January 2015

Matt Terl


On Paratext, Playlists, and Puzzle Boxes: In His "Imperial Phase," Kieron Gillen Controls Everything

Once every few days, I receive a Spotify notification that Kieron Gillen has added a song to a playlist, and it makes me wonder who is going to die.

Gillen is the writer of a stunningly wide range of comics. He's no stranger to the mainstream: in recent years he's spearheaded the direction for such big-ticket Marvel multimedia properties as the X-Men, Thor, Loki, and Iron Man. He's been tasked with creating or fleshing out the younger, hipper side of Marvel's universe, in Young Avengers and Generation Hope. And as part of Marvel's forthcoming large-scale relaunch of the Star Wars comics properties (returned to the company after years being published by rival Dark Horse Comics), he's been selected as the writer for an ongoing Darth Vader solo series slated to hit shelves in February.

But Gillen's an indie guy, too. He broke into the industry with the music-as-magic instant hipster classic Phonogram and its (superior) follow-on series The Singles Club. While working on Marvel's global icons, he's also found time to work on historical fiction (World War 2 in Uber, and post-300 Sparta in Three), and to launch his most successful series to date, The Wicked + The Divine.

"The Wicked + The Divine, in a sentence," Gillen says by phone from his desk in Stafford, UK, "is gods as pop stars and pop stars as gods. That's the axis our stories work on." The book, drawn with a clean, expressive, glossy line by Gillen's friend and frequent collaborator Jamie McKelvie, is an ongoing series, slated for 60 or so issues depending on how the story goes. Gillen's scripts tend toward the meticulous and carefully planned -- "I've always been a very structuralist writer; normally every line of dialogue has two or three meanings," he says -- but even so there's some leeway in how exactly the story will play out.

The series is about 12 gods who incarnate on Earth every 90 years. "They are loved, they are feared, they inspire enormous crowds," Gillen explains. "They perform secretive miracles; within two years they are dead. And that's it. This is about the 2014 incarnation of gods who will arrive on earth."

Gillen is an expert at delivering this summary, and he does so in such a way that you can hear the implied air quotes, the sense of we all know these answers are artifice. That's partially because he has done a ton of publicity for the book and has given the same elevator pitch over and over again, but it's also because Gillen applies his meticulous, structuralist sensibility not only to the text of his books, but also their paratext -- everything around the text, from the marketing to the trade dress to the solicitation and ad copy to the robust social media presence.

"We come from very much the fanzine background," Gillen explains. "We come from a DIY culture. You were in bands, you did fanzines, you did all these various expressions of the you-ness."

Music is a big part of Gillen's you-ness: He was a music journalist prior to breaking into comics. His first major comics work, Phonogram, breathed BritPop, and the gods in what Gillen calls "WicDiv" are all recognizable as 2014 pop star archetypes. So it makes perfect sense that Spotify playlists would be just another part of the paratext that Gillen uses.

Not just for his music-centric indie books, either. Gillen has curated Spotify playlists for most of his major comics work, including Uncanny X-Men, Young Avengers, and the Loki-starring Journey Into Mystery.

Some of the songs on the soundtrack are diegetic -- things the characters are listening to, or maybe would listen to. Then, sometimes, Gillen says, "A song is a holographic statement of how I see the character. It expresses something pure about the character and the character arc, and it's actually how I see them."

(Gillen offers a few examples of this type, largely from his X-Men run. Metallic Russian painter/strongman Colossus, for example, is summed up by a Death In Vegas tune, while his sister is a Kylie Minogue track.)

The third way songs get on the playlist is by summarizing how Gillen wants the book as a whole to feel.

It may seem odd, to try to distill the feel of a comic into a single existing song, so I asked Gillen for an example. Which is how we wound up discussing the Cocteau Twins "Blind Dumb Deaf," which he used to help set the tone of his Journey Into Mystery run.

"I thought, well, it's a book called Journey Into Mystery," Gillen says, "and there's something genuinely slightly out of reach, untouchable, in kinda the weird circular form [of "Blind Dumb Deaf]. It's a song which is etched around these sort of enormous sways and circles and forms, and if you know Journey Into Mystery, it's a structural book. It's a book where the smallest part revolves, and becomes this very large thing."

High-minded tone setting aside, Gillen is keenly aware that his playlist choices cue his readership to wonder about plot developments. Does the addition of "Sympathy," Sleater-Kinney's bluesy 2002 ode to a prematurely born baby, imply a pregnancy for some character? Why did he suddenly add a cluster of six David Bowie tracks, including the ominously titled "Rock 'N' Roll Suicide" and "We Are The Dead"? And so on.

From that perspective the playlists are just another extension of Gillen's relationship with his audience, which extends to vocal personae on Twitter and Tumblr, to writer's notes about each book as it's released and on into essays in the back of the books themselves.

"It's the concept of the punk rock low stage," Gillen says. "I like having the smallest possible distance between me and the audience as I can. And I kind of have realized that I like an impossibly small distance."

He'll reblog fan art just because, "I like seeing people make the book their own," or reblog someone's commentary on his books just to spark a conversation with a dissenting voice. He hosts an occasional podcast called Decompressed to discuss the kinds of deeply specific topics about the craft of writing comics that he himself wishes he could've heard when he was trying to break in. He'll annotate his own comics ("Occasionally I probably say too much," he notes) to explain certain craft decisions. He and McKelvie will banter on Twitter like a workplace sitcom in real time for the audience of people who follow them both.

All of this engagement, combined with Gillen's intricate, occasionally elliptical plotting style, can at times inch his work toward the realm of puzzle box fiction. There's not such a long jump from fan art and parsing playlists to starting a sub-Reddit to reinvestigate a murder in Baltimore alongside Serial, or from trying to decode the overt symbology of WicDiv to studying the numbers in Lost.

To a certain extent, Gillen embraces this approach. (Of his completed run on Young Avengers he notes, "There are still major plot twists people have not noticed," so fire up your sub-Reddits.) But he's also aware of how seriously limited puzzle box fiction can ultimately be.

"An infinite number of fans will eventually work it out, no matter how clever a plot," Gillen says. "Which is why if all you have is a twist, it doesn't matter. Mysteries are important and interesting, but mysteries cannot be everything to it."

But that's about people's engagement with the text itself. The paratext creates its own set of problems as well: how much weight can Gillen put on annotations and playlists and ancillary material while still keeping the actual text itself as the center of everything? What about the reader who only sees the book in its semi-annual trade paperback collections and never even sees Gillen's ruminative essays (which appear in the monthly issues but are deliberately excised from the collections) nor hears a single song from the playlist?

"The primary art form is the book," Gillen says. "Everything else is supplementary, and a world you can enter around it."

He considers for a bit longer, and then returns to his metaphor of choice. "It's the same as any pop band," he says. "Not every fan of every band has a tattoo, either literal or metaphorical, y'know what I mean?"

Constantly walking these lines -- between transparent and obscure, between text and paratext, between former critic and current star creator -- can get exhausting, even more so as Gillen's profile has continued to grow: in addition to high-visibility Star Wars-level work for Marvel, The Wicked + The Divine is one of the most successful indie comics currently being published. Gillen describes that as a scary situation.

"As much as I was the zine fan kid, I'm not anymore," Gillen says. "I have a level of privilege and autonomy. Me and Jamie joke by shouting 'Imperial Phase!' all the time -- y'know, 'Imperial phase! We've got a cup of tea! We can afford to buy biscuits!' -- but of course that's also born of the understanding that Imperial Phases end, and this is probably as good as our career will ever get."

Speaking of imperial phases, Gillen has also set up a playlist for writing the new Darth Vader book. It consists only of John Williams's "Imperial March" fourteen consecutive times, a gesture that Gillen dismisses as "cheerful self-mockery." He explains, "Everyone expects me to do a playlist for a new project, so I do one like this. The worrying thing is that I've actually written to it a few times."

Vader is something of a rarity in Gillen's oeuvre: a character already firmly and indelibly identified with his own iconic piece of music. Asked to explain why the Williams piece captures Vader so well, Gillen doesn't hesitate. "Oh, big Holstian-Mars-bringer-of-war swagger, innit?" he says. "The cymbal clashes that sound like people being Force-choked. The complete 'yes, I am here, I'm wearing a cape and I look amazing' of it all. It's the Imperial March, and it's hard to imagine it being more imperial-y or march-y."

Matt Terl is @matt_terl on Twitter.