New Power Generation: Talking Sex, Music and ‘Young Avengers’ with Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie
In 2005, as part of an overhaul of Marvel's Avengers line in the wake of Avengers Disassembled, writer Allan Heinberg and artist Jim Cheung launched Young Avengers, a new title with a cast of kid heroes inspired by established characters. The series -- and its central gay teen couple, Wiccan and Hulkling -- earned a passionate following, and despite an erratic release schedule the creative team was able to tell the story they wanted to tell, wrapping up last year in Avengers: Children's Crusade.
Now the Avengers line is getting another overhaul as part of Marvel NOW, and Marvel hopes the time is right for a new Young Avengers title with a new creative team. ComicsAlliance invited writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie to a chat room (because that's how the kids did it in our day) to talk about their Young Avengers roster, the Young Avengers fans, and bringing sexy back.
You've been invited to this chat room!
ComicsAlliance: I should say up front that this won't be the most objective interview I've ever conducted, because (a) I've known you both for many years, and (b) I'm very excited about Young Avengers, because it fits squarely into several of my areas of interest: gay characters, men being sexy, and women being more than just sexy.
Jamie McKelvie: These are all good things. Well, except for knowing us for years, for which I can only apologize.
CA: I'm going to start with the gay characters, because I couldn't really start anywhere else. So, chaps; is there a burdensome sense of responsibility in taking on such a well-loved gay teen couple?
Kieron Gillen: Burdensome is a little strong, I suspect. That's the sort of thing you have to try and work your way around -- if you end up thinking just about what the characters mean to people you end up taking your eye off what the characters mean in-and-of-themselves, which is primarily as characters. They need to live, if you see what I mean.
CA: My sense is that these characters have built a following by actually not being on the page very much, because the previous Young Avengers runs came out so slowly.
KG: I'd agree with that. It's allowed the fan-base to live inside them.
JM: I think that's true -- in the absence of new material the fans have built up a host of fan fictions, fan art, etc.
CA: And fans are very invested in their happiness, and there's not much story potential in happiness. You have an obligation to tell stories. So do you feel like you have to thread the needle there? How do you keep the fan-base happy?
JM: I think trying to create a story purely intended to do what you think would "keep the fan-base happy" would be a big mistake. As you say, it doesn't have story potential. You have to instead try to focus on the characters and tell a good story with them. And hope people come along for the ride. I think they will.
KG: You can't over-worry about it, not least because it'd kill it stone dead. If people want to see Wiccan and Hulkling happy forever, they should make a statue of them kissing or something.
CA: They absolutely should! That would sell like hot boys kissing.
KG: HOT HOT HOT.
JM: Yes, but it would be very boring spread over a year's worth of issues. Though I could just cut and paste.
CA: Speaking of kissing; it took seven years for Wiccan and Hulkling to share their first kiss, but you have it happening in your first issue. Are we going to see a lot more affection? Is there a PDA quota you're going to try to hit?
JM: From my POV, I'm treating them like I would any other couple in a comic. So when they're sat together, one might have his arm round the other when they're talking, they'll touch; when they're kissing, their lips will totally be touching.
KG: The intimacy is the thing. The kiss in the first issue is great... but the next panel, when they're acting like that to each other? That's where it's real. That's what Jamie brings to the page.
CA: Has there been any guidance from Marvel on what they consider "appropriate?"
JM: No. We're all on the same level, pretty much unspoken.
KG: We've never bumped into any problems with the sexuality of the characters.
CA: To go back to the fans; I'm sure you're aware that some have looked at the preview pages and said the boys look "too gay" or "too effeminate," which I find a heartbreaking sentiment coming from fans of these particular characters, but I understand the fear of stereotypes. What are your feelings on whether or not the characters should "look gay?"
JM: Firstly, yes, I don't like the implication that "too gay" would be negative anyway. But really I think that's coming from people who aren't familiar with our work. I like to focus on clothing, body language, and so on, which may come as a surprise to people who are used to a more stoic kind of superhero art (which isn't to criticize; it's just different to what I do). That's very important to what I draw -- if you can look at a page without dialogue and roughly intuit what is going on, I feel I've succeeded.
CA: On the subject of the look of the characters. Jamie, you clearly care about keeping the cast contemporary. Where do you take inspiration from in order to get that right?
JM: Music, fashion blogs, all sorts. I put together a style folder for each character. Every time I see an outfit that fits how I see them, I put it in the folder. Film and TV dress for character; I think comics should too. Character A shouldn't wear what Character B would.
CA: I love Miss America's costume, which I assume is her actual costume? It's very original.
JM: It's one of her costumes. I see her as having themed clothes rather than a specific costume. She's going to have a few across the series. It's in keeping with her character, I think: down to earth, no mess, all punching. She really does punch people a lot.
CA: I just hope hoodies don't become the new bomber jackets. I don't want to see all the X-Men and all the Avengers in hoodies. You can't put Thor in a hoodie.
McKelvie: I can do what I like. I gave Rogue an asymmetrical haircut
CA: Madness. Speaking of Miss America; she's de facto a patriot hero, but is Miss America a patriot?
KG: I want to say something like, "That's a good question," then lean back from the table. Not that we're around a table, but you get the idea. Miss America is shamelessly mysterious, basically. The true extents of her motivations are deduced rather than outwardly stated. I mean, she's called Miss America because she's called America. I love that. What we can see is that she's a particularly brutal idealist. Does that make her a patriot? Maybe. I suppose the question has to be "what of?"
CA: So you can't tell me what America, the nation, means to America, the Miss?
KG: Basically, yeah.
JM: *pulls a mysterious face *
CA: FINE THEN! Let's talk about Kate Bishop. She's the only one in two books (Young Avengers and Hawkeye, by Matt Fraction and David Aja), so who controls her destiny? Do you have to fight Matt Fraction for her honor?
JM: From an art point of view, David and I actually working really closely. We've been sharing art back and forth, re: Kate.
JM: I think Kieron is eating a HobNob.
CA: He can't multi-task? I ate a cake.
JM: He's a comics writer. He can barely type.
KG: There's no honor between Matt Fraction and me. Or Jamie and me, evidently. Basically, [Kate's] primarily mine. We've talked about where her status quo ends up at issue #5, and that defines what she can or can't do in Hawkeye.
CA: UH-OH! Sounds... status quo-changing!
KG: But bar the organization areas, we're both on the same page with her. We have a similar vision for her vibe.
CA: So what's her vibe?
KG: Hah. Well, I wrote an essay on that particular one. Fiercely independent, probably the most sensible member of the team. (Certainly more sensible than Clint.) Rich, but oddly down to earth with it. Into living life.
CA: Is she the team leader? Or is that sort of thinking prosaic and old-fashioned?
KG: Yeah, we're not that sort of team that has someone who's the de facto leader, any more than your social group has a leader. The leader is a social construct. If they do have one, it may be Loki. He's the one who got them together, after all. However, if he tries to be the leader, it doesn't necessarily assume everyone else follows.
JM: Me, I see Billy and Teddy as leads, but that's very different to team leader.
CA: Loki seems like a terrible person to have as the leader.
JM: We love terrible decisions.
CA: This version of Loki doesn't seem to have anyone's interests at heart but his own. Is that fair to say?
KG: What Loki's up to is the other main mystery. Anyone who's come from JIM (Journey Into Mystery) obviously has a bunch of preconceptions (which aren't wrong), but this is a clean start. I want someone to be able to join the book and just see "kid who looks like Loki" and go with that. As in, NO-ONE IN THEIR RIGHT MIND SHOULD TRUST HIM. But yes, Loki is clearly the problem if he's guiding them. Unless he's not. Unless he is. It's confusing. I'd agree with Jamie, though -- Loki may aspire to be a "leader," but Billy and Teddy are leads, at least for the first arc.
CA: Are you writing him as Kid Loki, Old Loki, or someone else? I think readers want to like Kid Loki, but knowing that he's Old Loki might make that difficult. Isn't he a creepy old dude pretending to be a kid, just without the internet?
KG: Well, if we're going to go deep into JIM continuity, he's not strictly speaking Old Loki in Kid Loki's body. He's what Old Loki "backed up" as Ikol in Kid Loki's body. But, to return to a line I've used a few times, things are different for gods. One of my ideas that ran through JIM that the gods are fundamentally different than humans. Humans are real in the [Marvel Universe]. Gods are made of stories. In a real way, things are different for gods. So, even JIM readers should have a, "What does it actually mean?" about Kid Loki. And newcomers? Well, you'll get intro-ed to it when I need to. For now, you can take Kid Loki as he is on the page.
CA: If gods are made of stories, doesn't that make you, the writer, some sort of uber-god?
KG: That's certainly one way of looking at it. [Grant] Morrison's way, really. Though if I define gods as creatures made out of stories, I'm not a god. I'm the demiurge, probably. What interests me for once is less the meta ("because all the characters are stories, etc, etc") and more trying to deal with that as a genuine piece of existential horror, that some of the characters are fundamentally laboring under a different experiences than others. Gods can do certain things and can't do certain others. It just interests me. Worth noting that it's less to the fore than in JIM. At least to begin with.
CA: OK, let's talk Marvel Boy. And I want to thank you for bringing his sexy back. I was a big fan of JG Jones' original version of the character and less excited by what happened to him later.
KG: We're all about the sexy, us. Basically, when he was cut free from the Avengers, it struck me as a good direction to take him. Get in touch with the James Dean, but alloy it with his experiences. He's tried to do things properly, and that just bit him on the ass.
Also, sexy. Sexy is important.
CA: But no more bike shorts for Noh-Varr?
KG: That's on Jamie!
JM: I've said it before, but David Bowie is my touchstone for Noh-Varr. I want to draw on his otherwordly sexiness. He's a bit too old for shorts now.
CA: Tsch. But he'll take his shirt off a lot, right?
JM: Of course.
CA: Is he still called Marvel Boy? One of your tracks for him on your profile (on Tumblr) was the seminal Bros classic "Drop the Boy," but presumably you can't just call him "Marvel?"
KG: Yes, [he's still Marvel Boy]. Or at least that's what other people call him. He's more ambivalent on being called Marvel Boy. He'd rather be Noh-Varr. Hence, "Drop The Boy." To put your mind at rest, Andrew, his pants are very tight.
CA: We don't have a lot of sexy men who are deliberately sexy in comics. It's very important.
JM: We've long had a problem in comics where the women are "sexy" (in a sexist fashion) and the men aren't. Time to redress the balance. And there's a big difference between sexist and sexy.
KG: No matter what Spinal Tap think. I mean, that opening with Kate does objectify Marvel Boy. It's Kate's perspective. It's all about that gaze. Before the Skrulls attack, we're on the bed with her. The chunk of that whole scene is about her response to him, so we can do that. However, this is all in service of story. It's not just, "Ass shot, now" We think we can make comics sexier.
JM: I think we're very keen on it being a sex-positive comic in that sense.
CA: And I like that when he's dancing in his underwear he doesn't seem to have a sense of, "I am being sexy," but there's also no insecurity, no, "this is silly."
KG: That's it entirely. And silly and human is sexy. Being comfortable in your own skin is sexy.
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CA: Does it come up at all that you have two Kree on your team? That there's a relationship of sorts there? (Hulkling is half-Kree; Marvel Boy is full Kree.)
KG: The fact they're both Kree is certainly in the mix. I'm actually getting in touch with the specifics of Noh-Varr's Kree-ness. But I do like the fact they're both there. And it's particularly relevant regarding those Skrulls who turned up. They're basically the equivalent of the Skrull Kill Krew for Kree. Except not with the abbreviation, obv.
CA: Oh, yes, that would be difficult.
Some fans will be annoyed that you've brought in a new white haired kid and dropped the original white haired kid on the team. I always thought Wiccan's brother Speed was a little too indistinct from Quicksilver to be really interesting, but I know he turns up in a future issue. Do you have a good take on the character?
KG: I think so. There's a few reasons why I decided he would be better moving on. I'll admit partially it was out of the Kaplan-centric nature of the comic. It's not just a Billy solo story. That would make 3/4 of the original young avengers on the team be basically a cluster of plots, which would create more gravity towards those kind of stories.
In terms of team dynamics, he was the irritant. He was the least traditionally nice of them. Frankly, Marvel Boy and Miss America (and Loki for that matter) are a little sharper than the traditional YA. As such, he kind of loses the effectiveness in that role.
And if I did include him, it'd bloat the cast sooner than I like. It'd need to be tight. And, in a real way, I just couldn't see him hanging around for ages. He'd move on. He's a mover-on. He's got things to do! And that's basically where we find him in #6.
CA: And Cassie Lang is currently dead, and you've said Eli Bradley is earmarked by someone else. What about the Kangs? Any plans to dip your toe in that pool? Is there room for Kangs in a Loki book?
KG: As you know, I love Kang. KANG! KANG! KANG! And I did think about him right at the start of YA, but I realized that bringing him in would either undermine or simply replicate what was done in Children's Crusade. The point of CC is that he's on the way to becoming Kang. I do a story that continues that and I'm just repeating it. I do a story about him changing route, and I'm just negating that story. Maybe eventually, but certainly not in the first year. I do love Kang, after all.
CA: You've hinted that we'll be seeing other young heroes and possible additions to the cast in the future. Can you drop any hints?
KG: I'd rather not say, basically. There's lots of surprises ahead. One of the characters is someone I've had an eye on doing something with for a while now, and thought this could be a great chance. I considered adding them for the first arc, but decided not to, for the same reason I didn't include Tommy -- just too many moving parts.
CA: Are you basically left with anyone Dennis Hopeless doesn't torture and kill in Avengers Arena?
KG: Basically I'm planning on reanimating anyone who is killed in Avengers Arena as zombies, and setting them against my heroes. Zombie Cassie is already a shoe-in, with Kate as ultimate-zombie-hunter. (She's both a zombie and a zombie-hunter. It's very tragic.)
CA: Jamie, do you have new looks in mind for Wiccan, Hulkling and Kate?
JM: It's all about how it works for the story. Hulkling has a new costume as he's out secretly superheroing without Wiccan. Wiccan hasn't been doing any, so he doesn't have a new costume. Yet. Kate just got a new one in Hawkeye, so I'm using that. But beyond costumes, it's been two years. So yes, they will look a bit different.
CA: Are you going to be crossing over? I'm not clear on how Marvel NOW is approaching that. But I want to see Wiccan and Hulkling hang out with Anole, and maybe Pixie. You should put them on your team. Am I writing fanfic now? Anole needs friends. Are you looking up who Anole is?
JM: I know who Anole is. :(
CA: No frowny faces for Anole!
KG: Jamie! Anole was the one who got sick first in Quarantine, man. READ MY COMICS.
JM: I was just feeling sad for his big weird arm.
CA: I like it. I like that he's this Chris Colfer mutant with this one giant jock arm.
KG: We're not currently planning on crossing over. It may change, but hopefully not. There's a possibility to do one later, on #14-15, but that's actually from an idea I had, and something I suggested. And even that's not sure. Basically, where JIM was created to be able to dance around every crossover that was thrown at it, YA is imagined as its own thing, self-sufficient and self-contained.
CA: I want all the gay heroes to go hang out together. Maybe not Daken.
KG: Daken would spoil all the fun.
CA: By the way; are Billy and Teddy actually engaged? It seemed ambiguous at the end of Children's Crusade.
KG: I would say they are, but it's a story I'm not actually exploring. Engagement is "going out" with a bow on it. I'm not doing a marriage story, so it's a less important thing for the story I'm telling.
CA: The other things I wonder about Teddy; is he actually that buff and blond, or is that just how he chooses to look?
JM: I think he subconsciously took that form -- he didn't know he wasn't human until the Super-Skrull turned up. And we're going to be exploring his shape-changing as we go along. I'm interested in it. I'd like to develop it further.
CA: I notice you only have two women on your six-person team, and only one person of color. Thoughts? This is either going to be a really long answer or a really carefully crafted one...
JM: Or he's eating a HobNob.
CA: How many HobNobs can he possibly have there?
JM: How long have you known him?
CA: I don't remember. Suppressed memories.
KG: [The balance of the team is] not ideal, but also a creature of mathematics. I can't use Eli. I'm left with four original Young Avengers, of whom I have to surely include some, yeah? Three men and one woman. I include the only remaining woman and two more white guys (That was another reason not to include Tommy -- it'd have skewed the team even more male). I include Loki as he's the story I want to tell. I add Marvel Boy as Kate needs a romantic interest. I add Miss America. Marvel Boy is about the only one which is even possible to go another way, but I really couldn't think of anyone else in the MU who fit the role.
The male/female ratio isn't that bad, unless you're going to take a hard line on 50:50. I could have expanded the team, but -- as I said -- I don't want to dilute the story. When you've got the medium's most prominent gay love story and it features two white guys, it limits the amount of room you have to maneuver unless you actually are going to lose them. But the member I'm adding down the line is another minority. I'll be happier when we reach that.
CA: Having at least two LGBT characters is certainly a better-than-average nod to diversity. And I say "at least two" because I don't yet know about Miss America, and Noh-Varr is Kree, and they all seem a little bit ambiguous. Or maybe that's just Mar-Vell's family? "No comment"?
KG: No, I'd say exactly. Sexuality is important to the book. And it's important to give space for the characters to explore theirs.
CA: I know you have HobNobs to eat, so I'll make this the last question. Are the Young Avengers going to be a team, or just a group? And if they're a team, are they an Avengers team?
KG: An Avengers team? An official one with membership cards? Well, a bunch of them do already have that, if it matters. I don't think it does. For me, this book is the opposite of the big governmental organization of the mainstream '00s-onwards Avengers book. This is about the ideals -- about a group of people gathered together to stop the problems none of them could deal with apart. It's about being a superhero team. If you can save the world, what other choice do you have? It's hyper-idealistic.
Young Avengers volume one was about that aspiring to be recognized. This is a book that realizes that ultimately you do it for yourself and you don't need the badge.
So yeah, a team and a group. But perhaps more like a band. But I would say that, wouldn't I?