My first attempt to start up an interview with Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, the creative team behind the music-worship comic Phonogram, was interrupted by a scheduled performance from a Japanese Taiko Drumming band occurring within blistering earshot. We reconvened later, at a pub nearby, overlooking the cosplay vapour trail as the thousands of cosplayers and expo-attendees traipsed home.
Phonogram is definitely one of the more interesting comics of the moment. It brings together a metaphoric concoction of (mostly, but not solely ‘indie’) music, fantasy and youth culture to make startlingly well-observed and insightful commentary on music and those who listen to it. Taking concepts, applications and effects related to music, Phonogram manages to communicate a lot of the verve and energy of that subculture, in a way that trumps a vast amount of the journalistic, critical, writerly approaches to the topic. Chalk it up to the team’s great balancing of style and content – of Gillen’s sharp, character-led scripts, and McKelvie’s consistently staggering artwork, that give small details (a pursed lip, a mid-dance freeze frame) great importance.
The success of the series has led to the two of them working on many other comic projects. McKelvie has released one series of his own book, Suburban Glamour, about teenagers in small-town Worcestershire. Gillen, known to many as a noted video games journalist, is now penning (plentiful) projects for Marvel, including an upcoming run on Thor, and a recently-published limited series Beta Ray Bill: Godhunter. He is also working on an only-announced-on-Saturday story for Avatar Press, The Heat.
We chat about their experience at the MCM Expo, as well as Phonogram, Suburban Glamour, and what it is like working for the larger publishers, on properties that have been developing and gestating for generations. Gillen also fills us in on The Heat, a project that has been teased as involving ‘cops on Mercury’.
First of all, I wanted to ask what you were selling today, on your stall… JM: We were selling Phonogram and Suburban Glamour trades, the first series of each. All four issues of The Singles Club, the current Phonogram series. The Phonogram print, which is a limited edition print I did last month. Original artwork, t-shirts, I think that’s it… KG: That is it, actually. That is the complete what-is-for-sale list.
JM: The complete list. KG: Of Phonogram merchandise available at that fine comic stall.
JM: It’s about seven issues long.
KG: It’s about due to be done in July next year. It’s about music, it’s about magic, it’s about the idea that music is magic. And when I say that, I don’t mean like Harry Potter, Dungeons & Dragons, fireball, oh-no-you’ve-killed-my-wizard. What I actually mean is a metaphor for the human subjective experience of music: what music does to people, what music means to people.
The example I always use is from the second issue of Phonogram, in the second series. And the basic story is the guy walks into a club; all of a sudden a record plays, and he’s confronted with an apparition of an ex-girlfriend who forces him to relive a really painful memory, and there’s nothing he can do to stop it. He’s effectively been cursed by the record. Of course, as anyone hearing that will know, that’s talking about the moment when we’ve all heard a record, and it’s dropped our legs away – especially if we’ve just broken up. Especially with records that have nothing to do with anything – like ‘The Hokey-Cokey’ or something, that reminds you of a time at a wedding party where you had a big argument. And you end up being upset at ‘The Hokey Cokey’! That’s what I mean. We use magic as a metaphor to write these fantasy stories about how humans use music, and we’ve created two series about it so far. So if that’s winding up soon, what have you both got coming out in the near future?
JM: I’m doing the second series of Suburban Glamour, which I’m looking forward to doing. I’m going back home to do some more research quite soon.
For someone who hasn’t come across Suburban Glamour before, could you explain it a little?
JM: I could give it a go. It’s basically a modern, urban fantasy. Kind of a cross between Labyrinth and Skins, basically.
That’s a great description!
KG: It took a while to end up with!
JM: Yeah, it took a while, because of the teenagers bit. It’s modern, real teenagers, it’s not necessarily candy-coated or anything. And I find a lot of teenage fiction doesn’t deal with teenagers as they actually are.
KG: Teenagers aren’t rated PG.
JM: Completely. So it’s that kind of approach to it, to the modern fantasy genre. So I guess that the first series was an origin story in a way for the main character, Astrid. And then there are more series, which will delve into different things. And that’s that. A slightly shorter description than Phonogram, but that’s the way. KG: Yeah…
Your creator-owned comics seem to be very much influenced by your own interests in terms of both approach and content, so how does that change when you do work for DC or Marvel? KG: We have plots…
JM: Yeah, and they pay us – we make money! Obviously, it’s different because you’re working with an editor, for one thing. And you’re playing in somebody else’s sandbox, as people like to call it, I guess.
You have to deal with all of these things as well, and be mindful of what you’re working with, whereas with the stuff at Image, we’re basically doing what we want to do, without having to worry about that sort of stuff. Which isn’t to say that the work-for-hire isn’t fun, it’s fantastic to work on, but with the creator-owned stuff, we basically do what we like, pretty much. KG: The thing with Phonogram and Suburban Glamour. There are 13 issues of Phonogram, plus all the b-sides, there are four issues of Suburban Glamour, and that’s the totality of it. When you actually write for Marvel, in the Marvel Universe, you’re writing a part of a meta-narrative that has been running since the 1960s, and has been retrospectively made to run since the 1930s. These are enormous pieces of fiction, which have passed through millions – not millions of hands – at least a thousand hands, who have contributed to a single work of fiction. And whatever you do have to resonate with that.
That doesn’t mean, of course, being entirely faithful to this continuity very strictly, but there are large issues at stake that you must fit into. And that’s part of the game. It’s almost like writing a sonnet, the idea that there are rules to it, and it’s a question of what you do with those particular rules. In my case, all my Marvel projects have pulled me in different directions. And they’re a challenge, I don’t really know if I can pull them off until I do it. JM: That’s always the fun, though.
KG: It’s like being set a really complicated Sudoku puzzle as homework, and you get paid for it! It’s amazing.
JM: I kind of envy you with that at the moment, because you get to do all these different types of things that aren’t the same as Phonogram. A lot of people still see me as the person who draws that thing, and they don’t see the other sides of what I can do, because they haven’t had the opportunity.
KG: I think it’s a shame. I got a couple of lucky breaks. I mean, Phonogram doesn’t show you anything, except for Phonogram, but I got a couple of lucky breaks that showed I could do… Plus, weirdly, Busted Wonder (http://www.bustedwonder.com/) got me the Tokyopop gigs, I think, which is a strange one.
JM: And you were lucky with newuniversal …
KG: Yeah, Warren [Ellis] picked me, he said ‘I want Kieron Gillen to do this 1950s noir superhero story’, that’s about as far away from Phonogram as you can have – apart from the fact ‘1959’ is a Sisters of Mercy reference. Actually, if you read the solicitation for 1959, it actually was the Sisters of Mercy lyrics towards the end, which no-one apart from me or the editor noticed, I swear! The editor did it, it wasn’t me.
What other projects have you done for Marvel?
KG: My first sort of big thing was Beta Ray Bill, which is a kind of Space-Thor, Norse God Horse thing. And it’s very epic-scale, Marvel, cosmic. He’s a half-divine, half-science fiction construct, and I wrote a piece about the nature of faith, which basically involves him hunting down a galactic space god. Metaphors involving punching is the best way to describe what superheroes do. That’s collected in a trade.
I’m doing a three issue miniseries called Ares, who is the god of war, obviously, which ties into the current major event of Marvel, Dark Reign. Basically Ares, for reasons too complicated to go into, was put in charge of a military unit to train them. So it’s a kind of Full Metal Jacket, with Ares as the drill instructor. As you can imagine, the god of war would be quite outspoken on issues concerning everything. So it’s a black comedy, increasingly black as it progresses, it’s a pretty dark, Heart of Darkness-y story.
Then there’s Thor, which is the biggest book I’m doing. James Michael Straczynski…
JM: [Incredulously] Who’s he?
KG: A very important man! He left his book at a very short notice, and I’m taking over for 6 issues. And I’m doing… Thor is obviously the god of thunder, from Asgardian myth, and has been a major Marvel mainstay for years and years and years. And I’m taking over this engagement between Thor and Doctor Doom is Latveria. It’s kind of a Mary Shelley sort of dark, Eastern European, fantasy-gothic vibe. And it’s about the mortal and the divine again, but it’s about a very different sort of relationship. Hubris! The way JMS wrote it was as a Shakespearean family drama, and I’m picking it up in that way, but I’m throwing a bit more Gothic in there.
And finally I’m launching a new comic called S.W.O.R.D., which is basically spinning off Joss Whedon. I’m literally just spinning off all the big-name writers, it’s like ahhh! I’m scared. S.W.O.R.D. is a spaced-based defense organisation. If you’re aware of S.H.I.E.L.D., the Marvel super-spy organisation – it’s basically S.H.I.E.L.D. in space. I always compare them to – if you’re aware of Ian M. Banks’ books – I would compare them to Special Circumstances or Contact from the Culture. I’m launching that from scratch. It’s quite tonally similar to Whedon…
JM: An action-movie kind of feel…
KG: And it’s poppy. These are very smart characters, they’re wise-cracking, they’re being very human. There’s a romance, and I mean that with all the capital letters. And it’s fun, and it moves at a million miles an hour. I think it’s pop in a way that Thor isn’t – Thor has a sense of grandeur. This deals with pretty hard-hitting emotions, but it’s still flighty. And that’s an ongoing comic and I’m very excited about that. And Jamie is actually doing a back-up story in the first issue! JM: Yes. Yes I am. Eight pages dealing with a giant bullet shooting through space, and Kitty Pryde inside it. But basically I’m just drawing Lockheed and Agent Brandhaving a tense conversation. And it’s good fun, it’s great! Drawing Lockheed is awesome. Little purple dragon.
The first ever American comic I bought was a collection called From The Ashes, about the X-Men, which was like – I can’t remember when it came out, but I bought it in ’91 – and it was the whole Madelyne Pryor story. But Lockheed was one of the characters in that, so he was one of the first American comics characters I read. So it’s great to get to draw him!
And as a X-Men fan, what was it like working on Cable? Was that fun?
JM: Yeah! It was, a lot of fun. I did two issues of Cable. It’s, again, a completely different book. I didn’t realise until halfway through the first issue that Duane [Swierczynski] was writing as a sort of Western, which is really good fun, with the desolate plains…
[Kieron whistles the theme from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly]
JM: Yeah, that kind of, stranger-coming-to-town thing with Cable. But that was really good fun as well. I gave Hope, the kid, a haircut, and then it was fun to see other artists take that on and take what I’d done with the character, as they moved on.
And, Kieron, could you tell us any details about the recently-announced Avatar Press project you’ve got coming out next year, called The Heat?
KG: William [Christensen, Avatar Editor-in-Chief] came to me, and basically wanted a female-led action comic, and apart from that, it was entirely open. That’s an incredibly open brief, so I sat back and started thinking. I was thinking about cyberpunk, and I was thinking about Riot Grrl, Judge Dredd, Tank Girl, Kill Yr Boyfriend… The most important thing, is that it’s a cop drama on Mercury. It’s the idea that, especially after Obama got in, people seemed to be thinking about the future again, the idea that we’re going to have a future. So a lot of the problems that we have today, are not problems in this particular world. Specifically, environmentalism becomes very important, as in Environmentalism is actually very close to what religion is now, but they still have this energy need. So what they’ve ended up doing is solar panels on Mercury. And Earth is kind of like a lived-in Utopia, but Mercury is a bit harsher, kind of the new Wild West. And the lead character is one of these cops, who goes to Mercury, and has to deal with crime there. Of course, The Heat. So the focus is both on Mercury, because it’s very, very hot, and the police.
One of the inspirations for it was… Whiteout! Not the film but the actual comic. Whiteout is fantastic because it takes a police procedural and then applies it to an unusual environment. And the environment becomes a character. I basically wanted to do the idea of ‘what would it be like to fight crime on Mercury?’. But Mercury’s incredible, one side melts lead, the other side freezes oxygen. These are incredible differences, how would you police it? In fact, how would the power plant work? How would the people live? How would the energy get back to earth? Mercury is very small, and it rotates very slowly. A Mercury day is about 88 Earth days long. It actually only rotates at around 10km/hr, in other words it rotates less than running speed. On Mercury, you can out-run the dawn. And that’s pretty much the opening scene, of somebody trying to out-run the dawn. And of course, you can out-run the dawn – just not for long. And that’s my noir-esque start of it. And the environment characterises and changes everything.
That sounds good! And that is out…? KG: I don’t know yet! Probably early next year.
Just to finish up with. How was your MCM Expo today?
JM: Yeah, good fun! It’s a complete spectacle, obviously, but it’s great talking to people.
Have there been any notable cosplayers for you?
JM: There was a fantastic Lion-O.
KG: Lion-O rules!
JM: Lion-O’s brilliant, and it was his own hair, which was good!
KG: And there was also the return of Marge Simpson JM: Yeah, Marge Simpson, who doesn’t look like they’re dressed as Marge Simpson – it looks like they’ve killed Marge Simpson, skinned her, and are wearing her skin.
KG: It’s like a Buffalo Bill, fucked-up Marge Simpson. Very sinister. And it scares me.
Thanks for your time, guys!
Phonogram: Rue Britannia, Suburban Glamour and Beta Ray Bill: Godhunter are available from Amazon and all good comic shops.