth. The final year was the one that was kept loosest, and basically came to "resolve all the equations, and end in this way." Equally, at the same time, I had these character arcs for the main cast. They'd start here, they'd learn this and likely end up here. Once more, we come to the word "execution." When writing it, I could have brought those plots to the boil earlier or later. There's a version of WicDiv where Baphomet and Morrigan's plot reaches its climax around issue 24. There's a take I considered where Baal's secret would have been revealed at the end of the sixth arc.
You have a lot of material, a structure, and then it's just sequencing.
But the other thing about the structure is that the one thing I know from watching successful five year comic projects is that they're all flexible enough to shift according to how their interests change. Writing is discovery, for me. So there was enough space to play, and approach new ideas, and enough space to take half concepts you had early on to turn into crucial parts of the structure.
There have been some significant changes along the way, but it's all been within the large metastructure. The biggest of those changes are in the final year. I think I always knew that would happen, which is why I had the "Resolve all the equations" part of the plan. You plan for freedom... but you still have a plan.
David Harth: Your new book, DIE, is a love letter to table top role playing games. Is the book a Tolkien-esque type of thing, where you wrote the story because you wanted to create a RPG, much like Tolkien wrote the Middle-Earth stuff as an excuse to create a language or will it be something more personal?
Kieron Gillen: I had the core ideas - 40-something adults being dragged back to the fantasy game they disappeared into as teenagers, dealing with how their life had changed them. As in, writing realistic adults in a genre situation. It was a pretty pure idea, and I thought perhaps I have got over my own sorry ass and could write it cleanly.
Instead, I did my usual thing and turned it into a Katamari of everything. It's a lot. I'm a lot. I guess I'm more comfortable with that now. At least part of coming out of WicDiv is wanting to push into slightly more esoteric areas - not quite as pop as WicDiv was, a little closer to some of the emotional rawness that Phonogram traded in beneath the glassy veneers.
So, yes, it's personal.
That said, I kind of reject your idea that Middle-Earth wasn't personal though. Tolkien didn't want to create a language out of some kind of purely academic urge. It was his obsession ever since childhood. The guy wrote fanfic languages as a teenager. This is a passion, and a man who has Beren and Luthien on his and his wife's gravestone is not a guy who is not engaged with his fictions.
DIE's world certainly comes from my passions in the same way. It's a fantasy world as created by a critic, for better or worse.
David Harth: What is your favorite part about writing DIE- coming up with the character "classes" and how they work with each of the main players in the book or the world building? You seem to be having a lot of fun with both.
Kieron Gillen: Heh. I didn't talk about the RPG in the previous question, but one of the interesting things about DIE has been the whole blurring of which of the two is the side-project. It was meant to be a comic with a tie-in RPG, but there's certainly been times it's felt like a RPG with a tie in comic. I was worried I was confusing which bit was the tail and which bit was the dog, and who was wagging whom. It ended up being okay - it metabolised to the point where the dog ate the tale, and now it's an Ouroboros we call DIE. There's elements of the RPG which fed back into the comic, but in a useful way. Believe it or not, I didn't realise what the Fallen were until I realised what I wanted them to be in the game.
The classes was very much comic side though - this early document where I hammered out these deconstructionary riffs on the core D&D archetypes. I wanted to have classes that were clearly related to things people would know from fantasy games, while having a spin radical enough to be immediately identifiable and iconic for our comic.
David Harth: Stephanie Han's art is amazing. How much of the script do you tailor to play to her strengths? Also, same question, but with Jamie McKelvie in mind?
Kieron Gillen: I'm incredibly lucky with the people who I work with. Stephanie and Jamie are amazing talents. One of the fun things for me is how they're almost completely opposite as creators and the temperament of the work. I think of Jamie's work, and I think of the world's greatest music producer, synchronising microbeats in a precise considered structure. I think of Stephanie's work, and I think of the sea - this enormous, passionate thing of astounding beauty whose whims can sink nations and inspire poets to breathless awe. Clearly, if I tried to write the same script for both, it's not going to work.
With Stephanie, it's often that I'm leaving her to give more mood and spectacle, and (due to the more impressionistic style) I'm carrying more of the simple storytelling. Like, to be blunt, there's more captions in DIE. There's less panels. I'm responding to how she's approached the page. When I'm writing a script for her, I'm giving her the widest information about the world she needs to know and build upon (because Stephanie is all about improvisation and building) while also highlighting the absolute key things the story needs, or it won't work.
This is lots of fun. There's so much power and emotion in what Stephanie does. That it's so different to working with Jamie is absolutely part of the appeal - I don't want to write WicDiv again.
David Harth: Is there anything you can tell readers about what's coming next in DIE, without giving away too much?
The end of the first arc is where we basically reveal what drives the book. What looked like a simple fantasy quest to beat the bad guy changes tack. The next arc is all about following that through... and, as we've turned from the quest, we get a much better look at DIE. Put it like this - we didn't print amap in the first arc. I'd be deeply surprised if we don't in the second.
Now, here's some lightning round questions:
It's last call, what's your last drink and the last song you play?
Kieron Gillen: “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is the official "end of our parties" song.
Marvel and DC both offer you carte blanche with one character apiece. Which characters do you pick?
Kieron Gillen: I don't want to say this. They may offer me it, and then I'd be tempted to say yes, and then I won't be writing a creator owned book I really want to do.
Only so many hours in the day, right?