Kieron Gillen was a music journalist before he stepped away from the hustle to start writing comics. He’s been extraordinarily successful in his new career, working on major titles like The Uncanny X-Men, Iron Man, Thor, and Marvel’s extremely popular Star Wars: Darth Vader. At his heart, though, he’s still someone who spends way too much time putting way too much thought into pop music, and it shows.
Over the past decade he and artist Jamie McKelvie have created two series for Image Comics that will resonate deeply with anyone who spends as much time digging through record store bins as comic book racks. In Phonogram, which recently returned after a five-year hiatus, pop music provides a conduit for modern-day magicians-slash-record-geeks (or “phonomancers”) to tap into powerful ancient energies. Their more recent collaboration, The Wicked + The Divine (which recently began a new story arc, while its first 17 issues just got the hardcover deluxe omnibus treatment), imagines a world where a pantheon of gods and goddesses drawn from a broad spectrum of world mythologies is reincarnated every 90 years. Most recently they’ve returned in the form of 12 young Brits who pattern themselves after the closest thing we have to deities in the modern age: pop stars.
Over email, we picked Gillen’s brain about mythology, music criticism, and the transformative power of pop.
Both The Wicked + The Divine and your earlier series Phonogram deal with pop stardom and fandom as conduits for magical/diving energy. Where did the idea come from, and how are the two series’ worlds related?
The frustrating thing is that after all these years I can’t remember the moment I conceived of Phonogram. I normally know where everything came from. I suspect I was drunk.
The core of both books is how art transforms humans, for better or worse. I’m a person who’s been transformed by art. Jamie has too. This is us picking that apart.
The difference between the two is that Phonogram is really about consumers of art and WicDiv is about creators of art (or rather, it’s about when someone transforms from a consumer or art to a creator of art). In short, Phonogram is about everything before we became creators and WicDiv is about everything that happened after we became creators.
We tend to use pop music as a shorthand, but there’s much more art in the mix. Pop music just gives great visuals.
The first time I saw the Stones’ Cocksucker Blues documentary I was struck by how much they seemed to live on this entirely different plane of existence from normal people, as if they were some kind of real-life Olympian gods. Do pop stars fill a role in the modern day that deities filled in earlier times?
You tell me. We get some responses to WicDiv which seem to get confused whether is parody or eulogy to the power of pop stars. WicDiv isn’t that kind of book. WicDiv has a much more ambivalent relationship with the people it describes.
[Phonogram’s] David Kohl seems like a pretty unreformed rock snob of the old school, but W+D seems to come from a more poptimist perspective. Where do you think your own tastes sit on that spectrum?
I can’t believe I’m going to write this, but I think you’re being a little hard on Kohl. The first big speech he makes in Rue Britannia’s second issue is about the joys of selling out and taking over the charts. He raves about Kenickie’s glitter and handclaps. He’s got a virulent sneer throughout all Rue Britannia, but the beat which sends him to face Britannia is him realizing that even though he hates a random Libertine fan’s music, all that matters is that love of music, not what music you love … and he’s willing to fight and die for other people’s right to love music he despises.
(The biggest snob in Phonogram is, of course, Seth Bingo who is a pure poptimist and about 50 percent of what he says is basically virulently expressed inverted snobbery towards the traditional rock canon.)
Me? I like all the bands that any character in Phonogram expresses love for. And WicDiv too, for that matter. In Phonogram, I often slag off bands I love because there’s material there (I still feel bad I’ve never done a story about how great Sleater-Kinney are). You can’t really get my taste from any one character, but if you look at them all, you’ll get a flash of it.
There is a difference between the two books, and you can sort of see it in the construction of the WicDiv playlist. WicDiv is primarily a collection of big pop hits. It is about being number one. Phonogram is about being number 41, and just missing being on Top of Pops.
WicDiv is about winning. Phonogram is about losing.
Some of the character designs in W+D seem pretty directly inspired by IRL pop stars, like Wotan’s Daft Punk-ish helmet and Sakhmet’s resemblance to Rihanna. In those cases, which came first: the character concept or the pop star inspiration? How did you decide which deities would have what sort of pop music equivalents?
It’s complicated. Some characters the god I wanted to riff on came first. Some characters the pop star archetype came first. A very rare few came simultaneously. I say “archetype” as all the gods are inspired by multiple people, across a period of time. It’s about a pop star type, with our god being a specific example of one of them. In the case of Amaterasu, the one most people see is Florence Welsh, but there’s arguably more Kate Bush in there, plus Stevie Nix. People operating in that space. Sure, you can see Daft Punk in Woden, but if you look at at the story, it’s really the producer archetype we’re digging into – and mainly the genius-producer-monstrous-human archetype.
When I think about real life pop stars who’ve attained an almost literally godlike status I immediately think about David Bowie. What do you think it was about him that makes people worship him the way they do? Are there any other artists who you think channel the same sort of energy?
There’s so much about Bowie that you can’t boil down to a simple area. He’d have been a cult hero if he’d only done SPIDERS FROM MARS. Hell, he’d have been a cult hero if all he did was release an album on his birthday, just before dying of cancer, about the disease. And that is just a gracenote when you’ve got Bowie’s history, y’know?
I would say arguably the core part of Bowie is that he gave people the permission to be themselves. You saw Bowie do what Bowie did and you were inspired. Part of WicDiv’s core world building is that the Gods don’t really do anything – they inspire you. They don’t change the world. We do. That’s very Bowie.
I think Bowie was an extreme case, but I would say the ability to do this is a core part of being a pop star.
Pop fandom in the UK has a unique intensity to it, where youth movements take on a particularly cultish vibe that they don’t elsewhere. Why do you think that is? Is there something particular about the UK and/or its culture that provokes such a passionate relationship with pop music?
Historically speaking, this can be true. Or rather, its cults tend to be larger and so more easily noticeable. My old argument is that it’s primarily to do with the size of Britain. The place is tiny. Ideas spread quickly, across the whole country (and I’d argue that historically its public broadcasting has also help this). More importantly, you can move around easier. Equally, I remember an old quote by (I think) Joe Strummer talking about walking around London and hearing all this different kinds of music, which is why you get the Reggae influence to the Clash and all that. You can’t help but be exposed to more stuff, and that’s a breeding ground for stuff.
I’m not sure I’d make this argument any more, however. A lot of that feels historical.
The Internet seems to be elevating fandom everywhere to literally religious levels. What kind of qualitative difference is there between, say, an ancient Greek Dionysian cult and the Beyhive? How do you envision this kind of superfandom evolving into the future?
Dionysian cults were limited to Europe and Asia-Minor.
And what does the future hold? No pun intended, god knows, but at least part of the WicDiv project is trying to make it more in our image.
Oh, we are awful.
Pop music generates a lot of its own mythology, like the Paul Is Dead rumor or the Rap Illuminati. Are there any pop myths that you find particularly interesting?
Heh. Not quite a conspiracy theory, but I always wanted to do a Phonogram story about the Beach Boys fanatics who basically were using all the cuts of Smile to try and work out what Smile would have been, akin to the trying-to-work-out-the-216-letter-name-of-God, there’s something appealing about that kind of obsession.
You spent some time as a music journalist and critic. Why didn’t you stick with it? Is there anything you miss about it? Are Phonogram and W+D on any level a way for you to exercise your critical impulse and get your opinions about music out there?
Well, I do view Phonogram as music criticism. Each story is structured like an argument, with thesis, counter-thesis and conclusion and all that jazz. WicDiv, less so. WicDiv plays games with art and makes stuff up, but a big part of Phonogram was that it all had to be true, in a 1:1 way if you strip away the metaphor. It was an austere post-punk kind of book, if you see what I mean. But even WicDiv has a large metacritical aspect to it. It’s less opinions about individual bits of art, and more about the larger ideas.
My music criticism was a second string in my general work of criticism (which were mainly videogames). I ended up not pursuing it as a full time thing – waking up at one Reading Festival with a revelation that I didn’t actually want to write for the NME – and only dabbling. In a real way, Phonogram kind of emerged from that blocking of all those ideas about pop. I didn’t vent them quick enough, they congealed, turned to a boil, and Phonogram is the pus that is lanced free. That metaphor is fucking horrible.
I still do bits of writing – not nearly as much, and I love talking to people who are working critics. I still need to do my Tracks of the Year for 2016 article, as I suck hard.
Why did I stop doing it? There’s only so many hours in the day, and being a comic creator pays much better.
What do I miss? Being able to have opinions in public in the same way. God help me, I loved that and all the precious drama it created. Critics are people who think too much. I always like people who think too much. It was often awful. It was rarely boring.
What’s the most overused word in pop criticism?
Seminal? Classic? Those are awful. “Visceral” always makes me shiver.
Are there any pop critics who you respect for their prose as much (or more) than their tastes?
Oh god, yes. All my favorite critics have the ability to make me wish they were right when I think they were wrong. Criticism serves many purposes. It’s not a buyer’s guide. Reading someone I disagree with who is great is infinitely more rewarding that reading bad (or mediocre) work I agree with.
And there’s always a worth in hearing that dissenting viewpoint. There’s work I hated that a critic has helped me unlock. It’s not just the pretty words. It’s the guiding of an ear to qualities herein.
Are we in danger of an actual electroclash revival?
The best electroclash revival would be someone reanimating Joe Strummer as a cyborg.