Kieron Gillen Talks ‘Young Avengers,’ Pop Music And Why Subtlety Is Overrated [NYCC 2013]
Over the past year, Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and Mike Norton’s Young Avengers has been one of the most consistently enjoyable comics on the stands. The thrilling, completely unsubtle adventures that take teenage problems and blow them up into world-threatening monsters have revived Marvel’s teenage heroes and put them back to the forefront in a way that fits perfectly with their position that universe.
At New York Comic-Con, I spoke to Gilllen about the first year of the comic, his approach to capturing the feeling of being a teenager, and, of course, those first four drumbeats of “Be My Baby.”
ComicsAlliance: Why “Be My Baby?”
Kieron Gillen: It’s weird. Me and Jamie don’t agree on much, but we agree on a couple of big issues. We disagree on a few of the details, but the big, grand sweeping thoughts about what pop music means, we’re on it. “Be My Baby” is definitely one of the things that’s in the Venn diagram. It’s that understanding that this is, I don’t want to say the birth of the teenager, but there’s something about Phil Spector’s production and all that that got wrapped up together fundamentally with the definition of “teenager.” The drums. The size of the drums is beautiful. How those drums echo through time, and so many bands use that motif. There’s a lot of that in what we do in Young Avengers. We try to be new, but in a way where there’s still a lot of tradition that we’re reacting to.
CA: I like that that’s what’s worth saving about Earth.
KG: In the end, all we have is pop music. Obviously, we’re in a different situation with Marvel Boy, where I wanted to find a way to align Brian Bendis’s take and Grant Morrison’s take, and they’re quite fundamentally different in lots of ways. In Marvel Boy, he’s completely amoral and wants to destroy everything. Then he comes out the other end and he’s trying to be more responsible, and more grown-up, perhaps, than he is. That’s what I got from Brian’s take.
So you end up with the idea that his anger is kind of love misplaced, and all that kind of bulls**t. He’s trying to live with Earth. That’s the thing. He’s gone from one end to the other. He doesn’t hate it anymore, he’s infatuated with it. I like the idea that he comes from a society that has this beautiful science and in many ways, it’s perfect, and he’s got this kind of trashy pop music. “We don’t have this here!” Once a society is civilized enough, they don’t have that. All he’s ever had is high art, and low art is taking over. Those kind of ideas. It’s fun.
CA: Those three takes on Marvel Boy are really teenage ideas, too. The teenager who’s mad at everything, the teenager who wants to be a grownup, and then the teenager who’s just obsessed with his favorite band. There’s one thing that means something to him, and now that’s his whole world.
KG: With Marvel Boy, it’s like he’s having fun. He’s not even taking the mission very seriously. Everything’s emotionally distant to him, that’s how I’ve been doing it. Everything comes easy for him. But just because he’s here to have fun doesn’t mean that the world’s going to have fun with him.
CA: I think I told you this, I read Young Avengers #1 – 7 on a plane, and the scene where he busts into the club made me cuss out loud.
KG: [Laughs] That’s the scene that everyone talks about. We’ve done a lot of clever f**king around, and that’s one where we came out with both barrels. I’m really proud of Jamie, and it’s a wonderful example of how we work, the back-and-forth and the polishing of all the ideas.
CA: How much of that was in your script, or was it all him?
KG: With the big set pieces, this is what we do. I’ll write “this is what we’re going to do, this is what happens, these are the character beats, we could do it like this, or this, or this.” I’ll throw out three or four ideas. Like with that spread, one was a top-down view, but Jamie said “I want to do it like…” Everyone’s going to say Chris Ware, but Jamie’s a little more prosaic. He wanted to do it like an instruction diagram, and I said “great.” Then, when he did that, he realized tha the had space around the edges, which he turned into panels, which led to annotating it, which leads to me forever adding stuff. It’s very organic. It’s very band-like.
CA: The reason I open with asking about “Be My Baby” is that there’s a lack of subtlety in that song.
KG: Oh yeah, it’s full-on.
CA: We talked about Brian Wilson and Phil Spector last year, and how they have this bare, naked, unsubtle desire in their music, and I love the lack of subtlety in Young Avengers. It’s a book about teenagers where the villain is named “Mother.”
KG: There’s a bit in the second issue where Teddy punches Mother for the first time, and it’s literally “You’re not my real mom!”
KG: I find it hysterically funny. I almost called the first arc “On The Nose,” because there’s nothing about Young Avengers that’s subtle. It’s got a lot of metaphors. In the same way that all my favorite pop songs are that unsubtle, then if I’m writing pop, I have to write it like that.
Like Robyn or whatever. Just because it’s pop doesn’t mean it has to be dumb, just because you’re dealing with something direct, and very f**king direct. A lot of my favorite pop records are simultaneously very f**king stupid and transcendentally beautiful at the same time. That’s what we’re trying to do. Can you both get the joke and take it seriously? That’s the kind of thing Young Avengers is.
CA: That’s something that happens in a lot of my favorite music, and in my favorite comics. The reason I love Kirby so much is because Kirby’s a guy who will create a character named “Baron Von Evilstein,” and it’s kind of a joke but it’s presented seriously. There’s no veneer.
KG: I’m not really a guy who plays with continuity, but Young Avengers is probably the most continuity-heavy book I’ve done. I always think “What would Jack Kirby do?” and he’d probably make something up. That’s my response to most things.
People have asked, why Mother? It’s quite important to me to try to imagine how to do a team book in 2013, what I should do and what I shouldn’t do. I’ve divorced them from their heroes, and I’ve divorced them from established Marvel villains, what else have you got? If you’re going to do a book about the concept of “new,” then no, you do not bring out Kang. You do not bring out Doctor Doom. As much as I love these characters, this is not what this book’s about. I have to try to figure something else out.
Mother’s a kind of weird Mary Poppins as an evil f**ker. This half-angler-fish, with a few weird ideas splashing around in there. There’s something agreeably f**ked up about her. It wasn’t just about her, issue 10 makes it very clear that it’s all a bit mixed in different ways.
The people who get it really get it, and there are people who don’t like Young Avengers, but I don’t think I was wrong about anything. The people who don’t like it, I literally can’t think of a way that they would like it, you know what I mean? That, to me, feels like pop music. They can’t tell the difference between Robyn or the Macarena or whatever. The genre is pop, therefore it’s s**t. The people who don’t like Young Avengers for the reasons you were just talking about feel like that to me. Your aesthetic doesn’t include this book, and that’s okay, but I wish it did.
CA: I’m a sucker for books about teenage heroes, going back to Spider-Man. When I was a kid, I didn’t want to be Batman, I wanted to be Robin.
CA: Here’s the thing: If you’re Robin, you get to hang out with Batman. If you’re Batman, you have to hang out with Robin.
KG: Oh, I love that.
CA: You know Eddie Argos. There’s the song he does with the lyric “I want to give the world the finger with the exception of my favorite lead singer,” and that’s a sentence that sums up being a teenager perfectly. Young Avengers is like that to me, where you’ve taken all these feelings of being a teenager and made them completely literal. They’re literally isolated from their parents and role models.
KG: Grown-ups don’t understand them. It’s not subtle, and to me, that’s the point.
CA: They’re the only ones who understand each other, they can’t relate to them, and that is a literal problem embodied with a supervillain. And what makes it interesting is that these are characters who have this obvious out for any problem because they know Captain America. Any problem they have, he can solve.
KG: That was a big part of the plot. If you work in the Marvel Univese, the big question is always why don’t you just get on the phone to Thor? If it was a real problem, the Avengers would turn up for it. I quite like the idea that you fight the problems you see.
People have described the 2000s comic in a variety of ways. I quite like “The Prismatic Age,” the idea that it was the age of analogues, the widescreen era, but for me, it was the Paramilitary Age. All the superheroes were basically in the army. The Avengers were a government organization, and when I was writing the X-Men, I was running it like a very methodical army. Uber is a part of that, that pushed it to this ridiculous extreme, this purely materialistic take on the superhero. With Young Avengers, obviously I love the Avengers, but the subtext has always been that if you want to help the world, you join the army. You join the police force.
CA: And the moral of your book is that you should form a band.
KG: Yeah! You fight the problems you see. If everyone else in the world doesn’t see the problem, then it’s up to you to deal with it. That’s what it’s about. That’s my very weird, modern take on a very old Marvel idea. I wanted it to feel like a Marvel comic, the pure platonic idea of the kids that save the universe. They’re all together, and none of the grown-ups can see the problem. These kids are never going to be Iron Man or Captain America, because those positions are filled, and it doesn’t matter. It’s my love song to them.
CA: And there’s nothing more Marvel Comics than that idea. There’s nothing more Marvel Comics than Spider-Man getting hassled by a grown-up or the Thing feeling bad because he has bad skin. Is that easy for you to latch onto? It’s a recurring theme in your work, Phonogram is a book about growing up and dealing with your past.
KG: It’s about turning thirty, in a very real way. I made it explicit in one of the B-Sides, set a few days after Rue Britania, and it’s Kohl’s 30th. In case you missed the subtext, allow me.
CA: Does that come to you naturally, as opposed to Iron Man and the X-Men, or does it just deal with a different part of your life?
KG: I think my themes are pretty clear. The connection between Iron Man and Young Avengers is that they’re both about dealing with your parents and trying to reconnect with your parents when it’s too late. My dad died this year, he’s been ill for a long time. With all of my work, that stuff is on the surface.
CA: Again, there’s no veneer.
KG: It’s the only way I can operate. With any character, you dig in and try to work out what you like and what you don’t, and I’ve done enough comics now that people go “oh yeah, this is what bothers Kieron.” Things like can you change? Can bad people become good people? What can we do to not harm the world? Journey Into Mystery is the ultimate statement of that. Here’s this very Marvel hero who saves the universe, and no one will ever know, and his spirit has been destroyed.
CA: [Laughs] Because you’re a bastard. That’s why you did that.
KG: But yeah, my things are pretty bare now. Young Avengers is pretty extreme. That’s the first book I’ve done that hasn’t tied into anything. Everything I’ve done for Marvel, apart from a few minis, has been serving some larger machination. I’ve never had a Hawkeye, I’ve never had an Immortal Iron Fist. I think it’s both informed the book, and certainly may have harmed the book, because I had to do everything now, and frankly, that level of intensity is very teenage as well. The problems of the book are also the success of the book.
A few weeks ago, I finished all the scripts of the season, and I’ve been down about it because it’s not as good as I want it to be. But it’s never as good as you want it to be. We did what we wanted to do, that season starts in January, it ends the first week of next year. The 15 issues of that season are what a superhero comic could be. If I think of 2013, it’s always going to be Young Avengers, it’s so in the moment.
You never know what’s going to have legs, culturally speaking. Who would’ve thought in 1991 that “Groove is in the Heart” was going to be more culturally relevant than any classic rock albums? “Groove is in the Heart” can be played forever, it’s transcendentally beautiful. I remember the first time I heard Daft Punk’s Discovery. We put it on Monday morning, and it was astounding, we were amazed. My editor at the time, I was working in a magazine, and he said “this is great, but it’s so incredibly cool, so incredibly right now, it’s literally what music should be right now, that it’s going to be out of date by Friday.” And of course, no, it invented what 2000s pop music sounded like.
CA: Do you enjoy the irony of talking about this in a bar where we’re listening to “Closing Time?”
KG: In art, there are no accidents. Everything has meaning.