EXCLUSIVE: Kieron Gillen Talks About The Return of ‘Once And Future’ Plus New Book ‘The Ludocrats’
by Olly MacNamee
Kieron Gillen’s reframing of the Arthurian legend, Once and Future, returned to comic book stores this week – well, those that were open anyway – with a rather startling new character making his entrance that can only mean more trouble fo Bridgette and her grandson, Duncan, who himself was revealed to be the true Holy Grail knight, Perceval. Prior to this, from the last issue, we also got the grand entrance of Merlin too. The dark is most definitely on the rise, so we thought it prudent to catch up with Gillen to probe him on the Arthurian influences that inform his writing, Once and Future, as well his upcoming new series, The Ludorats from Image Comics. Lots to talk about, so let’s dive in shall we?
Olly MacNamee: The legend of King Arthur is a story that has transformed and mutated over the past 1,500 years or so and yet you have still managed, somehow, to find a new way of presenting this old legend in a fresh light. But, not a very flattering one. Now a figure that embodies the darker side of Nationalism. Just as the far right have misappropriated the St. George’s flag, these ne’er-do-wells have taken up King Arthur as their nationalistic icon and leader.
Was it the rise of of such tendencies across the globe that gave you this ‘inspiration’ or something else entirely?
Kieron Gillen: Well, I’d clearly be lying if I the resurgence of nationalism on a worldwide stage and Britain specifically didn’t make things more timely, but I’m also aware Once & Future likely could have been written at any point in the last thousand years. This is a perennial conversation, which to some degree is what the book is about.
Well, that and a hard as nails gran blowing holes out of the living dead.
My standard answer to this is that about a decade ago I was watching The Mummy and wondering if there was any way to do something that scratched the Indiana Jones adventure itch while side-stepping the worst of the colonialism inherent in turning the founding legends of another culture into monsters. I instantly thought “Do it with King Arthur” and the rest cascaded out quickly, but King Arthur As Mummy was the core. I did the core thinking of it, then left it on the side for a rainy day.
One day it rained, and there it was.
OM: As a huge Arthurian fan myself, I admit, it was a great new take. I’d never considered him to be such a nationalist, but there is more than enough evidence of this in what I assume is one of your core source texts, Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. But, there are clearly other texts informing your story. And with the references to Lancelot foreshadowing his entry into this drama, there’s more than a little of Chrétien de Troyes thrown in too. What other sources did you delve into for this saga?
KG: You certainly are an Arthur fan – those annotations have been astounding.
Nationalism is interesting – the word actually only dates to the 19th century, so he was never strictly speaking a Nationalist, but you can’t help but use our conceptions when looking at it. My core was from what I knew before research – the irony that what almost everyone knows as the story (“Arthur uniting the Britons fighting invaders!|”) has the irony that the Anglo-Saxons are the invaders. Early on, I was mainly trying to dig to the earliest sources I could, which as you know is a fool’s game with Arthur. The endless quicksand of the sources certainly worked its way into the plots.
Early on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History was useful in terms of the “Went to war with a European kingdom” aspect I used early on. Then, I take widely, and was less interested in what any specific story did and more about how the stories changed over time. Accessible academic overviews were useful here – the Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend was my main one. As the first arc shows, I was less interested in the specifics of what Malory or Troyes did, and more that they did it. Percival slipping from the prime Grail knight, etc.
OM: I imagine you’ve been something of a student of the Arthurian legend for a good while now. What’s your own fascination with this character? For me, I fell in love with the guy after reading Camelot 3000, a rather strange entry level into this fascinating legend, but one I am sure I share with other comic book fans. But, what about you own entry level into the world of knights, round-tables and magical goblets?
KG: I think you’re right about Camelot 3000. Thinking back, the definitive moment with me and Arthur is actually the Boorman Excalibur movie, which I think I watched a little too young, and its imagery haunts me. The idea of doing a ‘Horror Arthur’ is, I suspect, me processing the childhood memories of how petrifying the Wasteland sequences were for me.
OM: And how do you go about amalgamating and unifying all of these various strands into one cohesive story? I imagine there was a lot of Venn diagrams and spreadsheets involved.
KG: Less so than you’d think – DIE is the one with the graphs and maps. Hell, there’s actually an Arthurian-inspired region of DIE I don’t think the group are ever going to visit. It’s called The Wasteland. It’s not just Arthur, but also the Song of Roland, as Stephanie demanded it.
With Once & Future you have freedom as it’s meant to be messy and contradictory. Arthur is confused in the first arc, and only more confused as it goes on. That all these stories push and pull gives me the freedom to choose an aspect which is of most of use to the story in any given moment. That’s the thing – our story being cohesive is the main thing.
OM: With both Percival and Galahad running around, it seems to me this is more than just a reflection on nationalist tendencies in contemporary society but possibly a deeper look at myths, legends a fairy tales and the very nature of storytelling itself?
KG: I was aware that after The Wicked + the Divine, which basically laid out The Problem Of Stories over 51 issues, I could likely start new work with that as a given fact of the fantasy world. “The world is haunted by feral stories” is the line Bridgette uses early on, and I suspect that’s as good as we get.
I’ve said in other interviews that while the political aspect is impossible to deny, the book is about a lot more things than that. Including the aforementioned shotgun grandma, right?
OM: With the good news that Once and Future is now an ongoing, how did that change the dimensions of the story you wanted to tell?
KG: It freed it up hugely, for a start. I was thinking of Once & Future as the mini-series-as-movie model, where we hit something hard and self-contained while leaving a few strands for the sequel. Now with the space, I do a lot more of the ongoing issue-to-issue rush. While my basic mode is to have a primary situation explored within a trade, we keep a lot more different plates spinning now.
When I realized it’d be ongoing, I did move some material around – that I knew I had more space meant I knew I didn’t need to bring Galahad’s fate to a conclusion in issue 6. As the opening pages of 7 show, it maybe would have been better if it did.
That it is an ongoing means I can leave some things to breathe a little more – the second arc gives Dan (Mora) more room when he needs it, for example. Some of the plots are on the slow-boil, which gives us more room for the explosions.
OM: I was blown away by Dan Mora’s fantastical artwork on Klaus, with Grant Morrison. Was this a title that influenced your choice of artist, or simply his talent?
KG: Dan has always been an incredible artist, and I think Once & Future is another step up on a seemingly infinite ladder.
Basically Boom came to me, saying Dan was interested in doing a book with me – did I have any ideas for something which would work. I loved his work, but then I went to study him. What would I like to see Dan draw? I then went and looked at the big document of Ideas For The Rainy Day That Is Today, and found my proto-notes for Once & Future.
I wrote back wondering whether he’d be interested in doing something in an action-horror vein. The answer was yes, and the rest is history.
OM: I imagine you fed him a lot of reference material, what with this epic taking place in parts of the UK many readers would not be familiar with? Salisbury Tor in Somerset and Bristol are not place many American would be familiar with. But, you certainly are aren’t you?
KG: I am. I lived in Bath and Bristol for over a decade. I actually used to live in a flat opposite the Abbey – the second comic script I ever wrote was about one of the statues that Bridgette and company walk past in an issue.
But Dan is not, so, yes, I try and send a bunch of reference. It’s relatively easy in the modern age, with streetview. In the Bath Abbey sequence I was presenting multiple routes the people could walk. When you set a comic in the real word, and it’s based around that juxtaposition of fantasy and reality, I think the realer you make the real bits, the more profound the effect.
Also there’s a magic moment when someone sees a building from a comic and realizes they’ve seen it before. That’s magic.
OM: And, we cannot forget the divine colouring of Tamra Bonvillain either. A great match for Mora’s art in my humble opinion.
KG: Yes! She’s a powerhouse. She can ground a scene if she needs to, or make it scream. I had the idea for the Otherworld sequences (and the sequences when Otherworld to pop into the real world) to have a berserk signature style, and was mainly thinking of it as a storytelling device. As in, when the colours go weird, we know something has changed. But when you give the freedom of that to someone like Tamra, it ignites. She’s doing astounding work.
OM: With Once and Future #7 due out this coming week (all things considered), we have the promise of even more Arthurian characters coming to the fore out of the mists of time (or should that be The Mist of Avalon?). I’ve already mentioned Lancelot, but there’s also the threat of a certain Nimue too. A character very much associated with Merlin, Someone we’ve also not seen yet. What I’m asking, in a round about way, is what can we expect from this second arc?
KG: Merlin and Nimue are the safe bets, and Merlin’s nature (and what he’s up to) is simmering B-plot. Merlin is absolutely the fascinating player in our world, and the scenes with him and Arthur some of my favourite. Nimue is more obscure, but a Merlin picking a Nimue is obviously loaded in lots of ways. As you know, Nimue is a character who if is known at all, is best known as someone who traps Merlin. Why would a Merlin pick a Nimue, if they know what that entails? There’s a lot of “ifs” there.
But really the second arc is mainly about the expansion of the focus. Sure, it’s mainly an Arthurian book… but it’s not just that.
OM: As we are on the theme of chivalry, Kieron, it would be uncourtly of me not to ask you about your new bombastic, over-the-top, nonsensical extravaganza, The Ludocrats. I’ve been fortunate enough to read the first issue, and it is rather bonkers. I have vibes of Falstaff coming off of Baron Otto Von Subertan, but with more nudity and beautiful vulgarity, amongst other influences mentioned in the official solicitations for the book. Who’s bright idea wa sit to publish on April 1st? Happy coincidence, or something more?
KG: Thank you! There is certainly more nudity and vulgarity than the average comic book, but the Falstaffian vibes are strong. We are here to have a nice time.
The book was originally announced five years ago, so when schedules finally got in line, we didn’t want to announce until we knew for sure it was going to come out. So we basically worked until Jeff had those three issues in the can, and then checked the calendar… which would be for an April release.
We checked the calendar, and realized it was an April 1st.
Of course, we’re not sure exactly what will be happening given the current situation. We’ll see.
OM: It’s certainly a great opening issue, even if it does deal with the issue of matrimony in a very novel way, shall we say. It’s also an issue packed full of the most wondrous and colourful characters. I was particularly enamoured by Grattinia Gavelstein, High Steam-Judge of Prussia. The names, the dialogue; they certainly live up to the book’s title.
How did you even start to approach a project – and the language you use – like this? I suppose it helps to have a willing accomplice in co-writer Jim Rossignol?
KG: Jim and I have been mutually willing accomplices for the best part of twenty years now. We were both working in games magazines back in the day, and the original Ludocrats exercise dates to about 2003 I think. Jim and I wrote each other letters in character, building this world of nonsense. The core of the world and the plot actually is in these, and a good chunk of the characters. There’s even some bits of dialogue and colour that we snipped and worked into the final script.
(The larval-stage pincer moth exchange is one, I believe.)
The funny thing is that this has been written and rewritten for so long that Jim and I have basically forgotten who is actually responsible for what. Otto was Jim’s alter-ego and Hades was mine, but we’re at the point where we are basically able to essay one another. The Id-energy of Otto is a special delight.
OM: How does one collaborate on such a projects and then still have it make sense for artist Jeff Stokley and colourist Tamra Bonaviilain to translate onto the page?
KG: Well, that remains to be seen.
The way the scripts work is we get together and have a Ludocrats summit (i.e. we hang out, player Warhammer, imbue fine spirits) and come out with a synopsis for the issue, including stuff we’ve made up and old material we’ve lifted. Jim then goes and does a pass on it, generating some more material. Then I take it and do the job of transforming it into comics (mainly by editing, and adding my own stuff). It passes to Jim for a quick nose, some final tweaks, then my final tweaks, and then we pass to Chrissy who attacks us with a cricket bat for writing such nonsense.
The other thing is Ludocrats is written for the artist to have a huge amount of freedom – we throw ideas at the page, but also encourage Jeff to add whatever he wants. It’s meant to be a playground for us all. It’s harder for the colourist, but Tamra is making bold choices throughout. Comparing and contrasting to what she’s up to on Once & Future shows what an incredible talent she is.
OM: Kieron, many thanks for the time and here’s to the continued success of Once and Future, and to new successes such as The Ludocrats too.
KG: Thank you. It’s clearly awful times right now, but I just hope that when folks are able to read them, they’ll find a moment of relief. Escapism is particularly important at times like this, right?
Once & Future Vol. 1 is available now, as is Once & Future #7 from BOOM! Studios
The Ludocrats #1 was to launch on Wednesday April 1st from Image Comics
Ask your LCBS to save you all and any of the titles, or go set up that pull list I keep on suggesting.