Gods Among Us: Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie Talk The Wicked + The Divine

The Wicked + The Divine is  one of our favorite comic series running. Just when we think we have a handle on its world of pop stars and gods incarnate, the creative team surprises us, and that’s kept it remarkably fresh over the past 30 issues (the second deluxe hardcover volume, collecting issues 12 to 22, arrived in Barnes & Noble stores this week). Entering it’s 5th arc, “WicDiv” is the perfect book for readers who love to obsess over an intricate mythology. Or maybe you’d like to read a different kind of comic about superbeings—one not so focused on the world of capes and tights? Either way, we talked with writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie to get their takes on divinity, art as expression, and how the heck they make a series so effortlessly cool

What do you think it means to be a god or goddess in this era of smoke and mirrors—technology, apps, and social media?

Kieron Gillen: I suspect my answer would be “we’ve always had smoke and mirrors. They’re just the smoke and mirrors of the time.” WicDiv is a book about cycles running through history—things are constant, yet simultaneously, things change. Balancing the two is key to the book. Being a god today is different from every other time, sure… but being a god in any time is always different to being a god in any other time.

And we all do like our smoke and mirrors.

The David Bowie influence for Lucifer is perhaps one of my favorite examples of the way you’ve blended real world media with your own. How did you connect each god to their pop star archetypes?

Jamie McKelvie: Kieron put together a bible which aligned each god with their popstar archetype, but that is really just a starting point. Once the character breathes on the page they inhabit their own style, that has echoes of real-world artists, but is their own thing. I don’t think of how Kanye would dress when drawing Baal—I think of how Baal would dress.

KG: It’s a complicated process. Sometimes the idea of the pop star archetype came first, and they had to be teamed up with an appropriate deity—Woden [Daft Punk] and Inanna [Prince] would be the most striking examples there. Sometimes we have a god we wanted to use, and then try to work what archetype fit best with that—Baal and Kanye would be an example there, or The Morrigan [a PJ Harvey/Patti Smith analogue]. Sometimes—most rarely—both happened simultaneously. Lucifer would be an example of that.

Sex and sexuality is often  a part of the pantheon’s expression of art. How do sex and worship intersect in this universe?

KG: This is an interesting question. I don’t think anyone’s actually asked us this before. I’m aware any answer is only going to be a fraction of the truth—in our universe, like all universes, sex is many things to many things at different times. Even asexual people have to move through a world shaped by others, who create a this topography of sex and lust for them to navigate.

As such, gods—like all of us—have their own relationship to sex. Sometimes sex can be holy; Inanna strikes me as someone who explicitly pushed the carnal and the divine closely together. Sometimes sex can be more like a symptom; there’s part of Sakhmet which can view her desires like you view (say) her alcohol abuse, in that it’s something to hide in. At the same time, perhaps more than any character, Sakhmet is aware how much sex can also be power, and power is art, and (in our universe) the art is divine.

Art is big. Art includes many things and many tactics.

You have created timeless yet modern designs for each of the gods. There seems to be a true sense of fashion and decadence tat play. Can you talk about some of your influences for their design? Who has been a favorite to work on?

JM: Once we decided we wanted to do this book, about midway through [our run on] Young Avengers, we put together a secret tumblr and pulled in any and all images that we thought might influence the look of the book. I take from everything—music is the obvious one, but fashion, tv, movies—it all goes in. Nowadays, my partner and I have a shared Pinterest board for looks we like.

Speaking of design, we’re huge fans of the in-universe magazine in issue 23 (available in The Wicked & The Divine, Vol. 5: Imperial Phase Part I). How did you develop that concept, and what was it like working with Kevin Wada to create it?

KG: Necessity is one hell of a drug. Basically, we love Kevin Wada, and he digs WicDiv, and we always wanted to do something bigger with him. The problem is he just doesn’t do traditional sequentials. I was thinking about ways in which could do an issue, and the idea of leaning into his fashion-photography vibe, and so doing a whole magazine with him illustrating it. It struck me at a con, and I ended up running over from my table to ask him at his. He said yes! The rest is history.

Everything else came from that—the original idea was simpler, with me just writing everything. The whole role-play with real journalists who then write up stuff came [though] having more thinks. That’s the joy of WicDiv. We get to run wild with our ideas.

Kevin was a dream to work with. I asked which gods he’d be interested in drawing, and then I worked out ways to centre the magazine around them. Obviously Lucifer and Inanna were a problem, but I worked out a fun way to do it. Others just came from the gods the journalists wanted to interview. He did rough plans for layouts and our wonderful designer Sergio pulled it all together.

It was a lot of work, but we’re enormously proud of it.

Mythology has been present in pop culture recently, from Marvel’s Thor franchise, through DC’s recent success with Wonder Woman and  the TV show American Gods. What are your thoughts about the new exploration into modern mythos? Does WicDiv share a realm with entertainment like American Gods?

KG: I’d say mythology tends to be reinvented and reexamined for its time, and that’s always in the mix, as shown that Thor dates from the ’60s and Wonder Woman back to WW2, and American Gods, over a decade ago (and itself, seems an expansion from Gaiman’s postmodernist fantasy approach, first seen in the created-whole-cloth of Sandman, which started back in 1989.) There’s certainly a lot of it more toward the core of mainstream culture—but that’s true of all subcultural genre art.

I wouldn’t object to anyone putting WicDiv broadly in the same space. We dig all of the above.

This book has a powerful assortment of women, queer representation, and people of color. There’s something powerful about creating gods out of these marginalized groups.

KG: This is the sort of thing you can answer with either pithy one liners or essays. I’ll try and walk the line between them.

Part of it is just opportunity. When we sat down in 2013 to build a whole new universe from scratch, we knew it was an opportunity. We love the Marvel and DC stuff, but there’s a problem there—one has roots in the 1930s and the other one, the 1960s. Social mores have changed since then, but the problem with these characters is they’re already filling niches. You can’t create a queer PoC character in the DC universe and have them be the most powerful person everyone looks up to, because that job is already taken by Superman. You have to look for spaces that aren’t filled, which almost always marginalizes newly created, already marginalized characters. I tend to describe the major superheroes like Baby Boomers—they’ve got all the cultural power, and they’re never going to retire.

So creating from scratch in 2013? We make a comic that looks like the world around us. We both live in London. We love London. There’s no reason why our comic shouldn’t look like these streets. We try to avoid talking about the book’s diversity, as we’re uncomfortable with using it as a sales or marketing angle. We’d rather just do it, because it’s the right thing to do.

However, as you say, there’s a power here. I mean, our metaphor is artists as gods. The amount of culture that is originated with queer or PoC or other marginalized creators is undeniable, and cannot be overestimated. Our book speaks to that as well. It should be said that the response we get to [it] is absolutely humbling.

Commercial Suicide may be my favorite arc. The exploration of each god’s past is a window through which we rarely get to see. Will we ever get another in-depth look at the past and growth of these characters?

KG: Thank you. Commercial Suicide is the “Bowie-in-Berlin” period of WicDiv, which some people definitely find abrasive. It’s definitely the hardcore fan’s arc.

In terms of more…well, WicDiv is a carefully structured piece. It’s meant to form a complicated hologram, with information being added all across the timeline. We just did a scene in the latest issue which showed the first performance of Baal and Sakhmet, for example, way back in 2013. So the answer would be yes, but only in so much as it illuminates the present.

Can you divulge any details on what to expect from Imperial Phase Part II? Any ideas for the next one shot?  

KG: We describe the whole of Imperial Phase as our proggy double-album stage, like when a band has had a huge hit and becomes desperately self-indulgent. That’s what it’s about—the trick is evoking that while not just doing that. Imperial Phase Part II basically brings together all the threads of destruction we’ve weaved in the first half, and brings it to a climax. The first half was singular statements, really, while this is something much more like a complicated, loud, conceptual suite that builds to a huge climax.

In other words, it’s one to sit back and turn the volume up on.

The next special will be in December, we suspect, and something different. We want to do something a little more playful, I suspect. Then we’re doing another one in February, which will be about the 1920s Jazz Age pantheon, which is so ambitious I’m more than a little intimidated. The plan remains to collect all the specials into their own trade just before the end of the series. That should be—issue 45? Something like that.

If you two had to chose a pantheon character that most resembles your cocreator, who would you chose and why?

JM: Cassandra, the ex-journalist dressed in black who can’t resist picking apart stories and trying to find the truths in them? Sounds like Kieron to me.

KG: Which god most resembles Jamie? I think in the series bible I said Persephone at certain points resembles Jamie. I think I’ll stand by that.

The Wicked + The Divine, Year Two is available now.

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