I had the opportunity to interview the Young Avengers creators at the Edinburgh Book Festival with my partner-in-crime, Stephen Sutherland. The main interview is here: http://www.geekchocolate.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=418%3Akieron-gillen-and-jaime-mckelvie-on-the-inside-with-the-young-avengers&catid=47%3Ainterview&Itemid=68. However, the guys were so generous with their time that it was a very extensive interview, and I’m glad to be able to post more of it here!
GM – Do you think coming from indie first [has helped with your approach to diversity and female characters, you know, because superhero books have really been set in stone for a long time and there is a kind of almost old-school puritanical thing about superheroes in a lot of ways, and that’s why that discussion seems to be happening in that genre rather than elsewhere. Do you think there’s something about coming from Phonogram, an arena in which you weren’t worried about gender, you know?
JM – I don’t know… A lot of people come from indie first. Maybe it was not so much indie but the crowd we come from.
KG – As well as a lot of our bands were… (To Jamie) Do you want to talk about our 90s bands? Like, women in bands?
JM – Yeah, I’ve talked about this before, growing and being into music I was really lucky to have a band like, say, Kenickie, to be into who took the riot grrl thing. Just from early on my heroes were men, women, you know across the board, and that’s who I learned about this things and that’s how I grew up with it. And that just moves over into what you’re doing. And I was very lucky to have that because that was almost a brief blip.
When you look at especially British music now, it’s seemed to become a lot more male-dominated again.
GM – And I suppose with women in pop music just now, it’s a very kind of narrow thing…
JM – Obviously there’s like anomalies like Savages and stuff like that but it felt like the lad culture came back in…
KG – Four blokes with guitars…
GM – The backlash…
JM – It’s kind of depressing what people have taken away from that. I mean it’s the same with grunge, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, Kathleen Hanna, that was a catchphrase that she painted on Kurt’s wall, but now that’s been completely removed and grunge for everybody is just guys with guitars. And it wasn’t that at all.
KG – The patriarchy consumes all…
JM – Well yeah!
KG – I say that as a joke but it’s basically true. Everything descends to misogyny eventually… God I’m depressing!
GM – I’m going to have to ask about Uncanny X-Men then, since we mentioned X-Men. Obviously Marvel had started moving people around at the time and I know that a lot of your Uncanny was kind of consumed in a sense by AvX (Avengers vs X-Men), but reading it I felt like you had plans for where you were going to take it, is that the case?
KG – You had options, the idea of Marvel Now was floated around halfway through my run, I knew vaguely where I might take it. You know, Unit would probably have been the next thing I did, he’d have probably actually pulled the trigger on something stupid. Unit, bless him, he’s wandered in and out of all my comics and never really had much of a story. Poor Unit!
GM – I was really looking forward to a Unit arc.
KG – Well if you read the Origin of Tony Stark, that was originally planned to be Unit, and I decided for it not to be Unit for a variety of reasons. But if you just pencil in Unit in your head, and make him slightly less polite and slightly more competent that’s basically Unit.
Yeah I had ideas, but you always have ideas. You kind of know… I think originally I was planning to not have Sinister until after AvX, so otherwise AvX was going to be bubbling along and I was then going to do something after AvX with Sinister as well, but I realised if I move Sinister into AvX, because he really was the arch-villain of my run. So there’s a certain amount of flexibility, you see the options and then you choose them.
I knew AvX was coming from the start of my run, I knew Schism was going to be halfway through, therefore I knew the shape of my book was dictated by these larger plot events. So that became the themes I was interested in which was about power and corruption, and all that kind of stuff. Nothing I would elevate with a word like ‘plans’.
Even when I got to the end of JIM, I still had bits of JIM I thought I maybe still wanted to do. There’s stuff in the first series of Young Avengers, there’s other stuff I kind of wanted to do and I just ended up not doing because it didn’t really fit in with the larger structure. That’s comics! It’s the semi-improvisational nature of them.
SS – I’ve thought that with YA it’s like your superhero ‘concept album’.
GM – And I’m loving the feeling of it being like a pop single again, like, Young Avengers feels to me like it felt when I was reading Claremont and Lee’s X-Men when I was like 14 or 15, you know where you’re actually really looking forward to reading it, and it’s just a burst and it’s done, but you want to go back later on. It’s been a while since I’ve had I’ve had a regular comic coming out where I’ve felt that about it, you know? But it’s that pop single feel, you know you’re buying the singles on a monthly basis and then the album comes out or the trade and you still want to buy the album even though you’ve heard most of the songs.
KG – That’s awesome. The people who like Young Avengers really like Young Avengers.
JM – Like at that talk last night, a lot of people said this is their first comic.
KG – It’s good, JIM had a bit of that as well but I think probably more on Young Avengers, which is nice. We were talking before about The Authority, having a book which is a gateway to other comics is enormously complimentary.
JM – Someone said to us last night that I really like how I can follow your comic, and it’s true, I deliberately keep a lot of the layouts clear, not simple necessarily, but clear, because so much of the other stuff, it’s like people having been reading superhero comics for years and years and the layouts have got more and more complicated. I mean they can look beautiful, but if it’s your first comic you can be completely lost, you’ve no idea where to go to next in the comic. I try and avoid that because again, it could be someone’s first comic.
KG – It’s funny because people talk about the experimental-ness of what we do in the comics but they’ve very much got an eye on clarity. It’s interesting. When The Ultimates was first coming out I was saying that the most beautiful comic on the shelf was also the most easy to read, and this when the widescreen panel, almost like British Commando comics, with the rigid simplicity of the layout, and that’s a reminder that what was once radical is now commonplace etc.
GM – As an artist, something I really aim for is that storytelling aspect which I think sometimes gets lost in superhero books. You know, the demand to show as much action as possible, to have so much going on, and like, with YA particularly there’s this idea that often it’s what’s getting left out that’s important, if you know what I mean, you know, editing it down do that we’re only showing what’s necessary to drive the story forward. And you know, still have it look beautiful and be complex and things.
At the talk last night you talked about putting together the page, and how you both go backwards and forwards. Could you maybe talk a wee bit about that for us, how the collaborative process works between you?
JM – Well, we’re very very comfortable, like we talk every day, and the way work is that the conversational part of the script is very much like you’d expect, panel, description, dialogue and as Keiron moves into the action we use the Marvel method, where there’s a lot of back and forth, unless there’s deadlines, and then there’s not so much back and forth.
KG – And then the pages just turn up and I’m like, it’s looking good…
JM – The Marvel method, what it is is it’s more collaborative than regular scripting because the artist gets to take on a lot more of the storytelling and the ‘beats’ and things like that. What we’ve always said is that you just try and act like you’re one person basically, you try and create a comic that’s as if it was created by one person all the way through.
KG – You’re a synthetic cartoonist.
GM – Nobody’s trying to compete to show of their skills…
JM – No, no. And all the way along the line everyone’s involved in the collaboration, from us, the editors, to colourists, to Mike (Norton) who helps me, and Clayton (Cowles), who’s the letterer, everybody has their own influence. And there’s a discussion all the way through.
GM – It does feel very well designed, with everyone working well together.
SS – There’s that great layout which is the action scene with Noh-varr, and there’s a key at the side telling you what he’s doing (issue 4 of the current run). How did the idea for that kind of page come about, a very different and very effective action scene?
JM – When we’re thinking about the action sequences, I’m always thinking of things I want to do, and I don’t know if I’ll get around to it but I wanted to do a first-person view fight scene, I might get to do that later on, and one of the ones I wanted to do was some sort of isometric thing. So when Keiron started writing issue 4, he showed me that page and we went through a bunch of different options, should we do one of those, but I was like no I want to do this instead.
KG – Actually reading the thing I was surprised, the top-down version, your version was much better than that, but it was less of a leap than I thought it was. As in there was clearly ideas a bit like it in the mix anyway. And then I counter-punched, Jamie came out with this isometric layout.
JM – And I was literally just going to number the bits in the sequence that related to panels, then I was going to number them all the way through, which meant we had all of these numbers which meant that could become the key on the side, which then Kieron wrote so that it adds a lot more character stuff to the page that wasn’t in the initial script. I mean, it speaks of the collaborative process that we don’t remember exactly who did what.
KG – We talked about instead of the numbers having an arrow path so we tuned those options. It’s a kind of weird page in sequential art in that it’s not sequential art, the idea that this is kind of like an expanded moment. And you’re meant to be able to process all these things, he’s got two internal dialogues.
JM – It’s almost like one of them is what he’s thinking and one is his DVD commentary afterwards.
KG – One of them is the actual thing, one is what he’s telling you.
GM – This is actually bringing something up which you’ve obviously done before, which is the folded narrative in (Phonogram Vol. 2) The Singles Club. I’m a big fan of anything that takes a kind of non-linear approach and does it well, and I’m a huge fan of Singles Club, because I think it’s so, it’s something that you get in movies fairly often and TV programmes but something that we don’t explore in comics a lot. And obviously the Noh-Varr scene is something like that, where we’re dipping in and out and back in again to the scene, it’s not like it’s been and happened and that’s it, we are kind of seeing Noh-varr go back in and almost say this is what happened.
KG – Well in comics it’s closure, that’s the thing. Comics works by closure. And we often kind take, and here’s the word literal again, here is an image and then we close it between the two. And a page like that creates a space and you fill in all these other gaps. And we use a lot of time cuts in Young Avengers, and we use a lot of implied larger structure, like when we’re doing dimension-hopping, we try to imply a story and then your imagination closes the gap in the rest of what’s happening here. So we’re going for the active reader participation as part of comics. And the folded narrative for me seems an expansion of that kind of philosophy, and I think that’s very interesting.
GM – We were both talking about Grant Morrison, and it’s kind of unusual that for someone who’s been so influential and been so big in comics, there hasn’t been more of a post-Morrison generation, and I feel like the folded narrative and the meta-narrative is something that he really pushed in mainstream comics. I mean, do you fell like there’s more opportunity to explore this, do you wonder why there aren’t people doing it more often?
KG – That’s a good question… What do you think? [To Jamie]
JM – Haha…
KG – I think the thing is, if you read The Invisibles [Morrison’s seminal and sometimes controversial Vertigo title that ran for six years from 1994-2000, and which attracted an army of fiercely loyal readers who still debate its various meanings to this day], and you only really get The Invisibles if you hold the whole thing in your head sometimes, it’s the fractal design. You have to actually know, I mean it’s an enormous contradictory blob, but you need to know it all at once, the whole thing, I mean I think I’ve kind of got The Invisibles for periods of five minutes at a time, spread randomly.
I read The Invisibles, I think the trades were published out of order weren’t they?
JM – I think they did the same thing with The Sandman too, I think they published the second volume first?
KG – But it was even worse with The Invisibles because they published the third series and then went back for the second series, and of course I wasn’t following it in comics, so I only got it out of order, which of course is fine because it’s The Invisibles and it makes no sense anyway!
The fact that you had to read it all, and you had to read it repeatedly, meant that even the fucked-up trade thing added to the impression of The Invisibles.
Post-Morrison? I think Aaron’s quite post-Morrison, I think a few people at Marvel now…
JM – I think people are in different ways.
KG – Me, Fraction, Aaron I would put in the same sort of… It’s basically if you use Marvel Boy you need to have at least some sympathy for Grant. It’s interesting, I haven’t actually read much of Grant’s stuff over at DC recently, just because of time, and there’s only so many superhero comics you can read. Eventually I’ll read his whole Batman run, but I sort of dabbled in and out.
GM – Last question, can I just ask, I know that we know roughly when it’s coming out, but can you give us anything at all about Phonogram vol. 3?
KG – What do you want to know? It is written.
GM – well I want to know everything, but… Are we going to get anything different in terms of the narrative, because obviously there’s a big change from vol. 1 to vol. 2, is there going to be anything significantly different happening in vol. 3?
KG – Have you even read the script? [To Jamie]
JM – Yeah, I’ve read it.
KG – What did you make of it?
JM – It’s quite good… [laughs]. It’s more like one than two.
KG – It’s a synthesis. It’s about the war of personality between Emily and Claire, and that’s the basic device, and our folded narrative is more folded through time, which is kind of something we did a little bit of in The Singles Club, sorry, in Rue Brittania. Metaphorically, Rue Brittania is about Kohl turning 30, metaphorically The Immaterial Girl is about Emily turning 30, and this is basically ageing crisis for the pair of them. So it’s more like the first one, but it’s kind of better… That’s the best way of putting it. It’s certainly more fantastical, the magic comes back in quite hard. And it’s basically about music videos, like the first scene has Claire watching music in 1985, and it’s about the Faustian pact she made.
It’s set in 2009, and there’s a bit of it in 2001, there’s more of the coven stuff, which we flirt around, but we actually show the formation of the coven. And we get bits of Kohl before that, Emily post… Emily coming out after the deal she made, all that kind of stuff.
GM – So we see her just afterwards?
KG – Yeah, and we kind of go around time, there’s a device in the story that allows you to read through time, essentially. It’s weird, it’s the weirdest motherfucker, it genuinely is very weird.
GM – I’m looking forward to it!