Kieron Gillen spent his formative years working as a video game and music journalist. Somewhere around the turn of the Millennium he began writing comics, earning his stripes churning out short strips for Warhammer Monthly as well as Playstation Magazine UK. He forged a partnership with British artist Jamie McKelvie and made what he terms his 'real comics' debut with Phonogram: Rue Britannia, a pop music urban fantasy centred around the decline of Britpop.
This was soon followed by a companion series 'Phonogram: The Singles Club' in 2009. The Singles Club ranks amongst the finest serialised comics to appear this year, presenting an inventive interconnected series of stories exploring personal experience as filtered through popular music. At its core lies a simple, near self explanatory tag line: 'music is magic', and if you're a music lover yourself, I shouldn't need to offer any further explanation. Most of you will have come to Phonogram with an intrinsic understanding that music is so much more than simply songs on a silver disc.
Music is a means of communication, a rite of passage, a companion, a spell to be worked.
Music is a powerful personal experience that's unique to you.
If this all rings in your ears like the hallucinatory ramblings of some misguided coked up oracle, preaching from the urine soaked stalls of an indie club, then perhaps it's time you experienced Phonogram for yourself.
See you on the other side dear reader...
The following interview was conducted at Though Bubble Comic Convention in Leeds on 21 November 2009.
Exquisite Things: I’m very fond of the episodic nature of The Singles Club. Each issue stands alone as a single self contained story. A friend recently pointed out that the issues could be read in practically any order, yet still hang together as a cohesive whole. They’re like little self contained universes, miniature personal histories; powerful experiences all bundled into a 32 page comic. How did you first come up with the idea for The Singles Club?
Kieron Gillen: Interesting question... I think we wanted to take a drastically different approach with The Singles Club. As much as I still love Rue Britannia, the first arc of Phonogram, I wanted to get away from the fact that it was essentially 'David Kohl's Britpop adventures'. We never really wanted to be a 'Britpop comic'. We wanted Phonogram to be a comic about music, not just Britpop. So, instead of having just one key character whose perception dominated the whole thing, we decided we'd have seven different characters, spread across seven issues.
Instead of doing a comic that was retro, or about the concept of retro, we decided to make it as narrow as we could. We wanted to give it a contemporary feel, and to explore all the different ways in which music can be magic. So we set the whole thing in the same location, on the same night, and decided to switch perspectives from character to character every issue.
I think I've wanted to do something like The Singles Club ever since I was nineteen. The seeds of the idea were planted when a girlfriend asked me to write her a story, and I think I only ever got about half of it done, but it was about five people in a pub. The central premise of the things was to tell five distinct stories, all happening in the same place at the same time. I think it was the potential for different perspectives that most appealed to me. You can set things up from different viewpoints, pose questions like 'why did that character run out of the pub?'
Of course it would later transpire that the character was hallucinating... completely convinced his cheese sandwich was about to eat him.
Exquisite Things: Hah, that's great...
Keiron Gillen: I think the opening line was, "he became increasingly convinced the cheese sandwich was about to eat him". Something along those lines...
So, we ended up using a similar approach for The Singles Club, and if you're talking in terms of the bigger picture, the comic's all about subjectivity. It's about each individual's own personal response to music. That's why every issue is a stand alone entity. When you read the first few issues you begin to realise that the story's all about subjectivity...
Exquisite Things: It's about giving people limited information and then filling in the gaps.
Kieron Gillen: Yes, exactly.
Exquisite Things: I was stuck by the way it's possible to completely misinterpret events in the first issue because you're only seeing things from one person's point of view.
Kieron Gillen: It's like asking someone 'what was the gig like?' The idea that any gig is either good or bad is just a bit ludicrous, because it's an individual experience. There's an example of this in Rue Britannia where Kohl is talking about the landmark Oasis gig at Knebworth, but there never was a 'crowd', it was just a collection of individuals. Although, that said, I'm kinda coming back around the concept of crowds but in a different way. I may even do a story about that eventually... but generally speaking, crowds are never really crowds. That's what I'm interested in.
There were also some very sensible and practical reasons that we structured The Singles Club the way we did. Not all comic shops order Phonogram and not all shops end up getting every issue. Half the time, you never really know if you're going to get another issue or not, so at least this way we ensure that readers can pick up any issue and still get a full experience. If you only get issues one, four and seven, you can still start reading at issue four because each issue is a stand alone story. But every subsequent issue you read after that will change your experience of that issue.
It's a unit of culture... It's sensible decisions and stupid decisions working together in harmony.
Exquisite Things: I’ve got to admit, when Phonogram first hit the shelves with Rue Britannia I was a little put off by how closely it was tied to Britpop. You see, I grew up with heavy metal, so I never really felt connected to that particular scene. To begin with, I just assumed that all the indie music references would go straight over my head, but soon realised it wasn't essential to enjoying the book.
Regardless of the bands you reference, I still found a universal red thread that appealed to the music lover in me. In The Singles Club I could relate to Penny in issue one, I could relate to her passion for music. Sure, 'Pull Shapes' by The Pippettes doesn't do an awful lot for me, but what was great was that it didn’t really matter. The experiences you draw on are universal to music lovers regardless of taste.
What I'm trying to say is that Phonogram seems to be all about the human experience as filtered through music, that rare transcendental state that only music can provide. Is that pretty much where you’re coming from?
Kieron Gillen: Music's only really interesting in terms of what goes on inside of your head, as in the internalisation of that art form. We're not really interested in bands very much at all. What goes on in the studio is infinitely less interesting than what happens when the sound comes out of a speaker and hits your ear drum. That's what's important to us, it's the core of the book really.
Some people quite literally turn off at the band references, and I don't think it's because they don't get the references, I think sometimes people literally can't read past that. They only see the band name, they're incapable of taking a step back and accepting a references for what it is. An example. The reason we chose to use real bands was to imply that Phonogram wasn't purely fantasy, we could have just made up bands but it wouldn't have had the same impact. Using real bands allowed us to join them to real people's responses to music. We're not just talking about some magical hypothetical bands, I'm talking about Blondie. It's about how music can change your life if you let it. The transformative nature of art and music is very much part of that landscape.
Exquisite Things: As I mentioned earlier, Rue Britannia is tied very strongly to the Britpop era and despite my ambivalence towards that period, you managed to make the music scene of the mid 90s live and breathe in a very convincing manner. Now that Britpop's tombstone finally has a death date, bestowed by the long overdue breakup of Oasis, what are your thoughts on the legacy of Britpop?
Kieron Gillen: I wrote a piece in Plan B magazine, a story called Rue Britannia, which was a very cynical take on Britpop. It described Britpop as a 'cultural Hiroshima'. Yes, it was important, but it left burnt ashes in its wake. Sure, we should remember it, but not in any way try to do it again. There's a lot of that sentiment in Rue Britannia.
Exquisite Things: That idea of not looking back?
Kieron Gillen: Yes, but the comic softens that notion a bit. As in, it's not important for me, it's important for you. I think Britpop really destroyed the music scene in a lot of interesting ways. Then it simply upped and left and fucked up music, especially indie music, in a way that I don't think it's ever really recovered from in the UK. It's become acceptable to reminisce, but it's also about not forcing it down people's throats and coming to terms with the fact that it's done with. To quote kohl's last line in Rue Britannia, Britpop was "nothing important". In some ways it's about me coming to terms with that period and being able to admit that I quite liked Shed 7. I'm not embarrassed, I'm okay with that. It's okay! (Laughs)
Fuck it, it was enough to base a six issue story around. But yes, Britpop's legacy is what I'd term a 'cultural Hiroshima'. I mean Britpop basically started as a new wave art school pop revival and ended as bad stadium rock. It moved from 70s pop music to 60s pop music with the advent of Oasis, the brains were removed entirely and you were left with bad stadium rock. That whole side of it was the end for me. I stopped reading the NME in early 2000 but actually started reading it again lately and it's amazing how little their ideas have shifted since 1999.
The Libertines I think were the closet the UK indie scene came to regenerating itself. I'm not a fan by any means but they're the only thing post Britpop that's shifted the NME's ideas towards the music world at all. Britpop's legacy is a mainstream demi-indie culture that has generated the notion that recycling the Beatles is somehow inherently radical. It will get you airplay on the radio and now there's a career path for these losers. (Both laugh)
Exquisite Things: Little bit of anger there?
Kieron Gillen: Yeah, I guess so.
Exquisite Things: Actually, something I just had to ask is about the date that The Singles Club takes place on. The 23rd of December 2006, cause, strangely enough, it turns out that one of my friends was at a Pipettes' show that very night, dancing to "Pull Shapes" with the best of them. Does that date hold any significance for you?
I was in that night. Never on a Sunday, the club in which The Singles Club takes place, is actually based on a real club in Bristol called Lipstick on your collar. I didn't go to the show, I should have gone. I sat at home and imagined it. I wanted to set the comic at the end of 2006. It's a subtle thing, we actually had an alternative title, which was 'The Christmas Singles' or 'Christmas Single', which fits it in a different light .The Singles Club is almost like the alternative to a Christmas single.
Exquisite Things: Why 2006?
Kieron Gillen: It was as contemporary as we could make it. I had to set it in a certain place, and much of the inspiration for those stories happened in 2006. It was a bit of a brutal year for me, with a lot of emotional energy.
Exquisite Things: There's something quite raw about issue 5, it leaves you feeling a little on edge.
Kieron Gillen: I listened to too many Long Blondes records that issue! I think there's a kind of gas that comes off them... great band.
Exquisite Things: Yep. Kate Jackson, total minx.
Kieron Gillen: Yeah. You know, I actually split up with my girlfriend that year. We had long blondes tickets and it was pretty much the week after we split up, so we decided we'd go to the gig and be civil. Although what I'd meant to say was "I can't go with you it'd be weird', so I tried to work out how I could say that without being a cunt. Basically there was no way round it, so that was the cost; I never saw the Long Blondes live ever. So one of the costs of the break up was the long blondes gig and all the emotional baggage that came with it.
So, to come back to the point. I liked the idea of setting it just before Christmas, but no one ever mentions Christmas in the book. That the point...
Exquisite Things: I'd never even really twigged that it was set just before Christmas...
Kieron Gillen: That's it. It's the idea that any other fiction set around Christmas play up to that... 'Oh my, maybe Santa Claus will appear'. It's the exact antithesis of every fucking Christmas episode of any given series. Whilst everyone else is out shopping, these people are going out clubbing and dancing to pop music and obsessing over it. They're creating their own subjective realities and Christmas has nothing to do with that, it doesn't even register. But broadly speaking it just had to be set in 2006.
Exquisite Things: That's interesting because I constantly find myself thinking ‘where next for Phonogram?’ It’s so open ended that you could veer off in any number of different directions, any number of different eras. Have you considered exploring other areas or particular styles of music?
Personally, I'm really fascinated by the early 80s 'Industrial' scene, pardon the term. For starters, it’s a quintessentially British musical movement, and it caused more than enough commotion at the time to be interesting. I guess the music being produced mirrored the social unrest of Thatcher’s Britain, which is fascinating in itself. There’s an almost mythical, maybe even mystical status surrounding bands like Coil and TG, which seems to fit well into the Phonogram ascetic. Jhonn Balance, Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson, Genesis… all phonomancers if you ask me. Hell, when Coil released 'Time Machines' John Balance casually commented that the album was intended to ‘dissolve time’.
Would you be interested in exploring other scenes or eras of music in Phonogram?
Kieron Gillen: I'd love to do it. I mean, I'd really like to read that comic, but I'm not sure that I'm the one to write it. With Phonogram, I know every single detail, because I'm drawing from my own experience. For instance, I'd love to do something about Hip-Hop, but it would be a case of looking at it from the perspective of say someone growing up in a rural community in the UK and coming into contact with the music of the The Wu Tang clan, the kind of impact that would have. For me, I really have to have some experiences, or the experiences of close friends to draw from.
I think there's still a lot of territory we could explore with Phonogram but this it's unlikely we'll continue after The Singles Club. Sadly, I think this may be the last series of Phonogram you'll ever see.
Exquisite Things: Sorry to hear that. It would be a real shame to see it end with the current run.
Kieron Gillen: Yes, yes it would, but Jamie and I didn't exactly eat well when we were doing Phonogram and we only just managed to make ends meet. Our sales have remained steady but they haven't grown from the first book to the second. Ideally we'd love to do two more story arcs, but right now I just don't see it happening.
Hypothetically, I'd like to do something about feminine identity and 80s pop music, looking at reality from that perspective. Then, I'd also like to look at what kohl was up to between 1991-1994. After that I think I'd be getting a bit too old to be writing Phonogram. I think you need to be really bang on with the characterisation to make it work. Writing people in their late teens actually scares the living shit out of me. I'm fine with structure and plotting, that just requires a bit of thinking, but actually writing teenagers without being fucking offensive, that's a hard thing to do. No one's ever said anything about it being wrong so far, and that makes me very happy.
So, that was our initial plan. Four solid albums and then maybe a B-Sides and rarities collection, much like the Smiths. After the fourth volume we'd hand Phonogram over to other artists to writers and let them do their own Phonogram stores. You know New York Mech?
Exquisite Things: Yeah.
Kieron Gillen: Outside the regular comic they did two anthologies, and got a load of friends to do stories. We'd be looking to do the same, just spin it off and allow others to explore different aspects of the Phonogram universe. It's always been about individual experiences, so it would be great to see other people inject their own into a Phonogram story.
Exquisite Things: Moving away from your work on Phonogram for the moment, you recently landed a gig at Marvel writing Thor and Dark Avengers: Ares. Congratulation on that. How have you found adjusting from writing creator owned material to such a high profile superhero comic like Thor?
Kieron Gillen: Loving it. It's like using a different part of my brain. I tend to write Phonogram drunk and then edit it heavily. With the Marvel stuff I take a far more clinical approach. I think very carefully about the characters, what they're going to do and what emotions might result from that. I'm enjoying it a lot, it's the challenge of it that I really enjoy. It's not like I've gone to Marvel and said, can I pitch X or Y character. I try not to think about other people's character unless they ask me too, because thinking about characters you don't own is a waste of time. You may not be able to do anything with those stories.
Exqusite Things: I guess there's always the danger of the 'the big reset button', which will invariably be pushed at some point...
Kieron Gillen: The reset button doesn't actually bother me all that much, it's the fact that if I waste time thinking about a Superman story, firstly it's a story I may never get to tell and secondly, it's stopping me thinking about other stuff. So, I try and stay focused on those things I actually control or work on things that I'm given. For instance, with Marvel it's normally like "any ideas of Ares? We want to do an Ares mini, got any ideas?". Then my mind starts working. What would I do with Ares? What's the character about? What would interest the readers, and what would interest me? You have to think about both sides of the equation, if you don't do one there's no audience, if you don't do the other you'll end with a book that's no good. If you don't do both you end up with a book no one will give a toss about.
With Ares, the interesting aspect for me was taking a character who represents the personification of an age of war which is pretty much dead. It's the core idea that in combat you'd be standing eye to eye with your foe, even soldiers these days don't get that close.
Exquisite Things: As opposed to today's modern warfare that's frequently fought at a safe distance?
Kieron Gillen: Yes. Take Athena, she was the god of pressing buttons. Ares was the god of pulling out eyes. I think we should be glad that age of war is over, it was fairly brutal. So, I see Ares as the personification of that age, and I thought it might be interesting to pit him against the modern military. The second aspect of the character I wanted to tackle was his desire to change. He's got a relationship with his son, but it's a tricky thing. He obviously cares about him deeply but what does that mean? How can the personification of essentially 'a really bad attitude' build a relationship with his son? These are the kind of questions that interest me.
The thought process is all about sitting down and dissecting the emotional make up of your cast, that's the angle I come at it from. In the process, you also discover a lot about yourself and why you're doing it. So far it's been an incredible job that I've really enjoyed doing. The pay's good and I actually thrive on the pressure of working to deadlines. I've been a journalist for ages so it's almost second nature now.
Exquisite Things: I wanted to ask you about the comics industry in general, more specifically about the distribution of comics. In recent times we’ve begun to see a gradual shift towards comics using digital distribution systems. Although we’re nowhere near the kind of paradigm shift the music industry has undergone, we are slowly beginning witness some changes. With the advent of systems like Longbox how do you see online comics distribution panning out over the coming years? In other words, in five years time do you think there'll still be a market for pamphlet style comics?
Kieron Gillen: I wouldn't be foolish enough to try and predict the way things might go.
Exquisite Things: But in terms of your own experience, how do you see things going? You mentioned earlier that Phonogram likely won't have a third series because of financial pressures.
Kieron Gillen: Not in singles anyway. Phonogram might be the last great single issue comic. The final issue's going to be incredible, we've really gone to town on it. We'll go out with a big a big 'Fuck You'! And goodnight!
In the final issue everything explodes! (both laugh)
Exquisite Things: Pyrotechnics! Fist pumping adrenaline!
Kieron Gillen: Exactly! Good evening Leeds! Are you read to ROCK? ... No... no you're not... there's only four of you here. Shit...
Exquisite Things: The whole crowd stood with folded arms, looking fashionably disinterested.
Kieron Gillen: Anyhow, where were we? Ah, yes, online distribution. I think it will really help the 'mid list' comics. I think a lot of indy books will have real trouble selling in floppies, and floppies for all intents and purposes are really an extended advert for the trade. There are definitely areas where there's no reason not to go online, backed up by a printed collections. With Phonogram, if we were actually making enough money off the trade just to sustain it, that would be fine. On the other hand, we put a lot of effort into the floppies.
Exquisite Things: I guess it comes back to the 'back matter' as Warren Ellis termed it. Those mini essays at the back of each issue really add a lot to the book. We've seen it with Fell, Casanova, Criminal, and these are the comics that people who care about quality pick up.
Kieron Gillen: Yes, but the problem with that theory is that it makes very little difference to us, commercially speaking. We put in all the effort creating the comic, but the audience has remained exactly the same. We've analysed this for years, and the wierd thing about it is that we sold about 4000 of the first issue of The Singles Club but Suburban Glamour's first issue sold 6000, despite the fact that Phonogram sold so many more in trade than Suburban Glamour.
So why is that? It would be safe to assume that a great many shops simply didn't up their orders, or that they didn't care or simply weren't paying attention. All the effort we put in doesn't really fucking matter. The thing is, back matter is great, lots of people like it but I don't think it sells comics. I feel good doing it and people who buy the book get more out of it as a result. However, I don't think it has the slightest bit of impact on how many copies shops order us.
Exquisite Things: It's very much down to shops acknowledging and recognising quality, then actively promoting that to their customers. You don't see that everywhere. There are a few shop that do it but it's the exception rather than the rule.
Kieron Gillen: There are a lot of wonderful shops out there that have been very supportive, but there are just as many that simply don't care. I just think the general trend that we'll see emerging will be singles as an art object. You'll be selling to those people who want an art curio. I think singles will continue for some time yet because people like the object, it's how they like to buy comics. If you're on the web you're not creating an object.
Saying that, I do hope Longbox is a success because our biggest problem is distribution. Some people who want Phonogram simply can't get hold of it. If people can just click a button, well, that breaks down a lot of barriers. Equally, web to print is very interesting. People in a load of shops tell me that Freakangels is Warren's best selling trade at Avatar.
Exquisite Things: Somehow that doesn't surprise me. It's an interesting model, if people like an online comic most of them will shell out for the hard copy collection. Sure, web comics are accessible to everyone at no cost, but there's still that desire to own the tangible product. I'm still like that with it comes to buying music.
Kieron Gillen: It's interesting to look at the long term on these things. I have a lot of friends who do webcomics and it's intriguing to compare what they're doing with traditional cartoonists. They're used to getting paid for the work they do, but with webcomics there's no immediate pay out. It's all about the merchandising. People who do webcomics are quite happy being businessmen, where as old school comic artists are more than content to just be artists. This is where the problem arises, if creators aren't particularly business minded, they'll never ever do web comics.
Take someone like Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, we'll never see anyone like that emerge through web comics. Never. He believed that any merchandising detracted from the work, it just didn't appeal to him on any level. Evolution doesn't necessarily imply direction, it's just what's happening right now and that's the problem with the web comics model.
You need to be doing a certain type of comic for it to work on the web. There needs to be a certain critical mass or saturation point for it to work and not everything is suited to the web. If social trends continue to change over the next ten years maybe people will become increasingly disinterested in physical collections. It's hard to predict how things will go, but if people do stop buying books, then that's one source of income that dries up for writers and artists.
Exquisite Things: Finally, to round things up in true Phonogram fashion, what's been on heavy rotation on your stereo?
Kieron Gillen: End of year so I always try to do some manner of list. I'm back into the xx album. I went through a worrying obsession over Florence & The Machine. I like the Pains of being Pure at Heart a lot.
Indie nonsense, basically. Same as it ever was.
Interview by Matthew Dick, 2009. More information on Phonogram can be found here. Kieron Gillen's workblog lives here, Jamie McKelvie's is here.