Kieron Gillen on The Road to ‘Generation Hope’ [Interview]
Most readers of this site, I’d guess, are familiar with “Thor” and “S.W.O.R.D.” scribe Kieron Gillen — and if you aren’t, you should be. Ever since his breakout cult hit “Phonogram“, he’s been writing all kinds of comics from cosmic planet-pounders to old-school scrapbook fanzine love letters. We caught up with Gillen on the cusp of his major new X-title to talk about the quasi-sexual experience of discovering comics, why “Generation Hope” reminds him of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” and what it’s been like to move from on from the lacerating experience of letting “Phonogram” go to playing in the sandbox of the Marvel Universe, where you can build a space station in the sky through sheer force of will.
ComicsAlliance: So it’s been about two years now since you started at Marvel with “newuniversal: 1959″… Did you expect things to progress this far this quickly?
Kieron Gillen: Well, I was expecting to have my face on the moon at this point in my career, I’ve got to somehow settle for — no, no, it’s gone incredibly, almost worryingly well. I’m naturally pessimistic in outlook, in least in terms of whatever I actually put out there, so any thought of success is disturbing and uncanny to me, so I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
On a more real level, it’s very interesting and surprising. I mean, especially considering I came to comics quite late. I literally got into comics at the beginning of the noughties — like, literally 2000 — and by the end of the 2000s, I’m writing Thor. That’s a really disturbing progression.CA: What was that like for you, coming to comics that late in your life? Did you have any childhood attachment, or–?
KG: Well, basically, I didn’t read them in my teenage years. I was somebody who was interested; I hadn’t quite wrote off comics, but I just wasn’t able to follow them. I was in a small town in England, and there’s no comic shop there. So there was just no opportunity, there weren’t any comics available created for any age above a child… I would describe coming to it later like… Well, it’s like I didn’t know music existed, and then there’s shops full of stuff! The idea that you’ve suddenly got an entire art that you know absolutely jack s**t about. And you go, “Oh my god! There’s stuff everywhere!” and you chase it around, it’s almost a little bit sexual and stuff; it’s genuinely exciting… So, it was fascinating and brilliant and entirely entrancing, which is exactly what I needed.
CA: So what was that hook book for you, where you realized you’d fallen in love with comics?
KG: I had a prehistory in that I was “comic-curious” for a few years beforehand; I was hanging around in dodgy clubs, being slowly led astray. It was kinda – okay, almost the day I turned 21, I went to America for a year as part of my degree, and I picked up “Watchmen” there — it was at the same day as I grabbed my visa. I went to America and I lived there for almost a year, but for the first month, I had nothing else in my flat apart from the books I brought with me, and the books I brought with me were a copy of “Watchmen” and a lot of existentialist novels I was too depressed to even read–
KG: So literally I’m reading “Watchmen”, and I picked it apart and did the deconstruction thing to it, in this little cell. And I was kind of like — actually, this something I could be interested in. And from then on, for the next five years, I was one or two trades a year. You know, there’s a person you know that always buys one album a year, or two albums a year? I was that dude… And circa 2000, I was kind of lured back into comic shops when I heard about the ABC stuff [Alan] Moore was doing, which sounded interesting. I was picking up “League [of Extraordinary Gentlemen],” whenever it came out, and I found myself flicking through the first “Authority” trade, weirdly, just because it had this spectacular Hitchian cover.
And that was it. Literally, first two pages. The first page, Russia: people are very cold, nothing much happening. Page two: BANG! and it was just a moment when suddenly comics caught up with the destruction I always sort of had in my head — you know, these perfect spherical explosions — and I was pretty sold on that. Came back the next week, because I’d heard the guy talk about how much he loved “Planetary” to somebody else… and “Planetary” was strange, and romantic. And of course, when I first read “Planetary” I didn’t realize it was all analogues until the end of the first trade — you know what I mean? And I think that’s one of the things people always miss about “Planetary,” that it’s really very romantic…
And a week after that, I picked up “Transmet[ropolitan],” and of course being a journalist at the time that was exactly what I needed to read, as bad for your mental health it may be. It was kind of reminded me of why I put fingers to typewriter in the first place, and about a week after that I was on the WEF (Warren Ellis Forum), and six months after that I went to my first con and on the way back from the first con I wrote my first script through a vodka haze. So yeah, it was quick and passionate.
CA: And was that first script “Phonogram?”
KG: No, it wasn’t “Phonogram” — it was a five-page short-story called “HIT,” which was a webcomic and eventually a series. That was basically me writing short stories, playing with the form, seeing what worked, what didn’t work — maybe what didn’t work [laughter].
CA: Is that stuff still out there?
KG: Uh… somewhere? I think it was on a comic [site] called NextComics if you remember that… I also printed it in a black and white sort of paper thing that I also sold at British comic cons — during one of which I was on a table and [Jamie] McKelvie came up, and that was the “Phonogram” origin story. It was literally the fact that I did these kinds of short sort of small-press, do-it-yourself sort of stuff.
CA: So McKelvie came to you?
KG: Yeah, he came up just chatting since I was sharing a table with — I think — Ali Pulling and Sick Tim, as they were known back in the day. Also [McKelvie] had done a story for Ali Pulling’s anthology “Never Mind the Comics,” which is a story [where] Jamie wants to hunt down every single copy that exists. I’ve never seen a copy, weirdly, but apparently it’s virtually unreadable, and Jamie is just phenomenally embarrassed by it. That’s how me and Jamie met — he was showing me pages of what became “Suburban Glamour,” and apparently I said “I’ve got this idea for a comic called ‘Phonogram’ and you’d be perfect for it.”
CA: Did you have the idea beforehand, or were you inspired by him?
KG: I was playing around, because I’d done these little sort of small comics before, and I’d done webcomic stuff and lots of other bits and pieces, and I was trying to think about something to do as a larger project. This is about 2003, so I wasn’t even necessarily thinking about it in the Direct Market, but it took me and Jamie so long to do it that we ended up in a position to pitch at Image, and the rest is history. Or at least, what happened, which is kind of history.
CA: Considering that what brought you initially to comics was the whole explosive, Hitchian blockbuster aspect, what compelled you to have your first book be this almost low-key — albeit certainly with huge worldbuilding and cosmological aspects — story about a bunch of kids?
KG: Good question. I’m at the position now where people ask me advice on comics: “What should I do to try to get into comics?” etc. My general advice is actually just be good; don’t worry about trying to break in. Being good is a much bigger problem. It gives you something huge to wrestle with. But, if it’s kind of — I had a variety of ideas of stuff I wanted to do, and I showed one of these pitches to Alex De Campi, as it was — we ran an anthology called Commercial Suicide — do you know Alex De Campi, “Smoke?”
CA: Sure, I know of her.
KG: Well… we used to run an anthology together called “Commercial Suicide,” and I showed her a pitch for a comic I was doing, or I was planning to do. And she said, you know, this is good, this is exciting, articulate pulp… But do you want it to be your first comic? And I argued, you know, it’s smarter than you’re actually admitting, and there’s all this sorts of stuff and it’s generally going to be quite interesting. And then I went back afterwards and thought, f*ck it, she’s right. I’ve got to do something that fundamentally only I could write. I don’t think anybody could have written “Phonogram,” at least the way I wrote it. It was such a pure blast of my head or whatever. I think starting with what makes you most unique — or at least, most unlikeable — is a good way to go… Does that make sense?
CA: It makes perfect sense to me, I mean — it came out around that same era, I remember it being around that same era, as Jonathan Hickman‘s “Nightly News,” Matt Fraction‘s “Casanova,” all these Image books that ended up launching these big mainstream careers.
KG: Yeah, it was one of the reasons we ended up pitching to Image, because we were talking to a few other publishers beforehand. But knowing that Matt was doing “Casanova” and Warren [Ellis] was doing “Fell,” and actually I didn’t know “Nightly News” was coming then since I hadn’t met Jonathan yet, but it genuinely seemed to be an exciting place to be then… It was an exciting period.
CA: So, how did you go from there to “newuniversal: 1959?” Was that via Warren Ellis, or…?
KG: It was mainly via Warren in that way, in that he really liked “Phonogram.” He was aware of my journalism anyway, but he highly enjoyed “Phonogram” and Warren’s always got his eyes on, essentially, these indie writers and artists. He’s an incredible curator… He’s just very very good at that, and I say that as someone who often follows Warren’s recommendations, not least that I’ve profited from them myself. There were these new “newuniversal” spinoffs [at Marvel Comics], and he basically picked the writers for them. So it was me, Si Spurrier, and another one which I believe never came out. He wanted to see what we would do, so I did this 1959 [one], which was this kind of James Ellroy take on superheroes…
Fundamentally, a few Marvel editors seemed to like it — Nick Lowe and Warren Simons were the main guys — and they basically came to me and said, “You have any ideas for this very short thing?” And I gave ideas, they commissioned it, I wrote it. Then they asked if I had a good idea for a slightly larger thing, and I did that, and then I did a three-issue mini. By the end of that year I was doing “Ares” and then doing “Thor.”
I describe my entire comic career as basically playing a one-armed bandit in that kind of way, in that it’s gamble or collect. At any possible stage I could have messed up completely, but the fact that I didn’t… led to people thinking, you know, let’s see if he can do something bigger. It’s happened quietly, and it’s always been a bit like that. When you’re doing small press, you put stuff out there, and there [are] always opportunities opening up based on people liking the work. Of course, being a writer I’m a parasite and I live on the kindness of artists… On one level, the effect of not messing it up is an artist wanting to work with me, and then [on] another level it’s writing “Thor” — it’s all a similar sort of process. And that’s the weird thing, since I remember being so nervous in like, 2000, about an artist saying “yes” to any of my scripts. It was an enormous compliment for anyone to even be willing to spend any time drawing anything of mine, and that never quite goes away, I think. Or hopefully, anyway.
CA: That brings us to “Thor,” which was your first blockbuster assignment, following up J. Michael Straczynski on what was a huge run. You managed to keep very healthy sales and be very critically acclaimed, and I think this run on Thor will probably stand as your big sort of coming-out party. What’s that been like?
KG: It’s exciting! It’s such a weird — I mean, it’s a run that just wouldn’t quit. I think originally it was going to be five issues: three issues to tie up JMS’s Latveria storyline and two issues tying into “Siege.” And it sort of went from five to six, and six to seven, then seven to eleven, and then of course the “Siege: Loki” and “New Mutants” issues, so it’s kind of like thirteen issues of Thor malarkies. Yeah! So that was kind of unexpected and intimidating…
CA: I mean, you really got a good-sized “Thor” run in the end, a good-sized hardcover.
KG: You know, I was doing the percentage of the run of all of “Thor,” like I’ve written just under 1% of Thor or whatever. I mean, that’s quite a big number when you think about the entire history of it. I pretty much wrote a year of it. So like 2% of “Thor” I’ve written, in the main title. That’s scary! You know what I mean? That’s actually… being part of this larger continuum, and I know I’m about to start sounding Grant Morrison-esque, but in like the first issue of “Godhunter,” there was a scene with Abigail Brand. Basically the Peak was blown up during “Secret Invasion.” And I started writing it, and I went “Oh my god, it was blown up!” So I checked with the editor, and we basically had a conversation where they said that they’d probably started to rebuild it by now.
So I, by an act of will, created a space station in the sky above the Marvel Universe just because I decided it, and everyone else has to have this space station or blow it up! It was there to interact with lots of other things. I thought that was very interesting, and the idea of being tied to this larger idea of “Thor” and essentially picking up the stuff with JMS left there and playing with it and hopefully leaving some interesting stuff in that anyone who comes after to play with. Yeah, it’s unlike any other form of writing, playing in the Marvel Universe or presumably other major universes.
CA: Have you talked much with Matt Fraction about how you’re wrapping up your “Thor” run? Are we going to get any sort of Bendis/Brubaker-esque “Thor goes to jail” cliffhanger, or is it a little bit more set in stone than that?
KG: It’s elegant enough. I knew before I started Matt would be taking over after me… I know what he’s planning for his stories; I’ve read most of the scripts… I wanted to take JMS’s momentum and resolve it naturally, and I knew where Matt was going next so I wanted to create the natural dramatic tension that would create most pay off for his stories. I saw it more as a relay race in that kind of way, rather than this singular statement. So yeah, I was always planning towards what would be most dramatically effective in the long run of this series.
And of course, the other thing is that it was expanding as I went through it. I was reappraising what each step meant to every step. It wasn’t like I knew I’d be ending with this four-issue arc. If you’d told me, oh, you’re going to do a year on “Thor,” it’d probably have killed me as a relatively new writer. I’d go “Oh my God, I’m going to die,” and then I’d have just collapsed over. The idea of having it in stages, essentially, allowed me to process it a lot easier. I knew what the limitations of the job were, and I was able to have a lot of fun within those limitations, especially with something like the “Siege: Loki” stuff. This is deeply iconic and resonant stuff in terms of the whole of the “Siege” thing I thought, so yeah, it was a lot of fun.
CA: Talking about process, at what point in the “Thor” run did you come up with the whole Disir mega-arc? Did you have the whole “Fine Print” Thor Goes to Hell arc in mind when you started that material with “Siege: Loki” and the “New Mutants” tie-in, or did that come later?
KG: I always knew there was room for more stories there… but I never thought I be the one who would tell those stories, is the best way of putting it. These are interesting pieces, and a writer following me might be interested in playing with some of them. As they always say, it’s the toybox sort of metaphor, but I try to leave the toys in a more interesting state than I found them… So yeah, I knew what I would do with the Disir, but I never thought I would get a chance to do it. I knew the sort of thing I wanted to do, though, involving — something I can’t say yet, since it’s in the last two issues, but stuff involving… Loki giving the sword to Hela. That was something I wanted to fit into the actual “Siege: Loki” issue, but I never had room, so I thought okay, I can leave it as almost subtext — the sword is something else, as well — but the fact that I can actually bring that plot into the light… It was very subtle subtext; I don’t think anyone would have gotten it, but it was there.
CA: And if a writer wanted to study it closely enough, they could…
KG: Yeah, I mean — if you study the “New Mutants” and “Loki” issues, there’s certain swords in there that are perhaps important. I think about what’s necessary, and — you’ve got 22, what’s actually generally important to the plot? And choosing that changes everything about the comic, I think.
CA: Doubling over to “Ares,” what was the impetus behind giving Ares a miniseries? Was it more towards giving the character a sendoff, since you all knew he was going to get bisected in “Siege”?
KG: When I started doing it, I became aware that Ares would be dying in “Siege.” So I was already having quite a grim story fundamentally about someone being a bad father. This is a guy who’s actually trying to save the son, or what he thought was his son, and he’s confronted by a series of his failings as a father, while trying to guide a series of new soldiers who are essentially surrogate sons. The whole thing is about Ares not being very good at teaching people. And the tragedy of Ares is, he tries to be better, but how can someone who is actually the personification of war prove himself? …The whole thing was deliberately a black comedy. But I left it on that final note — leave him there, surrounded by his dead children (surrogate or otherwise) on a throne of skulls. Now, that guy hasn’t got much time for Earth, you know what I mean? “This is all I know. Death.” And he’s dead in five months. I wanted to create something that sort of foreshadowed it, yes.
CA: And then that brings us over to “S.W.O.R.D.”, and “Generation Hope.” This looks to be a big thing, and I’ve been reading in other interviews that you and Matt Fraction have definitely been communicating about these new Five Lights and these characters that are going to make up this series. The other line from “Uncanny” 526 that I thought was interesting was the line that “evolution is evolving.” That seemed to me like dropping a thesis statement. What can you say about this?
KG: I think — “evolution is evolving” is a good way of putting it. It’s certainly one way of putting it. The other way to put it is that evolution has been fallow for a period, as in whatever the Scarlet Witch did changed things, and this is evolution resisting, trying to get back into gear… It’s the thing we [saw] in “Uncanny” this week – the idea that Laurie was in enormous physical pain and now she’s not, thanks to the devotion of Hope. And that’s — reductio ad absurdium is kind of what it’s about, it’s about Hope’s interaction with mutantkind and the idea of finding out what she actually means to everyone.
CA: It certainly seems that the experience these kids are going to have growing up is going to be very different from what we’ve seen with previous generations of mutants, that the rules have changed in a big way. How much of “Generation Hope” is going to be a character-based book, and how much is going to be big-concept, future-of-the-mutant race, evolutionary ideas?
KG: A bit of Column A and column B would be a good way of putting it. I’ve been working very closely with Matt so far, literally the late-night conversation talking nonsense with each other and trying to figure out just who these five people are, and the fact that we got the characters… not nailed down, but — I’m trying to think of a useful metaphor. It’s basically that scene in “[Ichi the Killer]” where they’ve got hooks in people’s back and they’re hanging from the ceiling, and they’re suspended in interesting and painful ways, as a dramatic necessity to almost all of them, and especially a dramatic necessity with each other. They’re characters who really, really do want to talk to each other, and they’ve already got that kind of… Like the first issue, I was just rereading it earlier, they’ve got the gang-ish mentality in that way, in that the interaction is very pure and bright, so that, I think, is actually a key to the book.
[But] the big mystery of what actually is happening to mutantkind is kind of the hook of it… This is a really bad metaphor since it’s going to give you the wrong impression of the book, but something like “The Road.” “The Road” is basically a ground-level story about the apocalypse, but it’s really about the relationship between these two people. In our case, whatever is happening to mutantkind is the big backdrop, and the characters and the interaction with each other and their elders is the core essential drama. It’s the idea of the “World War Z”-esque element, of here is a world and these are the big issues, and this is what it’s like to live through these times. Does that make any sense?
CA: Do you have any other work coming up, or is it just “Generation Hope” and “The Heat?”
KG: Actually, not all of it’s been announced yet… but I’m much happier now that “Generation Hope”‘s been announced, since for about a month people would ask me “What are you working on for Marvel?” and Thor was finishing and I was like “I got nothing else!” But now “Generation Hope”‘s coming out, I can say look at this, they didn’t actually sack me!
CA: There will be more on the horizon, though?
KG: There’s definitely stuff on the horizon, which is really really exciting. I’m in the situation where editors seem to like me at the moment, which is a rare and blessed occasion — as I said, I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. In terms of “The Heat,” I’ve basically got two Avatar projects. All of the first series (“The Heat”) is written, and the second series hasn’t been announced yet, but I’m also working on that.
CA: And of course “Phonogram” is on indefinite hiatus until such a time as it’s … solvent, I guess?
KG: [laughter] That’s the thing – even if money fell from the ceiling now, I’m not sure we could do it; Jamie’s very booked up at the moment, and I think even emotionally “Phonogram: Singles Club” was such a f**king drain, it’d be the sort of thing that we couldn’t, we wouldn’t go into it now, immediately, even if we could. So we definitely prefer to say to people there’s not going to be a “Phonogram 3,” since it dodges of the issues of people starting to ask questions “oh, if money arrived–?” No. We’re both so tied up for the near future, we couldn’t do it even if we wanted to, and emotionally it’s like the scars are still red. We’ve been lacerated for that one a lot and we’re very pleased to have done it, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t feel a bit lacerated. God, we’re such martyrs. I’m sorry!
CA: [laughter] Oh, it’s fine, I mean indie comics seem to be the only place where you get paid in the back, so it’s an understandable position.
KG: After doing the last interview with you guys, I went to Seattle Con just afterwards, and so many indie creators came up to me — like, a couple of dozen people came up to me — and said” that’s totally how everybody feels, I’m really glad someone actually said it like that directly.” So it made me quite glad I Did that way, it’s not really about us, it’s a larger malaise would be a better way of putting it.