We were lucky enough to catch up with Gillen at this year’s New York Comic Con. In the course of our conversation, we focused on his creator-owned work, but ultimately touched on everything from ‘The Wicked + The Divine’ to the challenges of taking over ‘Star Wars’.
Let’s start with the ‘The Wicked + The Divine’. I think it’s fair to say that, at least in terms of sales, it’s been your most successful creator-owned work.
Yes, next question!
Why do you think the book has resonated with the audience the way it has?
Good question. It’s all very, very weird. I can remember something Warren Ellis said to me as we were launching it, “Maybe the audience has caught up with you a bit.” And by which I mean ‘Phonogram’ was ahead of its time. And our level of skill to actually execute ideas might be higher now. That and kind of the cultural zeitgeist may fit better. And some of it’s really basic, you know? We launched off the back of a really successful run of ‘Young Avengers’, you know? Like we took a book, we kind of hyped it hard and we hyped it like it was a big thing as well. That was always the other aspect, we had a level of swagger. And when something launches big it tends… One thing I’ve learned with creator-owned is when more people have heard of your book, it leads to… It sort of self-catalyzes. Because people essentially advertise your book And it’s the weirdest thing about ‘WicDiv’ is how much more it sells. It’s not just that it sells better than ‘Phonogram’ does. Like by a factorial level. [laughs]
Right. I don’t know if I ever would have picked up ‘Uber’, for example, if I hadn’t read ‘Phonogram’, and that all comes down to the fact that I like your work.
And there’s definitely people who’ve… I find the crossover is interesting in terms of… I mean ‘Uber’ is completely outside of the aesthetic me and Jamie have. And that’s deliberate. It’s ugly and it’s deliberately unglamorous. It’s a very different sort of place. And the crossover between ‘Uber’ and ‘WicDiv’ is much smaller a crossover than between ‘WicDiv’ and ‘Phonogram’ or ‘WicDiv’ and ‘Young Avengers’. We did a poll which we put in the back of the hardback. And it’s like seventy percent of the people who read ‘WicDiv’ have also read ‘Phonogram’. And of course, in reality, the number’s much lower, because that’s the hardcore. In short, I don’t know. And you could drive yourself to distraction. trying to work it out. We did a load of very sensible decisions and we did everything. We hyped the book very hard in every single way we possibly could. And we… I don’t know. I really don’t know. Jamie draws very pretty pictures. Matt colors them in nice.
And you’ve talked in the past about ‘WicDiv’ being sort of an informal companion piece or a spiritual successor to ‘Phonogram’. To what extent was that deliberate and how much did that relate to your prior work influence the development of the book?
I would not say consciously. And I’ll tell you what the weird thing is. For a project I’m calling ‘Spangly New Thing’, I found myself going through my boxes at home on the weekend. And I just went through a load of crap from my teenage years, up to about twenty-one or so. And I found a short story I wrote when I was about twenty-one about a band selling their soul to Satan, for basically continued success and power. And they’re trying to work out who to sacrifice. And they decide to sacrifice the bass player. But the weird thing was the Satan I used was a female Lucifer called Luci. And it’s a bit like “Well, I recognize this story!’ [laughs] So how much of this stuff has always been there in the way I think? I mean I occasionally joke about doing a relaunch of ‘Phonogram’ from scratch, a kind of ‘Ultimate Phonogram’. You know, sawing off some of the hard edges and make it less autobiographical, a lot of other things like that. Make it a bit more pop. With ‘WicDiv’, we never actually really ever said “Let’s do ‘Ultimate Phonogram’,” but it is. Because the thing is you can do a book which is about, for me… Okay, it wasn’t a deliberate “Let’s do a companion piece.” In retrospect, it definitely feels more like that. But so much of it was “I want to do a book about everything. I’m thirty-eight, I’m turning forty. I want to set fire to my youth. I want to destroy all this, try and tear apart everything I’ve got to say.” And it’s a book which I could pull together just over a decade after I made up ‘Phonogram’. And so ‘Phonogram’ was entirely informed by me being a critic and a fan and a lover of art. That’s what it was about, that’s what ‘Phonogram’ became. And starting a book ten years later, it’s not just ten years from me starting to think about ‘Phonogram’. It’s ten years of me being a creator. So the book is going to have that skew. So it’s basically the second chapter in terms of chapter one of the Kieron Gillen and art story is about being a fan. An aggressively over-thinky fan. And the next ten years is about being an aggressively over-thinky creator. That’s the way they are. If you were going to do the kind of Proustian, ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ thing, you could certainly tie them together like that.
One of the more interesting elements of ‘WicDiv’ in terms of the world and the characters is the sheer amount of history at play. Do you plan to continue exploring prior iterations of the Pantheon, as with the recent specials.
Yeah, until the end of the book. There’s a 1920s special still to come, there’s one more historical special between the seventh and eighth trades. Probably not much more? I mean there’s some more Pantheon stuff in the main story, and there is more historical stuff to come. In fact, more than there has been is the best way of putting it. But I’m not planning to do anything with ‘WicDiv’ after ‘WicDiv’ ends. But you know, people say that. I could easily imagine in twenty years time the idea of us doing some kind of weird Pantheon story because it amuses us. We’ve certainly got no plans for now, but there is a bunch I would like to do. I mean I never got to do my Japanese story, and I’m pretty sure I won’t get room to do a Japanese story.
Moving on from ‘WicDiv’, how’s ‘Luducrats’ coming along?
Good. David (Lafuente) is at work. As in it’s actually being drawn. The hilarious problems which stopped it happening which was basically… It’s a book about the joys of the human imagination, kind of like ‘The Neverending Story’ for grown-ups. Actually, it’s more like ‘The Neverending Story’ but for emotionally immature adults. [laughs] And it’s basically been held up by bureaucracy and paperwork, which is the most appropriate way, because that’s kind of like that bit in ‘Brazil’, where the plumber gets covered in paperwork. That’s kind of what happened to us. But Dave’s at work on it, he’s, uh… In his own words “I’ve been overthinking things.” Which is like, “Good work David! Look me in the eye, I see what you’re feeling.” And I was drinking with him in London recently, and he was talking about some ideas. And you know, we get more ideas and more ideas, and it’s a book about ideas. So next year, I guess? I’m not quite sure whether it or ‘Spangly New Thing’ will debut first. I kind of think ‘Spangly New Thing’ will debut first, because that’s an ongoing and ‘Ludocrats’ is a mini. So we might as well get it all in the can before launching it.
And the most important question about any Kieron Gillen work: “On a scale of ‘Young Avengers’ to ‘Uber’, how bleak is it?”
It’s not bleak! It’s literally the opposite of bleak. I wanted to make a very happy record. And it got less and less bleak the second David drew it. As in originally, it was kind of like ‘Metabarons’ as a comedy. So it’s very broad, and the second David draws it, it starts being funnier and the characters become more likable. And the way I think of it now is ‘Asterix and Obelix’ and ‘Metabarons’. Because these are basically likable sex maniacs. Well, they’re not all sex maniacs, but there’s a lot of characters who are highly sexualized and quite sexually active. Otto really does enjoy intercourse. There’s not a much better way of putting it than that. So it’s probably leaning toward the ‘Young Avengers’ scale of things. But there’s a bit of black comedy as well. That’s where the bleakness might creep in.
Shifting away from creator owned, you’re taking over ‘Star Wars’.
You’ve played in that sandbox before. In fact, you’re playing in it now with ‘Doctor Aphra’. But now you’re taking the lead. Has that been intimidating at all?
A little bit. I said taking over ‘Darth Vader’ was intimidating, and the idea of following – what is one of Marvel’s best-selling books – following Jason (Aaron) who is an astounding talent and who’s done incredible things in his run… it’s ‘Star Wars’. Darth Vader is closer to my wheelhouse than Luke, Leia, and Han are, so yeah, that’s intimidating. On the other hand, writing it has been no more difficult than it was on ‘Darth Vader’. As in it’s characters I’ve written before, a bit, and characters we’re all familiar with. So it’s still got that primal playing the blues vibe. So yeah, I’ll be really interested to see what people make of it. You know, I start big. Let’s get Luke, Leia, and Han and take them the Jedha. Let’s take this planet, which has got a big hole in the side of it and really mash the most recent movie together [with the original]. ‘Star Wars’ for me is so much about “Here’s is something you’re familiar with, here is something that’s new,” and that’s the mix. I think if you just make it stuff they’re familiar with, it becomes fan service, and that’s not very interesting to me. And my first thing when I watched ‘Rogue One’ was “Hey, I wonder what Luke would make of this?” And of course now I get to write that, you know what I mean? That’s my job! [laughs] So I look for an opportunity to do all that kind of stuff. Which I think anyone who loves these characters will hopefully respond to.
And the fundamental aim of your ‘Darth Vader’ run was to take the Vader we met in ‘A New Hope’ and kind of catch him up to where he is in ‘Empire’. You’re kind of doing the same thing with ‘Star Wars’. How much freedom do you have working on a book like that with such iconic characters?
All I’m doing is invert it, as in ‘Darth Vader’ is a fall and rise story, while ‘Star Wars’ is a rise and fall story. Because ‘A New Hope’ is by definition, you know, “We’ve blown up the Death Star! Hooray! We’ve got a chance for the Rebellion to get somewhere, and the Empire’s wasted twenty years of work. And now everyone knows the Empire wants to build Death Stars and terrorize the universe. This is our one last chance to save ourselves.” The Rebellion’s completely on an upswing, and when we meet them in ‘Empire’ they’re on Hoth, everything’s cold and everything’s awful. The great irony is that the Empire struck back before ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. You know? The tide has already turned. And that’s what I’m basically doing the story of, where things went wrong for the Rebellion. In other words, I’m doing a tragedy. But there is a surprising amount of freedom because what I’m pitching is “Here is a series of events.” And they wanted, basically, what was the best way to get them from A to B. I view it as a historical novel exploring a historical period I don’t know much about. So in a way, it’s quite similar to ‘Uber’ where I’m working with set parameters that I’m trying to extrapolate from. The idea of doing a story in a space is really quite appealing in terms of what actually is the best way to delineate this emotional arc for these characters? And that’s a good challenge and I genuinely do like it. It does feel like writing historical fiction. You know, when I look at like the historical record, when there’s holes in the historical record you think “Okay, what’s a really good way for getting Sparta circa…” I’m studying the Byzantines a lot at the moment for no reason at all. I’m not planning on doing a book. But there’s huge chunks of Byzantine history where they basically stopped writing for a bit. And you would have to do historical recreations to actually work out what may have happened. That’s fiction for me. So for me it’s part of the challenge.
Kieron Gillen is currently writing ‘The Wicked + The Divine’, ‘Uber: Invasion’, as well as co-writing ‘Star Wars: Doctor Aphra’, all of which release new issues monthly. He will also be taking over the lead title of Marvel’s ‘Star Wars’ line (guess what that one’s called) with its thirty-eighth issue, currently due for release on November 8, 2017.
Be sure to check back with ScienceFiction.com for more on Gillen’s current and upcoming projects as it becomes available.