Today, I’m delighted to present an interview by Alex Spencer, who, if you’ve ever been foruntate enough to attend the mid-con Thought Bubble party, you will have no doubt witnessed owning the dancefloor. Take it away, Alex…
When Robin first mentioned the Cover Versions project to me, as soon as he put the words ‘music’ and ‘comics’ next to one another, my mind immediately jumped to two names: Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie.
It’s a pretty obvious connection to make. Phonogram, Gillen and McKelvie’s first work together, is probably the go-to ‘comic about music’ of the 2000s. Back in the prehistoric days when Robin started working on this project, The Wicked + The Divine had only just been announced, but the premise – ‘gods as pop stars’ – already promised to do the same thing for the 2010s.
Fast-forward 12 months, and I’ve written somewhere over ten thousand words on WicDiv (as it’s become affectionately known), mostly on the WicDiv-dedicated blog that I co-write with fellow disciple Tim Maytom (who you may remember from these very pages). I think I’ve said quite enough about that comic, frankly, so instead I reached out to one of its creators and let him do the talking.
Specifically, Kieron Gillen. More specifically, about the playlists he puts together for each new comics project.
(Below is the Spotify playlist for The Wicked + The Divine. If you want an appropriate soundtrack as you read this blog, put it on shuffle and press play now.)
Gillen has been creating these playlists, with songs that tie to the series’ characters or themes, since the first Phonogram series, Rue Britannia.
“I think in some ways with Phonogram, it was kind of a magical statement,” he says. “For Rue Britannia, I put every record I owned from ’93 to ’98, every single one I could find, put it on whatever MP3 player I had at the time, and just listened to it whenever I went anywhere.”
It’s the kind of summoning ritual that suits Phonogram’s ‘music is magic’ concept perfectly. Gillen’s approach was carved into the comic all the down to its script pages, each of which listed what music he’d been listening to when he wrote it. He doesn’t do that any more, at least for non-Phonogram projects.
“With Phonogram, there’s a weird kind of masochism to it all, I guess. This playlist included some stuff I fucking despised, and I never allow myself to skip anything,” he says. “With WicDiv, it’s more like having a tarot deck. My usual way to listen to the playlist isn’t in order, I listen on shuffle. So it’s, like, these random associations – you’re not quite sure what’s going to hit you.”
Songs can set a mood, or trigger memories, or link together two ideas, which is a good portion of what Phonogram is about. But that also makes them great fuel for writing, and for planning. “There’s weird stuff that it unlocks,” as Gillen puts it.
Take, for example, issue #8 of The Wicked + The Divine. Set at a days-long rave held by dancefloor-that-walks-like-a-man god Dionysus the issue has its roots in a series Gillen pitched to Vertigo years ago. But he reveals that a key part of Dionysus’s character only clicked with him more recently, while listening to the WicDiv playlist.
“I was at Charing Cross station by myself – getting the last train home, so I was quite drunk – and We Are Your Friends comes on,” he says. “And it kind of it unlocked this problem for me.”
(That’s Justice vs Simian’s We Are Your Friends, by the way. If you’re listening to the playlist and it just came up on shuffle, congratulations. Music truly is magic.)
“It has this weird element of, ‘you’re never going to escape us’. It actually sounds like a curse. Originally when I conceived Dionysus, the only thing I said was he wasn’t sleeping. The twist that, ‘oh yeah, he’s in a hive mind, he can’t be alone in his head, he’s never going to be alone again’ – the awfulness buried in that Justice record made me realise that about him. It had been on the playlist for a while, so I must have subconsciously known what the song was really saying.”
Gillen says he recently had a similar “breakthrough” moment with WicDiv’s Rihanna-meets-literal-Pussycat-Doll warrior goddess Sahkmet, but can’t discuss the specifics because, spoilers. But this doesn’t only happen with the comics Gillen writes that are explicitly about music.
“With Uncanny X-Men, I had Kylie’s Confide in Me on the playlist – from the ‘Goth Kylie’ period, which I always like – and in my head it was very much a Magik record.”
(That’s Illyana ‘Magik’ Rasputin, on-again-off-again X-Man and younger sister of Piotr ‘Colossus’ Rasputin, who at some point prior to Gillen’s run sold her soul for power or a vendetta or something. I don’t know, this isn’t Rachel & Miles X-Plain the X-Men, sorry.)
“There’s something about the slightly-off-seduction-ness of it that I thought: that feels like my Magik, as in there’s something very pretty but very wrong about it. But it was only near the end of my run that I realised, no, if you actually listen to the lyrics, this is just the plot. This is just Magik’s plot, in terms of what she does to Colossus.
“’We all get hurt by love/And we all have a cross to bear/But in the name of understanding now/Our problems should be shared.'”
“Magik put Colossus through this living hell to make him understand, ‘this is what happened to me and I am no longer here’. She knew on some level that he would never let her go free because he would never give up on her, so it was kind of in his interests to destroy him. It’s the only way he would ever leave her alone and get on with his life. That’s dark, but it’s also basically one-for-one what the lyrics say.”
Does it ever work the other way, this spell? Do characters and stories ever imprint themselves onto stories?
“This is classic Phonogram,” Gillen says. “You know, records remind you of people – well, characters are people too.
“That’s one reason why I’m a little reticent to adding songs that have been on playlists before to the WicDiv playlist, because I don’t want to be reminded of Hope, for example – actually, Hitten is on there now, but it took me a while to put it there. And there’s quite a lot of stuff I used in Young Avengers that I don’t want the taint of… or I’m reticent about using it, at least.”
(That’s… Jesus, take a deep breath… that’s Hope Summers, the red-headed born-in-the-future granddaughter of Cyclops and one-time potential saviour of the mutant race, star of Gillen’s Generation Hope series. Also: Hitten by Those Dancing Days, Hope’s unofficial theme music. Also: Young Avengers, the other Gillen/McKelvie comic that I didn’t mention earlier for the sake of expedience, but which arguably made stars of them, and which has two playlists of its own here and here.
But, by Gillen’s own admission, a lot of those songs have leaked onto the WicDiv playlist over the past year or so. Today, the playlist is a monster – 275 songs, from ABBA to Pantera, and growing by a track or two each week.
“We’ve got at least another 30 issues to go,” says Gillen. “By the end, it’ll literally be every song I’ve ever liked ever.”
“These playlists, they build and build. There’s probably some playlists I’ve edited, but I’m more likely to shuffle order than delete. With WicDiv especially there’s some stuff I thought, ‘I wish I didn’t put that on’, because there are some songs on that playlist which are curse songs.”
(Okay, one more time. Curse songs. One of Phonogram’s most perfect ideas: a name for those songs that remind you of worse times, or better times that become worse times, and twist your gut when you hear them in a club, or on the radio, or on shuffle in someone else’s playlist.)
“In some ways, the reason I’ve done this is to leave traps for myself, almost, in terms of provoking strong emotions – and to be honest, in another way, just trying to get over my sorry ass. A lot of The Wicked + The Divine is about me trying to get past a certain stage in my life and immolate myself. Like, even the belief in curse songs is a level of self-indulgence I’m not sure I can allow myself anymore.
“…Wow, that was dark.”