The Wicked + The Divine creators talk Thought Bubble, collaboration and representation within the industry.
Kieron Gillen: Anyway, I’m rambling.
Steff Humm: Kieron, you used to be a journalist. What would you ask Kieron Gillen?
KG: [Laughs] Where do I get my ideas from?
Jamie McKelvie: Which superhero do you want to write?
KG: I always end up over-analysing interviews. I’m quite an easy interviewee because I’ve done the job, and especially in comics criticism a lot of people are inexperienced. I think you have just one question to prove to the person that you’re not an idiot. You’re normally interviewing so many people in one day, so your first or second question needs to show that you know their work.
I was never a good interviewer. I was always a bit too soft. I liked to be liked too much. I would probably interview myself badly.
SH: In that case, we need hard-hitting questions about the work.
Serena Grasso: You play with formalism a lot in the art and storytelling of The Wicked + The Divine (WicDiv). Why? The Remix issue comes to mind.
KG: “Why be boring?” is my basic answer.
JM: The origin of the Remix issue came from when we were doing The Young Avengers, which was sort of our first experience with tumblr culture and fan-edits of our pages. That made us think, we have 32 pages to fill every month; we can do whatever we want with them thanks to Image. Why not do something interesting?
KG: It sounds really banal, but I like comics as a medium. I want to write for comics; I’m interested in what the medium can do that others can’t. By definition, in almost any medium, the most interesting and powerful works are the things that can only be told in that medium. WicDiv is aggressively comic.
The idea of WicDiv is to take readers on this journey through comics. WicDiv is kind of a four-year degree course.
JM: And by the end, you’re massively in debt.
KG: And you’ve got no future prospects. We like the idea of being able to pick up a comic and be unsure about it. The thrill of the new is underestimated. For a real indie book, we’re not that experimental at all. We work in a very classical story tradition, but why be boring? Pop culture is about the new, the idea that you could hear a beat in a slightly twisted way or with a stylistic flourish.
SH: You’ve talked before about how you deliberately made WicDiv commercial.
KG: We try.
JM: We’ve joked before that this is our commercial project.
KG: People were saying this is a really weird idea, but we were trying to sell out!
SH: I’m just wondering where the line is. Have you found, when you’ve tried more experimental stuff, that you really couldn’t do that?
JM: No, you’re sort of aware of your limitations and what’s going to work.
KG: Nothing that we do is outside of our aesthetic. Even at WicDiv’s weirdest, there’s still a beat to it.
There was this line about the Pet Shop Boys – “They’re the Smiths you can dance to” – and we’re a bit like that: the Watchmen you can dance to.
SH: There’s a soundbite for you.
KG: Did I really just say that? I don’t think Watchmen’s quite right…
JM: But it is something you can dance to. One of the great things about a team like ours is that everyone has input. Everyone listens to each other. Matt [Wilson], I think, feels quite valued as he’s quite involved in the storytelling.
KG: We often say that colour is the lead instrument in some issues of WicDiv. There are a lot of teams who don’t have their colourist on their table. I think we put a lot of value in our structure.
SH: It makes a huge difference in terms of each character. I’m interested in how you all work together to create these characters from the inside out.
JM: Every god has their own colour. Baal started wearing purple when he was in mourning, and now he’s going back to red. And that was Matt’s idea, not ours. Kieron had this bible at the beginning that showed where he wanted all the characters to go. I don’t do a lot of pre-page designs; the characters are pretty much in my head.
It’s not formalised, really. We’ve been working together for 10 years, so a lot of it is based on mutual understanding. We don’t necessarily need to have those conversations.
KG: There’s a lot of very soft counterpunching. It’s like dance partners. If Jamie takes a line that way, I’m able to see and understand what he’s doing. Occasionally, we need to have longer conversations, but that’s for long-term structural stuff.
JM: Same with Matt and Clayton [Cowles] too.
JM: He’s brilliant. Storytelling through lettering – that’s the kind of thing he does. For Kieron’s 40th birthday, we made a poster of him surrounded by his characters, and they’re all talking. And for every one of them, their speech bubble was in the style of their book, which is the kind of thing that’s not always noticed. It was incredible. Clayton would come up with around 10 different versions of what the lettering might be like.
KG: We talk about the options and what the actual aesthetic effect is. Lettering isn’t just words, it’s visual.
SH: WicDiv is diverse in many ways, but the characters are all quite traditionally attractive in shape and body type. How do you feel about that?
JM: I think we could’ve done a better job with it. The thing about comics is because they come out so frequently, you’re developing in public. You’re always aware that you could do a better job with something the next time.
KG: Perfection is the opposite of good, in some ways. We could’ve done better. Pop star archetypes have different body types, but we ask ourselves, “Which body types could we have pushed further?” We could’ve made Baal a bigger guy. Morrigan is easily read as non-neurotypical, so having them be a larger character would’ve immediately opened another fucking can of worms. We did things like swap Beth out of the Norns and replaced her with a less traditional physique character.
We were thinking, “How can we get a different fucking silhouette in this book?” We try really hard and we follow stuff through, but at the same time we occasionally make traps for ourselves. Yeah, we “mea culpa” that.
SH: You could have all the reviews in the world, but you guys ultimately know what the strengths and weaknesses are with your own project. I find it interesting that you’re aware of that.
KG: The dominant culture through history ends up reinstating the stereotypes through history. That’s one of the problems with historical stuff and that’s also built into the book: problematic people doing problematic things, including us.
What I’m doing next involves a different selection of people and I’ve talked to the artist early on about what we’re doing with the characters. We’ll see how it goes.
SG: Jamie, you made Suburban Glamour before WicDiv. Did you learn any lessons working on it that you took forward?
JM: I would hope so after 10 years. Loads of stuff. I haven’t even looked at Suburban Glamour in a good five years. I think I go through stages. After a couple of years, it’s, “This is terrible and I never want to look at it again.” And then, after 10 years, it’s “Well, I can see what I was trying to do at the time, so it’s fine.”
KG: Grant Morrison talks about re-reading Zenith after around 20 years, and there’s a kind of admiration for the efficiency of his writing and skill of his earlier self – but it’s not you anymore.
I’m gonna re-read WicDiv before I start writing the final year. In fact, there’s a Suburban Glamour joke in the last issue – so I’ve started doing bits of it already.
SH: Can you see it from an outside perspective? Are you able to enjoy it?
KG: It’s not the same. Occasionally you do it to remind yourself you exist. I don’t sit down and re-read my stuff, but I definitely feel more solid knowing that I’ve written something. When my brain’s foggy, I need to solidify what I’m actually thinking. I definitely feel more real after having written.
SH: What’s the biggest issue in the industry for you right now?
JM: It’s representation. But that’s one of the reasons why Thought Bubble is so great, it’s more of a snapshot for the medium and its potential.
KG: The thing about progressivism is that it doesn’t imply perfection. Everything that we believe now may become problematic in some way in 20 years, especially the word ‘problematic’. But you can’t calcify your thinking, because it will change. For us going in, it was important for WicDiv to have a diverse cast that would allow people to feel represented, but the point is to encourage them to do it. So much of WicDiv is about the need for more creators. We need different kinds of people making comics.
JM: You only have to see some of the responses from our audience. We don’t want to be self-congratulatory – we’re pretty much doing the bare minimum – but seeing people react to it in the way they have, it’s clear there’s an audience there that’s not being catered for by a lot of books.
KG: We don’t try to sell the book based on representation. We never mention it, we never hype it, we just do it. We don’t like the idea of profiting from it, even though we are profiting from it. It’s complicated.
SH: What excites you the most about British comics?
JM: One of the things about Thought Bubble, for us – and we’ve been coming here for 11 years – is we’ve grown with the show. It was our first book. And then seeing that happen for other people; they bring their first book here and you know they’re going to do exciting things in the future.
KG: This is the closest I’ll get to self-congratulatory. Part our aim was always to leave comics in a slightly better place than we found it. And now, with WicDiv, we’re in this position of power so we can do things with formalism and push comics in a new direction. We’ve made things better rather than worse. We’re not perfect, but that’s kind of the aim. And I think Thought Bubble is the same.
JM: There are newer creators coming up who also have a very solid grasp of their own worth. People like Jen Bartel or Kris Anka, they know their value, the value of their time in a lot of ways that we didn’t. And they’ll be in a lot better position going forward.
KG: Yes. You want great diversity at every single point in the industry. The world is diverse, and that makes for better art. Even if you’re sitting in an ivory tower and drinking fine wine, you should still be pro-diversity. What do you think?
SG: I think it’s great that there are so many more diverse creators, even here making independent comics, but it would be great to see money actually going in that direction.
KG: I think there are more openly queer creators in comics now than there have been in the past. When various visibility hashtags have happened, we can see there are more. And that’s obviously a good thing.
I think racial diversity is an even bigger issue in mainstream comics. There are more visible queer creators than there are non-white creators. It’s getting better, but it’s still too slow. This is against the backdrop of Trump as well, so you’re always one backlash away from being God-knows-where.
SH: From our point of view as a publication, we want to be able to hold the industry to account – that’s what we’re for – so it’s interesting to hear from experienced creators how you see it.
KG: When we’re picking our cover artists and guest artists, we think very carefully about who we can give that spotlight to, who serves the material. When WicDiv is over, we want to make a big coffee table book of all the covers. And I think it’ll be a portrait of some of the more interesting voices in comics from across the five years. It’ll be all over the place, from Noelle Stevenson to Sophie Campbell, Elsa Charretier to Russell Dauterman with his classic, superhero look. This is all comics.
Steff Humm & Serena Grasso
Images courtesy of Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, Clayton Cowles, Image Comics.