In Keiron Gillen’s new creator own project, The Wicked + The Divine, he introduces the audience to gods who come to Earth for two years as teenagers and essentially act as celebrities on the level of rock stars or reality-TV personalities before they die. He’s also working once again with Phonogram & Young Avengers artistic collaborator, Jaime McKelvie, on this supernatural series being released by Image. I got a chance to ask Gillen more about this holy spectacle being unleashed this summer.
KG: We were planning to do Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl after Young Avengers. One night, I realised it wasn’t what we should do. We should do something else. We should do something new.
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.
JB:Who will readers be spending most of their time with- gods or those looking in from the outside?
KG: It’s… complicated.
The core concept of the book is that every ninety years or so twelve gods reincarnate as young people. They’re brilliant, loved, hated, draw crowds of people who go into rapture when they speak. There’s even rumours of the performing secretive miracles.
Within two years, they’re dead.
The story starts with nine of the twelve gods reincarnated and the world dealing with these stars in their midst. Our lead is Laura – and the person who we spend most of the time with, at least initially – is a south London girl and a completely devoted fan of all the gods (well – most of them.) She doesn’t just love them. She wants to be them. Her fondest desire is to have everything they have.
She meets Lucifer – or Luci, as she prefers to know. Luci has a problem that Laura can help her with. They make a deal.
Laura is our point of view character. We travel with her into the world of the gods. That sentence makes it sound far more fantastical than I mean. When I say “The world of the gods” I mean “Backstage into seedy venues with dodgy parties going on, which basically feel like a Weeknd song.”
JB: Are there specific religious archetypes for your god-infused characters?
KG: Definitely. The Gods aren’t archetypes – we’re using the actual gods. I wanted to mix it up in terms of its sources. I wanted to have some gods with a certain degree of – for want of a better phrase – Star Power, but ideally those which weren’t over-exposed elsewhere. I mean, I wasn’t going to use LOKI or THOR or something, as that’ll inevitably take the gods to be commentary on the Marvel Universe rather than anything in an of itself. I was especially careful with pantheons that are still worshipped in an extensive way today. There were some of my favourites I just wanted to get in too.
I’m also being a little coy about what Gods are in it. The “which god is going to emerge next?” is totally a big part of us.
The Gods is also only half the question. This is a book about gods as pop stars – but it’s also a book about pop stars as gods. Which pop-star archetypes is just as important to the endeavour. In a real way, some of the gods came first and with some the pop star came first. We had a list with two columns, and eventually matches up the right God to the right Pop-Star Archetype. It was like a dating game.
Sometimes they came at the same time. Lucifer would be the best example of that – who is primarily thin-white duke era Bowie meets (er) Lucifer. Someone with like Amaterasu, the pop star came first. Someone like Baal, the god.
JB: What separates these gods from the superheroes you’re identified with writing?
KG: They’ve no interest in changing the world or taking over it or anything else. They only really care about their art – their speaking in tongues which sends crowds into rapture. Bar that, they have their solipsistic lifestyles and internal dramas, their loves and fears.
And, of course, they’ve got two years to live. This creates a certain dramatic momentum.
There’s a lot of superhero DNA in the book, including a strong visual and action element to it. I was thinking of old 90s things like the Matrix or Buffy which lifted so much from Superhero comics (90s Vertigo and 80s X-men, respectively) and used it for a very different purpose.
JB: How would you describe the style of this series?
KG: Heh. I’ve been doing interviews all day and this is the first question that’s genuinely stumped me.
You know how Young Avengers was one of the most obviously visually stylistic books on the shelves? The Wicked + The Divine is Young Avengers with the gloves off.
That doesn’t mean it’s going to be more experimental. It’s actually more restrained in many ways. Yes, there’s going to be issues that are as out there as anything else that’s being published – Issue 12 already has me twitching in anticipation – but we’re really trying to cut as close as we can to the story, and bring every single piece of craft we’ve learned across the last decade to bear. We have a new world, we’ve built from scratch. We don’t need to worry about anything else than the fantasy we’re bringing you into. This is basically our attempt to make a singular pop statement. We’re really going for it.
I want to live up to the quote the New Statesman said about Young Avengers – “Hot and Dangerous.” I loved they said that, but I suspected we could be considerably more hot and much more dangerous.
JB: Many books about teen idols are critical and cynical or celebratory. Where do you think this story falls on that spectrum?
KG: In the superhero world, comics about celebrity is almost always cynical. I can’t think of any western-comics that had done anything else. There’s the idea that all these old superheroes are kind of respectable and the true way of doing things, and the younger ones are just coke-addicted selfish idiots.
But Pop Stars have saved my life. I don’t care if they do a lot of coke.
Simultaneously, it’s far from celebratory. The book is intensely critical of the whole cast. They’re oft idiots. They fuck up, hard. They learn, but not nearly quick enough.
It’s a book about being an artist. Why people do it, where it gets them, what it costs them, and all the rest. I want it to be addictive. I want it to be truthful. As much as the book is a pop single, it’s also got to come from a sincere place.
So somewhere between the two poles, I suspect. Ideally, we’d be on a third axis labelled “True.”
JB: You and McKelvie are known for creating teen characters that the audience can identify and empathize for, even if they (the audience) are no longer teenagers. What is it about this age group that appeals to you?
KG: Well, when I did YA [Young Avengers] I said I suspected that would be the last time I did anything with teens. This proved me a liar. I realized I had a bunch of other things left to say about being young and dumb and talented and doomed. There’s so much about time in The Wicked + The Divine. Phonogram was about being a fan. Ten years later, I do a book about the desire to be a creator, and everything that you sacrifice along the way, done with all the skill those years have taught us. I wrote Rue Britannia as a 28 year old, about the horror of being a 30 year old. I’m writing The Wicked + The Divine as a 38 year old, about the horror of being dead. It’s a story where I’m dancing on my own grave.
But it’s a pop song. It’s the ultimate party at the end of the world, and the “ultimate party” part of the sentence is just as important as “the end of the world.” Also, it comes first.
Laura is 17 year old me, trying to work out how to write. Laura is 25 year old me, trying to work out why she’s writing anyway. Laura is 38 year old me, writing this with a cup of tea. They’re all me. They’re all who I wanted to be, and never stopped wanting to be, even when I was. The Wicked + The Divine is me creating a cast of people I’d have killed to be, and then throwing them onto the fire. It’s me saying goodbye to all those me-s.
In a more practical level, that liminal stage between youth and adulthood is a place where people learn enormous lessons (or don’t). It’s a little older an age group than Young Avengers – there’s younger members of the cast, but the older ones are in their early twenties – but that whole areas leaves a lot of room for that kind of glorious fuck up.
JB:You’ve said that these gods only live for two years before dying, does that mean your jumping into the story with an ending in mind? Is there potential for new gods to take over the story as others end?
KG: We know the ending. It’s a long way off, and will involve detours along the way, but we know it. I consider the book a closed novel, much like something like my Journey Into Mystery run or any of the hefty Vertigo series. So while I’m not thinking about doing the next generation of gods – at least, not yet – there’s room to go to previous generations. The book actually opens with the 1920s Gods of the Jazz Age. We get glimpses of the 19th century gods in the second issue.
It’s useful for a lot of reasons. Firstly, these are great settings. Secondly, it does underline we aren’t really just talking about pop stars. We’re talking about artists generally. We’re talking about towering cultural figures who shape their day.
JB: How has your collaborative process with Jaime changed through different projects like Phonogram, Young Avengers and now The Wicked + The Divine?
KG: At least to start with, WicDiv [The Wicked + The Divine] is less frenzied. Young Avengers‘ falling over itself energy came from a lot of places, not least my own frustration. That was both a strength and a weakness, but also unavoidable. That’s where I was then, and that’s what I had to do. Jamie, of course, is always terribly enabling to my awful instincts.
The maturity is the thing I’d stress, at least in the first issue. Jamie and I have done a lot of work. Young Avengers explicitly pushed things formally hard. To be frank, we’ll be pushing things formally far harder than YA ever did at certain points down the line, but we didn’t feel the need to do it at the start. We knew what the first issue had to do. We talked about it. We worked out the best way to do it. We did it.
We’re grown-ups now and know what we’re doing. We’re not afraid of that, and don’t feel we have anything to prove – except to the story. That’s the one thing we don’t want to let down.
JB: Comics continue to push cultural norms in the process of telling new stories. Do you think The Wicked + The Divine does this by tackling religious figures? Would series like this even be possible while you were growing up, or would it have been used as more of a protest rally point?
KG: Oh, I dunno. Sandman did the patchwork mythology pretty hard, and that’s decades old. I think the postmodernist fantasy approach is well metabolised by now. It’s now a question of what you choose to do with that framework.
I suspect the book will push a bunch of cultural norms outside of that, in terms of what we present. Teenagers aren’t rated Teens. It’s an extremely diverse cast, in every way.
JB: is there anything else you’d like Comicosity readers to know?
KG: I think people will like this a lot. I think it’s our best work. I think it’ll click with people who we’ve never clicked with before. I think anyone who dug us before will do us now. I’m about as confident as a perpetually insecure and neurotic Brit writer can be.
I just wish it was a month from now so everyone could read the bloody thing.
The first issue for The Wicked + The Divine hits stores on June 18th and can order it with Diamond Code: APR140486. You can also read more about the book, in the meantime, at www.thewickedandthedivine.com.