Kieron Gillen on living as a comic writer and his pact with Jamie McKelvie
I’ve known Kieron Gillen for years. I’ve had the opportunity to interview him multiple times, from his early beginnings in the British indie-comics scene to his first formative pro work Phonogram and on to his growing resume at Marvel, which includes Thor, Ares, S.W.O.R.D., Generation Hope and his recently announced gig co-writing Uncanny X-Men with Matt Fraction. Prior to comics he was a video-games journalist, carving out a niche for himself in print magazines — and one that he continues with his website Rock, Paper, Shotgun.
This interview was conducted before news of his Uncanny X-Men gig was announced, so that’s not discussed; I’d like to think even if I knew about it I’d avoid mentioning it just for laughs.
Chris Arrant: Let’s start with an easy one — what are you working on today?
Kieron Gillen: It’s Saturday! I’m slacking.
Well … not just slacking. I’m basically letting my subconscious – and semiconscious — chew on something that hasn’t been announced yet.
I’ll probably write some of that down later. Alternatively, I’ll polish the basically done third issue of Generation Hope, which is going splendidly.
[Editor's note: This was emailed later by Kieron about his day] I scrawled out masses of notes from my subconscious in the evening, while watching a fairly middling film. See, the process: It works.
Arrant: You came into comics after a career as a video-games journalist. Are you pretty much a full-time comics writer now, or do you still do VG work or anything else?
Gillen: In terms of money going into the bank and/or under the bed, I’m primarily a fiction writer now. About 95% of my money comes from fiction. And, at the moment, that basically means comics. I’m still writing on a daily basis on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, which I’m one of the four directors. I basically can’t help myself. I’m a games-journalist fundamentalist, in that I’m very aware that it’s not the best use of my time, but I find it hard to imagine ever stopping entirely.
I suspect even if I did, people would still call me a video-games journalist even a decade or so along.
Arrant: I first met you in person at a San Diego long ago, when Phonogram was just coming out, and always remembered how you worked the con day and night — even taking a meeting with a publisher at about 11 or 12 p.m. San Diego time. Can you tell us your experiences about the nature of working in comics?
Gillen: Oh, that was fun. Our first meeting with a Vertigo editor was at midnight in the Hyatt bar, which struck me as exactly how all meetings with Vertigo should be. Ideally, at a desolate crossroads, in the rain.
You sort of capture it. Jamie [McKelvie, his Phonogram collaborator] and I certainly put the hours in. I don’t think we’ve spent more than two consecutive hours away from our table at the Image booth at any of the San Diego daytimes. The second year I was there, with the Phonogram: Rue Britannia trade out, I was motormouthing so much that I actually properly lost my voice by the Saturday night. I was only able to say a couple of lines after sipping a whiskey — which was the moment Frazer Irving introduced me to [Grant] Morrison, which led to me standing there mutely while the pair of them had a conversation about how comics and music are like one another. A subject, as you may imagine, I may have one or two things to talk about. Pah! Anyway, next day, I still wouldn’t stop, which led to me writing the whole of the Phonogram pitch on a series of cards, which I used — alongside wild hand gestures — to explain the comic to people passing by.
Never give up! Never surrender! and all that.
I dunno. I work, and I go full-on at it, and that doesn’t change, whether I’m standing outside Bristol Comic Con in 2006 for its entire length handing out Phonofliers or whether I’m trying to pull an idea for a story from the ether on an impossible deadline (impossible, because the deadline was yesterday and you were only told about it today). But you keep your head down and charge. I’m a little like a rhino. As in, hunted by brutal idiots, for the belief of the aphrodisiacal qualities of my nose-keratin.
Okay. The standard metaphor I use is that working in comics is basically like playing a one-arm-bandit with a gamble/collect function. My entire career, from my first black-and-white zines to working on Thor, has been a sequence of releasing work and it leading to some other opportunity. At one level, it’s lobbing out the first HIT and, on its merits, finding other artists saying “We should do something together sometime.” At another level, it’s an editor liking what I did with a mini for them and suggesting we have a shot at an ongoing. Basically, I keep on pressing gamble and it keeps on turning up WIN. I’m never smart enough to press COLLECT. I am clearly doomed.
McKelvie and I were talking about getting tattoos recently. I’ve never got ink, because my basic philosophy is that I reserve the right to change my mind on anything. It’s an existentialist kinda thing. The idea of the permanent statement inherent in a tattoo — and, yeah, I know — is just against the way I’m wired. However, when we were talking about this, it struck us both as something that we agree with and can’t see us changing our minds about ever. And, frankly, if I do change my mind about it, I’d like something to remind me that I’m making a terrible mistake by doing so.
On the inside of our arms, as a message aimed at yourself. Simple tattoo. Just the letters: DFU. As in, DON’T FUCK UP.
And that’s what working in comics is like for me.
Arrant: Besides a little bit of writing for BOOM!, all the work-for-hire comics I’ve seen from you has been at Marvel. Do you have an exclusive with them, and if not, have you talked about working for any other publishers — either in the U.S. or your home turf working for Tharg?
Gillen: Other publishers have talked to me, but between the work I’ve got lined up at Marvel and Avatar I simply don’t have any time on my schedule.
Arrant: Seeing how you came from a video-game background and other comics writer contemporaries of yours like Matt Fraction have been hired at times to write for video games, could you see yourself doing some of that in the future?
Gillen: I have actually. Not the mainstream games industry, but I wrote the script for a game with the BAFTA award-winning Littlecloud for Channel 4. The Curfew‘s basically a graphic adventure set in a near-future about a dystopia. Abstractly an educational game with a civil liberties theme.
I’m not adverse to the idea, but it’s not something that interests me at the moment. The problem with writing for (most) games is that you’re basically only on the same level as the guy who colors the wall textures. The story is basically decoration, added after the fact. Unless you’re basically in charge of the game — a Ken Levine (Bioshock) or Chris Avelone (Planescape Torment) — you don’t often really get to tell stories in a meaningful way. Writing is fundamentally about control. If you don’t have any control … well, I often feel it doesn’t really count as writing.
As such, the hired-gun writing gig doesn’t interest me that much. The Curfew I actually had a big chunk of input with, which was one reason why I was attracted to it — but even then, the amount I feel that it’s “mine” isn’t anywhere near as much as I feel about any of my comics.
That said, I also have a pretty realistic view of how games work, and what the specifics of a gig would be. With the right game, I could be easily tempted, I’m sure.
Arrant: Right now you’re working on your second big creator-owned series, something for Avatar called The Heat. Can you tell us about that?
Gillen: In short, no.
Really, I’d love to say more, but it’s the sort of thing I’d like to keep quiet about at least The Heat hits. And it’s good to have a really big sexy secret under your hat. Not that I wear a hat, but if I did, you can rest assured I’d keep sexy things beneath it.
See, this is what happens if you ask me a question you can’t answer.
Arrant: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Gillen: Writing. Ideally, in a more comfortable chair than this.