Looking Forward, Looking Back: Kieron Gillen On History, Magic, And Once & Future

by Noah Sharma

Many of us have strong opinions about the direction our countries are headed right now, but few of us feel able to do much about it. Fewer still would revive a warlord from Arthurian myth to gain that power, but, when a group of nationalists does just that, it falls to England’s greatest monster hunter and her baffled grandson to save the nation, if not the world! This is where we meet the characters of Once & Future, the latest original series written by Kieron Gillen, which has just been confirmed for a fourth printing of the first issue.

Famed for his work on books like Phonogram, Journey Into Mystery, Uncanny X-Men, and The Wicked And The Divine, Gillen is not only one of the most respected writers in comics today but something of an expert in writing about magic and fantasy. With artistic giants like Dan Mora and Tamra Bonvillain at his side, I was interested to talk to Mr. Gillen ahead of the book’s release.

 

Noah Sharma: So the first thing I wanted to ask is kind of more general, but I was curious what your writing process is like usually and how it adapted to Once & Future.

Kieron Gillen: My writing process is scrappy and confusing. I try to actually keep myself quite regimented. As in my basic kind of engagement for the day is every day I do five pages–

Okay… The plan: every day I do at least five pages of new draft every morning. In the afternoon I do everything else in my life, which includes all the e-mail and everything else, plus polishing scripts. In other words, me polishing a script up to handing in is a different part of my brain really to the morning which is pure creativity. That’s kind of like basically how I’ve been doing it for Once & Future.

And I swapped over to Scrivener. I used to work in OpenOffice just as a straight thing. But I’ve moved to Scrivener, which makes me write in a slightly more fluid style. Like, instead of my one document, I’m working much more as, “Okay, I’ll write a page and I’ll move it round a bit,” and also I cut and paste stuff around the pages quite a lot. I mean ’cause quite regularly what happens in Once & Future—this is actually the only thing which I think is unique—is I kind of just write the pages, then I hit the number of pages, like, “Oh, I’ve hit twenty pages-” or not quite that but, y’know, “this is an issue.” Then I go and actually then I’ll look at the page-turns, properly.

And in a couple of the four issues I’ve done so far I’ve stopped and gone, “Okay, I’m gonna lose some panels here, contract this scene to get a page-turn here, then we get a splash.” In other words, I kind of do- I work in a much more—I wouldn’t say more structural way, I’m going with a less structural way, but more like I’m quite confident in my ability to understand what an issue’s structure is now. Which is like an arrogant thing to say, but also I genuinely have a lot of experience. And the problem for me now is actually making it interesting for me. Like that’s the thing, it’s like I could write an issue—well, not in my sleep, but I know what an issue feels like. So I need to find ways to like- well… interesting to me and also like… keeps me awake.

NS: Yeah.

KG: And by keeps me awake I don’t mean just like I’m going to sleep, what I mean is engaged. With the material.

NS: Right.

KG: So, yeah.

 

NS: Once & Future really has two protagonists, Duncan and Bridgette. It seems like Bridgette is a lot of fun to write. How do you like to balance them?

KG: Partly it’s just quite classic in terms of like… Duncan doesn’t know anything. Like Duncan, he’s not a stupid man- He’s a clever, good-looking, skilled guy who’s, y’know, he’s nervous and shy and quite messy in lots of ways, but he just doesn’t know anything about fucking monsters. Whilst Bridgette knows it all. And so Duncan gets to be the reader. Duncan gets to basically go into the world and Bridgette is the interesting Virgil-like figure leading him into the Underworld.

And like… she’s just sharp. The thing with Bridgette is like- One of the things when I was building Once & Future, the core of Once & Future when I had the idea originally, which I had for a while before it, was this Arthurian mythos background I was playing with. And I didn’t really have a lead character. So I thought, “Okay, who was actually gonna go and get involved in these mysteries?” I found myself thinking about, you know, grandmother/grandson. Like I had a quite tight relationship with my gran. And I thought that’s an interesting dynamic. And that’s not something you see in fiction. And that’s- Y’know, I couldn’t think of a really obvious one in fiction and I’ve certainly never written it. “So, okay, I’m gonna write those energies.” And, of course, Bridgette is not much like my gran. Except in the ways that she was. In this way, like, you know, my gran was very superstitious, which is kind of the opposite of Bridgette. So that’s kind of the energy.

And, like, Bridgette gets to be funny. And also like, y’know, pointed and- And there’s something fundamentally fascinating about badass granny in this way. Especially in the way she’s badass. ’Cause she’s not badass in a [way that] removes the fact that she’s a woman who’s getting on for eighty. Y’know her physical [struggle] is clearly part of the book and all that.

NS: Yeah. And I like how she’s not- she is in hiding [in a way], but like, y’know, people try to change the channel on her and she’s not afraid to just be honest about it on some level.

KG: She wants to be out and about. I mean, one of the key beats of the first issue- As far as the first issue goes, the first issue should introduce the book. What we do, how we do it. So you see various set pieces of characters and how they interact. And, y’know, one of the core Bridgette beats—well I can’t just say but—is the bit where Bridgette acts quite ruthlessly. And I’m like, “Wait, you just did that?”

NS: Oh, yeah!

KG: And that’s it. That’s Bridgette. And, all the way through, the energy is “What would Bridgette do?”

And some ways it’s like- I sort of say of all my work I’ve ever done the one that Once & Future probably most compares to is actually Dr. Aphra. And, y’know, Bridgette’s Dr. Aphra.

I mean, they’re not in any way in personality—it’s not so simple, [but] the ethical hardness of Bridgette can be seen analogously to the moral vacuity of Aphra. And similarly that sort of “What will they do?” is one of the things that drives the book. And, of course, what will Duncan do in response?

NS: One thing that I noticed was that, in the first issue, it’s said that Bridgette came over from Ireland and, given the kind of the nature of the book, was that name very pointed* or was it just kind of an easy name…

KG: Well, to be honest, I named her after my gran. [Laughter]

NS: Oh, really!?

KG: Yeah, my gran was a Bridgette. There’s a lot of like- You can definitely take what you want with that, but that was full-on a complete tribute to my gran.

But, you know, obviously the nature of the British Isles is in the book. And, of course, especially the way that the book goes- the way that it goes from now on, to be honest, that kind of- it’s a weird fucking- the British Isles is a weird place. And in terms of how the thousands and thousands of years of history that’ve gone into it is also interesting.

[*Context: Saint Brigid is the patron saint of Ireland and a significant religious figure in Irish Catholicism. She shares her name, her feast day, and much of her iconography with the Irish Pagan goddess Brigid, which has led many historians and scholars to theorize that she was a Christianization of the goddess, making it acceptable to continue worshiping the native figure in a Christian context. Given Once & Future’s emphasis on how people reinterpret myths of the past, it seemed potentially relevant, but instead came from a much more modern history. Mr. Gillen and I did not explicitly discuss this facet, but he seemed to understand the point and so this note is included for clarity.]

NS: Boom!’s headquartered in America. It distributes to an American audience among others, but this is very clearly set in England and based in English magic tradition and legend. What is it about England that needed to be there, that you wanted to explore in this or was it just the nature of King Arthur?

KG: Well, there’s a lot- I suppose the original core- I mean this is probably a dangerous thing, but I found myself watching something like The Mummy, well, not the original but the 90s Mummy. And the third one where they use one of the Chinese Emperors as the villain. And I found myself going, “Oooof.”

NS: Yeah!

KG: And then, of course, you go, well, that’s actually obviously true of the original Mummys as well.

So the question becomes—because the adventure fiction genre’s great, we love that—how can we do something that basically works like The Mummy but isn’t like weirdly colonialist and full of baggage. And so a lot of it kind of came from working out how you could do a story which plays in weird and aggressive ways with a people’s mythology without being, y’know, imperialistic and all the stuff that tends to be in that genre. And the idea is pretty simple: do it with British folklore.

It’s like in Wic Div. One of the things about Wic Div is that I try to be respect- I mean I’m atheist, but I try to be as respectful as I can with real traditions. The exception being, of course, Lucifer. And I was raised Catholic, y’know, and, of course, that gives me the right to do what I want with it.

I think.

Y’know, people would argue about that, but I think it does. And that’s kind of where Once & Future comes from. As in, “Here’s something about British folklore. Let’s talk about British folklore. And let’s talk about British mythology. Let’s talk about how it’s changed.” ’Cause some people have asked about the research. But the research I’ve done on Once & Future has so much been about, “Okay, how’s the Arthurian myth changed over time? How- where did the characters appear? Like when did Percival appear? When did Galahad appear?” That. That’s what interests me is how this myth worked.

NS: Obviously you’ve been wrestling a lot with Tolkien lately with Die over at Image and all that. I mean, so much of his entire Legendarium is based out of the weird interplay of French influence on British culture.

KG: Mmm. I mean and the German stuff as well. I mean, the Arthurian myth is mostly- well not mostly- but it’s so interesting the fact that so much of the Arthurian myth is, of course, French… and that’s like fucking weird. It is! That’s one of those things, like, the Britons, like- there’s no-

This is not an openly political book, per se. I mean, obviously it’s a little bit political, but it’s no more than, say, Indiana Jones is political.

NS: Sure.

KG: In that Indiana Jones believes that Nazis should be punched. But at the same time it’s clearly born of Brexit.

This is a book about examination of life in the British Isles and how the myths play into the present. So that’s there, but I try not to talk too much about that in interviews because I think it oversells the book. As I’ve said, you don’t see Indiana Jones as a serious examination of like-

NS: Sure.

KG: We’re in the same place, I think.

NS: Yeah. But I think, also, Indiana Jones comes later. If Indiana Jones came out in 1942 I think it would be a lot more political.

KG: True, true. No, that’s funny. Like I say, I don’t think it’s as apolitical- apolitical… I don’t think any work is apolitical. But I think we’re closer to Indiana Jones than we are to Maus.

[A laugh]

NS: Yeah. Yeah. That’s fair.

 

 

I heard about Once & Future [in depth] for the first time at Emerald City [Comic Con] this year. You did a panel about how you use magic. I think it was The Rules of Magic-

KG: Yeah, yeah. I’m doing that again this show [San Diego Comic-Con]. Like what is it about rules of magic, people-

NS: I saw that actually! I was like, “Aw man, that sounds like a really good panel, but I feel like I might have seen it.” But, I was curious, now that I have you kind of one on one, what is magic in the world of Once & Future? How do you perceive it here?

KG: Well, a lot of what I think about magic is that the point of magic is the joy of it, is in the process of discovery. So you should really read Once & Future to see how Once & Future’s magic works, so I don’t want to rant too much, but my idea, my aesthetic effect, for Once & Future was a haunted world. The idea that everything’s normal and then something changes and you’re in the Other World. The Other World is a core British folkloric idea. And so the idea like- there’s a haunting of reality around us that you might find yourself in. So any dark corner might be the Other World when you go in. And that basically means the world is haunted, a little. Y’know what I mean? And that’s the vibe I wanted.

In terms of how actual magic works, there is an extrapolation from some of the ideas of Wic Div I think would be the easiest thing to say. As in like, I think the people who read Wic Div they’ll go like, “Oh right, I can see what Kieron is riffing upon or building upon.” But it kind of works in a much more cynical way. Wic Div is like a quite honest heartedly embrace of archetypes, whilst this is much more about deliberately playing roles to get effect. Like how can you use a narrative to get- you know, ’cause, magic is spell-ing. Spelling. Words. So like kind of the whole idea of narrative is magic is something a lot of magicians, like real world occultists, have talked about. And that’s kind of what Once & Future leads into.

And it’s not about irrationality, quote unquote. It’s a loaded word. Wic Div is quite often about how stories rule the world and there’s a little bit of that in Once & Future.

But really “haunted world”.

NS: Yeah.

I’m sorry, did you say that it is about irrationality or it isn’t?

KG: Irrationality is a loaded word, but the idea of like, um- I mean Bridgette is a hard rationalist. That’s the thing is like, she’s as hard as the rationalist gets. What I mean is like the line in the first issue, “But it’s real!” “Of course it’s real!”

NS: “Plenty of things are-”

KG: “Plenty of things that are real are nonsense, luv.” That’s what I mean, like, when you write Bridgette there’s a joy to it there ’cause she’s like… she can be spiky. I mean, I immediately backed off and wanted to qualify my position on rationality. Bridgette wouldn’t. And that’s the joy of the fiction, you can write stronger opinions, cause you have other characters do the counter opinion.

NS: Right.

KG: And that’s how my fiction tends to work.

NS: I wanted to ask- and like you said you’ve got a good amount of experience under your belt as a writer now.

KG: That’s depressing, isn’t it? But it’s true.

NS: Defining “starting out” however you want, is there any advice you would give yourself when you were starting out now that you feel would have been valuable?

KG: No, the only advice I would give would be career advice. “Complain slightly more”, not too much, but, y’know, like “don’t say no more”. There’s a lot of like that kind of stuff and there might be some specific advice of like, “Don’t do that.” As in don’t take that job.

The problem with advice, especially creative advice, is it’s often useless until you’re ready to understand it. ’Cause a lot of my things, my experience is that, like, when I’m reading writers guides, you read it, “Oh, you gotta do this, you gotta do that,” ”Your plots need this.” And you’re like, “Oh, I’m doing that.” And you’re not looking- you’re not really understanding what’s happening. And when advice- when it actually clicks it’s ’cause you are ready to understand how the work is. And some of that just involves a lot of work in being perceptive. You’ve got to see the problems of the work before you can understand the problems in your work. Which is not really useful for somebody who likes teaching stuff. But I think, in a point of like talking and thinking and reexamining, it all kind of ties together. I guess.

All I would really say is that “Kieron you’re on the right path. If”- Probably what I’d actually tell him is that you’re gonna be at Marvel for longer than you think you will. Y’know, you think you’re a Vertigo writer. You’re not.

In short, just if you get me in a corner and anyone comes to my table and asks me for writing advice, I will normally be happy to yap at them. Like, “What do you want to do?” So much of advice is like specific stuff about where the person asking is.

 

NS: You get to work with Dan Mora on this series. He’s really one of those artists right now that you look at his work and just know that you’re in for something incredible. How did the idea change once Dan got involved?

KG: The project’s kinda born of Dan, really. I had the idea years previously, where I’ve been keeping it in the vaults for a rainy day. Then one day (I forget whether or not it was rainy) Boom! mailed me saying Dan would love to do a book with me, and I pull it out, thinking it’d be perfect. I knew Dan’s work, and saw that he was doing industry-top level action fiction work, with action, romance and glamour. The only question was whether he’d want to head somewhere with more horror in the DNA, and it turns out that was something he wanted to try.

In terms of writing, I’m leaning to the lighter mode of scripting I use for Marvel – a certain kind of work I need really tight control over certain aspects, and other work I want to give the artist as much place to tear things up. The action set piece in the first issue is a good sign of that – set up the beats, step back, and let Dan go to town. There’s increasingly amounts of photo-reference for places in Britain, I admit. If we drop Bath Abbey into a script, we clearly want it to be the Bath Abbey-iest Bath Abbey since Phonogram issue 2.

It’s actually Tamra who I’m a little more hands on – she’s got great taste and great sense of when to make things weird, so I’m normally fine to just let her go for it – but the one main visual formalist idea in the script is a colouring one, signifying when certain things have happened. As such, we had to go back and forth on it to make sure we had something noticeable enough to be a real thing but not enough to be entirely distracting.

I really couldn’t be happier.

NS: One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the degree that so much fantasy is concerned and sometimes obsessed with what was. With this book looking at that from a couple of different angles, how do you like to approach or avoid the relationship between the fantasy genre and an idealized past?

KG: There is the argument that, in its core form, science fiction is about a debate around the nature of the future and fantasy is a debate about the nature of the past. This can mean that fantasy has a small-c conservative part of it – tropes like golden ages come from the medieval tropes in fantasy, and the traditional idea of the Dark Ages in relation to the fall of Rome, I say, off the top of my heads, not questioning things too intensely. Fantasy has “tradition” right in there, forgetting that most traditions are much more modern than we ever consider them.

However, a tendency doesn’t mean that it’s all it is. It’s a big enough genre (far bigger than pure science fiction, I’d say) to include huge traditions against its own tradition, if you see what I mean. The anti-fantasy fantasy writer is as defined archetype as much as the pure Tolkien copyist. The effort to make whole other worlds, aggressively, leaning into the “what we can imagine of how else a world could be” can be something else entirely.

Once & Future is not quite that – it’s actually a book which is deeply interested in tradition, and how tradition has changed over time and space, and what that says about us.

Once & Future #1 arrived in shops last week from Boom! Studios, and is expecting the arrival of several reprints for issue #1. Ask at your local shop!

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