'Most of our favourite new artists are queer or people of colour'; Kieron Gillen on representation in comics

The writer behind a range of Marvel comics talks representation and the opportunities to portray trans identities.

Animated comics cover featuring various superheroes

“I’m like a messiah,” proclaims Kieron Gillen at the end of our chat. He clearly says it in jest (“If you quote that,” he adds, “please say, ‘Kieron says extremely sarcastically, eye-roll at himself, oh fuck, Kieron thinks he’s a messiah’.”) but for a writer on such a successful trajectory, his lack of bravado is almost surprising. With an esteemed career in comics writing, including highly-acclaimed Marvel series such as Young Avengers and Darth Vader, as well as creator-owned sensations The Wicked + The Divine and Phonogram, Gillen has been at the forefront of creating immersive fantasy worlds, with inclusive, grounded casts, in comics for almost 15 years.

I sat down with Gillen in Big Bang Comics, Dundrum, at a launch event for the first volume of his new comic Die. It follows six characters who, as teenagers, disappeared into the world of the titular role-playing game that they played, only to reappear two years later unable to talk about what they had experienced. The book picks up 25 years later, as the group is reluctantly reunited by a grim delivery and forced to face the decisions they made as their younger selves. ‘Goth Jumanji’, is the oft-quoted summary of the book, and the stunning artwork by Stephanie Hans and lettering by Clayton Cowles bring that vision into reality. 

Die’s premise acts as a meta-narrative: a fantasy comic in which the characters inhabit their own fantasy world, allowing Gillen to explore more deeply how people relate to the genre and opening up opportunities for delving into gender presentation within the book. “Fantasy is a loaded word because you hear it said that how people are in their fantasies implies the fantasies aren’t real,” he explains. “Fantasies are a testbed for thinking about who you are, all fantasy is thinking. It’s the first form of expression: anybody can think of themselves into being a certain way.” 

Perhaps the clearest embodiment of this is Dominic, the narrator character for the first volume, who presents within the game world as a woman named Ash. “I know there are a lot of trans women who respond to Ash in that way, as trans people often use RPGs to explore their identity,” Gillen tells me, “and as a process of coming out. Part of that coming out story has often appeared in there. So that’s definitely in the mix.”

The exploration of how people choose to express themselves goes one step further than Gillen’s previous work, such as The Wicked + The Divine (commonly called ‘WicDiv’), which began five years ago, and whose creative team included longtime collaborators – artist Jamie McKelvie, colourist Matt Wilson, and lettering again by Cowles. WicDiv centres on a set of 12 gods — who also happen to be pop stars — who return to Earth every 90 years through the bodies of young people. Within two years of each re-appearance, they all die. 

Cassandra, a member of the press covering the events of WicDiv is revealed early on to be a trans woman, but Gillen’s aim with her portrayal was different to that of Ash. ”Cassandra’s trans identity wasn’t the story: she’s a trans person going through things. Her identity impacts her, how she experiences the story and how she relates to godhood and all these kind of things, but her function in the story is as someone who is really, deeply just cynical,” he tells me. “Ash’s story is much more close to actually examining how people approach gender, and think about gender and feel about gender. I want to write about that in a more explicit way than I have before.”

Gillen attributes that ability to dive deeper into exploring gender presentation and identification to two reasons. The first of these is how a change in popular discourse has been reflected in stories. ‘When the first Young Avengers came out [in 2005], it took forever to get to the first Billy / Teddy kiss, I don’t think they said they were explicitly together to begin with,” he recalls. “In the first issue of Young Avengers we did [in 2013], immediately they kiss and by the end of the arc, it’s a majority queer superhero team. And that’s at Marvel!”

The nature of creating comics, especially compared to traditional forms of media, also allows for less risk and greater freedom to explore new ideas. “Comics are agile, comics are made by small teams, and comics are made with relatively little oversight. You can say ‘Okay, we should do this, so let’s do this’,” he explains. “Films are like Titanic, it’s a thing going in one direction. In comics, we can throw ideas up really quickly. I can have an idea now, and have it out in three or four months time. I never do that — Die was over two years in development before it came out — but you can!”

“I think when WicDiv came out, the conversation was much more about representation full stop, and representation in the cast not necessarily in the creators,” he continues. “A lot of it is money. I think people should spend money on people. On WicDiv, the team is who they are but when we’re hiring other people — well it’s interesting, most of our favourite new artists are queer or people of colour, that’s just the way it is. But also to try to put money into people who look more like the characters.”

WithWicDiv drawing to an end next month, it’s clear to see how that goal has manifested itself. Amongst the 12 gods are a large number of explicitly queer characters and relationships. While they will all die — a fact that Gillen is keen to stress is “explicitly upfront: it’s a warning sign, we’re not going to twist you, and their deaths are nothing to do with their identity” — the series has allowed space for numerous writers and artists to leave their mark on the expansive cast and explore the diversity of queer stories. 

“The more stories with queer characters and explicitly queer stories that are available in a wider cultural context, the more the conversation around them will become easier in some ways, I hope. I say that and it sounds incredibly callow, but it’s always my optimistic hope,” he explains. “Fundamentally recognising our shared humanity as people, and these are important and not small things, and holding on to them especially in times as politically grim as they are now, is really important.”

Does he ever worry about facing the types of backlash or attempted campaigns that have been seen in video games, or against more inclusive superhero films like Black Panther or Captain Marvel? “I think the books tend to be complicated enough to be quite hard to dismiss with a knee jerk, and also as a white guy I get less shit full stop,” he explains. His concern appears to lie more with the audience he wants to write for: “It’s far easier to be called a shithead by a thousand people than have two people you actually agree with hate you,” he says. “I’m much more worried about how my work is taken by people who I consider fellow travellers than people who were never going to enjoy it. I’m idealistic enough to think ‘maybe this will reach them, maybe this will get through to them, maybe then can be saved. Because I’m like a messiah. Nothing special, I’m just a messiah,” he jokes.

Die Volume 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker’ is available now, published by Image Comics. ‘The Wicked + The Divine Volume 9: Okay’ is available 11 September, with previous volumes available now, published by Image Comics. 

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