“David Bowie Saved My Life”: Kieron Gillen on The Wicked + The Divine

20th May 2014 | by | No Comments

It’s only when I sit down to transcribe this interview with Young Avengers, Journey into Mystery and Phonogram scribe Kieron Gillen that I discover that my computer has inexplicably decided only to record his half of the conversation. Obviously, it’s a good job it happened that way around and not the other – but it’s also a good job it happened with someone like Kieron, who is perfectly capable of giving a lengthy, verbose and compelling interview with very little prompting. As it happens, my voice begins to reappear around ten minutes or so in anyway – but had I needed to, I suspect I could have inferred every one of my questions, or flat out made several up, purely from his essay-length responses.

I’m talking to Kieron – or, rather, he’s talking to me – because he’s got a new comic on the way: The Wicked + The Divine, his latest co-conspiracy with Phonogram artist Jamie McKelvie and their regular colourist Matt Wilson. A creator-owned ongoing at Image, it launches in the middle of June, and it’s very likely that it’ll be one of the most talked-about comics of the year. Maybe even by people who aren’t Kieron.

So can you give us the elevator pitch for The Wicked + The Divine, but a different elevator pitch from the one you’ve presumably already given in several interviews?

I don’t think WicDiv really belongs in an elevator. I think it’s a bigger story than that. And if they need an elevator, it’s kind of like a SHIELD elevator, you know, like those ones which are in a nuclear bunker silo. Or that Resident Evil kind of elevator that’s big enough that you can run around and shoot in? That’s the kind of elevator we need. It’s that big of a story.

I would have thought they’d all have private elevators, I mean, they’re gods, they don’t slum it with other people’s ordinary elevators…

Yes, exactly. And they go all the way up to heaven. Or down to hell.

The core of The Wicked + The Divine is basically… “Gods as popstars and popstars as gods”. That’s my shorthand way of putting it. You ARE getting the elevator pitch, now.

So every ninety years, The Recurrence happens. Basically, twelve deities incarnate in new forms, and they’re amazing. They’re so incredibly amazing. They’re enormous cultural figures, and they inspire people, they speak in front of crowds, and in tongues, all that kind of stuff. People love them and hate them, and in two or three years, they’re all dead again.

And our story is about these people. Fundamentally, in the 2014 Recurrence, we follow this girl called Laura, who’s a wannabe. Most people, when they hear that “alive for two years and then dead” thing, they kind of get turned off. Some people, however, they’re much more into it: “Oh, my god, I could be amazing for two years!” And we follow Laura through in her desperate attempt to get there. At the beginning of the story she meets Luci, or Lucifer, who is our kind of archly 1970s cocaine-era Thin White Duke Bowie sort of analogue, but gender-switched. And they… come to an arrangement.

In the essay at the back of the first issue, you sort of pre-empt a lot of the things I might have wanted to ask you about. But we’re publishing this before it comes out, so what the hell. One thing I wanted to pick up on was the comparison with Phonogram, which as you point out was very much about the consumers of art – whereas this is focused more on the artists. And you yourself are someone who’s gone from being a critic to, essentially, a full-time artist.

Do you think that’s maybe a potential barrier to the average reader’s ability to identify or sympathise with the characters; and is Laura, then, a way of getting around that?

Well, yeah, our viewpoint is Laura – our viewpoint is someone who wants to be on the inside of it, but isn’t. So it’s not really about the people on the inside, in that way, so much as it is about the desire to be on the inside. The way I describe the Recurrence is that there’s almost a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory kind of structure to it – there’s a certain number of golden tickets out there, and if you get the golden ticket, you get to go to the magical place… and then after you get to the magical place, you die in two years. And Laura wants a golden ticket.

Of course, with the gods themselves, yeah, there’s always the danger of being the band who make that second album where the singer complains about how big their tax bill is. I mean, seriously, Richard Ashcroft’s “Money to Burn” is one of my favourite records ever, because you can see him sitting around wondering what to write a song about… “Hmm… there’s a big pile of money, there! What could I do with that? I could burn it! And it wouldn’t matter, because I’ve got that much money!” And, yeah, but that’s not really a song that’ll make many people buy into you.

So yeah, I agree entirely that it can be a problem. But on the other hand, it’s not like these characters are already established. They’ve all become gods very quickly, and now have to deal with it. So they’re flawed, and fucked up, and dealing with stuff, falling down, and this makes them dramatic and compelling. This is why so many people read the tabloids. But at the same time there’s an element of vulnerability to them, having had this thing dropped on them. As Amaterasu says in the first issue, “You spend your whole life wishing you were someone special, then you find out you are.”

The heart of the book is very much about me exploring… well, if Phonogram was about being 28 and going insane about the concept of being 30, then this is about being 38 and going insane about the concept of being dead. They’re young people, and they’ve got two years to live, but they could be all of us. We could be dead by next week. We could be dead in thirty years. We could be dead in seventy years. It doesn’t matter, because we’re going to be dead. That time is very limited, and finite – and what do we do with it? And why do we choose to spend our time being an artist? Why do we choose to spend our time doing anything?

With characters like these, it’s all about how you humanise it. I realised that this book is basically me creating twelve, thirteen people I would kill to be – and I’d kill to be any of them – and then I’m going to kill them all. This is me setting fire to my youthful excesses. So the point is that they’re fun people to be around – Luci is funny to be with, you know!

Talking of Lucifer, as probably the most already-recognisable of the gods we see at the beginning – what went into deciding which ones to use, and particularly those ones who’ve already had so many takes on them in comics, literature and so on?

Sometimes it was “I want to use this pop star analogue, or this analogue of several pop stars, which god fits that well?” I mean, Amaterasu would be a good example: I knew I wanted to do someone who was somewhere between that Kate Bush, Florence Welch sort of line, and went through quite a few possibilities. At some point she was the Morrigan – I was going a bit more Celtic, and all that kind of stuff. But other times there’s specific gods I want to use – Baal would be a good one there. I knew I wanted to use Baal, but then the question is what pop star would I want to tie him to?

In the case of Lucifer, she was pretty much the first person I came to. I’m quite cagey about using religions which are presently worshipped, in the book. I don’t use many of them, and I’m quite careful with which ones I choose. But I feel quite free, as a lapsed Catholic, to do what the hell I want with the Catholic church. And I mean that in the obvious, angry way that it sounds! So if I want to talk about the Devil, I will talk about the Devil. And so she was pretty much the first character I thought of.

She’s a very archetypal character for me, in that she nestles into that area of… characters you might be aware of Kieron having an affinity for. Somewhere between Loki and Emily Aster. Those people.

Plus of course, if you have a character who is literally Lucifer, you can have them light a cigarette by clicking their fingers…

Yes. The finger clicks are very important in the series, as you might see!

And there’s… the fact that there’s a Faustian pact element to it, too. The fact that they make a deal is significant. But I didn’t immediately make Lucifer the Bowie character – I played with some of the trickster gods first. But I felt I had something to say with Lucifer. And I think Lucifer is important to me – Lucifer is the second god I ever became aware of as a child, and my relationship as a lapsed Catholic to Lucifer is conflicted. And I’d always kind of wanted to do a gender-swapped Lucifer: going all the way back to when I was nineteen, I had a gender-switched Lucifer lying around, and I’ve never written her. In the same way Unit [from SWORD and Uncanny X-Men] had a history, and then I thought “Oh, he makes a lot of sense in the Marvel Universe, let’s drop him in!” There’s little bits of that Lucifer.

It’s also hard not to talk about Lucifer without thinking about where the comics lineage of this series comes from – maybe because I know of your affection for a certain other series that happens to share a name with the character…

Er, yeah! You’re actually the first person to explicitly reference Lucifer! There’s a lot of people have come up with a lot of ’90s Vertigo references. It does feel kind of like a child of that, in the same way me and Jamie are children of that. One of the things we say about the book is that we wanted it to be new, and to be about being alive in 2014, and everything. But the post-modernist fantasy stuff is very deeply ingrained in me, and this is a book about a hundred years of popular culture. And if you go back to the 1920s gods, we talk about the cultural importance there. If we go back to the 1830s gods, when we meet them, you’ll see a very different sort of idea. So it’s a book that entirely understands the past, and therefore tries to remake the present out of it.

And, you know, me and Jamie are highly influenced by all of that. Matt Fraction has told us he feels like the difference between Phonogram and this is The Invisibles volume two. And I can see that – I genuinely can see that. I liked Invisibles volume two! A bit more sex, a bit more swagger, a bit less crying in your bedroom alone.

There’s part of this, which… the way I describe it might sound cold. But what I wanted to do was take everything I know about fantasy universes and what people connect to, and pop star icon-ness, and all that… basically everything I’ve ever learned. And use that to make a universe that people could buy into. And when I say buy into, I mean “Oh yeah, this makes sense, I will get a tattoo, I’ll go and cosplay.” I wanted people to care about this. It feels a bit like… you know Tolkien taking everything he learned, and putting all of his knowledge into creating this world? This is me doing that. But of course, what I know is very different from what Tolkien knew. Tolkien had an enormous knowledge of old Norse language. I know which Kenickie B-sides were really good.

But I explicitly sat and thought about which are the universes that moved me. Not even which ones I liked, necessarily – but what was the undeniable power of these things? So I was thinking about things like BuffyBuffy basically was Joss Whedon taking his love of 1980s X-Men comics, stripping off the genre tropes, and running it as a feminist-pop-action-opera thing. But you can a hundred percent see, if you know what Whedon’s influences are, where they’re coming from. But at the same time, it’s clearly whole, and defined, and beautiful. You look at The Matrix – the first one, anyway – and the incredible confidence and swagger of that. And yes, it’s read a lot of Vertigo books. But at the same time it’s clearly got its own timbre – and importantly, both of them were superhero universes that nobody, at the time, really described as superhero universes. And that’s kind of part of the thinking with The Wicked + The Divine – I wanted to take all that kind of stuff and do something that hit like that.

This is a book with a ridiculous amount of emotions beneath the surface. But it’s also me using every single tool and everything I’ve ever learned as a creator – really, as a human being – to express them as cleanly as I can. Our work tends to be slightly frenzied, I think? And occasionally it’s good, and occasionally it’s bad. But WicDiv, its frenzy and its rage are very controlled. There’s so much craft in the book. And that’s the weird thing about the first issue, it’s sort of… I’m not sure “restrained” is even the right word, but it’s “Here’s something that’s readable, in a way that we’re not always readable.”

The first half of the issue does have something of that “Here we are, abstractly exploring this idea” thing in that way you do; but then the second half is “Oh, and by the way, we’ve got a story, too!”

An actual plot! I tell you, I’ll never be Brian K Vaughan, he’s far better at it than I am – but I’ve got a BKV-esque issue ending! It’s like, here’s a reason to read the next issue, who’d have thought it?

But yeah, it’s all about bringing all these random tools to bear, on the task at hand, and making it work. So that’s the influence: the influence is everything. LITERALLY everything!

At least from what we see in the first issue, although you’ve talked about all these different pop culture elements going into it, it seems to be very much filtered through pop music. In terms of what we see on the page, is that all there is to it? Are the gods all, essentially, “pop stars”, or will we see others doing different things?

They’re cultural figures, is the best way of putting it. Generally speaking, their predominant interest is their art. It’s not like “…and they save people through doing that”, either. It’s the rapturous performance, that’s what they’re for. As Luci puts it in the first issue, they “don’t really do much useful”. But you go back to the 1920s, you’ll see a very different type of god. Same if you go back to the 1830s. If we go back to the Renaissance gods, we’re going to get to people who are almost analogous to Michaelangelo, or whatever. So their practical purposes are there, and they’ve all got their own aim, and the things they do, and the things they like, but… their motivations are much more personal. It’s more a social circle kind of thing.

One of the core ideas is “David Bowie saved my life” – it’s doing an argument on celebrity and artists through the superhero-powered-godlike-metaphor. One of my reservations about this was that if you do a superhero comic and even touch on the idea of celebrity, it’s almost always very critical. It’s always “Oh, look at these guys, Superman’s much better because he doesn’t do cocaine.” And the idea that none of these young kids really know what they’re talking about – basically a very old white conservative view. Whereas in The Wicked + The Divine we take a more… trust me, we’re hard on these gods, but also kind of like “Yeah, saving people’s lives, no matter how you choose to save their lives, is a worthwhile endeavour.”

One of the things that struck me when you first announced the series was how quickly it arrived, really – it wasn’t something you talked about for a while beforehand or anything, the first we knew about it was the announcement of the launch. How early on was it apparent that this would be a long-form story, and that it would be your first proper creator-owned ongoing?

Well, I’m still not sure exactly how long it’s going to be – I think we’ve said somewhere in the region of thirty to sixty issues, but my gut says it’ll probably still be towards the shorter end? There’s an element of the fact that the characters live for two years that makes you think it’s probably not going to go on for much longer than that! I think a Losers kind of length, that sort of thing, is my gut feeling. But I’m leaving room to completely add extra arcs and go back and forward in time.

But… it just felt like a really good opportunity to do it. We looked at the story, knew the story we wanted to tell, and it got big enough, so we thought it sounded like a good thing to do. I think I would have done one of these soon, anyway. We wanted to do our own book, and we were pretty sure we wanted to do an ongoing, because we hadn’t done one before. Me and Jamie doing a shortform book isn’t quite as interesting – this is a different challenge.

You’ve talked about bringing in other artists to draw issues or arcs down the line – given how strong and defined the feel of a you-and-Jamie-and-Matt book is, would the intention be to try and get people to work closely to that style, or to tailor stories to the artists who are going to do them?

We’ll mix it up a bit, you know? The artists we’re kind of thinking about for each story… we’ll try and make it sort of about that, and for them? They’ll be like singular pop singles. And some of the ones are going to be fucking mental. But Jamie will still be involved – he’ll still be doing covers, and a two-page backup story each issue, that sort of thing. And all the design, and everything else like that.

It’s not something that always gets picked up on, but having someone that isn’t Jamie letter something the two of you have done is quite interesting, too. And you’ve put Clayton Cowles’ name on the cover…

Well, Clayton did the lettering on Young Avengers, too, of course. There’s a reason why we use Clayton – he came on with Journey Into Mystery, and that was a “break a letterer” kind of project. So for this, we were choosing our “A-Team” of people, the people we really kind of clicked with – and people who’d go the extra mile. And he understands the intent, too.

There’s actually another influence in the lettering, too, which is Hannah Donovan, the designer. And her design included some of the font choices – so that all goes towards this overall aesthetic. We wanted it to feel like an aesthetically singular object. And we do stuff like the chapter breaks – we’ve got this circle of icons, and each icon represents one of the gods in play. And as each god appears or disappears in the narrative… look at me being coy, what I mean is dying… we do that. Little things like that.

Well, this is why the idea of bringing other people in to do something completely different interests me – it’s like, basically since day one, with you and Jamie together on Phonogram, you’ve kind of gradually built this team bit by bit. Matt Wilson’s come in, and then Hannah, and Clayton. Obviously creative teams are common in comics, but it’s like you’ve essentially assembled a team to completely package a comic from start to finish, and we know when we look at that group of people to expect a certain standard of style and quality…

We’ve always had the gang mentality, as well, though – we’ve always done the B-sides. We’ve always had our mates come in, to do slightly different things. And even with Young Avengers, we had Kate Brown in for issue #6, and the two jam issues in the end. So the idea of having other people involved is always a part of our aesthetic. So while we have this clear aesthetic, there’s also this almost Wu-Tang-esque, “these are our gang”, kind of thing.

Something we’re doing… well, I’m pretty sure we’re going to be doing this. You know, shops do their own covers occasionally, and we have got a few shops interested in this. And one of the covers is that Matt took the existing cover, and did a very different treatment on it. And we thought “What if we got some other colourists to do this?” Jordie Bellaire’s doing one, for example. So our alternate covers for these different retailers, which we can also put online as a kind of gallery, will basically be a bit of a statement about how colourists are important, and what colourists can bring to the page, and how they do things differently. And I think in the current state of the industry, that felt like… well, firstly a bit of a giggle, but also a pointed thing to do? And the same goes for putting Clayton’s name on the cover. It’s this egalitarian thing, and the fact that we can do these things means we will do these things.

It’s something that Jamie always… in fact, Jamie said this in an interview with you, back when we first met, that Sandman has this purpose as like a “gazetta” of comics, that it could explain to you what comics is, other ways that comics are being. And we’ve always been into that, you know? We like being a comic that opens doors – it’s like, yes, we’ve created a beautiful temple for you to live in, but here’s a door, here’s a road somewhere else – here are other places. This is the culture and context we see ourselves in.

I know what you mean, though. Aesthetic purity is so important to us, but at the same time the urge to play, and the urge to reach further than what is “us”, that’s also important to us. But I think this is the most ultimate pop statement of me and Jamie’s aesthetic. That’s the idea of the project.

It’s also… I mean, Young Avengers maybe had this to an extent, but it’s basically the first time that the two of you have created something with this amount of scrutiny and attention on you as you’re creating it? With things like the style blog on Tumblr that you set up, or even the work-in-progress stuff that’s in the British Library exhibition… it feels like it’s been built quite publicly, as it’s gone along. Does that feed into it at all, kind of like the creation of the comic is almost a performance?

The creation of the comic is… is the process of doing the comic. I mean, Journey Into Mystery was this – I’m Loki in that, desperately trying to keep the plot on line, and to get what he wants before the world falls apart. The process of doing Young Avengers was often kind of like doing Young Avengers. The process of doing it is doing it. This is incredibly tautological, but weirdly, this is how it feels. But kind of the biggest takeaway is that the process of The Wicked + The Divine is again, kind of like that – we’re going to be around for about the same time as these gods will be. And it’s about us trying to become the creators we always wanted to be.

This is a very determined big swing, and swaggering, and getting on the big stage, and saying okay, me and Jamie, we’re not new, indie creators any more. We don’t have any indie cred. But we’re now the establishment. And if we’re not the establishment, we’re close to it. And that’s ludicrous! But we’re in that position now, so what can we do? And we do this. It’s our best chance to do it.

And that’s kind of what the gods are. Two years to live, what do we do now?

So yeah, I feel so close to so many of the characters in this, because of that awful, awful need.

I kind of wonder if Cassandra, the journalist in the first issue, is almost like you as you used to be. She’s like a Phonogram character dropped into the middle of this fantasy world…

ALL the characters are me like I used to be! All the characters have got bits of me in – I up a trait here and there, and I remove bits, but these casts are very much how I see myself. And, you know, I kind of hate myself!

Cassandra’s very much an ongoing character, by the way. She’s also part of it. She’s a necessary metacritical – or critical – element. And I agree with a lot of what she says! She’s the lampshade over the problems of the comic!

It’s like she’s voicing criticisms that people might have of the book, before they get a chance to have them…

Yes! Like I say, literally lampshading it! It’s me saying “Yes, but… go with me.” And I think especially if you’re playing with some dangerous, problematic bits, you need to show some awareness of that – you need to be clear that it’s about them. Like, if you take the first scene we meet Luci in issue #1, that scene was very carefully rewritten lots of times, to make it very clear what the point of the scene was. It’s meant to be very clear that narratively speaking, I’m not on the side of this character. Well, that’s not quite true, it’s not that I’m not on the side of the characters, because I don’t think it’s in any way judgmental, but it’s having an awareness that they’re problematic.

This book’s not going to be an easy book. These people are not nice people. They’ll fuck up in really interesting ways, because that’s what people do. I mean, have you ever followed a pop star’s Twitter stream?

I just think, if I’m going to write about pop stars, they’re going to be all kinds of fucking awful!

The Wicked + The Divine #1 is published by Image on 18th June. This week is your last chance to pre-order from your local comic shop if you don’t want to be disappointed when it inevitably sells out. We strongly suggest you do that. The pre-order thing, not the disappointment thing.