Kieron Gillen On ‘Young Avengers': ‘It’s My Teenage Symphony To God’ [NYCC 2012]
This January, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie are set to relaunch Marvel’s Young Avengers, blending established characters from the original Allan Heinberg/Jim Cheung run with a few new faces and a direction featuring battles that Gillen has described as “superheroes clubbing.”
It represents an interesting shift for Gillen, whose past few years at Marvel have been spent using his terrifying Hulk-like hands to type scripts about teenage characters in the pages of Journey Into Mystery and Generation Hope. For Young Avengers, though, he promises an edge of idealism that’s set to reflect the challenges of moving into adulthood. I spoke to him about where he plans to take the team, why he chose this particular cast of characters and — as you might expect if you’re familiar with his past work — how he likens the series to pop music.ComicsAlliance: With Journey Into Mystery and now Young Avengers, there’s been an interesting sort of transition in your time at Marvel, and I guess in your career as a whole. You’ve shifted into writing a lot about teenage characters.
Kieron Gillen: Yeah, weird.
CA: Was there something there that drew you to it?
KG: It’s something that started with Generation Hope, in that it’s this transitional period. They’re transitional people, and since they are, they can f**k up in a way that Captain America can’t. He can’t f**k up in a way that a teenage character can, because they’re growing and learning to be themselves. That makes them really dramatic by definition. It’s hormonal, you feel everything more intense when you’re a teenager, at least in part because you’ve never felt it before.
So that’s always true, but as for why, that’s kind of strange. It may be that because Phonogram is fundamentally a book about pop music, and there’s an element of pop music that’s about being a teenager. A lot of Phonogram stories tend to be about the problems of holding onto that when you’re slightly too old for that s**t, which I find really interesting. I’m not really sure why I gravitate to it.
With Young Avengers, it was a curveball that Axel [Alonso] threw at me. I wasn’t sure about it. Young Avengers, as great a book as it is, isn’t the sort of book I do, spinning off thirty years of continuity. I don’t make stories based off of continuity, it’s just not the way I operate, and it’s a weirdly traditional Marvel book. In the time of the noughties, the government super-hero approach, the post-Authority thing, is very much a classic Marvel book. You could see it written in the ’80s, there’s an element of style to that.
I’m not going to do that. None of that’s me. So I had to really attack it in a completely different direction, and that led to me leaning on more of the Phonogram sets. The line we use all the time is that Young Avengers isn’t about being sixteen, it’s about being eighteen. It’s a fundamentally different part of being a teenager. In reality, I’m a 37-year-old man now, so I feel quite awkward. I felt awkward doing Generation Hope, which was fundamentally about being teenage. But I think I understand being eighteen or sixteen now better than I did when I was sixteen.
It’s about being a teenager, but it’s about a lot of other things, as opposed to, for want of a better term, the Teenage Condition. Young Avengers kind of leans early twenty-somethings as well; I want issue 6 to be about the superhero equvalent of a s**tty job.
CA: In Journey Into Mystery, you did a story where there was a young character who literally had his adult version of himself on his shoulder trying to push him in a certain direction, and that’s really interesting. There’s that element of writing about teenagers where, especially in comics, none of us have ever really gotten over the stuff we were into when we were teenagers.
KG: By definition.
CA: That’s why we’re here. And with you being into pop music, we had that conversation a while back about Brian Wilson, and how his music has that naked sincerity.
KG: In interviews I’ve done for this — I did the Marvel.com Q&A, and that’s frankly psychotic, I wrote my answers very quickly on a deadline and if you read them, it’s very clear that my brain is about to explode. Talking about Brian Wilson, I wanted to call the first arc “Teenage Symphonies to God,” to salute his description of Smile, but I have a rule that I don’t use song titles for comics outside of Phonogram. It’s one of those things that I think is parasitic. Not in a bad way, but I think it’s kind of been overdone so much that I want to make new titles that reference new stuff.
I like the idea of trying to do something from scratch, not actually just being a reference. Going to first principles, even. But yeah, Young Avengers is my teenage symphony to God, if anyone wants to quote me.
CA: The characters that you’re working with, a lot of them are the established Young Avengers characters from the original run, but you also brought in Miss America.
KG: There’s an analog nature of the Young Avengers, and Patriot was unavailable. I can’t use Eli, and I wanted someone in the red, white and blue. I had just finished reading Vengeance, to be honest, and she’s a very different character. The Young Avengers are basically quite nice middle class kids as a whole, generally speaking. Eli’s a little poorer, Kate’s quite a bit richer, but they’re all quite nice.
CA: It was a weird teenage fantasy where they all came from really well-adjusted homes, where Hulkling and Wiccan come out and their parents are like “Awesome!”
KG: “You can move in!” In the first issue, there’s a bit where Hulkling is telling Wiccan to stop being a self-obsessed prat. “You have an amazing life. Yes there’s been bad, but you have two sets of amazing parents. Your mom’s the Scarlet Witch! That’s like finding out your mom’s Galadriel!” That’s one of the weird things about Hulkling and Wiccan, they are actually in-canon geeks.
Anyway, firstly Miss America has a very different background. Her background is kind of mysterious, the way I play it, but she’s had a hard time. She’s quite a lot poorer than any of them. She has phenomenal talent, she’s very strong and fast, but there’s always a class thing for me. I was very interested in her versus Kate, because Kate has no powers at all. Fundamentally, in the superhero metaphor, she has no talent. That’s an interesting clash.
That’s where Miss America came from, and we redesigned her a bit. Jamie [McKelvie] is a fashion guy, and wants to work with her clothes. In the .1 story that comes out next week, you’ll see why we like Miss America.
And of course, the other one is Noh-Varr, Marvel Boy.
CA: That’s one that I was really excited about. I was obviously a big fan of the JG Jones, Grant Morrison Marvel Boy seires.
KG: I got into comics circa 2000, so that was one of the books I was around for, and where I pick up with him is that he’s basically an alien hipster boy. He’s been told never to come back to Earth by the Avengers, the Kree Empire hate him, but he comes to Earth because he loves it. He was quite more responsible on the Avengers, trying to live up to that responsibility, but now he’s like “that didn’t work, I’m going to be James Dean again.”
He’s obsessed with Earth culture, and I want to play with the patronizing aspect of the character. He’s called the Protector. Who died and made you God? Can you imagine what Abigail Brand would say to him? “No, no, no, you’re going to jail. This is my job, you’re a crazy alien, f**k off.”
He and Miss America are slightly older than the rest of the Young Avengers, because I wanted to do hero figures that were your age as opposd to looking at Captain America and the other grown-ups. So then you realize that the people who are kind of like you blow your mind when you meet them. Can you remember that experience when you met a friend and were suddenly like “f**kin’ hell, that guy’s amazing” or “that girl knows everything in the world” and you feel quite provincial?
I came from a small Stafford town, and for me, their divide is to get Hulkling and Wiccan and Kate to think “I could be that hero.” Captain America is always going to be Captain America, but these people being closer to home makes it more real for you. That’s their use to the team, and also they’re very badass. They both get very good action scenes, and they’re so different to the other people.
Also, with Noh-Varr, I can do the female gaze on him, which is quite fun. It’s a very sexy team. Lots of hormones.
CA: With the Marvel Now stuff, you’ve got Wolverine and the X-Men, Avengers Arena, and now Young Avengers, so you’ve got these three very distinct groups of teenage characters that are drawing from a very similar group of books that came before, like Runaways and Young Avengers. What’s your book’s role in that? What sets each title apart for you?
KG: Avengers Arena is the big high concept, it’s the powerhouse thing. I don’t want to overuse the word “metaphorical,” but Battle Royale was fundamentally about high school. It’s about surviving high school, that’s what it’s really about, and adults destroying you. That’s interesting. Wolverine has its own situation, and for me, when I heard Jason first pitch Wolverine and the X-Men to the room, he compared it to Hogwarts. It’s a fantasy, “if only I could go to school there.” That’s always been part of the X-Men fantasy, but he brought it to the forefront in a way that even Morrison didn’t. Morrison made it a weird and cool place to be, but Aaron’s take is more of an adventure playground. It’s textured, it’s so much fun.
Mine is a little bit weirder, basically. They’ll be more likable than any teenagers I’ve done before, but that’s not really hard since Phonogram is full of complete and utter f**kers, and Generation Hope was deliberately awkward. It’s slightly delerious. I talked about that essay you did about Spider-Man. All these villains and situations are what the teenage condition is. This is a book about teenagers interacting with adults.
I’ll use an example to ruin it: We talked about doing the superhero equivalent of a s**tty job. We pretty much open with… oh, it’s going to give it away! Basically, it’s Kate and Marvel Boy waking up from Kate’s first one night stand. You don’t know it’s Marvel Boy at first, so it’s Kate waking up and thinking “why am I here, what am I doing.” She panics and part of her feels ashamed, and she thinks that part is stupid. “Where am I?” It’s this normal apartment, and she opens the curtains and she’s in orbit with this incredible view. Then Marvel Boy gets out of the shower.
The point being, this is waking up in a strange boy’s bed. It might as well be a different world. The first time you ever woke up with someone you shouldn’t, everything’s slightly delicate and tender, he might as well be a boy from a different planet. It’s really big, full-on, on the nose. It’s like a pop song, like you said earlier. It feels very much like a pop song in how I’m attacking the material. My idea for Generation Hope was to insert realistic teenagers into that post-Authority superhero epic, but this flips it. They’re very idealized teenagers, but using the superheroic condition to talk about being a teenager in the same way that Phonogram used magic to talk about music.
I want to use all the superhero stuff, the action and adventure. Half of it’s written normal style, full script, and any action scenes are done with the Marvel method. So you have these deliberately grounded scripts, and when the action kicks off, you get these 25-panel pages. It’s like a music video, each fight scene is an individual idea that we’re executing, we present it in a certain way, showing certain things, and ideally, we don’t repeat ourselves. We just burn through ideas. It’s a book that’s really f**king going for it.
It’s a superhero book. That’s what excites me about it. My idea of what would a superhero book be, more than the X-Men. That’s kind of a sitcom. It’s a dramatic sitcom, it’s a sitcom meets superhero thing. This is a superhero book, as if we were writing one for the first time in the 21st century. I talked about trying to avoid references, but I’ve always got meta bits in my books. This is just going for it, it respects those previous books only in as far as they are a base to explode from.
Imagine if everything in a classic Avengers story was removed apart from the titles. So like, our first arc is that Loki puts together the Avengers, which is the Avengers’ first arc, but distorted. Loki was the antagonist, this does something different. The other story is an Ultron story, and it’s a Hank-Pym-f**ks-up story, and that’s the other threat. You’d never guess that I’m doing an Ultron story until I told you that. That’s what I mean.
The idea is youth. Young, idealistic, that’s the really important word. It’s an emotional book, but it’s an idealistic one. As opposed to the Avengers, which is this big organization that’s almost a career for these people, this is looking at your talent and deciding how you can change the world. It’s very idealistic, but that’s part of what the Avengers is. We have to do this because we’re all in it together. Someone has to change the world and it might as well be me, because I can.
It’s a slightly psychotic book. I’m still trying to wrestle things down, I’ve got these little pullquote things, but it’s a very complex, full-on book.