The comics that Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie have done as a tandem have featured characters channelling a love for creativity, blasting away orthodoxies, and evolving into frighteningly powerful personas. When they talk about their working relationship, it sounds—no surprise—just like being in a band.
The most fascinating thing about comics creation happens when different creative personalities fuse together. The medium has a long history of creators like Frank Miller, John Byrne, Ronald Wimberly, Chip Zdarsky, and Jason Latour who handle both writing and art on a project. But, with the speed required for serialised releases, that kind of execution has been a relative rarity. The norm is separate individuals teaming up.
Long-term partnerships are another relative rarity in comics and, as I think more and more about the alchemy of comics-making, I wanted to start talking to creators who worked with each other a lot. I’m envisioning this endeavour as a sort of miniseries-within-a-series called “Duo Dynamics,” and am pleased to kick things off with Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie.
For those who may not know their CVs, Gillen and McKelvie have worked together on the Phonogram trilogy, Young Avengers, and their award-winning, creator-owned series The Wicked + the Divine. In the lightly edited and condensed interview that follows, the pair talk about how they designed their renowned pages, what the other guy brings to the table and which one of them is the old.
How did you two meet? When did you first become aware of each other’s work?
Kieron Gillen: It was a Bristol Comic Con in the early ‘00s. I was sharing a table with a friend, selling my first black and white photocopied comic. The friend was doing an anthology, which Jamie had done a story in. He popped along, and my friend was off. We said hello.
How did you guys decide on your first collaboration?
Gillen: Two seconds after the above, he showed me his portfolio, which I flicked through. It was the first few pages of an early version of his Suburban Glamour. I instantly saw that Jamie had an eye for fashion, and emotion plus clearly loved the same sort of ‘00s-Oni-stuff that I was in love with. I said, “I’ve got an idea for a book called Phonogram and you’d be perfect for it.” Literally, my third sentence I said to Jamie was trying to talk him into something.
I sent him my demo script for the concept (essentially the Beth subplot from Rue Britannia done in a single issue) and he was interested.
Phonogram: Rue Britannia is your first work together, right?
Gillen: Our first thing in the direct market together. We did an editorial comic for Official PlayStation Magazine. When asked to do it, and told what they wanted, I said that I felt there was maybe a year’s worth of funny ideas. Five years later, we had proved that initial assessment entirely correct.
An instalment of Save Point, the cartoon where Gillen and McKelvie started working together. (Image: Jamie McKelvie/Official PlayStation Magazine UK)
To what extent have you guys become aware of recurring themes in your projects together over the years? I’m thinking of how Wiccan becoming the Demiurge in Young Avengers reminds me of Laura changing into Persephone in The Wicked + the Divine. When, if ever, does this start becoming a feature—not a bug of your work?
Gillen: For anything like that, you have to blame me. Jamie can justifiably point at me and make hand-waving gestures behind my back while mouthing “What is he like?” In terms of the stories and the story structure, I basically originate all that. Jamie and my collaboration is primarily about execution. If we’re a band, I piece together the core songs and the lyrics, and then we take them to the studio, and Jamie does his studio-godhead thing on them. We tweak the songs when we see what’s working or not, but those core motifs are mine. I suppose the question for Jamie would be “How much are you aware of returning to Kieron’s obsessions again and again?”
Generally speaking? It’s always a bug and never a bug. The bug is someone has read too much of you, and don’t understand that the only creators worth a damn are those with a voice. If you’re too flexible, you’re nothing. Which isn’t to say you can’t do different things, but you shouldn’t try and escape that core filter. The personal is what elevates work, and if you don’t care about it, it’s nothing. Bowie’s fundamental Bowie-ness infused everything he did. There’s a line by Ballard Jim Rossignol and I paraphrase as “Be true to your obsessions and your obsessions will be true to you.” Which is in line with the Gallagher brothers’ similar point, of “You gotta be yourself/you can’t be no-one else.”
But yes, by this point I’m aware of what floats to the surface, again and again. WicDiv was an explicit recapitulation of most of them, to try and burn down the detritus and leave the very best of it behind instead of the bullshit.
Jamie McKelvie: I just let him get on with whatever it is he has to work out.
Personally, I want to bring the world around us into the comics we do. I don’t hold with ideas that making your work speak to the time you live in will date it. Something becoming dated isn’t about the fashions the characters wear or the slang they use. Alien is an extremely ‘70s movie but it’s timeless. If you’re trying for timeless by isolating yourself away from that stuff, you run the risk of becoming featureless, which is a much bigger crime to me.
Youth culture, pop culture, and coming-of-age are persistent themes in your work together. Do either of you worrying about getting too old to hit on those motifs?
Gillen: It is worth stressing Jamie is five years younger than me, so can get away with this shit a bit more. He can read the below and justifiably go “Fuck off, Grandad.”
But seriously? I was already worried in 2008, when I was writing Singles Club. That’s the last time I considered I actually tried to write quasi-authentic (rather than stylised) teenagers. But in terms of writing young people generally, it’s a fascinating weird one. Most of Phonogram was about people hitting 30 and ageing out of it; being too old for it was expressly the theme from Rue Britannia onwards. My own Journey Into Mystery starred a Kid Loki, which was Matt Fraction’s creative idea. When Jamie and I actually re-did Loki in Siege: Loki we went for Elric with black nail varnish. That led to us being asked to do Young Avengers, which I had to be talked into doing. While Young Avengers was Young Avengers, we figured if we were going to do a book of our own, we’d be fools to not build upon the audience we’d built with it. So our big five-year-statement mostly ends up having a teenage lead because of all that.
(Not entirely true, of course: I was falling apart in 2013-14 around the death of my dad. That sort of thing shakes you up. I felt very teenage. Laura [in The Wicked and the Divine] made sense, as I was picking over my entire history in that time.)
It’s worth noting my next book, DIE, is about a bunch of 40-somethings. I’ve turned down any work involving teenagers since WicDiv. It’s partially because of knowing you can’t nail certain aspects of writing teenagers but mainly as I don’t want to be stuck in that particular box. I’m not really interested in old versus young. I’m interested in new versus old, and the negotiations and conflicts between the two.
That said, as I was going into Young Avengers, I did think of a line Craig Finn from the Hold Steady said, when asked a similar question about his own work. To broadly paraphrase: “I understand how I felt as a teenager better when I was 36 than when I was 16.” I wouldn’t go that far—and, I stress, I paraphrase that, from memory—but if you don’t other your past and remember those emotions, you can write them. One good thing about getting older is that you can write from experience about more stages of human life.
The introduction of David Kohl, the music-centric necromancer from the Phonogram trilogy. (Image: Jamie McKelvie/Image Comics)
That said, the “youth culture” is one that does make me raise an eyebrow. I always see I write about how art impacts humans. That the arts I choose to champion—pop music, games, comics—are cultural underdogs speaks to my fundamental perversity, and that people put it in a box of “youth culture” says a lot. I mean, when comics discussion does it, it’s weird. If I did what all too many writers do and write comics about comics, comics critics wouldn’t say I was just writing about youth culture. That I do comics about pop music, people do. I think that says does say something about comics culture, and that oddly inward-looking worldview is something that I feel Jamie and I have kicked against our whole career.
In short: Pop music isn’t just youth culture, especially in the 21st century, when whole lives have had modern pop culture as their backdrop. I mean, my dad left me a mixtape when he died. If Phonogram had continued, that’s the sort of story I suspect I’d have hit. And, to return what I said earlier, I’m interested in how art impacts human lives, whenever, wherever, however.
Oh god, I’m really going on. I’m sorry, Evan. You get me in a transitional state, as Jamie and I are basically wrapping up our present work, so I’m thinking about where I’m going next, and you’re getting some of its underpinnings.
McKelvie: Kieron is very, very old, so he obviously has more of a distance than I do. But yes. People often asked me if I’d do more Suburban Glamour, and the answer is no—I’m too far away from that period now, and have been for a while. I could do it; I had the whole thing planned, but I don’t think it would feel right. I’ve toyed with the idea of perhaps doing a sort-of-sequel set now, 10 years on, like what Alan Garner did with Boneland. My next projects are all focused on my interests and frustrations with my interests in other directions.
In Suburban Glamour, protagonist Astrid’s childhood imaginary friends return when she’s an adult. (Image: Jamie McKelvie/Image Comics)
I mean, though, WicDiv stars teenagers and people in their early 20s, but it reaches through decades of pop culture. Luci is a ‘70s Bowie, after all. Baph is ‘80s goth. What we are both interested in is not being insular, making inward-looking comics that only think about other comics. I’ve said several times that comics are pop culture, and as such should feed off and embrace the other segments of pop culture in the way all the rest of them do.
Can you talk about what each of you bring to establish rhythm, tone, and structure to your work?
Gillen: Oof. This is a huge one. My scripts to Jamie are pretty detailed. Sometimes they’re even detailed in a dictatorial way, with grids and panel compositions. They also have a bunch about character interiority so I’m talking about feelings a character is having which won’t really be revealed for 40 issues. This is because I know that Jamie is someone who can use all that information. Me giving specific solutions shows there is a solution (unless I’ve messed up) but, more importantly, shows the aesthetic effect I’m hoping for. Jamie then can work that into his storytelling and he also knows when I’m trying for a big-swing piece of formalism. I guess the larger part is that I am planning long-term. Jamie was just talking how strange it is to be landing beats in the final arc that we knew five years ago. Like, I told Jamie our equivalent of Frodo and Gollum wrestling in Mount Doom all that time ago and now we’re here. That Jamie knew that then has to impact the work, structurally.
I wonder if this question is better aimed at the other creative. As in, ‘Jamie—what do I contribute to rhythm, tone, and structure?’ There’s always the subtext: the script is the start of a conversation. We have a Slack. We text each other. We chat in person. The script is not holy script. Almost the opposite.
McKelvie: This is quite a hard one to answer. The script will tell me what Kieron wants the comic to achieve, and it’s up to me to translate that into the real thing. Issue-by-issue pacing and structure, that’s dictated by the script, of course. The overall plot and themes are Kieron’s, as they’re about his thoughts and obsessions.
How to achieve what we want (dialogue aside), that’s on me. Generally speaking, I take the stance that I know what Kieron is trying to do (and if not, I ask!) If it works the way he has written it (which is most of the time), brilliant, if not, I can find a way to make it work. And then Kieron and [series editor] Chrissy [Williams] always see the pencils, and can either offer comment, or adjust the dialogue if needed so that we’re all moving in the same direction.
An exemplar of the kind of design formalism that McKelvie and Gillen execute in The Wicked + The Divine. (Image: Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson/Image Comics)
Rhythm on the page, it depends. As Kieron mentions, he’ll often write specific grid structures. Like anything else, it’s a balancing game. Does this grid work with the content? If not, which happens occasionally, is the structure more important to keep than the content? Or vice versa? An issue like #8, with the beat of the music throughout, had to retain the panelling. A page in #40 had eight panels, but because of the layout and formalist stuff we were doing in the issue, it didn’t work, and I asked Kieron to rewrite it as six.
What specific pages of your work together are you most proud of? That best represent your strengths as a team?
Gillen: Everyone always talks about the spread in issue #4 of Young Avengers. And while I don’t think it’s the best thing we’ve ever done, it is likely the best example of how we work. In Young Avengers, one of our rules was that in every issue we’d do something startling in terms of our choices, and we’d never actually repeat it. So every issue would have something that would surprise the reader, to try and prod them out of their standard superhero comic apathy.
Noh-Varr getting over how good this page is. (Image: Jamie McKelvie, Mike Norton, Matt Wilson/Marvel Comics)
So in issue #4, we have this bit where Marvel Boy jumps in a window, shoots a bunch of folk, and escapes. I write the page and give a list of four or five ideas of how we can do it. Jamie has his own idea, which is the isometric view, with multiple Marvel Boys in there to show everything he does. This leaves space around the edge of the page, and Jamie wants to put panels there. We look at the route and work out cool freeze-frame moments. Then, we want more clarity, so add the directions and also a key, where I write a bunch more jokes and commentary. And then there’s some tweaks.
You know the first answer where I said that I have the core story and then the collaboration is mostly at the stage of the execution? I suspect some people thought “Well, they’re not really collaborating.” I hope this example shows that position is way off.
McKelvie: Oh, man. Often the quieter moments. Laura singing for the first time as Persephone. The end sequence of #39. And sure, the formalist stuff, the clever stuff, but the pages where we get closest to creating as if we’re one person, those are my favourites. When a glance is as powerful as an explosion. And of course, they wouldn’t work if [colourist] Matt [Wilson] didn’t perfectly colour them for the tone and effect we are going for.
The super-fan once known as Laura Wilson after her transformation into celebrity deity Persephone. (Image: Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson/Image Comics)
You guys have been very good about inviting other people to play in the WicDiv playground. How, if at all, has that invigorated the alchemy that you two create together?
Gillen: It’s tricky. Part of us would like to have done more with guest writers, but WicDiv is so complicated that you can’t have anyone else actually making cogs in the machine, as otherwise the machine breaks. (And to teach someone everything they need to know to make a cog is infinitely more work than anyone else would like to do, frankly.) But where we can, we like to bring people along—the alt covers, the comedy specials, the guest artists. They’ve all shown different angles to the work, which expands if not invigorates it.
A page from the magazine issue of WicDiv, written by other writers. (Image: Kevin Wada/Image Comics)
(I mean, the work is plenty invigorated all by itself. WicDiv is many things, but it’s not boring to do.)
The covers are perhaps what sticks to me most. The idea of the alternate covers was basically to treat our characters like icons. WicDiv in 2014 was an act of deliberate swagger. These people on the cover are bigger, more important, and more relevant than everything else.
McKelvie: "...the pages where we get closest to creating as if we’re one person, those are my favourites. When a glance is as powerful as an explosion."
Jamie, can Kieron still surprise you? And vice versa, for Kieron?
Gillen: There’s always moments, but the real joy of a long-term relationship like Jamie and me is that he doesn’t need to surprise me. Jamie will always be pushing himself as an artist—you can see him reinvent his style repeatedly in WicDiv, and I will always respond to that—but what knowing someone so well allows is that you can safely make choices that you could never do with another artist. “Surprise” is less interesting than “rely.” I can call for a panel with no dialogue and an expression and I know Jamie will give me it, no matter how complicated the emotion, and it’ll work. The surprise will be how Jamie gets to make it work.
That said, when I throw Jamie something that’s almost impossible for the 700th time, it’s always a surprise to see what comes back. I generally expect what will come back is a punch in the face.
McKelvie: Luckily for Kieron I’ve moved to a different country. And yes, what Kieron says, really. I’ve never met a writer who thinks things through as carefully as Kieron. I know I can trust him to have done the work in that respect. Even where we’ve screwed up, I know we’re trying, and it’ll be an interesting screw-up.
What’s your favourite work that your partner’s done without you? Who do you want to see them create something with?
One of several tour posters for CHVRCHES, drawn by McKelvie. (Image: Jamie McKelvie)
Gillen: Are his CHVRCHES posters a cheat? Him making key parts of iconography of one of the best bands of the period is certainly a thing. I’d say his Lego robots, but that’s definitely a cheat. If we stick to comics, apart from his own Suburban Glamour, I suspect I’d pick the issue of Secret Avengers he did with Warren, which I looked at carefully and raided for ideas. Or the shorts he did with Matt Fraction for Invincible Iron Man; that they were cut short is a tragedy.
The beginning of a day in the life of Tony Stark, from Invincible Iron Man #33. (Image: Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, Joe Caramagna/Marvel Comics)
In terms of working with someone else, I only really want to see Jamie work with himself for a while. Anyone else wouldn’t be Jamie, and Jamie has drawn other people’s stuff for far too long. Our relationship since SubGlam has basically been “Jamie—you need to do more of your own stuff!” while also handing him a new script to draw.
McKelvie: It’s probably a little too early to say DIE, though the first three issues seem to indicate that in the end, it’ll be that. Right now, Journey Into Mystery, mostly because it seems like such a miraculous feat to get a story that strong and coherent from a publishing schedule that danced from crossover to crossover.
I remember Kieron tweeting about finishing outline notes for the end of WicDiv, saying that the series could be finished if something horrible happened to him. Who would you want to step into his shoes, Jamie? And vice versa, Kieron?
Gillen: God, working through my notes isn’t something I would wish on anyone. That said, for the big weird personal projects, it’s always on my mind. Circa the first two Phonogram series, when I finished the drafts, I asked a friend if they’d handle a lettering polish if I died—music journalist David McNamee for Rue Britannia and Matt Fraction for Singles Club.
So WicDiv...four issues left to write. It exists in a fairly tight synopsis, and a bunch of random dialogue notes. I’m interested in your answer, Jamie.
To replace Jamie? Oh, god. Jamie is someone who has the scale of a superhero artist when he needs to, married to an incredibly keen understanding of expressions, plus the formalist rigour to stick to something awkward when there’s a meaning there and not just do something that’s more satisfying in the moment. That’s a rare selection of skills.
“Jamie is someone who has the scale of a superhero artist when he needs to, married to an incredibly keen understanding of expressions...” (Image: Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson/Image Comics)
McKelvie: No one, really. Which is a boring answer but a true one. So, don’t die in the next four months, Kieron. After that, whatever.
Gillen: Okay, Jamie’s said no one which means I’m totally forced into that answer too: the irreplaceable Jamie McKelvie. For the next four months, obv.