Tuesday, April 15, 2014

[replay] Back Matter Interview #5 - Kieron Gillen

When I first started writing about comics, around 2006-07, I wrote for a now-defunct website called "Independent Propaganda."  The name of my column was BACK MATTER, and a fuller explanation can be found here.

Kieron Gillen is the creator, along with artist Jamie McKelvie, of the new mini-series from Image Comics, Phonogram: Rue Britannia.  His first comic series, it promises something new and entertaining for those hunting for something other than your typical comic fare.  As Gillen describes it:

“Music is Magic.
You know this already.  You’ve known this from the first time a record sent a divine shiver down your spine or when a band changed the way you dressed forever.  How does something that’s just noises arranged in sequence do that?  No-one knows.  It’s just… magic.
Everyone knows that.  It’s just that some realise that it’s more than metaphor.”

I thought it would be interesting to probe the mind of someone new to “the game,” and Kieron was gracious enough to answer my questions via email.  What follows is the crazed intensity that is Kieron Gillen.  Enjoy.

PHONOGRAM is your first published comic work.  What was the genesis of the series?

Everyone asks me this, and I really should get around to working out a decent, crowd-entertaining lie as the truth’s a little unsatisfying.

The problem with Phonogram is that it wasn’t based on a moment of divine intervention. It just sort of… grew. In the prosaic terms, I first started thinking about doing a comic on music and magic around the time I collected my first HIT strips into a photo-copied mini, as I wanted a bigger project which was a bit (well… a lot) more ambitious. But in terms of the actual IDEA, I can see traces of Phonogram going all the way back to when I started writing about music as a punky-zinekid.

There’s a bit in Jon Savage’s seminal book on Punk, England’s Dreaming, where he describes sitting in a work toilet cubicle during his lunch-hour and frenetically putting together his fanzine with glue, razorblades and determination, just to get the “A-bombs in my head” out. I read that and it was like… well, being given permission. How I was feeling was natural, with precedents and more than any knowledge or cool or anything else I really didn’t have, it meant I was justified writing whatever I damn well wanted.

And if you want Phonogram’s exact moment of genesis, that’s as good as you’re going to get.

How did you end up working with Jamie McKelvie on the series?

Talking about lies, McKelvie is currently trying to talk me into just making up an increasingly ludicrous one to answer this question. I suspect eventually I’ll submit. Doubt everything I say from now on. Automythology may be occurring.

Bristol Comic-Con. I’m selling the aforementioned HIT mini and a rockabilly punk guy wanders over to show his portfolio. It contains pages from what eventually is going to be his own first book as a writer/artist at Image, Suburban Glamour. And I just tell him that I’ve got a comic I think he’d be perfect for.

And lo! He was.

In short, I was very lucky.

When starting out, most creators have a day job.  What sorts of jobs have you had and have they provided anything for you with regards to your writing?

Well, I spent ten months dissecting human brains in a lab in Denver once. That’s got to be useful. I’m not even joking.

In terms of real work… well, my vocation’s avoiding real work. My Dad and most of his brothers are in the building trade, so I spent far too many holidays helping out the brickies in an ineffectual teenage manner. It was a great character building experience, primarily by giving me the determination to avoid doing anything like that ever again. Ever.
When I graduated, despite a complete lack of qualifications, I managed to blag my way into a writing career as a journalist (games journalism, primarily). Spent most of my twenties doing that. It taught me far too much about writing, from being able to work to deadlines to the ability to entertain even when it’s the last damn thing you want to be doing. Also: inside work, no heavy lifting.

How do you balance family, work, and comics, and how much time are you able to give over to working on pitches, scripts, etc.?

The important thing a budding comic writer must do is to murder their friends and family. They will only distract you with their pitiful “love”. You don’t need such distracting trifles. Your only true love must be six-panel grids. They will never leave you or hurt you.

(Not like that eight-panel grid, the cheap dirty slut)

Really, it’s hard. I’ve got both a mind that’s obsessive and distractible in equal proportions, with a tendency to forget people exist when they walk out of the room. Hell, even if they’re in the room if it’s a long conversation and there’s something interesting happening outside the window.

Mostly, I treat the comic writing as a second, part-time job. I do all my freelance journalism during the day and early evening, take a break to try and avoid my girlfriend dumping me for someone better, and then go work some hours on comic stuff after she’s gone to bed.

Have you always wanted to be a comics writer or is this a fairly recent pursuit?  And, why comics?

Relatively recent. Coming from Stafford, where there isn’t anything as glamorous as a comic shop, meant my childhood experience of the form was based around whatever surrounded me (Marvel UK, Transformers, 2000 AD, etc). I was always interested in comics, as stuff like Watchmen and Marshall Law got near constant nods in the other magazines I was reading at the time, but I didn’t have a chance to really engage with it. When I was 21 I finally read Watchmen, which led me to becoming a casual comics reader: the equivalent of the music fan who’ll buy the two albums which Q recommend at Christmas, and sod all for the rest of the year.

Hit my mind-twenties and I discovered Ellis, going from The Authority to Planetary to Transmet to the WEF [the Warren Ellis Forum, a precursor to Ellis’s latest foray on the internet – THE ENGINE – found at www.the-engine.net –ed.] in a four week period of discovery. The WEF, for all its faults, was a perfect gateway into comics as a subculture. Even the militancy was a little different, it being a period when there was precious little radicalism in pop-music. About six months after that, when I got back in the early morning from my first Bristol Comic-Con, I wrote my first comic script through a blur of alcohol.

So, basically, five years.

And, why comics?

Because it’s a brilliant underdog medium – I mean, what sort of cunt would want to write a book or a film? They won the culture war, and there’s no glory in fighting on the winning side.

Because – unlike, say, the novel – there’s still room to push at the frontiers. I like new things and trying to do new things. Today, you could write an experimental novel, but you’re never going to write Ulysses. I don’t like the idea of wasting my life trying to squeeze the last few drops from a creatively-drained medium. Comics are alive. It’s the same urge which led me to games journalism: that the intellectual battlefield is relatively undefined, so there’s room to not just be good, but to be new.

It also has an agreeably democratic low entry threshold. They’re just pictures, arranged in sequence. McKelvie could sit down tomorrow and create something not obviously sub-par to the biggest selling comics. Conversely, if I wanted to make a film, I couldn’t compete with Hollywood without gaining the equivalent of a Hollywood budget. Ink. Paper. An Idea. There’s a purity to that which is just beautiful.

Mostly though, because they’re fucking awesome.

Since you first seriously began working toward becoming a published comic writer, how long has it taken you to reach this point and what are some of the hurdles you have needed to overcome?

It’s been four-and-a-bit years from my first script to my first mini-series. And probably worth nothing that while Phonogram is my first “real” comic, I have done a few bits and pieces of work-for-hire and editorial cartoons in magazines (McKelvie and I do the monthly Save Point cartoon in Official Playstation 2 magazine in the UK). They’re not really relevant, but do count as taking my comics-publishing cherry.

“Obstacles to overcome” is a tricky one. Any I can think of are incredibly vague (“Becoming good enough at writing comics”) or just a bit bloody obvious (“Getting artists to work with me as an unknown”), which don’t really match up to the fun operatic melodrama of the question. If I have to wrestle a guy twice my size before writing the panel break downs for issue 2 of Phonogram, that’ll be an obstacle to overcome, and in those terms, I’ve got nowt.

What are some proactive things you have done (an example would be producing mini-comics) that have put you ahead of the rest of the “aspiring creators” pack?

It’s the line everyone says, but it doesn’t stop it being true: Stop aspiring, start creating. So that’s what I did. What makes me a bit sad is the number of people who claim to be aspiring creators who simply aren’t producing any work. I find it amazing that people get stuck on the idea of only wanting to do comics for the major publishers. They don’t really want to do comics at all. That A-bombs in the head quote earlier? If you want to be a comic-writer, that really should apply to you. You should be creating comics, through whatever methods you have available. You shouldn’t be able to stop yourself.

I mean… I can’t draw, but I did a lightly-processed photocomic for a year, which I based entirely around the technical limitations of its production. I’ve done a variety of webcomics. I’ve done mini-comics. I’ve written comics criticism. I’ve co-edited a small-press anthology. I’ve done stuff.

But fundamentally, none of these things were done to get “ahead”. They were done because I needed to do them and they made me feel more alive. And all of them made me a better writer, with a better understanding of the medium.

Life’s too short to sit around waiting for a commissioning editor’s permission.

 Part of the writing process is the development stage, which often includes doing a lot of research.  During this development process do you ever feel like you are not getting enough actual writing done and how do you reconcile yourself to that?

Yes, that is somewhat troublesome. What I’ve found is that heavy drinking can successfully numb that nagging worry.

What is the most important piece of advice you would give to a writer trying to break into comics?

Picking up from the “DO STUFF!!!!” gibberish earlier… well do stuff. Or rather, get stuff done. You’ll learn more from a finished page of comics which has been drawn from one of your scripts than twenty scripts which never get done. It’s only when things are on paper that you really begin to see where your problems are.

A close second would to steal Ballard’s old line on writing: “We must be faithful to our obsessions; they will be faithful to us”. Don’t try to censor yourself, thinking that you’ll eventually be able to do work closer to your core, but first you’ll pitch this more commercial trifle. Your strongest work, the work that people will most be interested in as a new creator will be the stuff which couldn’t be written by anyone else but you. Don’t be afraid of anyone, least of all yourself. Ridicule is nothing to be afraid of.

What does the future hold for you in comics after PHONOGRAM?

Death or Glory.

No comments: