“The Wicked + The Divine”: divinità come popstar. Intervista a Gillen e McKelvie


wicked divine

First of all, how did you come up with the idea of The Wicked + The Divine?

K: There are two angles. Basically we came of the back of doing Young Avengers. Our plan was to finish Avengers, go back and do finish Phonogram. In Avengers we had been doing this book which is basically: the past is dead, we have to remake the future. You know, this is a book about the future. So, going back to something we started like over a decade ago seemed a betrayal of that. People want to see something new from us. They don’t want to see again Phonogram. Ok, let’s do something sensible for once in our life. We got chance to redefine pop culture. Let’s do it. So we sort of did that. And I had an idea earlier that year. Wicked has got this core idea of 12 gods reincarnating every ninety years, having two years to live. It came to me in the week following my dad had been diagnosed with cancer. So it’s basically my initial response to grief. And the question is: “Life could over in two years, ten years, seventy years. It’s short and finite. Why on earth would you spend that time doing anything at all? Why spend those years being an artist?

One of the most interesting things about WD is that the series is mostly set in Britain. Why did you choose your homeland instead of setting the story in America, as some British authors do? 

J: It’s easy. We like doing something about the world in which we live. This is our London, and this is our life. And it makes it easier to reference things, because we understand the environment in which these characters are living. So we can make it real.

K. There is a sort of trend running. Phonogram was also set where we lived. We like to mythologise all the environments. And the point being everyone should be encouraged to mythologise their own environment, as opposed to having only New York where interesting things happen. Things happen wherever you are. So the idea with Phonogram was always asking ourselves if there was something special about these characters. It’s about their obsessions and what is so special about them. I want to describe what is special in anybody. WD is also like that. In a way we wanted things to be a little more performative, and transforming our environment is only part of the magical thinking we do. I live in Lewisham, which is the area in which the main character lives. So I can walk around London thinking: “ok, what would Laura make of this?”

A sort of magical realism.

K: A little bit. You know, if we were more literary and pretentious it would be magical realism.

In WD you somehow conflate the tropes of pop stars, gods and comic book superheroes into your main characters. What aspect is most relevant and serves as controlling metaphor?

Both: All of it.

K. If we had wanted it to be only one of them we would have done one of them. The book is meant to be a series of question marks. It’s called the Wicked and the Divine and the point is that these words could be used to describe these people. We want to figure out the connections between superheroes, art and religion. So the question is: how they all like each other and how they fall out? We normally described WD as “god as popstars and popstars as gods”. This kind of circularity is very important to us. People often ask if it the series is meant to be a celebration of celebrity, or a satire of celebrity. But it’s both. Both things are true simultaneously even if they contradict. And that is what it is all about. Being a superhero is like being a god, a being a god it’s like being a popstar a being a popstar is a lot like being a superhero.

WD has been praised for its diversity. You think that mainstream Anglo-Americans comics still suffer from the lack of diversity?

J. It’s better than it was. This is one of the things we don’t like being praised for because the story is on the base level, the minimum. One of the reasons why we wanted to do this book is that when you are doing superhero stuff, the origins of the big two universes are so entrenched in their historical period, fifty or seventy years ago. It would have been hard to do something the way we wanted to do it. So one of the things we liked best was starting at the beginning, and creating the world in which we are living.

K. People say it’s a diverse book. For me it’s just like London. If we set it in a different city we would have a very ‘different diversity’ as well. We just went with London, and asked ourselves what is London like.

Maybe there’s a problem with popular representations. Because often these give a wholly different idea of a multicultural city. So, if you acquire your knowledge from certain tv series or show or comics you would believe that everyone is white and blond and good-looking. 

K: London is a big modern metropolis. It’s alive, and this is something we tried to get into the book.

In the very first issue, Cassandra says “I see a wannabe who’s never got past the Bowie in her parents’ embarrassingly retro record collection. I see a provincial girl who doesn’t understand that cosplaying a Shinto god is problematic at best and offensive at worst”. Did you put that bit to pre-empt criticism? 

J: It’s a book where there is a long-term arc for the characters. If you were to just read the first issue without a line like that, you wouldn’t necessarily understand. It’s not pre-empting criticism, but rather introducing the analysis of these things.

K: We wanted to make clear that this is a story about appropriation, and this is a story about people being affected by influences. We wanted to tell it from early on. WD is a book about problematic people doing problematic things. None of these people are meant to be hero figures, and you should not be using them as a role model. There is a trope in popular culture that says “bury your gays”. You know, LGBT characters tend to die. Our cast is very diverse, so it’s about people fucking dying. We put that literally in the first page of every issue. They are going to be dead in two years. So if you want to get off this story stop reading. Really. This characters are really going to die. We wanted to play honestly in that way. This is what the book is. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to read it, but this is what it is.

Back in the eighties, British authors like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman would quote from Shakespeare and Blake to, as Morrison said, ‘dignify some old costumed claptrap’. Now you open the first TP juxtaposing a quote of Kit Marlowe with the Vengaboys. Is that a different kind of legitimation, or has comics overcome the very need for legitimation?

K: I used to have a theory. The quote is one thing, but we never do intros in our books. One of the things that was used in the Vertigo books was having these intros by well-known people saying that the book is very important. This is basically a special pleading. In some ways, you could say that the quote is something like that. But the epigraph has a much longer history. The epigraphs we choose to use in comics speaks to the idea we have read Marlowe and Shakespeare. People want to know whether a comic creator knows his shit. Take for instance Phonogram. The early Phonogram is really aggressive, uncompromising and easy to hate – it wanted to be easy to hate. I’ll always remember that the reviewers who hated it used all that big words, because they wanted to make sure that even if they hated it, they were smart. “It’s not like that I am not getting it because I am an idiot”. And that kind of inferiority complex is deep in comics. In our quote, we like the juxtaposition between high and low art. The Marlowe quote is one hundred percent true, as the Vengaboys quote is one hundred percent true.

I think that the whole thing is that you should overcome the binary divisions and dichotomies because there is no Marlowe and Vengaboys as there is no Wicked and Divine as opposing concepts.

K: Yeah, that’s true. And it’s funny, because we focus in a serious way and we mean the shit, but also we like laughing. For me, humour is often a measure of intelligence. It’s not like a Radiohead fan who takes them way too seriously. Serious does not mean intelligent, as sombreness does not equate to seriousness. Jamie, tell him the Vengaboys anecdote.

J: Yeah, it’s really funny. Obviously, we didn’t have to pay for the Marlowe quote since he has been dead for quite a long time. But for the the Vengaboys quote, we had to get permission and pay 500 euros. So it’s like 125 euros per “Boom”.

Totally worth it. 

K: Yeah. We are pretty sure we could have gotten away without paying them, cause it’s just Boom boom boom boom. But this way it’s much funnier. That’s is what we had to pay for. What in society has got value. Do we value Marlowe or Boom boom boom boom?

J: We also had to track them down, and track down their representation.

K: Chrissy [Williams], the editor of the book, had to send the Vengaboys a copy of the book. So I like to imagine that there’s a copy of WD on the Vengabus. [Both laugh]

How would you describe your work method as a team? How do you collaborate?

J: Very poorly. [Both laugh]. Kieron writes very long scripts. But it’s more like a letter than a script. There’s a lot back and forth. I point out whether I am not sure that something is going to work as is written. I know the effect Kieron is trying to achieve, so I can suggest how I would achieve the same effect. So there’s a lot of discussion while I am drawing.

K: We got slack. We communicate, we text each other. The script is not the end of the collaboration but rather the start of that.

J: Yeah, and that includes also the colourist Matt Wilson, who is involved in the stories and decisions and things.

K: We use the band metaphor: me, Jamie, Matt and Clayton [Cowles], the letterer, who helps to achieve to very weird lettering effects. So it’s a really fluid. And even with the alternate covers we bring in people like guest rappers, or like guest guitarists. We asked Kevin Wada to do an entire issue, we got Kris Anka bringing prime quality beefcake. You know, it’s good stuff.

A question for Jamie: in WD but also in other works of yours like Phonogram everyone is outrageously good looking and sexy. Is that a deliberate choice?

[Both laugh]

J: I mean, in WD they’re popstars. And that’s just the way I draw, I guess. It depends on the character. The way a character looks for me comes from his or her history, and how it feeds into the way they look. The visual style is telling the story as much as the words.

K: There are certain artists who draw very attractive characters, but they know one form of attractive person. Jamie doesn’t do that. Jamie’s characters tend to look like models, but they are very different kinds of models. They have their facial structure, their looks. Jamie draws attractive people without objectifying them. They are designed to be character you imprint on rather than people you view. In Wicked it’s a dialogue between the two. The performance of looking at them, and the same time considering them as human beings. It’s about Gods, you know. It’s complicated.

J: They are not good-looking as objects. For me, they are people. They are real characters.

I was expecting a possible answer like “I use myself as a model”. [Both laugh]

J: I used myself as a reference in Phonogram.

K: That’s why Jamie’s character all have big feet [points at Jamie’s huge feet and both laugh].

A question for Kieron: you worked as a videogame journalist. Does that sort of background influence your occupation as a comic book writer?

K: Less than you would think. I used to be a video game journalist, and I used to be music critic as well. I basically write applying the same deconstructionist toolset to everything. That’s where most of my comics come from, from my skills as a critic rather than specifically as a videogame critic. I apply the ability to think about all the necessities, and tear them apart and tell what’s really going on here. That’s what gave me my job at Marvel. Ok, what is Beta Ray Billy about? What does a horse-faced god creature really mean? That’s being a critic. I am interest in structuralism, and that is useful for the use of systemic plots. Especially my work on Über is extremely rule-based. You could probably take Über and turn it into a game because it’s made of hard rules. This character is stronger so he would beat that character. That kind of crap. But going back to your question… less than you would think. There a project I am working on in which the game knowledge is creeping a bit more. I am doing a book for Avatar called Modded which is part of the anthology Cinema Purgatorio with Alan Moore. And that is me doing Fast and Furious meets Pokemon meets Mad Max. So it’s like street fight in a post-apocalyptic world. And the influence of videogames applies to the story of little monsters fighting each other. I and I got another project I am working on which is heavily game-influenced…

I was just about to ask you two something about your upcoming projects.

J: I am just doing Wicked forever…

K: With Wicked we are over halfway through now. We are doing a special between every arc. Stephanie Hans has done the first one, between the fourth and the fifth arcs. And André Lima Araújo, Portuguese artist who did Avengers A.I. and Man Plus, is doing the next special which is all drawn now and will be out in a few months.  It’s entitled Wicked and Divine 455 and is set in Rome, basically around the time the Vandals sacked the city. And I am doing Dr. Aphra for Marvel and I am kind working on Ludocrats with David Lafuente. It’s back on track and it will supposedly be out by the end of the year, or maybe next year. And there also this really big project I am working and researching on. It will be probably for Image, and it will be my next ongoing. In my newsletter I suggested the “Spangly New Project” codename.  Probably the best way to keep up to date with my or Jamie’s stuff is follow our accounts on Twitter, and the safest way is following my newsletter, available at http://tinyletter.com/kierongillen.

So big stuff going on.

K: Always.

J: Wicked takes up all my time, and it’s going to be at least another two years, so…

So when are you planning to conclude the series?

J: So we reckon eight or nine trades. We’re over halfway.

K: We are thinking of probably eight trades plus a special trade. A four-year plan.