The Wicked + The Divine: The Entire Creative Team Talks Story, Art, Design, Color, Letters + Music [Interview]
The creative team of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie first made their mark with the 2006 Image Comics release Phonogram: Rue Britannia, a thrilling and thoughtful story about magic, music, modern sorcery, and how the records we listen to affect our lives and identities. The series combined cultural touchstones and urban fantasy trappings in a way that captured the imagination of critics and readers, and its success ultimately led to Gillen and McKelvie becoming separately and together some of comics' most fan-favorite creators on books like Journey Into Mystery, X-Men Season One, Suburban Glamour, a second series of Phonogram, and their rmuch-lauded collaboration on the recently concluded reinvention of Young Avengers.
Today they've released the debut issue of their latest and most ambitious project: The Wicked + The Divine, an ongoing series from Image that blends together many of their favorite subjects: youthful reinvention, manifest deities, supernatural superpowers, and, of course, the transformative power of pop music. The first issue is both intriguing and exhilarating, depicting the adventure of a superfan as she rubs elbows with ancient gods who return every ninety years, this time in the form of gorgeous young people who become 21st century celebrities. At once sublimely understated and action-packed, the first issue grabs you instantly and leaves you anxious to read more.
ComicsAlliance connected with the entire W+D creative team of Gillen and McKelvie; designer Hannah Donovan; letterer Clayton Cowles; and colo(u)rist Matt Wilson for an in-depth conversation about the story they're telling, their collaborative process, and the artistic and cultural inspirations for the series. Along the way, we're revealing some previously unseen behind-the-scenes materials and an exclusive preview of The Wicked + The Divine #2.
ComicsAlliance: The Wicked + The Divine is a pop music comic starring mostly women, when both pop music and comics are forms that have been criticized for problematic representations of women. Was the predominantly female cast always part of the concept, or did it come later?
Kieron Gillen: It was almost more than it turned out being, actually. When I was conceiving the gods, I realized I was up to eight or so and none of them were blokes. So perhaps the whole pantheon are women? There's certainly a lot of good reasons for that, and many of them fit inside the concept of the book. So I played with that for a while, and then hit the first very-much male archetype I wanted to use.
Women's contributions to pop-culture generally and us specifically is one of the few things that Jamie and I are completely 100% joined at the hip about. We're people who were transformed more by Goddesses than Gods, and that's always going to come to the fore when we're doing something personal like this. The first Phonogram started with that.
That said, some of it may just come from creative backlash over doing the predominantly male Young Avengers, y'know? You mix it up.
CA: While we're talking about women in pop, representation, and equality… What did you think of Nirvana's performance at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction, which featured guest vocalists Joan Jett, Kim Gordon, St. Vincent and Lorde?
KG: Excellent. Restatement of Nirvana's feminist punk rock core that's still downplayed in all too many traditional narratives. I'm always down for that.
CA: You've made it known that David Bowie was an inspiration for one of the characters, but is there an era of Bowie's work and image that's particularly influential? Or is it Bowie's liquid, ever-shifting quality that was, in itself, inspirational – his bending of identity, image, gender, sexuality...?
KG: Jamie and I joked that we could have made all twelve of the gods different periods of Bowie. It's the sort of joke that isn't really a joke.
'70s Thin White Duke Era Bowie. There's a lot of plastic soul in there. And cocaine. Lots of cocaine. Mountains of the stuff. Imagine Lucifer skiing down this great towering pile of cocaine, and you've probably got the core of the character.
Of course, we're also more about archetypes than specific 1:1 of any pop-star. The people who play with the shifting gender and sexuality elements? They're in the mix as well.
CA: Are there other specific pop stars who served as inspirations for characters?
KG: It's more archetypes than specific examples. I suspect people will read the book and say “Oh – is that god based on Random Pop Star?” And that's fine. That's part of it. And in some cases, they're directly inspired by a thing, but they grew and became something else. We start thinking about cultural archetypes. I mean, Amaterasu would fit into the broadest lineage that'd include everyone from Kate Bush to Stevie Nicks to Florence Welch. Baal fits somewhere on the continuum between Bo Diddley doing "Who Do You Love" and Kanye doing "Power". But they're never one person. They're a specific incarnation of an archetype.
I've been pretty coy about both the gods we're using and the pop stars. We've tried to keep so many details of the book secret until people read it. We just want people to be able to lose themselves in the world, and be surprised what's in there. As the story starts, only nine of the twelve gods have appeared in the world. Generally speaking you hear about gods long before you actually get to meet them.
So, basically, the answer is “Yes, they are, a bit” and “Wait and see.”
CA: Phonogram and Young Avengers use music for context and as content, making reference to specific songs and bands, using existing works to reinforce the narrative. The characters are music fans, reacting to songs as we do, and it gives readers an immediate point of identification with the cast. But W+D is something different: there's still an element of fandom in the story, but you've also created the musicians this time around. Was that a difficult step to take creatively, and has it created any unanticipated challenges along the way?
KG: That's an interesting question. While we're using pop-stars in the current incarnation, to tell the truth, we're more interested in the idea of towering cultural figures. If we go back to the 1830s incarnations of the gods, we're not going to be seeing knock offs of La Roux or whoever. We'll be looking at who was most like those sort of people in the period – and you'll see our answers to that in issue #2. And what the gods do isn't music – it's kind of an above-music, an ur-art-form that all art forms aspire to. We take some of the semiotic fancy dress of pop, but we're very expressly not saying it's pop music. It's just what pop music feels like, at the absolute best.
Yeah, it has its challenges, but what doesn't?
CA: Given that your own career has taken you from fan to commentator to creator, were you able to mine your own experiences for this title, and pull from different places?
KG: In short, yes. In a real way, a lot of the book is everything that happened to me between starting trying to be a comic writer and now, primarily the post-Rue Britannia period. I've been surrounded by people who wanted to be creators, and seen what they've done to try to do that. I've seen myself. Looking back to the time when I was Laura, I see the line between now and then. In a real way, this is me examining everything and thinking “Was it worth it? Was any of it really worth it?”
You know me...It's always completely ludicrously emotionally over-invested.
CA: So then, does existing music figure into the story in the way it does in your other works?
KG: Less so than in Phonogram. Phonogram was explicitly about our world. It's a fantasy which is happening around us all, unnoticed except for those who've fallen into its world. In a real way, it's real. Conversely, W+D is much more overt. The appearance of the gods changes the world, and has changed the world going back. There's the strong implication that certain figures in our world simply didn't exist in The Wicked And The Divine's world, because they were replaced by a god.
But there's certainly the general cultural literacy that we always try to bring to bear. Er... by which I mean, we'll probably have some jokes about Kenickie in there somewhere, if appropriate.
(We won't. The characters are all too young. Maybe one of the parents.)
A good example is that – say – Bowie is explicitly referenced in the first issue, regarding Lucifer. That sort of thing.
CA: Do real-life musicians figure in, either as characters or providing extra background?
KG: Possibly. It's a big book. In a real way, while there's a grand plan, it's in the spirit of a classic creator-owned ongoing in that it can warp to what we're interested in exploring. Actually the real biggest music influence is that I'll be including some of my rambling essays from my blog about the songs that inspired some parts of W+D in the back matter.
CA: Over the modern era of pop idol, are there true-life figures who helped lay the groundwork for the gods' return? (Was Richey Edwards an advance foot soldier, for example? Were Freddie Mercury or Marc Bolan signs of what was to come?)
KG: Hah! Wait and see. More tediously, there's the element of people not believing in the gods, at least in a “they do miracles” way. Even the raptures they provoke have more rationalistic explanations. If the last time they were around was in the 1920s, I suspect the people who loved (say) Metropolis would be enormously into them.
So, yes, I bet Mercury would have.
CA: These gods incarnate on earth every 90 years, so you have nearly the whole of modern popular music to play with in this story, starting right around the widespread adoption of recording technology. How far back do these specific gods pull defining elements from?
KG: I quietly reference "I Saw Her Standing There" in the first issue, at the start of the first scene in the modern world. That sort of gives one bracket of the area I'm primarily lifting from. 1-2-3-4 and the birth of modern pop.
Well, if you go with a certain theory anyway.
CA: This is the first time you've created musical protagonists from whole cloth, but there's a long history of fictional comic-book rock stars, from Josie And The Pussycats to Red Rocket 7 to Hopeless Savages. Were there any comics that you looked to for examples of iconic musical characters?
KG: Absolutely none. I don't say that out of arrogance or thinking that we're unprecedented, but we really haven't been thinking about how pop stars have been presented in any way. We're much more been looking at how the greatest modern pop-mythologies have been created, what people fell in love with and all that. This is a pop song of a book. We want everyone to sing along.
CA: This book is a Gillen/McKelvie production, but you're planning to bring in guest artists (guest musicians, if you will, to labor the overarching metaphor) for issues or story arcs. How do you go about choosing those creators? And if McKelvie is absent from those issues, will his presence still be felt?
KG: Jamie's always going to be there – design, covers, vision. We've actually just rethought this a little bit. We were planning Jamie to do the first arc before having some guests. We're pretty sure he's going to do the first ten issues before we have an arc of guest slots from people we love. It just feels far too soon to bring in people before the book is completely defined. That's the thing that's going to keep it feeling The Wicked + The Divine.
(I suspect he may be doing something else in those issues as well.)
It also means that we can step back a little on choosing creators. There's people we'd love to work with, and we're trying to work out schedule details. We're incredibly lucky to have so many talent, brilliant friends.
CA: Phonogram centers on people listening to, being affected by, and reacting to music – the majority of the "action" taking place on the dancefloor. Your Young Avengers run was full of fight scenes and kinetic activity, filtering some of the same feelings through the conventions of a superhero comic. Would it be fair to say this falls somewhere in between?
KG: I would say that rather than falling between the two, it does both. We have sequences about the transformational nature of consuming art (and performing it), like Phonogram. We have the emotionally-centered action sequences of Young Avengers. In fact, I'd rather say that W+D goes further in both ways than both those books. We're planning action sequences that make Young Avengers look like a slice-of-life comic about collecting nail clippings. They'll be formalist art-as-comics-comics-as-art playfulness that makes Phonogram look like the most derivative and graceless phoned in piece of shit on the shelves. When we need to, we'll push all the dials into the red.
(Not that we've ever been known to over-promise.)
However, there's also another side to it. We don't need to do it. I suspect what people will most get from the first issue is the sense of control to it all. We do the big pose when we need to, but this is restrained, clear and emotional storytelling.
CA: You make a point of crediting Hannah as designer for this series, which is a bit unusual, as designers aren't normally recognized as part of creative teams in comics. But it's clearly a vital position – when the first visuals for this book were released, something that caught my attention was the overall design aesthetic: the tone, the text, the borders. It's almost as if Peter Saville was packaging an old-school Vertigo title. So, Hannah, exactly what elements are you responsible for?
Hannah Donovan: I was responsible for the logotype and other graphic design choices around layout and typography. You mention the overall design aesthetic… As a designer, I think this is something that’s sadly overlooked for many books (save a few artists that are also designers or have a very distinct approach to graphic design – Rian Hughes, Brian Wood, Becky Cloonan, Sean Phillips for example). With the majority of comics it strikes me as an area ripe for attention to better visually communicate a story.
I’ve collaborated with both Kieron and Jamie before, and through working together we’ve all learned so much about each other’s skills and really value what a cohesive visual identity can bring to a book.
CA: How did you settle on the headshot approach to the covers?
HD: It was a very fluid collaboration. Jamie pinged me an initial sketch of what he was thinking (this was actually right before I had to get on a flight to New Zealand to give a talk at a design conference there), I read the script that night, and sketched ideas for the logo on my way to Heathrow. Just before boarding I scrawled the idea for the logotype that’s on the book today, and I knew that was it. The symmetry, the dichotomy, the unusual event of letterforms being legible upside-down… I snapped a pic, messaged it to Jamie before getting on my flight and he took it from there, us bouncing more revs of it in between me getting on and off planes.
Later, I re-worked the logo in the final typeface and did the cover layouts, choosing a symmetrical approach for the typography on the front. The borders were inspired by Art Deco design, which is something we wanted to subtly reference for the historical aspect of the story.
When I found out we could do whatever we wanted with the backs, I suggested a typographic approach, and a quotation from the character felt like a natural extension of design’s overall symmetry. Also, who doesn’t love big type?
HD: Kieron directed the interstitial pages and some of the broad choices around those (like the black backgrounds and the circular layout), Jamie drew the icons. I tied the layouts together.
Because the team’s collaborative approach was so fluid, I was able to ping Matt for the colors and use some of the lighting elements on the backs and in the credits page; Clayton and I could connect on a couple particular bits about the type styles for lettering; and of course Kieron and Jamie were around for every single question I had. It’s those relationships and the amazing trust everyone on this team has for each other that make this kind of holistic design possible – because it touches everything.
Jamie McKelvie: Following up on what Hannah says, I wanted to A) bring a art and music magazine design sense to the covers and B) as always, try to create something that will stand out on the shelves. As we have twelve gods, I thought it would be a good opportunity to show some of them off, and create a cohesive look to the comic. I sent Hannah this concept sketch, and she did her thing. When it came to coloring and lighting, I was influenced by the covers of Katy B's recent album and singles. I wanted to get that kind of sense of movement of light. Luckily I work with Matt, so I knew we could achieve it.
CA: Hannah, what influences and inspirations did you bring to the table? Were there particular designers that you looked to for reference?
HD: When Jamie and I first chatted about the project, he told me he wanted the covers to have large typography overlaid on the art, and sent me a quick comp of what he was thinking. I knew from that moment this was going to be a fun and unusual project (it’s rare to see type and art so completely integrated on comic book covers). Jamie gave me the direction of magazine-style design because The Wicked + The Divine is a book about celebs/pop stars. That was the only specific reference we looked to. Other than that I like to let the script and the art inspire the design.
When I read the script, I knew right away we had to do something fun with the dichotomy of the words “WICKED" and “DIVINE". They’re also roughly the same length and have similar character shapes in them.
A condensed face was necessary for the mechanics of that logotype to work on top of the character portraits, and felt on-trend too. I knew the typeface was also going to have to be pretty hard worker too, so needed something practical but with sophistication. Gotham, by Hoefler & Co. is exactly that. Its roots in American signage and buildings whose letterforms have graced many decades felt right for a story that starts off in New York in the 1920s and moves to the present day.
CA: What about the other, equally important (though under-recognized) elements of the visuals: the panel layout, the bleeding-to-the-edge splashes, the moments where characters break panel borders, and so on. Who's responsible for making and implementing those choices?
JM: Kieron suggests some things in the script, as always, but that's usually me. I'm very into clear storytelling -- some mainstream comics now have such baroque layouts now that if you've never read a comic before you'd be totally lost. I think that also allows the moments when you do break out of the box, it's more memorable and has better impact.
CA: Matthew, I'd go so far as to say you're not just operating as a "colorist" for this book, you're effectively the lighting designer for the entire production. You're setting the tone of each scene, defining the locations – creating the reality of interiors and exteriors, recreating natural and artificial light sources, adding special effects. How do you make those choices, and how much back-and-forth happens w/ you and the rest of the team?
Matthew Wilson: We have a good deal of back and forth. I think Kieron and Jamie have a heavy dialogue going while the pre-color phases are happening. They may not specifically mention color all the time, but they're addressing the mood, atmosphere, and emotions, which all inform my color decisions. Then Jamie takes the results of those conversations and gives them to me as he finishes pages. There will usually be some specific notes per scene or page or panel, depending on what's happening. Sometimes they're simple and straight forward like "this is at night." Other times they'll be longer, more abstract explanations of how the scene should feel. They'll often send me photo reference of any real life locations or clothing, as well.
Once I've got the notes from Jamie and the script from Kieron I'll comb them for cues that help me decide my color palettes. At that point I'm looking at words on the screen and black and white pages, so I usually only have vague ideas of what I want to do. Once the pages get back from my flatter, and I start to dig into them, I may come up with further questions for Jamie and Kieron that didn't occur to me when looking at the book in black and white.
MW: Then, once I have all the info I need, I decide how a scene should feel. That can result in a few different approaches. Sometimes the colors in a scene need to convey an emotion, and be completely abstract. Other times the colors need to convey something literal about a location, like heavy shadows or a lot of grungy texture. Then other times those two things can combine, like the crazy bright colored lights you'd expect in a dance club, and then they can serve as both literal and emotional colors.
Once a palette is set I'll consider light sources and textures. For this book I want things to mostly feel slick and colorful, like a pop song's music video. Another thing I'm doing is, when the gods use their powers I'm intensifying any light sources around them. You can see this happening in the scene we previewed where Luci begins to deal with the snipers. When she switches her powers on the lights in the hotel room get super bright and saturated. The idea is, that's what any bystander would see when they witness these gods perform their "miracles". A blinding, beautiful, colorful spectacle.
CA: Clayton, lettering is one of those positions that, almost by definition, succeeds the less it draws attention to itself. But it's also vital to the entire production. Determining the fonts, distinguishing each character's "voice"… What other duties go into your job that might seem invisible to the casual reader?
Clayton Cowles: Well, like many other officers, my first duty is to the Truth. I do the sound effects too, and credits if they're part of the story. I suppose my key duty as a soldier of lettering is placement of text. Placing the word balloons, sound effects, captions, etc. in a way that tells the story but still serves the art; to enhance or blend in with the composition of the page as best I can. In other words, doing that "less it draws attention to itself" thing you mentioned.
CA: There's been a surge of recognition lately for how important the entire creative team is to a book, though colorists and letterers and designers traditionally haven't shared in the credit and attention – I guess a pop music corollary would be studio musicians' contribution to records, like how "Walk On The Wild Side" is a Lou Reed song, but it's Herbie Flowers who created the hook. So it's great to see your entire team represented in the credits (and for that matter, in this interview).
JM: We're big proponents of giving people credit for the work they do, hence Hannah in the credits, and Matt and Clayton on the covers.
KG: This is true – it's something we push for. We're a team. I've transparent with process. We all have ideas and I want everyone to get credit. Hell, our editor – Chrissy Williams – just had an amazing idea for a small tweak of panel order in issue #2 which makes a sequence even more magical.
I have a problem with the phrase “Assembly line comics.” Basically, f*ck that sh*t. This is team comics. This is a community. These are my friends. This is a band.
CA: How far in advance do you have this book planned out, and in how much detail?
KG: It's somewhere between 30 and 60 issues. We know how it ends. As you see by the wide bracket, its length will depend on how many areas we want to explore. While the core narrative is about the current incarnations, we certainly would like to skip back and play in other times if it suited the story. As I said above, the best ongoings always have room to explore as you progress. It's a device for looking at what interests you.
Basically, it's at least as planned as my most planned book – Journey Into Mystery. I know the end of this as much as I knew the end of that.
CA: In closing, do you have any particular musicians or songs you'd recommend readers to seek out to further their enjoyment of this book?
KG: Well, I've been curating a THE WICKED + THE DIVINE playlist on Spotify if you want to go and nose. It speaks to the tone of the book a lot. Songs about life and death and wanting things a little too badly. Also, almost complete 100% floor-filler classics, plus a sprinkling of the things which kept our lungs pumping at certain times of our life.
The Wicked + The Divine #1 is on sale now in finer comics shops and digitally from Image Comics.