INTERVIEW: KIERON GILLEN
He is a superstar among writers. He created The Wicked + The Divine and DIE like there was nothing to it. His “Phonogram” became the Velvet Underground of modern comic books – everyone who read the first copies will get an Eisner someday. Kieron Gillen changes the medium of comic books, one issue at a time. Between being a literary idol and publishing another stroke of genius, he agreed to talk politics, music, and Alan Moore with our contributor – Luke Frostick.
Luke: I feel that any interview these days has to start with “How are you doing”?
Kieron: I’m alright. I have settled into the rhythm of the period, I guess. I am very aware that I’m playing on easy mode. I live with my wife. We like each other. My work is at home. None of my work was cancelled, and I have no immediate dependents. I’m just trying to see where I can be useful to the people around me, I guess.
Luke: I would like to ask what you think are your most important influences, both from inside books and comics, but also outside as well.
Kieron: When I was a journalist, I used to always roll my eyes when bands, game designers, and writers used to dodge that question–especially bands because they regularly don’t think about who their influences are. But, despite that, I’ve never been great at answering it.
I came to comics late. I came to them with Watchmen when I was twenty-one and got into them hard when I was twenty-five. My influences are a lot of the things I got into at that time. It was my first crush, I guess.
You can boil it down to a group of English and Irish men whose names begin with E, G, and M. People have described The Wicked + The Divine as this weird mash-up of a load of nineties Vertigo stuff. This is when me and Jamie where metabolizing some of those pop influences, I guess.
There is also [Katsuhiro] Otomo, specifically Domu. Akira is less of an influence than Domu, which is a book I took apart. There is Eddie Campbell with the Alec books; when I discovered them, it was really interesting. That is one of the big unspoken influences on Phonogram. When I got into comics circa the early noughties, all Oni books made us realise that people like us could do comics for other people like us. So it was things like Hopeless Savages, Blue Monday, even stuff like Queen and Country, Andy Watson’s books.
That was the stuff that was inside comics. Outside comics, there is a lot of music journalism in there. Joy Press and Simon Reynold’s The Sex Revolts was one of those big things. I don’t think I would have become a writer without Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming, also all the Melody Makers writers of the early nineties.
I’m going to name drop here, but I’ve been chatting to Alan Moore about how the British music press used to be sort of like a liberal education for working class kids. Stuff like the situationalists and philosophy you got from name-checking reviews of whatever band. Seeing predominantly working class and lower middle class writers wrestling with this stuff in public was important. I kind of got the same feeling when I got into comics.
In terms of novelists, obviously, DIE is me wrestling with that fact that I got into this stuff due to Tolkien as a kid and the anger towards the parent figure of Tolkien. I would be a very different writer without Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan, which I read when I was eleven. I found myself really thinking that this felt different. I wouldn’t have used the word feminist then, because I didn’t understand anything, but I was very aware that this was a book about a woman who’s not going anywhere and the kind of awfulness inside a civilisation, that weird dread of it all.
Iain Banks. I think that, in retrospect, Terry Pratchett was more important than I thought at the time, but Iain Banks was always the one I remember discovering when I was twelve or so and it changed things for me. It was the early Culture Novels, then The Wasp Factory and Complicity. Complicity is kind of the games journalist role-model book, gonzo-journalist as games-player which hadn’t existed anywhere else previously. Especially stuff like The Player of Games, how he used the idea of games as a simulation, and the simulation as a way to model things and therefore a civilisation ruled by a game. But of course, the flip of that is that no simulation is neutral. A lot of that got into my thinking quite early.
And of course there is a lot of music stuff. I was talking to James about Bowie, about how Bowie made a lot of us think that we need to up our game in how Bowie saw his death and used it in terms of anything can be used as art.
Luke: Let’s talk about music, because while I have been researching your work I have been listening to your Spotify playlists for DIE and, more importantly, for The Wicked + The Divine. Talk to me about how music influences your writing process.
Kieron: When I was younger and slightly more self-destructive, my work-for-hire stuff I would write sober, and my creator-owned stuff I would write drunk. That was just an excuse for drinking and clearly no good for anybody.
The way I think about it now is that there are books with playlists and books without playlists. The books without playlists are kind of well thought-out, they are kind of the day brain. The books with playlists are me trying to go full night brain, the Dionysian aspect.
It is the idea that I’m going to try and hit something directly because one of the things me and Jamie loved about comics is that it is the opposite of music.
If you are a musician, you have control over sound, and you have control over time. You have a series of noises and the spaces between them. In comics, you have no direct control over time. People can read the book at whatever speed they want and go backwards and forwards. You’ve got to really trick people to gain the effect, and that is an imperfect skill. The other thing is that you have no sound. A lot of what you are trying to do is to take two mediums that have no overlap whatsoever and work out effects from music and do them in comics.
You will always fail, but by trying to do the impossible, you are forced to make creative choices that are less obvious. How do you make a record that is as loud as a wall of sound? How can you do fade-outs, beats, the big drop in a night club, and these very specific feelings? I think this is a bit naive now, but when I was doing Phonogram, early on, I thought, “pictures and comics are like music and lyrics.” The picture side is like the pure sound, as in, “if this invokes, then it invokes indirectly.” Why does a song make you cry when it is just a series of notes? It is just because it hits you. In some ways, a picture, in terms of specific tonal qualities and the emotions provoked by an image, is not always direct. It is kind of how it is done, not just what it does. Whilst lyrics in music and dialog in comics is specific reference, and by adding dialog to someone looking sad, you change how that sadness is processed.
Lyrics are not poetry, lyrics are supposed to be interacting with the sound to create a power. There are lyrics that are utterly banal which, in context, are utterly heartbreaking. Er… this is messy early me, which I wince at a bit now. Clearly pictures are not nearly the complete indirect effect that sound is, but there’s some element to it. Some lines just make you feel happy or sad, as well as their more direct “this makes me feel sad as this is someone being side” communication.
All that goes back to soundtrack, and soundtracks are me trying to evoke that state of mind. I am somebody who responds strongly to music. Especially in Phonogram, it is about curating a playlist that evokes the state I am trying to achieve in the books. There is a load of books you see, both work for hire and my own. The Wicked + The Divine was kind of the end of that system. As The Wicked + The Divine is very specifically a book about the first forty years of my life, there is every pop song I’ve ever loved on the themes of death and sex. I added to it infinitely and it ended up being about five hundred songs long. There are some songs in there I don’t even like very much that kind of speak to the moment. I’ll always remember the first Phonogram. I loaded up my music system with every record from ’94 to ’98, all of them, especially the ones I hated, and it was all I listened to while I was working on the first Phonogram. I wanted to really listen to the records and reacquaint myself with them and what they said about the period.
That was the research part, and the evocation part was very much about The Wicked + The Divine. There are songs which speak to the book, to the characters arcs, to the moment, that speak to my story, and some which are jokes. I listened to The Wicked + The Divine playlist on repeat for a lot of the time I was writing it, especially when I was physically writing it, and also on shuffle when I was walking around. It was kind of like a Tarot deck. These songs juxtaposed together made me think about the characters and the book in different way. It was a device to make me carry on thinking about it.
In DIE I did it in a completely different way. It was explicitly me trying to write in different ways and not always succeeding. With DIE, the shuffle turned up the song Cherylee by Gowns. It kind of starts as this static for two minutes, then suddenly a voice comes out of it which is very pure, very beautiful, an alt-country lament. I thought this is how I want DIE to feel. It isn’t a banger. It is the opposite of the Wicked + Divine playlist and then I realised DIE is also about machines, about chance and algorithms, so Spotify play, and then pick what to play next itself. So the whole DIE playlist is generated by the algorithm. Though, I don’t listen to it as much as I did for The Wicked + The Divine, I put on Cherylee, you get that strange mood to ease me into writing the comic.
Luke: Do you think that is because The Wicked + The Divine is just a more musical piece than DIE? I mean The Wicked + The Divine is so much about music whereas in DIE it is there but it is not as important.
Kieron: Without a doubt. That’s fair. I did try to do a playlist for DIE first, and there is one which is all about 1991. But I went, ‘no, it is not really that book.’ Despite being about that period it also isn’t. It is about things that evoke separately. I just looked for music that felt like DIE, usually quite bleak stuff.
Luke: Let’s take a step backwards. I want to talk about your process in the big picture. How do you go from an idea, to a draft to a completed piece of art?
Kieron: In a panic. I mean Jamie has just been diagnosed with ADHD; honestly I’m thinking of looking into it myself because in my work methods there is a mixture between hyper focus and procrastination. It has been very noticeable throughout my life.
If you are in a position where you are trying to force an idea, a lot of it is input. You take stuff from a variety of sources and browse widely. You are looking for stuff that connects to stuff. When I was a games journalist, I remember reading Poetics. You’ve got that bit where Aristotle is arguing in favour of tragedy against epic verse. I was just thinking about games journalism in terms of ‘are games a valid art form?’ I was just laughing because all of it applied. Then you ask how else does this connect? Then you hit an idea that amuses you; you might write it down. Normally I’m a genre writer. I take that idea and I run with it and go, ‘if this is true, then this other thing is also true.’ Then that is the way the picture builds. That can go on indefinitely.
In some ways it is easy for work for hire because, for work for hire, there is a set problem. Somebody will come to you and say, ‘Hey, can you sort out this minor super hero character?’ and then I’m left to try and sort it out. Of course, with my own ideas, there always are higher emotional stakes attached to it. I have to find a solution that is useful to the goals that I’m pursuing, because there is also a critical filter to anything I think of. There are people who will pick up an idea, play with the idea, and that’s the end of it. They are not very auto-critical. I really am. I am somebody who used to be a critic, and I immediately see the similarities, you know. With DIE, it is Stephen King’s It meets the 1980’s D&D cartoon. That’s just how you describe it. Put it like this: I am very rarely surprised by any of my reviews. Disappointed, sure, but not surprised.
You could argue it limits my thinking about my work. I don’t think it does. I think I have the opposite problem, in that I start with quite a clean idea of what a project will be and then it becomes a katamari of nonsense.
I get this kind of magnetic north on what the book is. Then there is an element of finding the artist. If I am doing a creator-owned book, I often have an idea of who the artist is going to be. In the case of DIE, Stephanie. Stephanie and I have been meaning to do a book for years, and I played around with a couple of ideas before settling on DIE. It is different to being a prose writer. As a prose writer, you can change your style, but it’s a choice. As a comic writer, you have to change your style, because the artist’s choices will automatically do that. Stephanie and Jamie are very different sorts of creators. If you are writing for them, it is like an actor can do different things, or a musician who can play certain notes, you are then trying to recreate yourself as a creative identity. Jamie and I always use the phrase gestalt cartoonist; you are trying to become one person essentially.
So I’ve got the idea; then the question is, how am I going to do it? Then you are writing a script. By the time I write the script I have a bunch of notes anyway and bits of one-line dialog lying around. I had lines for the last issue of The Wicked + The Divine written when the first issue was written. I almost always know the end. There are exceptions to that, but normally I am like, ‘This is where we’re going.’ With The Wicked + The Divine and DIE, I’ve got the ending, the major plot beats and the character arcs as in, ‘this is what the character is like, these are the major problems, this is probably where they are going to end up, but how those two things sequence or compose is the art of comics for me.
For example, there is a big reveal about Baal in The Wicked + The Divine and I could have done that six issues earlier, but I needed to find where it fitted best. The same is true for Baphomet and The Morrígan; that could have come to a conclusion around issue 25, in the end it came to a climax in issue 35. The nature of writing a project over five years is that, for me, it is not possible to plan it that rigidly. To be honest, I think I plan more than most comics writers, especially in the world building. I have a certain amount I would like to do, and the question is, how much can I do in the space I have available, and when to sequence the material. It often feels like being an arranger, or even a film editor.
The actual process of writing a script has changed quite a lot for me. I use Scrivener now. It has got to point that it is happening in a really amorphous way. I write like a 3D printer. It is one reason I’ve started doing more prose stuff in recent years. I am aware that since I have stopped being a journalist, my prose has atrophied, by which I mean, I no long write for consumption. I write as a blueprint, for somebody else. I’m writing a lot and I’m writing to entertain because I’m usually writing for artist friends, but it is not like prose and so I don’t try to make it pure prose. It’s a letter. When I write a comic, I write almost a ghost of a script, just a few handful of lines and a few words that make no sense, like a panel’s whole description being ‘punch.’ So I write a rough line of dialog, the word ‘punch’ or ‘walks out.’ Then I go back and add another layer, then I maybe go elsewhere in the comic. As I said, it is like a 3D printer, I add a few molecules, then go somewhere else. I keep the whole comic really fluid until I know what the comic is, then I add the detail. That really works for me.
I also do a lot of rewriting when the art comes back. I do a lot of writing to make stuff fit the art better. Many letterers want to kill me as I do edit after the letterer has done a pass. I will delete a passage, a panel or a caption to make things more clear. There is some stuff you can see in advance and there are others that just don’t work and you have to try something different.
You said, ‘a finished work of art.’ Art isn’t finished, it is only abandoned. In comics there is always a ‘that will have to do,’ moment.
Luke: I want to focus on one of the last things you just said. Writing a comic for you is a fluid experience. I wonder if that it is to do with the nature of comics. One of the great things about comics is that you can start wherever you want. Part of the joy–particularly of rereading–is flipping through pages and panels in a random order. I wonder if that is part of why you write in that way.
Kieron: Maybe. I came to comics through Alan Moore, specifically Watchmen. If you read Alan’s essays circa 1985 about comic book writing, he is interested in the idea of density. You can have density in film, but you have to watch a film four or five times to see all the visual stuff that the film is doing. While in comics you can always flip back and say, “ohh, that is that.’
Luke: That is very much Moore’s work, hiding little things in the books. I mean reading something like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a pretentious joy, but it is great pulling it all apart and saying, ‘haha I see what you did there.’
Kieron: Yes, the parlour game of it. I did a speech about Watchmen, specifically talking about the technical stuff, how panel shapes change throughout, how elements appear repeatedly, all this formalist nature of Watchmen. For me, my origin story is just being locked in a room in America for a year and for the first month I had no entertainment, except a pile of existentialist philosophy I was too depressed to read and Watchmen. So I read Watchmen a lot. By reading it that much, I saw very early so much of the stuff that it did, and that became very much the way I thought about comics. I think many times my comics work better on the re-read. I’m almost always writing for the re-read.
Luke: I would agree with that. I want to come back to this later, but the first time you read The Wicked + The Divine, it is a bit of a head-fuck in places. The reader can’t pull it all together because you are twisting and altering it as you go and every book puts the characters and the story into a new paradigm. When each book finishes, the characters enter a totally different world and never quite let the reader settle down.
Kieron: That whole way of thinking I got from Watchmen. With The Wicked + The Divine, it was about playing with perspective, ideas, how stories can be told, but also how stories lie to you because we are going to lie to you again and again and again. You and the character are going to learn how to make sense of the world they are in. If there is anything The Wicked + The Divine is about, it is that. You said, “at the end of every arc, you have a new perspective,” but there are certain ones, the very big ones, like at the end of the 6th trade, genuinely everything is different then. In the months leading up to that, me and Jamie were trying to work out ways to say to the readers, ‘if you are thinking of rereading the comics, you might want to do it now.’
That was partly because you will see so much more, but it is also because that comic you love is going away forever. You are never going to be able to read that comic and see certain characters as innocent ever again. We are going into peoples’ houses, taking their books off their shelves, and replacing them with another set of books. That is what we wanted to do. Partly it is to do with comics. One of the differences between comics and prose is it is easier to read quicker. Therefore, you can reread easily. Because you can read quicker, it made me want to write for the reread. The fact that comics can be read so quickly, for me, makes them not such great value for money. We want you to come back and read it again and again and hopefully see stuff more and more. Even my lighter books have some of that.
Luke: There was a balance to be struck in The Wicked + The Divine because if you gave away too much, it would ruin the fun, but you have to give the reader enough to keep people coming back. When I was reading it, I kind of had my book critic hat on. I was fascinated because I didn’t know if it was going to be able to stick the landing. It all depended on if, at the end, all the pieces added up to something. The ending itself took me by surprise when I first read it, it is such an elegant resolution to the mystery of the children. This is a bad question to ask, but how did you come up with the ending?
Kieron: it was tricky. Whilst the book is complex and it is trying to deceive you, it also tries to play fair. If you read it again, some of the stuff is utterly said in the first issue.
Luke: Right. Amaterasu says it right at the beginning.
Kieron: Even stuff like the heads, how many decapitated heads are there in the first few issues? I wouldn’t say we are mocking people, but we did know what was coming. The trick was that there have been various TV shows which have promised the mystery and not been able to pay it off.
That is one reason we paid off some stuff very early. The “fucking Tara” paying off for Tara in issue 13. You know that we knew that in issue 1 and then we did it. It was partly showing that we did have a plan. But, certain aspects didn’t solidify until near the end. For example, after the cycle breaks, I knew they would get together afterwards, but I didn’t know the reason for the gathering. The idea of Cassandra’s funeral came to me quite late.
Let me take a few steps back. I had this kind of plot for The Wicked + The Divine for four years: Each edition takes you to a different stage and you have these big beats along the way. In the fourth year, it was basically about resolving the equation. I knew Laura breaks the cycle. These were very gifted people who were never gods. The belief that they were gods was a cage. This is a story about how there is nothing magical about creation… except that it is magical. Then there were the subplots like Minerva that formed the big beats that were planned.
Then there was the “resolve the equation” aspect. By that point, I knew all this stuff would be in play, the pregnancy subplot and all this. Then I had to find how this stuff shakes down and I had to write myself out. This often happens when I write books that the characters’ fates end up being my own. How can we make these idea and pieces land? The stuff about the gods, I knew from the start, the cut to blank at the end, I knew that at the start. I thought about this and I was in tears. It was after my dad’s death, and it was a very grim time for lots of reasons. Even then, the book was always about me trying to argue to myself, “why is it ok to be alive? Why be an artist anyway?” People have got into the nihilism of the book, especially early on when the characters are at their most bleak. At the start, I knew that this is a book about people falling apart and rebuilding themselves so they can go on. In a very real way, if I didn’t think there was a point to any of this, I wouldn’t be here. The Wicked + The Divine was always going to have a happier ending than I think people expected.
So, solving the equation was part of it. The other was character. What was genuinely true to the characters, we put in play. It is stuff like, I knew by the end of Mothering Invention that Anki was a busted flush. Laura had won. We don’t know why Laura has won, but she is out of the cycle; she just needs to work out what to do with it. The last arc spends a lot of time trying to make Minerva a threat because she can be a physical threat but not really an intellectual threat any more. It was only when planning that book in the final year and solving the equation that I realised, ‘oh the final threat should be Lucifer, obviously.’ Because I knew how a lot of characters were going to end, but I didn’t know where Lucifer was going to end up. Obviously, she is the one Laura fell in love with instantly, she has to be the final foe.
The other hard part was Cassandra’s funeral. I’m not exactly sure the point that I realised that Cass and Laura should be together. It was one of those things that slowly came together. One of the first lines that Laura says about Cass is, ‘I’ve got something better than friends. I have enemies.” The dovetailing of them as one going from cynicism to belief and the other going from belief to cynicism–there is a lot of intertwining in The Wicked + The Divine–I think becomes profound and moving. It chokes me up. There is a moment in issue 16 when Dionysus sees someone he loves in a hospital ward, dying. I wrote the script and I wanted to throw myself a hard ball. I knew that person was Cassandra because I knew that Dionysus loved Cassandra well before the reader did. I had an image of Dionysus talking about that in whatever the final meeting turned out to be. I thought I was going to tie that off there, but then I realised that the entire point of the end of The Wicked + The Divine is that the story is over, so if Cassandra hasn’t died yet, the story is not over yet (because prophecy is just story by a fancy name). There was a moment on a train when I realised Cassandra has to die. Of course it is also the most important bit in the book, in some ways the happy ending doesn’t ring true–the characters are not going to ride off into the sunset, they are still going to die. Ending at the funeral of somebody who has lived a life and is loved and the people around them and seeing Laura as an old person is very important in speaking to that. There’s no final win. There’s just living then death.
Luke: I’d like to ask about prose style. You mentioned it earlier. In a comic you don’t have to rely as heavily on prose as in a novel, but you have to choose your words more carefully because you only have a bit of space. Do you have something that you would call a style?
Kieron: Good question. Comics has hard limitations. There are set rules: No more than 25 words a ballon, 210 words a page. All these things which are really good things to think about. My wife and editor Chrissy is a poet, she did a book about poetry comics; specifically she talks about the connection between poetry and comics. In poetry, it is about increasing the amount of meaning in the fewest words. That is how she sees some comics and that is the way I try to as well in that my writing has moments that are flippant, but there are also lines that will mean different things at different times, a compounding of meaning, that is what I’m normally thinking about. Me at my most flippant is also normally working on a few levels. The Wicked + The Divine has a mix of naturalism and stylisation in that everything is heightened. Nobody quite speaks like any of these characters. I would love to be able to speak like that.
Luke: It would be great to always be that succinct, witty and always have an answer.
Kieron: Yes, at the same time, I try to give the characters specific voices. In The Wicked + The Divine where a lot of the characters are sharp, there are just a lot of things that they wouldn’t say. An easy way to think about language in The Wicked + The Divine is which swearwords the characters use. You can map the caricatures. Some never swear and on the other side there is only one character that uses the c-word.
Luke: Who is it? I want to say Lucifer, but I feel it might be Morrígan.
Kieron: It was Morrígan. Lucifer has the ornate prettiness, the Oscar Wilde look. In fact Oscar Wilde is an interesting comparison because his work is hyper-stylised and tries to get all his one-liners down in a book.
Thinking about the other characters, you also get Dionysus who is pretty, then you get Amaterasu, who has some good one liners, but is also an idiot. People always ask me, “Who is your favourite character to write?” For me it never works like that. It is more: Which characters do you like put together? Because then they talk to each other. For example Amaterasu and Cassandra, if they were fighting or being sweet to each other, they were always a complete joy.
Luke: The character I’ve always enjoyed reading was Wōden. You must have had such fun creating a distillation of everything that is wrong with fandom and geek culture into one character.
Kieron: Wōden was hard. With Wōden you had to ask how could you self-justify this? There are bits where he is using feminist text to get laid. Issue 14 in particular left me feeling really dirty. He has that line, “It’s easy. Just forget that people are people.” There are couple of times I liked writing Wōden, but not many. I enjoyed that he was always a character who would end up in a bad place.
Luke: He gets sent off with such a wonderful one liner from Ananke. “I’ve lived for a very long time, I’m so bored of men like you.” We’ve talked a lot about The Wicked + The Divine, which is a book that I love, so thank you for that. I want to talk about DIE as well because you have done something ridiculous here. You have created a whole RPG to go along with the comic because you felt like it, I guess. As far as I can tell from other interviews I’ve seen, it was part of your world building process gone completely out of control.
Kieron: It is one of the things that I have done that I have spent a lot of time reverse-analysing. I think this might be from Natasha’s Dance, and I’m paraphrasing, it is the difference between German and Russian writers. Germans will make the theory, then write the book, while Russians will write the book, then make the theory to justify it. I feel very Russian. I wrote that and I always question how much I planned. In the case of DIE, the weirdness of it came from a conversation I had with Leigh Alexander, the writer and ex-critic. We were having a drink after the launch of The Wicked + The Divine magazine issue and she’d done an interview for and she said, “you know what Kieron, your work is most interesting when you are doing something only you can do.”
I had a think about that and said, ‘pull the other one.’ She talked a bit more and got what she meant. This is based on the fact that I was a magazine writer and played internet message board stuff in the 1990s, which meant that I could role-play the character I’d written to journalists I knew; I am a critic as well and all of those things come together. I wouldn’t say I’m the only one who can do those things, but it is a unique set of skills. It’s led me to want to push to the extremes more, so yes, I will have conversations with Hollywood and take those meetings, but also try to be in touch with the Alan-Moore-of-it-all–as in doing stuff only you would do. For example, I’ll just make my own RPG. It was almost like The Wicked + The Divine playlist in that it was an object of obsession. To put it another way, this is the device that allows me to think about the work from a different angle. There were times when I wondered which was the tail and which was the dog. Though I don’t see it like that anymore. I kind of see it as like a superimposed hologram as in DIE exists as an idea that is emerging into different shapes. and I try to triangulate it. I found myself thinking about Tolkien. There is a weight to Middle Earth that is palpable. It is easy to mock Tolkien, god knows I have, but the amount of work he put into it gives it a weird gravity that is undeniable.
Luke: A few editions ago, I interviewed Marlon James and he said something like, “Tolkien is both over-exposed and under-appreciated.”
Kieron: That is entirely right. There are so many levels of rebellion against him, including mine. There is a weirdness to Tolkien because he sits to the side of fantasy separate from the American pulp tradition. He wouldn’t have gone to the Hugo’s. He is almost an outsider artist despite the fact that he sits at the heart of the genre.
Luke: I get the feeling that he would really dislike quite a lot of the things that came from him. I don’t think he would look at something like The Witcher video games with approval.
Kieron: Yes exactly. My Tolkien echo in DIE says, ‘this is not what I wanted.’ He is talking about World War One, but also the whole of DIE. That is not what he would have been into. I found myself, in terms of how it relates to me, Tolkien is somebody for whom the world was an epiphenomenon of the languages. In case of me, DIE’s metaphysics when they are eventually reviled will have a certain solidity because I have written all this bullshit. I feel that DIE is a real place. Middle Earth is a world designed by a linguist whereas DIE is a world explicitly designed by a critic.
DIE’s politics and structure is a living argument about what makes up a fantasy game. That is utterly unreal as a conceit, but, at the same time it is something that is there. There is a bit in issue 3 where Ash rebels, she sees what is happening around her and she still cares. That is the closest I’ve come in my work to saying, ‘yes this is unreal, but it still matters. It is a special kind of unreal that is prettifying.’ Anyway, that’s my theory. I’ll change it next week.
Luke: Fair enough. So all your work is deconstructionist to a certain extent. Once and Future is taking apart heroic fantasy and Authorian myth, The Wicked + The Divine is mythology and music, Phonogram, music as well and DIE is RPGs. How do you build a deconstruction while still giving it a life of its own and not just being smug and referential?
Kieron: I don’t know. I try and I’m sure that there are many people who would say I’m totally smug. It is tricky. What you have just described is the heart of my problem as a creator. I’m a critic so I’m interested in talking about stuff. My problem in talking about stuff is that I am hyper aware of what has come before me. I’m not sure if I could write something that wasn’t deconstructionist, because I lack the naivety to think what I’m doing is original. I fully believe in the new, however. One of the reasons I was into games both analog and digital was that they were new.
These are fundamentally new aesthetics that are unprecedented in human history. I get quite frustrated and angry with people who say otherwise – new may not be everywhere in culture, but parts of culture is always new. But I am interested in where the new emerges from. I think that the magic of it is that, yes it is deconstructionist, but you have to have some sort of bond with it. In the case of DIE, I never wanted it to be about retro D&D bullshit.
Yes, I talk about the tropes, but I wanted it to be a fantasy in and of its own self. Yes, all the classes are riffing on the classic D&D. They are a conversation about them, but they are also a fantastical thing in and of themselves. So you have, for example, the godbinder – that is a simple one. It is a take on the cleric in D&D, but also you have the battering with gods, which is a fun thing in and of itself. That kind of double-think is what appeals to me. This comes back to my dialog, but works that are saying multiple things simultaneously are about how I see the world. The Godbinder is both a critique and a fun, entirely self-standing thing. I tend to see a lot of irony, not in the smug sense. I mean irony in that I believe that most things are experienced simultaneously and often contradictory. There is reason I find it hard to get above bittersweet in my emotional register.
Any happiness is soured by death. I can’t close stuff off and I don’t want to. That is one of the reasons I like to make work about the world which for me leads to deconstruction, and also, work that embraces the complexity of the world.
This is my main problem as a writer. The Wicked + The Divine and DIE are cultural history. In other words, I am recapitulating the problems of history in my work. I’m always afraid of doing a story that is saying, ‘this thing I’ve just done is bad.’ At different times in my career, I’ve fallen into that trap. I’m aware of the problem when I’m doing it, and trying ways to do it better.
An example is the issue of The Wicked + The Divine when we go through history. That was a hard one because by definition, more marginalised people, i.e. people the big empires wiped out, don’t appear in the story enough because they weren’t “influential”. There is the most awful truth that the most culturally influential people across history are mostly the people who marched over others. There’s a real inertia to established cultures. Especially in the early history edition we could have just skipped history between Egypt and China for 4000 years. Obviously, we didn’t do that.
We dug around and did what we could elsewhere. When we didn’t find records, we did stuff to fix the problem. We did one in Australia, there is a pantheon there, even though we can’t historically say anything about it. You’ll notice that Jamie covers up the clothing. By putting a panel in that continent we were showing that there were people there and there was definitely a god there. The implicit other side of The Wicked + The Divine is that the pantheon can be quite widespread. In other words, if we showed one in Europe it doesn’t just mean France. We wanted to imply by having one in Africa or south America that there were more in those places as well. We are aware of the problems of doing a cultural history is that you just can’t pull stuff out of your arse. Jamie killed himself trying to find reference for all the outfits.
It is the same with DIE. DIE is a really white, and often male book. That is a problem and in some way that is what DIE is about – a cultural history of RPGs. At the same time, you have to lampshade it or show awareness. I was very glad I got the Brontes in because it would have been very easy to put twenty white guys in and make them the masters of DIE, and there’s some more, and there’s other plans for Masters ahead. Of course, I could have also gone the other way, made all the masters white and male, and turned it into a book about white male gatekeeping, that would be a very dialectic book, and I wouldn’t want to write it, but I can see somebody pulling it off. It’s perhaps there on a more subtextual level, of course. That’s Sol.
Luke: This nicely brings me to some of the thematic stuff I wanted to talk about. This is something that I have seen you walk about but I’m curious about. It seems to me that Once & Future, The Wicked + The Divine and DIE are very English books and are to a certain extent about being English. It seems to me that the English are having a bit of a crisis in their identity in the last – let’s say ten years – and I say English specifically because I don’t see quite the same problem in Scotland or Ireland. I wonder to what extent your books are responding to the problem of what it means to be English now.
Kieron: It is interesting. Of course, those themes that are in my book date from before the last ten years. At the same time I, broadly speaking, agree. Once & Future is interesting. Bridgette who is Irish is pretty much describing my gran. I mean we are Irish Catholic, my gran came over when she was 14. I consider myself British, but in a real way, yes, that’s my background.
There is a quote from Jim Rossignol who I am writing Ludocrats with. He says “there is fundamental English provincialism to you, Kieron”. I think that he means that I am a small-town person. I’m quite an outsider. I was never comfortable in Stafford, but at the same time I’m very Stafford. All that is in there.
I have a suspicion of England, maybe that is not the right word… One of the songs I think about quite regularly is “Shot by Both Sides” by Magazine – it is one of my theme songs. I am somebody who is very left, but I’m also somebody who gets frustrated with bad arguments. Not that I pick fights with people, but a lot of my understanding of the concept of England is about that.
The other side is that people should write about their environment. You don’t have to go to LA, the random chip-shop in Stafford is just as worth writing about. Part of writing is, ‘here is an authentic take on a place.’ The other part is my utter frustration with the place. I remember the week after the Brexit vote came in – and obviously, I was crushed – I went to see Massive Attack at a big gig in Hyde Park. Healing is the wrong word, but there was a focused anger. If there is an England I love, then Massive Attack would be the best advert for what that England is. They are Bristol, from this amazing multicultural city. Their music is amazing and takes from so many different places, it is so much about social connection between people and transcendence, it is also very of this country. Also Bristol is a slave city. It was born of empire. It is still there, if you could make an argument for Britain it would be Massive Attack, I think.
The critique, the frustration and the desire to make new myths and to question the myths that you were sold is what DIE is all about and Once & Future takes it one step further. Once & Future assumes that stories are just bad. Because it is a horror book, it takes the idea one step further than you can believe. Then you wrestle with it with the volume turned up with the idea that stories are parasites that are trying to kill us. If you watch Twitter, you start thinking that it might be true.
Luke: I try to stay off Twitter as much as possible
Kieron: I took it off my phone, and it has been very good for me. The Englishness of the story, the idea that a dumb version Englishness is a story that has driven us to distraction and bad decisions. Britain is an addict still recovering from the high of empire. When you read about the climb of the empire in the 19th century, Britain is weird. And historians in 1000 years’ time will look at it and say, “what was that about?”
Luke: The Wicked + The Divine is kind of everything that is good about London and can be good about England, the characters are as diverse racially and sexually as London is and that is part of England. Whereas Once & Future is about the dark shit in our history and how we are not very good at dealing with it.
Kieron: It is all complicated. When you described The Wicked + The Divine that is exactly it and I find myself thinking that The Wicked + The Divine is me trying to do Massive Attack. It is me and Jamie saying, ‘this is why we love London.’ This also links back to my worries about being a deconstructionist writer and recapitulating problems. At the same time, the work tries not to be and is saying, ‘this is how we would like the world to be.’ We were aware that we wanted to make a mythology for 2014 and the London, and people we love. This multicoloured corral-reef of a city is in there.
I push and pull between trying to sell the country I would like to be in to people vs the reflexive talking about the place you are in. There is a push and pull.
Luke: When you say that I can see that tension. I think you also have a similar relationship with “geek culture.” I have a great love of fantasy, RPGs, video games all that stuff, and I think that there is still great art and artists working in the genre. But I look at the fandom culture with growing despair as it seems to be dominated by either really glossy, sleek marketing, by really shady, abusive companies like Ubisoft. Then on the other hand you have these reactionary, aggressive dweebs who all they seem to want to do is screech about SJWs and take up a huge amount of oxygen. I think my view of fandom is overly pessimistic. In your work, are you trying to tell a more optimistic story about fandom, what it is and what it can do?
Kieron: It is complicated. That is interesting; you have taken the more optimistic view of my work. Normally when people ask me that question, they ask me the opposite, ‘are you cynical about pop culture?’ When people do stories like let’s say, Ready Player One, which is a book I despise, but it is a book that has the message, ‘all geek culture is good.’ DIE explicitly has the down side of fantasy. It makes people think Kieron is being deconstructionist, but also against it. The Wicked + The Divine is also about the dangers of being a creator, and Phonogram is about how peoples’ love of music has hurt them in different ways because they have failed to treat others with the kindness that they deserve. My take has always been that it is about the ups and the downs of culture. In other words, The Wicked + The Divine captures the high of so much that is involved in pop culture at the same time it captures all the awful places it can take you.
I’m old enough to remember geek culture in the 80s when there were attempts at censorship in a real way, especially in America. I saw people trying to argue against this recently – saying it wasn’t ever really a thing – and think that this is unwise. We were quite defensive as a culture back then and there is a sense that we are still worried our heads will be flushed down the toilet. It just isn’t true any more. Geek culture, whatever that is, has won.
Luke: Absolutely. But I sometimes think: What have we done with that victory? Not the creatives because I still think great art is being made, the culture around it doesn’t feel like it is moving in a good direction. In your books, you have a love for the minutiae of geek culture, in The Wicked + The Divine there are sneaky little Warhammer references in there for example.
Kieron: It is the most shameless thing I’ve ever done.
Luke: I never thought your book had an overly negative view of the geeky world because if nothing else, you couldn’t resist putting those little love letters to the culture.
Kieron: I’m glad you say that because, due to that geek feeling of being oppressed even when they are not really, it has led to a sense of hyper sensitivity. Even something that is not, yay yay yay. I remember when I was a games journalist, one of the editors at GameSpot, who was eventually sacked and received death threats because he gave a Zelda game 89%. That is like, ‘what the fuck is wrong with you.’ The point being that if the game you like getting 89% is something that makes you act inhumanly, there is something wrong with your priorities.
My take is the fact that we have ‘won’ means that you have to be a bit more grown up about it. I’m arguing we can have better discussions which accept our love and still look at an element and say ‘yeah that is a problem,’ or ‘yeah that art is a bit shitty, why isn’t that woman wearing any clothes.’ All those basic discussions, that aren’t really a big deal are just something grownups have to do. That is the thing, I’m obviously in love with this stuff because so much of it has made me feel amazing. What makes it more important is that you have to question it especially if you are in a position of social dominance. That’s my take.
Luke: Geeks came from a position as the minority and see themselves as the minority, so it can get really toxic when actually disadvantaged minorities come into the space. I’m going to make a straw man here, but there can be an instinct of, I had a rough time at school so I can’t be the bad guy.
Luke: I feel that that instinct has got stuck in the throat a bit, and I don’t know how we clear it in the current media hell-scape.
Kieron: Yeh that hypersensitivity and not just in nerd culture of feeling under attack makes it really hard to have a conversation. I don’t want to get too far into this but, let’s say hypothetically if I hated The Ghost Busters remake, I’m not going to say that because there is no way I’m going to join the side of an argument that includes a clear sexist fuck-wits harassing people. If I made a good argument about it, I know it’s in risk of being used as part of those harassment campaigns. Er… to stress, I don’t hate the Ghostbusters remake, but to speak broadly.
The polarity around a work of art has got to the point where we can’t have conversations about it without risking becoming aligned with genuinely monstrous actions. What I try to do is just provide more complicated feelings, provide space where people can be more nuanced and put the work in. One of the joys of comics is that it is a smaller medium in the ways that a small scene can define its own rules. I hope my work has created spaces where people with similar interests can find each other and try to build a new culture.
That sounds really pretentious, but that is what I fell in love with art for. That is what the art I love did to me, so I guess I should try to do it for other people.
Interview by Luke Frostick