With The Wicked + the Divine, the creative superteam of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie are crafting a story about being an artist, idolatry and mortality in an effort to comment on this moment in our culture.
In our exclusive interview, we talk to Gillen about the duality of this book, investigating the ticking clock of mortality, whether celebrity is a positive or negative force, the construction of this latest book and the direction of his career in comics.
Besides those points, Gillen also shares his thoughts about the Amazon/Comixology deal and reflects on the state of video game journalism 10 years after his infamous “New Games Journalism” manifesto.
Den of Geek: There are, it seems, two dueling primary stories in The Wicked + the Divine. Can you first tell me why you wanted to write about these returned Gods and the conflict between their ambitions, their “duty” (if they have one) and this ticking clock? Why only give them two years for every 90? Is there a method to that number rather than grant them a longer period or a shorter period?
Kieron Gillen: It’s an intensifier. If you’ve been told that you’ve got two years to live, everything comes into sharp focus. What the hell are you going to do with your life? Of course, the truth is that it doesn’t matter if it’s two years or ten or three-score and ten — it’s a tiny span of time, and the “What The Hell Is All This For” question is always floating there.
There are elements of both poetry and practicality to it. Practically, if you have much less than two years, you have to start all the gods at once, or there’s not really enough time to tell their stories – and a slow unveiling of the cast is a big fun. Ninety years is long enough to become mythical, but not doing something as obvious as the straight century. The idea that while each generation is of a time, but always oblique in some way. They’re people who shake up the world in art.
There’s also always the meta reading. I’m 38. I’m 40 in two years. I have two years to do something magnificent or it’s all been a waste. I’m my characters. I’m always my characters.
And what is it that made you want to say something about modern idol worship? Also, would you agree that, with social media and occasionally sycophantic press coverage, we’re at a point where celebrity is a bit dangerous and unchecked?
I’d agree to a degree. Yes, we let them go far. However, we also set fire to them. We indulge them entirely and cackle as they come crashing down. There’s a big part of the whole king-for-a-year-and-then-sacrificed old paganism in the book’s thinking. The book’s conflicted in many ways. Most comics that touch on celebrity are always critical — arguing basically that new heroes, because they do a bit of coke, are by definition worse than Superman. Really? Fuck that. David Bowie saved my life.
We’re not celebratory. We’re also not pillorying. And Celebrity is more a secondary problem to the book — that’s a side effect of who the gods are. Really, it’s primarily about being an artist in the world. All the gods are phenomenally, amazingly talented. They’re also fuck ups, and the place they find themselves brings all that to the fore.
All of which makes excellent drama, sez I.
Cassandra seems to be the voice of skepticism, why is she unaffected and is it possible that she might be a convert at some point?
Cassandra, our streaming journalist, is both our critical and metacritical voice. Is she a cynic? Definitely. But there’s the old line about cynics tending to burned romantics. We learn a lot more about her background soon enough, as she’s almost as important a human viewpoint as Laura. Laura is enamoured. Cassandra is scathing. It also lets us introduce a key element — that not everyone flips out over every god’s performance. Cassandra doesn’t even see or feel anything at all. You ever had an artist who, literally, you think everyone else is lying about when they say they love them? That. Cassandra is that.
Are these characters influenced by the personalities of the people whose lives they took over?
That’s a question that the book answers. Clearly, we go into this hard and fast, but it’s more like the gods they’ve become are the influencers rather than the influenced. The god adds to the person who’s there, who has all their old memories… and a whole new selection of opportunities. And each of the gods have their own take on the process. Some of them are in denial. Some of them have death wishes. Some of them are utterly petrified. Some of them go between all three. Even when being divine, we’re being human.
Will we see these Gods through the eyes of other normal supportive beings like Laura, or is she meant to be the only gateway into the God’s world?
A bit of column A, a bit of column B. Laura is our main lead, but I’ve got episodes where someone else takes centre stage. Hell, with the structure of the Recurrence bouncing back through the years, I’ve got stories I want to do set in early periods. We open with the 1920s gods in the first issue. We see a flash of the 1830s ones in the second. It’s a big universe, and I mainly look for appropriate voices to find it.
The contrast between the world of the gods and the world we live in is absolutely key. Laura going from being in the audience, to being back-stage… and then crashing back to her normal life with her normal family. The contrast. It’s a book with a lot of dualities in it, as made pretty explicit in the title.
Can you talk a bit about the creation of this idea, and specifically, both the physical and intellectual design of these characters and this world as authored by Jamie McKelvie and yourself?
We were planning to do Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl after Young Avengers. One night, I realised it wasn’t what we should do.
I started writing the first Phonogram in 2004. I had the idea a little before. The Immaterial Girl is set in 2009. It was written in 2010-2011. The idea of coming off the back off a book that was so much about the possibilities of the new as Young Avengers and returning to work with that long history just felt like some kind of betrayal. If we’re going to follow our own advice, we’re going to look at the world where we find ourselves and see what we have to say about the moment, and what comes next. It was the right moment to start something new rather than finish something old. This is us walking like we talk it. This is us starting with a blank sheet, taking everything that we’ve learned across our time in comics and life, and putting it on the page.
Let’s make a new comic for 2014. Let’s do it.
To be more prosaic, the core concept of the story came to me in the depressing week after I was told my Dad’s cancer was terminal. Death sits at the heart of the book. It’s a pop song of a book, but it’s got that deep dark heart to it.
From there, we dove into the research — the marrying of what pop star archetypes we wanted to use was as important (arguably, more important) than the choice of gods. Sometimes we had an archetype that we definitely wanted to use, and had to shop around for the right god — Amaterasu would be a good example of that, who went through various incarnations until we found someone we wanted to match to that Kate Bush to Florence lineage. Sometimes the god came first, and we had to carefully consider who they could be — Baal would be an example of that. Sometimes they happen simultaneously, like Lucifer, who’s our thin-white-duke-gender-switched-Bowie-esque character. I played with a few trickster gods, but Lucifer sat best.
Jamie and I bounced ideas of people we liked, ways to think of them. We ran a style blog, where we collated images we liked. We ran this playlist, which is where I try and create a sort of sonic mood sheet for it.
Basically, we obsess, as always.
Over the next few years, do you see yourself focusing more on creator owned projects, do you want to continue to work on both sides of the divide, or does it really depend on the kind of ideas that come?
I see myself continuing basically in a similar vein to [what] I am now, which is basically a 50/50 split. I haven’t had nearly as much creator owned stuff out as I thought I would at this stage of my career, and want to rectify that. But still: never underestimate the fun of playing. I get bored easily, and like to mix it up. I couldn’t write four books that came from the same place as The Wicked + the Divine, but bouncing between it, Uber and my Marvel Work (which I always try to make very different books) lets me keep it fresh.
How do you feel about Comixology’s deal with Amazon and the changes that consumers are dealing with on Apple devices now that they can’t make in-app purchases anymore? Do you think the latter change is going to hurt your wallet as a creator?
It scares the living hell out of me. I had my first Comixology check for my backlist and it was a sizeable amount of cash. It was basically identical to what we earned from the Phonogram trades in the real world. Anything which makes it harder for people to buy comics makes me petrified. However, there’s nothing I can do, and we have to wait to see how the actual sales turn out. Maybe it’ll all turn out okay, and the deal won’t have destroyed the largest new source of money into the industry for a decade? We’ll see. We are all but balls in the enormous international corporation pinball table.
Veering away from comics, and I apologize because I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, but I have to take my shot: it’s been 10 years since you wrote out the “New Games Journalism’ manifesto“. In that time, how would you describe the overall state of video game journalism now and are there any amendments that you would make to your original article?
Hah! I will never escape. I don’t think I would want to either.
While all the above may make you think otherwise, I’m one of nature’s optimists. As such, I look at games writing and think we’ve come miles. Yes, there’s an awful lot of crap, but that doesn’t matter. Look at the range and plurality of voices out there. Look at the different ways people are talking and communicating about games. No matter who you are, you could probably find a venue that was aligned to someone like you.
The techniques are much wider — the idea I was forwarding of writing about games after it’s come out, and focusing in on the experience of play is basically so metabolised it doesn’t even register as controversial. I mean, was this fine venue writing about games a decade ago? At least regularly? How many large cultural organs were? Now they all at least dabble, and there’s been some astounding writing out there in the mainstream press. And the more ways people write about games, the more it gives people permission to write about games however they damn well feel.
I wouldn’t amend anything in the original piece — with the possible exception of referencing a few examples that were actually funny to show it didn’t have to be somber. It was a cultural moment, and as such, it’s more something that should be studied to see where we were. I think the most striking thing about the “manifesto” now [is how] innocuous it is now. This is just another set of tools in the box.
We won, in short. God knows what comes next, and that’s why it’s always exciting. I feel thoroughly obsolete as a game writer, which is exactly how it should be. Onwards! Onwards!
The Wicked + the Divine is scheduled for release from Image Comics on June 18, 2014. The pre-order cut off is Monday May 26th, so if you want to get your hands on this book, make sure you let your local comic shop know about it.