‘Wicked + Divine’ creator talks David Bowie, Twitter hate mobs, and the TV adaptation

Every 90 years, 12 gods are reincarnated into the bodies of young people. These gods become the ultimate pop stars, adored and hated by their fans. Then, after two years, they are dead.

That”s the premise of British writer Kieron Gillen”s The Wicked + The Divine. In this Image Comics urban fantasy series, the 12 gods in the Pantheon take varying levels of influence from real music artists, from Florence Welch to Kanye West to David Bowie. But Gillen jokes that he could have had every god in the Pantheon derived from a different identity of the ever-self-reinventing Bowie.

Gillen was in awe of Blackstar, Bowie”s final album before his death this January, and also of how the album-as-a-goodbye is strikingly similar to what his fictional characters are going through.

“[Wicked + Divine“s] concept is you have two years to live as an artist – what are you going to do with that time? That”s literally what Bowie had. In a very weird way, the entire concept of the book is what Bowie went through,” Gillen observed.

His Bowie-influenced character is Lucifer a.k.a. Luci. Specifically, she”s channeling Thin White Duke-era Bowie. (It”s not the first time the rock superstar influenced a comic book take on the Devil – Neil Gaiman”s Lucifer character in The Sandman was also very Bowie and very intentionally so.)

Though Bowie and glam rock is a major influence on Wicked + Divine, ultimately it”s a series about 21st century celebrity and modern interaction between celebrities and their fans.

They say writing about music is like dancing about architecture. But Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie have taken on that challenge with two series: both The Wicked + The Divine and Phonogram, another Image title by the duo, where music fans are phonomancers whose obsession with music holds magical power. Gillen and McKelvie are the guys behind an acclaimed run of Marvel”s Young Avengers, and Gillen also writes Marvel”s Star Wars: Darth Vader series.

Wicked + Divine“s 19th issue – the second in its fourth arc, Rising Action – hit shelves this week. Also recently released is the Book One hardcover that collects issues 1-11 and also features bonus commentary and art by Gillen and McKelvie.

I talked with Gillen via FaceTime – at one point, as he carried his laptop around his house, I got a glimpse of his enviable several shelves of records. We talked about some of the music on those records and what he has on his WicDiv playlist. Other things we delved into in a broad-reaching conversation about the comic: how the book”s colorist pushes the boundaries of what comics can do, what long-awaited answers we”ll get in the upcoming issue 20, and how the groundwork laid for the issue about the god plagued by an Internet hate mob is just as important as that issue itself.

We also have your exclusive first look at a gorgeous and deliciously Greek mythology-referencing variant cover for issue 20 with art by Jenny Frison.

Check out this HitFix interview with Gillen below. Fair warning: There are some spoilers ahead for Wicked + Divine through issue 18.

HitFix: Why was this a story you wanted to tell?

Kieron Gillen: Our plan after doing Avengers was to go back to Phonogram and finish that off. About halfway through Avengers we realized, “That would be a very bad idea. Phonogram never sells.” [ed note: Phonogram has found a larger audience following the popularity of Wicked + the Divine.] Avengers is a book about the future and the idea that we should try to do new things. “What would Jack Kirby do? Jack Kirby would make up something else.”

The week after my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer [in 2013], I had the idea, this idea of gods reincarnating as young people and dying after two years as a way to basically focus the attention on why the hell are we alive anyway, what is it all for? I really hate telling this origin story because a) it”s so grim and b) it involves me sort of talking about this again, and it just always feels slightly exploitative. But it was kind of my immediate response to death and the transitory nature of life and why the hell are you alive anyway.

The book”s about death but also about 21st century celebrity and fandom. Were you aiming to be critical or celebratory of that celeb-fan connection, or a combination of both?

The people who don”t quite get the series, they don't quite get our ambivalence. Is it meant to be a satire? Is it meant to be a celebration? Of course, it”s both and neither. There”s the implicit idea that these people are important. They”re not famous just for being just famous. They”re actually doing work that changes other people's lives even if other people don”t necessarily understand that. At the same time, they are of course enormous f–k-ups and egomaniacs. We don”t really let them off the hook with that. 

Credit: Image Comics

What concerts or other music experiences have had the greatest impact on Wicked + Divine?

I”ve actually got a playlist for Wicked + Divine, which I think is just 345 [songs] long at the moment. It”s basically my working sheet of almost any song that”s impacted this book or what I”m trying to evoke in the book. One of the first images of the entire series was the first issue when we”ve got Laura in the crowd and Amaterasu onstage. And the image came to me as I was listening to Florence and the Machine.

There”s probably an influence of me seeing Robyn in Brixton. And Chvrches. Jamie”s especially close friends with Chvrches, and I know them. That was done the same weekend as London Super Comic Con, which is basically what I”m drawing upon for issue 7 of WicDiv when they go to the con. I went from this con – which is much more delightful than I wrote in the book – then I went to this gig where I saw people I knew onstage in front of a really large audience for that and being aware of that transformative nature there.

The Kate Bush gigs she did in London. She had her long residence there. Me and Jamie went there – it was magical. It was almost as if we felt she was trolling us. Cause we”d already started WicDiv by then. But she was using lots of raven imagery throughout. There”s bits where she could basically be cosplaying the Morrigan.

Credit: Image Comics

Did you see how Florence Welch reacted to seeing WicDiv in NME?

Yes, we read that. We”re very glad she didn't want to sue us. It was “oh yeah, she kind of got it,” which was nice. With Florence, there”s a lot of the Druidic imagery going around and the sacrifices and costs and gifts and prices and all that, and that”s WicDivs themes. That”s probably the closest me and Jamie will ever get to being on the cover of NME. We”re in the first paragraph of a cover feature. Pretty astounding.

Credit: Image Comics

There”s a lyric in Muse”s “Undisclosed Desires” that goes “You trick your lovers that you”re wicked and divine.” Coincidence?

We were unaware of that lyric. I don”t know about Jamie, but I”m not a big Muse fan. I used to have a girlfriend who really liked them, therefore I kind of trolled them a bit. I had a really nasty trolling, teasing streak, which is not my best thing. We became aware of that record after it came out – partially cause of our ego-serving typing [Wicked + Divine into search engines].

You”re dealing with really trippy stuff in WicDiv, pushing the envelope with what can be accomplished with lighting and a sense of movement on the page. In general, how do you communicate all that to Jamie and Matt?

Matt [Wilson] is such an incredibly versatile colorist. “Madder, wilder, don”t be afraid to turn up the volume.” Matt got into the distortion effects. Certain issues where we really push into the red, like the Dionysus dance issue. That”s one where we really used colorist as lead instrument is a good way of putting it. Jamie”s very good at drawing for the colorist. The actual thing that people will be paying the most attention to [in that issue] will be the colors. That Dionysus issue – it”s meant to be the dance issue. It moves in a rhythm. It”s the ecstasy hit of it all. It”s about color and shape and the rise and the fall. There”s a bit where it all drops, in a sense, and then the music comes back. The ebb and flow of creating different palettes in every page that kind of take you on that synesthetic journey – that”s stuff you talk about in a script and you throw in as an idea, but then everyone bounces stuff back and the forth. 

Credit: Image Comics

It very much is a place to experiment. I said this to a friend recently who is about to start doing an Image book – the great thing about Image is you kind of make your own rules. There”s things with Wicked + Divine we wouldn't get away with most other places. Obviously the apex of that was issue 14 when we did the Woden issue, and the whole issue is recut-up previous stuff. That”s the full DJ remix culture issue. And it really looks like a new issue.

We got a few more – quite often we have an experimental motif running through what we do. But we definitely have some other really big kind of weird stuff. We”ve done at least two “here is our fancy, formless piece of nonsense.” [Laughs] It”s fun.

What are some other really experimental issues you have planned?

We don”t like to say what they are because it”s the surprise when you open the issue and you see them. Issue 23 – that”s the next one which we think is unusual. [The series” third arc,] Commercial Suicide, was quite experimental [featuring a different guest artist for each issue]. Bowie in Berlin is the way I often think about it. Well, the next arc, [Rising Action,] is like Let”s Dance. It”s like Taylor Swift”s “Bad Blood” video for five issues. It”s lots of explosions. If something can explode, it will explode. So the next one is just full-on.

I”m guessing David Bowie”s death hit you pretty hard.

So many creators and writers I know, they sort of used it as a wake up call. They found themselves focusing their drive. They wanted to do more, up their game. As much as it”s been a shock, there”s also been the awe and admiration for them. Blackstar“s actually an amazing album. He saw death loom and he made it a work of art.

[ed note: Wicked + Divine also features a character with clear Prince influence named Inanna, though HitFix talked with Gillen before Prince”s passing.]

Tell me about creating the look for the pages where Ananke is awakening these gods.

We wanted to make a mythology. It”s ritual. The dialogue”s always the same but it”s also personalized to you. So yeah. We knew we needed to be big, and we knew we needed to be repeated. The idea of falling – it was especially appropriate with Lucifer. It”s also about efficiency. We can reuse that page. We change the coloring, and we change the character falling, but we can reuse that and it”s still effective. 

Credit: Image Comics

Were there any gods you were hoping to include or gods on which to base these characters that didn”t work with the story or didn”t make the cut?

I went through a mass market dictionary encyclopedia of gods, about 5,000 gods – I went thru other books as well, I stress – but this encyclopedia, I just went through the whole thing. I”m a guy who likes my mythology anyway, so I knew a lot of them. But I just wanted to have it all in front of me and go, “oh that”s interesting. That”s interesting.” There was one Siberian god that was worshipped for about 100 years. I quite fancied that one, I forget the name. I quite liked the idea of using one no one”s ever heard of. There was quite a lot of gods I played with but I decided I just didn”t want to use, like South American gods, Native American gods. I just didn”t think I had any right to touch them.

Probably the biggest one I thought about using but decided not to was Loki. My original thought was that Lucifer was going to be Loki, and of course I would kill Loki off. With my history, that”s loaded. [Laughs] and I decided too parasitic. I”m a guy who likes my meta. But that felt too much.

The end of the second arc, that cliffhanger with Laura – do you know what you did to your fans with that?

We are awful.

It was so frustrating! And we still don”t know what really happened to Laura/Persephone in her backyard.

I thought I was gonna have to do it in 19. But no, it”s not in 19 either. Issue 20 is the one where we finally tell what happened. We”re awful, awful people.

Credit: Image Comics

Waiting to find out what happens next, the wait through the flashbacks and spinoff stories of the third arc – what fan response did you get to that? Did it change as they read more of Commercial Suicide?

WicDiv always has interesting, complicated responses. There”s definitely some people that get frustrated. We called the arc Commercial Suicide because we were aware that it could be commercial suicide. “This could be a really bad idea.” But we knew that we wanted to do other stuff. The book exists in Laura”s shadow. She”s often not talked about directly, as much as it is clearly about her.

What probably helped was issue 13 and 14 are probably the best we”ve done. The Tara issue, despite having relatively little to do with the rest of the plot  people responded enormously to that. And the Woden issue was also kind of like a “wow” issue. Probably the fact that those were as well-received as they were helped us get through it.

The response to [issue] 11 was astounding though. I don”t know how many people tweeted us per day, but it was constant and long and it just went, “You did what? What?” 

I wanna talk about the Tara issue – what inspired you to tell a story about hate mobs on social media? Was that prompted by Gamergate at all?

I have really mixed feelings about the issue. We were aware that it was going to be very good or really, really bad. Of course, if it were really bad, we would have just killed the issue cause this is too important. It”s an issue that people have powerful responses to. It”s also an issue I wish I never wrote – as in, I wish I didn't have to write that issue. I wouldn't want to give Gamergate sole credit. That would give them undue importance. At the same time, I do know a lot of people who were harassed severely by Gamergate.

Credit: Image Comics

Ever since the start of WicDiv, did you know this was the story you would tell for “f—ing Tara”?

Yep. By issue 1 I knew it. The first time I used “f—ing Tara” I knew I was going to do it, or I knew I had the opportunity to do it. It”s very easy to pick up the Tara issue and say it”s just about a mob and she”s being assaulted. Of course, that”s definitely there. But the other thing that we did all the way through the first 12 issues when we have the #F—ingTara tag. Laura hates her. Lucifer hates her. You end up sort of laughing along with it. And then when you get issue 13, you realize, “Oh, I”m complicit.”

The set-up for the Tara issue is as important as the Tara issue. It”s simultaneously a standalone issue and also an issue that changes entirely in the context of the series. Whilst a cathartic story about how Internet hate mobs are bad would have been of some use, we were interested in doing something a bit more – 'cautionary' is probably the wrong word, but more awareness of “do not think you”re better than this.” We should really question our own individual power. 

The series has been optioned for a TV show. What”s the status of that, and what”s your involvement?

It”s optioned. It”s with Universal. It”s in the position of trying to find the right talent for it. It”s something that me and Jamie, as much as we”re interested in it, we”re also primarily concentrated on getting the book done. [The husband-wife team developing the TV adaptation,] Matt [Fraction] and Kelly Sue [DeConnick] are enormously talented. They”re two of my favorite writers. They”re definitely good people to be involved in it.

One major challenge with the adaptation is the music. How do you live up to or convey on TV music that is a sexual and religious experience?

You can”t make music so good it makes you cum. That music doesn”t exist. Sadly. I have some thoughts on how you could do it. At least part of me would argue, what you do is you use music all the way through the show, but when you do the performances you use no music, you drop all sound, you do it purely visually, and you make it all special effects. Some of the stuff Hannibal did – you do it like that weirdness, and then you cut back to reality. If somebody came to me saying, “We just downplay the gods” performance powers a bit,” there”s also that [possibility].

How many issues total will the series be?

We used to say between 30 and 60. My guess now has actually narrowed a bit. I reckon between 40 and 50. In terms of my actual narrative, the end of this arc, issue 22 is about the halfway point.

And as well as the main story, we”ll do specials set in different periods. We”re gonna do an 1830s Romantic poets pantheon. I think that”s gonna be the first one. And that”ll be Stephanie Hans drawing it. That”ll be Byron, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, possibly Keats. I might get Blake in there. But we”ll do a few of those, getting a chance to expand the world in a different way. 

HitFix-exclusive reveal of The Wicked + The Divine issue 20 alternate cover by Jenny Frison. Credit: Image Comics

And what can you tease for me about issue 20 and what we”ll learn about what really happened to Laura and how things will be between Persephone, Baphomet, and the Morrigan moving forward?

The question is what could make Baphomet and Laura sleep together? And where has Laura been? Issue 20 is basically “where has Laura been?” What”s Laura been up to for three months? Well, evidently, she”s been doing a lot of crunches. She has some serious abs now!

Issue 19 of The Wicked + The Divine is available now in comic book stores and digitally. Issue 20 will be released on June 8.