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The bleak, existential horror of The Wicked + The Divine: a chat with Kieron Gillen

The Wicked and The Divine #6
The Wicked and The Divine #6
Image Comics
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Hollywood could very well be the next stop for The Wicked + The Divine.

"We've got agents and we've got quite a lot of Hollywood interest," Kieron Gillen, co-creator and writer of The Wicked + The Divine comic book, told me. "I think it would probably suit a TV series better."

He makes a good point. Wicked's cast of twelve gods might be too big for a film to wrap its arms around. Spelling out the ideology of gods like Amaterasu, the Shinto god of the Sun, or Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of fertility, might leave audiences wading in explanatory waters that even Christopher Nolan might find tiresome. Explaining how these gods are only alive for two years at a time, and become pop stars adored by human fans who create fandoms, the religious kind of fanaticism bands like One Direction wield, might also be cumbersome— though it works splendidly in the books.

"If you were going to do it as a movie, you would have to cut down the cast I think," he said. "But if you did it as a movie, you could make the fights quite incredible."

Hollywood's vested interest in Gillen's comic book ode to mythology, immortality and pop music makes sense. Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie have, in five issues, built a world that's as fresh as it is fantastic, flashy as it is dark, fearsome as it is seductive, and along the way, they have created the best comic book of 2014.

And on Wednesday, the comic book's sixth issue and second arc begins.

"Me and Jamie like having a low stage, as in the punk rock term where there isn't much distance between you and the fans. At the same time, we're also kind of aware that is becoming increasingly impossible," Gillen said.

I caught up with Gillen, fresh from his visit to the Marvel writers' retreat, to ask him about Wicked's second arc, what the book means to him, and what we can expect from future issues (he talked about a fight some 24 issues away).

Warning: There are mild spoilers about the upcoming issues and story arc of The Wicked and The Divine here.

Alex Abad-Santos: You've often referred to Wicked and the book's first arc as an album. Running with that — is this second arc the sophomore album?

(The Wicked and The Divine/Image Comics)

Kieron Gillen: Oh, the notorious, difficult, second album. It's weird. It's been hard to do. With scripts, I'm normally writing considerably ahead of Jamie. But this time I'm not.

It's a more complicated arc in many ways. The first arc was set across about a week or so in a single month. The second arc is six issues, and the fact that it's six issues rather than five says a lot — I originally planned it for five, but I realized I've got too much stuff to do. And it's six issues set in a five or six month period.

AAS: That timeframe sounds like a shift in the story's pace.

(The Wicked and The Divine/Image Comics)

KG: I needed to have everything nailed down in a way that I didn't have to in the first arc. In the first arc, I could have more room to sort of play a little. While this one, I needed the meta-structure absolutely rock solid.

The second story arc— I think is a more confident album. I found myself thinking it's just a bit more comfortable in itself. The first arc is very much like a gig: bright lights, sounds, utterly and occasionally alienated and delirious. And it kinda goes and explodes.

The second arc is quieter but more intense. The first issue, specifically, is really quiet. It's like magic happens, and there's interesting showpieces, and really imaginative visual things, but it's not like issue five [the end of the first arc].

At the end of the fifth issue, we see Laura, the book's human protagonist, do something supernatural. What does this mean? Is she a god? A demon? Are you allowed to tell me?

The Wicked and The Divine/Image Comics

This is Laura being depressed. That's what issue six [the first issue of the second arc] is. There's a lot of stuff happening in the first arc. But there's even more stuff happening in this one, but we're spooning out the information in a slightly more generous, or more knowing, or more careful way. As strong as I think the opening arc is, I think the second one is when we really up our game.

[Laura's powers] is one of these open questions. That's kind of what the second arc is about — Laura has had this experience and she has to decipher what that means.

The other primary thing is that Laura has kind of given up on the gods in issue six. Actually I probably can't go into that much … [laughs].

She's not involved in the fandom anymore. In fact she's like post-traumatic really to be honest. She goes into seclusion. And something happens to make her go, "Actually I'm going to get involved in fandom again." And there's a reason for her to go back in, which is basically she meets up with the god Inanna and that leads her in in a different way.

AAS: The second arc is called "Fandemonium." And from the sound of it, it seems like you're going to really focus on the idea of fandom.

(The Wicked and The Divine/Image Comics)

KG: Fandom is a religion of love, or hate, or whatever. It's about imprinting on something you find meaningful. When I was into bands it wasn't called fandom.

[This second arc] is quite hard in some elements. Fans can and do behave in ways that are literally unforgivable. I speak for myself as well in that. Fandom is also incredibly transcendental. Fandom can improve people, save people, and it's capable of these enormous wonderful things — it's everything. And the people involved in Fandom are all sorts of people. But the politics and the backbiting and the backstabbiness of it— that's also there, and anybody that's involved in a fandom knows that.

AAS: What can we expect from future issues? What's on the horizon?

KG: There's a big fight around issue 30 and it's very much explicitly planned to be my attempt to be the greatest fight scene of all time.

AAS: 30? Or 13? That's pretty far ahead.

KG: 30. It's either issue 23 or 33 — I've got two ways to take that story. So if it comes to an early crescendo it'll be 23. If it comes to late crescendo it'll be 33.

Issue eight is kind of like that — we introduce one of the new gods, and it's very much the ecstasy and ketamine issue. It'll be fun.

AAS: I'm not sure I can speak from experience there.

KG: I find myself thinking "Shall I say that sentence?"

And I say, "Okay, I'll say that sentence," and wince because that's guaranteed that is something you'll quote.

AAS: Well, I probably will. Laura — you mention she's in a depression and a god that kind of, from the sound of it, helps her out of it. And you've often talked about how David Bowie saved your life.

(The Wicked and The Divine/Image)

KG: Well, I could say that about any pop star really — any pop star who has a certain level of intense fandom. There's people who have a fundamental confusion or a sadness and art saves them. Art allows them to realize that they are not alone. Art can allow them to realize their identity more.

And there's definitely positions in people's lives where they think this band saved my life. Or at least, changed my life. And "changing my life" is actually another way of saying saved.

AAS: You've also talked about how this book and how these gods — gods who are saving people in a sense — are all about being an artist. But the gods only live for two years. That's pretty bleak.

(The Wicked and The Divine/Image Comics)

KG: There's no way to avoid talking about it — this book was inspired by my dad's death.

Laura is quite green in the first arc. And she's significantly less green in the second arc — I remember when I was seventeen and desperate to be anything. And I'm just thinking about some fuck-ups I met along the way. Some of it is compressed, some I'm lifting from other people, and I'm inspired by people I've met. And all of that's in there, but the real thing is: Why the hell am I doing this? Why the hell do anything? It's that kind of bleak existential holler: What kind of difference does it make? Because, you know, in 70 years I'll be dead.

And that's at the heart of so much of the pop music I love.

I love humans. I think they're amazing and fascinating. But I'm kind of different from many people who feel that because I don't think we're very good. I think we're good in spite of our failings. You know, everyone in the world I love, while still recognizing how broken they are. I've got a pretty grim view of human nature. But I've also got a great belief in our ability to transcend it. All that goes into the book I guess. That was grim [laughs].

AAS: Comics writer Grant Morrison wrote in his memoir, that he believes comic books taught him more than any religion. It feels like there's a lot of that in this book. Am I far off?

KG: I mean, it's like what do we learn from pop stars? When somebody was a god to you and you end up becoming a god, what's really going on there? You know? And the idea, oh no … [suppressing laughter] "Kieron Gillen describes himself as god." [laughs]

If someone didn't care about you a bit too much, then I wouldn't have done my job correctly. I often say in interviews I didn't get into this job to be shit. It's not like I want to do this just to fuck with people's heads or transform them. At the same time, I'm aware that the only art worth doing does exactly that to at least some of the audience. In many ways that's what this book is about [laughs] —the idea of art, all the many ways people imprint on art, and how art is used I guess.

AAS: In this book, interplay between celebrity, morality, inspiration is wrapped around the idea of fame. What's the biggest difference between an American sense of fame and the British kind?

Celebrity and the idea of national characters, and national pop cultures, and demographics of cultures and everything like that — that changes what celebrity means. The idea of American celebrity is the real deal. I mean, if you haven't made it in America, you haven't really made it. You know. In the '90s as big as Oasis were, they were still a novelty Brit-pop in America in many ways.

Britain — I think there's a tendency for British pop stars to find themselves in reaction to American pop stars— positively and negatively in terms like they wanted to be that or kick against that. You know, America's the most dominant cultural force on the planet. I think that's kind of a very hard thing to avoid.

And the gods aren't really musicians. As in what they're doing isn't music. There's a quote I always misquote: "Music is the art form all other art forms aspire to." As in it makes people have enormously powerful emotional effects without any specific reason why it does so. Music does gracefully without effort what every other art form has to strive to do.

AAS: One of the things you notice in the book is that there are gods who are gay, who are black, who are genderqueer. How important is this kind of representation to you?

(The Wicked and The Divine/Image Comics)

KG: I consider what we do the bare minimum. And the fact that the hurdle is so easy to clear is embarrassing and shocking for the culture we live in. That's my general take. In terms of a queer cast, WicDiv does quite well, but WicDiv is no more or less queer than my social group has been across the last year.

I think it's pretty important — it's just really basic.

AAS: There's something in putting characters who aren't normally seen as good, maybe because of their race or their sexuality, in positions of power. And I see this in your book.

(The Wicked and The Divine/Image Comics)

KG: We say "more diverse," but what we actually mean is if we had the world reflected back at us in art and we saw all the variety of people therein, it would be a lot harder to keep all that clichéd bullshit about anybody.

I'm aware there are meanings to the imagery that you can't avoid because we are living in the culture that we are. And if you don't understand the power of the image you're using, that's a weakness as writer. That's the a job of an artist. I have the ability to invoke feelings in you, and I'm attempting to communicate things with you.

I wrote the book Generation Hope for Marvel. And I always remember one of the reviews. The team was 50-50 men and women and one of the male characters was originally the villain. And his review kinda said, "I'm not sure who to empathize with because all the good characters are girls."

And that's when I winced. Because the fact is that a lot of men, white men if we're going to speak very generally, have not had to do what other people in Western society do: empathize with somebody who isn't them. You see this in rock and roll. You talk about people like Kate Bush and Patti Smith and their main rock and roll influences were men because they had to find meaning in men.

AAS: And the non-white, queer, and female characters in your story aren't necessarily "good."

KG: The cultural roles people get to play in stories — I'm very aware of it. I mean my big worry is the fact that most of the cast in my book are kind of shitheads. They're not good people. They're all shitheads in different ways. And the fact that this cast is as queer as it is, and the fact that they're all bad people — no one's actually made this argument yet, so I think I might have gotten away with it so far.

I was talking to one of my friends — she identifies as queer and she's in childcare. And she's talking about the weird burden that gay parents have now. Cause so many gay parents are shown on television, and there are so many good gay parents on television. But gay parents are just as shitty as straight parents. We haven't really gotten anywhere until we can show shitty gay parents.

Issue 6 of The Wicked + The Divine will be released today.