Interview With Kieron Gillen (2009)
This is actually the third interview I did for Comics Bulletin back in 2009, and it’s out of order since I haven’t posted the second one yet, but after I posted “Musique Non Stop” I’m in the mood to do this.
Straight up, Kieron Gillen, writer of Phonogram and current writer of Thor, has been one of my best friends in comics to date. This goes back a bit to the old Warren Ellis message board THE ENGINE (not the older Warren Ellis Forum, which I wasn’t around for), and seeing the first cover proofs for the first series of Phonogram, the re-draws/homages by Jamie McKelvie of the covers to Elastica’s sole album and, especially, Black Grape’s It’s Great When You’re Straight Yeah! sold me right then and there.
I was an acolyte, a fundamentalist for Phonogram from word Go. Gillen had even sent me postcards of the first “B-Side” promo for the series, and I took them and left them all over Indianapolis, at comic book stores and record stores alike. Even got a neat little Phonogram badge for the trouble. And, of course, 13 issues of sheer brilliant comics work and a good friend in the process.
This was done right when the very, very delayed second issue of The Singles Club was about to come out. Since then Gillen’s not only had Phonogram cut out from under him, but his series S.W.O.R.D. at Marvel as well. However, he’s currently in the midst of a popular run on Thor, which was only supposed to have been a six-issue filler run between J. Michael Straczynski’s and the beginning of Matt Fraction’s ballyhooed tenure, but has actually since been extended beyond those six issues. And I couldn’t be happier for him.
Ladies and gentlemen, Kieron Gillen:
I think we all know by now, there’s been some delays between the first and second issues of Phonogram: The Singles Club, so, just to get it out of the way, what’s happened? Should we expect any more delays after issue 2 comes out?
“Some delays” is an incredibly polite way of putting it. They’ve been long, embarrassing and sadly unavoidable. The short version is that pre-orders weren’t particularly impressive – matching the first series, but a couple of thousand down on Suburban Glamour (Colour normally adds a couple of thousand in sales, in really rough maths). So while Jamie had some money to continue working, he was relying on a cheque to come in by February to continue to do so. Of course, with the orders, there would be no cheque – so he had to go and do some work for hire work to get a roll of dirty cash, before cracking back into it. That’s the position we’re in now. Jamie’s going to still end up doing a little work around the side, but when we made it 16-pages we were presuming there would be some of that. Hopefully it should be on a relatively even tick. It’s certainly what we’re trying to do. We thank everyone for their patience, y’know?
So you’re saying based on pre-orders alone, The Singles Club is only matching Rue Britannia at best. Given the higher profiles that yourself and Jamie have garnered since the first series of Phonogram, that’s sort of shocking. Is Phonogram, despite the rave reviews the first series got, really that much of a niche produkt in the modern comics market, or is it the fault of the thing that’s everything’s fault right now, the economy?
Well, we’ve got a thousand and one theories on why, from the paranoid to the totally ludicrous. My favourite is because we did a Pink cover. More realistically… well, while the economic factor’s an obvious big ‘un, I actually get the nagging suspicion it may just be the simplest explanation. That is, retailers – on average – saw there was a second series and just ordered the same numbers as last time.
We’ve learned a lot from the process, but I don’t really like circling around the economic angle too much. People’s first response to the culture they consume is increasingly weighed down in that “the film is shit because it didn’t meet box office expectations” talk. It’s one of those nasty tools capitalism uses to keep us in check – that is, making us feel as if we’re somehow part of a system because they’re speculating on it with nothing but their opinion. It’s a bit of a waste of time. Why be bitter about what went wrong when so much is going right. If we’re doomed, we’re gloriously doomed. I like that.
So if we’re going to drive those sales up so we can all enjoy Phonogram 3 The Hard Way before the alleged 2012 apocalypse, give us the 25-words-or-less pitch about why someone who may not give The Singles Club a chance, or are on the fence about it, should go ahead and pick up the first issues once #2 is out?
A universe where music is literally magic. Seven stories set in the same night at the same nightclub. Critically adored. Also, adored by adorable people.
So the stories are connected in some way then. Doesn’t that sort of run contrary to the notion of “singles,” in the musical context? I mean, even when, say, Sub Pop Records had their own “Singles Club,” they wouldn’t necessarily be connected by anything other than Sub Pop putting it out; Soundgarden, Fugazi, Thee Headcoats and Rapeman weren’t really otherwise similar. Does the series stay close to that idea then?
I’d disagree: release a track out of a concept album and it still works as a single. Other artists have kept characters or themes between portions of their work. They’ve created explicit sequences which the casual consumer may not even know about (I’m thinking the KLF’s Stadium House trilogy). The single is a flexible cultural form and you can do pretty much any bloody thing with it you want. People have, and we have too.
Of course, “Single” means lots of things. While it’s the big obvious one, we use the other definitions too. If our purpose was to make a single, we’d have put out a record.
OK, you win with the invocation of the KLF. Bastard! So, is there any chance of seeing the best British magician comic character since John Constantine, the star of Rue Britannia, David Kohl, in The Singles Club, even if it’s just a brief cameo?
The KLF is the trump card in all things.
Yeah, Kohl is in the series. You’d have spotted him in issue 1, but he gets a larger appearance in issue 2 and has a talking role in issue 3. That’s the Emily Aster issue, and it’s Kohl who’s dragged the indie-club-phobic Aster there. You’re going to get a considerably different feeling from Kohl this time round though, as we’re seeing him through the filters of all the people he meet.
Ah, you know, I’m going to have to go back and re-read issue 1 now, as I confess I don’t think I spotted Kohl. Moving on from Phonogram for a minute, the stereotype used to be, for British comic creators coming over to the US, it was some strange warped Horatio Alger story: break in doing time at either 2000AD or Doctor Who Magazine, or even Battle if you were old enough, get noticed by DC, have a good run at Vertigo, ride off into the sunset. Certainly, Tony Lee has said as much before. You, however, came in through video game journalism, in fact you wrote something of a “manifesto” once for that particular field. So, video game journalism and webcomics, which may be understating it a bit, but it’s a bit “non-traditional” from how people assume you break in to comics. So, even in the UK, is there a “sure way” of breaking in anymore?
Final spread leading up to the conclusion, cutting between Penny heading to the dancefloor and people’s responses. Emily and Kohl are there. It’s like Where’s Wally with indie kids.
Regarding breaking in… oh, I dunno. It’s less of there being a Sure Way in, than there just being more options now. You don’t have to go and work for 2000AD if you don’t want to. Guys realised that due to a little thing called the Internet, access is suddenly a lot easier. I suspect I’m one of the last of a wave of creators – [Matt] Fraction, Antony Johnson, etc – who kind of percolated on the Warren Ellis Forum in those final days of the nineties. My first scheming comic anthology projects were done with a lovely chap from LA who I’d have never had met if it wasn’t for the proxy of the internet. We could have never had done that in the eighties. We’d have never had met. That sort of stuff was much more important to breaking into comics than my experience in videogames journalism, really. Not that it didn’t teach me a mass of stuff, give me a forum to perform in public and get used to being adored/hated for something I’ve done, but I can’t think of many opportunities which came from that rather than just getting stuck in with the tools of my mind, determination and talking shit on the internet.
How important is the Internet to comics creation these days then? How key was it even for Phonogram?
It’s as important as you want to make it. My feeling is that the net was kinder for larger, stupider projects circa 2000. Everyone’s a bit burnt out now. The attention span is down. People seem to have more trouble getting together and forming larger projects – which I say as an internet old man, having been online since 94. But point being, I get the feeling the next wave of creative energy will come from real-world-touching-space rather than anything as abstract as the WEF. Or the next Flight-esque movement will be a bunch of people who get drunk together. A rejection of microculture… but even for them, it’s going to be a tool. If you’re marketing, it’s a perfect one. I mean, what are the chances we’d be talking Mr. Wessel, if we didn’t have the net? For us, it’s as essential as oxygen.
On a more boring practical level: We use FTP to upload our files to Image. It’d take much longer to ship CDs or something. MORE delays? Hail the net.
Right, right, I get all that, but you have to admit, comics seem to be the last entertainment form that has really embraced the internet, at least mainstream comics anyway. Television networks offer same-day streams of new episodes of hit shows, bands are eschewing record labels in favor of releasing brand new albums online months before they hit the stores for absolutely legal, free download, yet the major publishers are loathe to even put back issues of titles up online without it being a major pain in the arse. What is it going to take, in your opinion, for comics as a whole to fully come into the digital sphere, be it creators or publishers?
I’ll go along with the “mainstream”… but that’s a word I always have trouble with. There’s more than one mainstream in comics. When 60,000 people turn up to PAX, you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that Penny Arcade aren’t mainstream. I suspect the better word to use would be “traditional”, and their relationship with the online world’s proved somewhat strained. It’s a question of the business model and what you’re actually selling, innit? The TV streams are paid by advertising (Or the license fee over here). The band stuff… well, there’s difference in both the business model and the actual thing you’re consuming (While you re-read comics, you re-listen to music infinitely more – and as well as the volunteer-pay-for-model, you’ve got alternate streams a band can get cash from – gigs being the obvious one). Comics… well, it’s tricky. The webcomic guys who have made it a working business model is really about monetizing a community, which demands creating a work which reaches a large enough community so that the tiny proportion who are willing to pay for it are enough to sustain the endeavour. The webcomic-to-GN thing is… oh, this can go on all day, and all is a mile away from the traditional comics you were asking about.
Really, until we get an iTunes for comics, I can’t see anything working. The “everyone-has-their-own-venue” for web ventures will never really work.
Moving on, you have a series of Beta Ray Bill one-shots coming up at Marvel. What brought you to that character, and are you ready to get the obvious Walt Simonson comparisons when it comes to writing Bill?
Oh, when you’re writing a character who was both summoned into existence and defined in an enormous run by a single brilliant creator, you have to expect comparisons. And just hope they’re not wholly insulting. It’s going to be an interesting one – I was approached by lovely Marvel Editor Mr. Simons to pitch ideas for first a special – which ended up being Green of Eden – and later for where I’d take him next – which ended up being GodHunter. I’ll be interested to see what everyone makes of ’em. I’m having a lot of fun with them.
Was there something about the Beta Ray Bill character that made you want to write him, or were there any aspects of the character that you felt, perhaps, hadn’t been explored?
I try to go to first principles when I write a character. Who are they and what makes them unique and interesting? If we put aside the big horse-head Thor thing, what makes Bill interesting is that he straddles science fiction and mythology. It kind of occurs to me that he’s a little like a Superman who landed in Middle-Earth instead of Kansas, especially now that his people are all gone. How he reacts to his people being wiped out is the other big psychological hook which caught my attention. People have extreme responses to that. What about someone as stoic as Bill?
That stuff’s fun to think about.
As for some of your other work, you recently finished up a Warhammer mini for BOOM! Studios. Were you ever a huge Warhammer/40K fan to start, or was this just something you had a good idea for?
I’m a midlander. A small-town dead-end midlander. As such, there are some things which are fundamentally true. You’d like metal, for one. And at some point, you’d have spent time staring at tiny smudged figures of orks and wondering how you can scam an extra unit into your army-list.
So, yes, I knew a lot about Warhammer – both 40K and fantasy – before getting the gig. When BOOM! asked me to pitch a mini, I went into that buried corner of my mind, I dusted off all that arcane knowledge and sent it out to play. Of course, much like awaking nameless beings from the beginning of time, this had dire consequences. It led to a cheery relapse. You know what I can see when I look up from my position? Some half-painted Skaven.
Comics is a dangerous medium. Are you writing them or are they writing you? I feel like a particularly geek Grant Morrison character.
I’m going to use “particularly geek Grant Morrison character” as the headline for this interview now [AND I DID! – GDW]. Finally, anything else you have coming up we’ve not covered? Anything you WANT to be working on?
I’m in the annoying position where I’ve got so much going on, but there’s virtually nothing I can talk about. Something which hasn’t been widely mentioned yet is a short Namor strip in the Cabal: Dark Reign special at the end of the month. Bar that, the confirmed stuff is all pretty top secret. Some more Marvel stuff. The rest of Phonogram. I’ve got two projects with Avatar which I’m allowed to describe as “Unannounced Projects From Avatar”, and if I say anything more solid than that, Mr. Christensen will peel the skin from my bird-like body.
They’re neat though. To say the least.
What else would I like to be working on? Well, now I’m completed the life-goal of actually writing Dazzler, I need to find something else to lust after. Until then, I really want to find the time to bully Lee O’Connor into drawing the pitch pages for The Ludocrats which I’ll be able to talk someone else into doing. I really don’t have the time to do it right now, but – fucking hell – if I had a time machine, I’d cause some fucking damage.