The Book Festival is almost over (there’s a gala day for children today, Tuesday) but after a busy weekend there’s still plenty to catch up on. On Saturday evening Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie were at the Scottish Power Studio Theatre to talk about their comics, including Young Avengers and Phonogram. Be warned, this post gets very involved and a bit geeky very quickly.
Young Avengers is one of those comics that even comics fans long jaded with superheroes are getting into in a big way, partly because of its irreverent, fast and funny plotting that doesn’t need much familiarity with the Marvel continuity to understand, and partly because McKelvie’s art is refreshingly clean and clear while incorporating some impressive storytelling innovations: in particular the spreads in almost every issue.
Here they took turns to show how they work with each other. Gillen went first, reading from his script for their first issue of Young Avengers, describing the first seven pages frame by frame, with a projection above him. Although not everything he asks for made it into McKelvie’s frames, we could see how his directions such as “could we have some posters on the walls, it’s owned by the sort of person who’s obsessed over a single country’s output … like that, but for the whole of Earth … with a vinyl record player given pride of place in the room” inform the flavour, giving a background for him to work from. However, the words in captions and speech bubbles are exactly as rendered in the final comic. At one point, describing a reverse shot of Kate Bishop from behind he tells McKelvie to put a smile on her face. “This is me being a really bad writer … she’s facing the wrong way …”
There was also a suggestion of the demands of writing comics for a mass market. When Marvel Boy/Noh Varr steps out of the shower, Gillen says in the script: “I’d love to have him naked but we’d need a way to make it work on the page, so … boxer shorts.”
It was a funny, engrossing way of showing the process, and one particularly telling line described how they wanted a “We3-esque” breakdown for the spread: a homage to Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s title that was mentioned a few more times in the event. He gave a long and complex description of this spread, every element of which was crammed into the pages, and he also threw in a bit of information that would only be made known to the reader about six months later, just to prepare McKelvie on his character designs.
Of the huge, “obnoxious” credits spread he said the title, Style>Substance, “works on many levels, like Dante’s Hell”. The chair, Graeme Virtue said he was glad Gillen had got that far as it is probably the only comic that has a soundtrack credit: “what Noh-Varr was playing: Be my Baby – The Ronettes”.
McKelvie said that these spreads, which feature in almost every issue are experimental and that they plan to use each idea once and then never used it again. Gillen noted: “We thought, ‘Let’s make rules for ourselves and be quite puritanical about it.'”
They discussed previous Young Avengers titles and how Gillen wasn’t keen on doing a title that would be infected by crossovers and continuity — which is perhaps why he decided to get his characters away from Earth as quickly as possible. There was also plenty about costume design and how they were both keen to evolve the costumes away from previous versions. “Everyone has their own style, I know what kind of clothes they’d wear,” noted McKelvie, “it’s not the same as other comics where everyone wears shirt and jeans when they’re out of costume.”
Also, Gillen said, the opening pages he’d just ran us through were an attempt to set out his stall from the start, almost as a test, that there should be no “sex-shaming”, that it should be “perfectly natural to wake up in a strange boy’s bed”. If Marvel would allow that he’d be fine, and they said they could cover just about any behaviour normal teenagers indulge in apart from anything illegal, notably drinking alcohol (though punching people in the face is fine). How this will play out with the promised New Year’s Eve two-parter could therefore be interesting.
Unusually, they have asked for the publication dates for an issue to be moved forward so that they can be read in subsequent weeks, with one issue just before New Year and one just after, so there will be a huge party and then an aftermath, which will involve reintroducing the characters into Marvel continuity.
McKelvie then took over and showed the evolution of a spread from issue 4 in which Noh-Varr rescues his friends from interdimensional parasite-controlled parents (yes, I know, I know, you’ll just have to read it). He said it was a homage to “that scene” in Bryan Talbot’s Luther Arkwright (I think they mean the beginning of issue 8). In trying to work out how to show the speed of the action Gillen described in the script, rather than slice time up thinly as Talbot did, they chose a top-down isometric projection of the nightclub with the progress through the room running clockwise. McKelvie went through the stages of making a wireframe model of a club layout, then realising that this left space around the edges to do close-ups of the action. In all the back-and-forth — and while choosing the record Noh-Varr pops onto the DJ decks (Young Hearts Run Free, because it starts every quickly) — Gillen admitted that he’d misunderstood one of McKelvie’s images, thinking that a lamp was a Pocket Dimension Record Storage that the record had been pulled from, and adding a label for it: “it says a lot about comics that rather than see it as a lamp you assume it’s a multidimensional pocket.”
The focus on Noh-Varr (he seems to be a pretty popular character) shifted during the questions to his record collection. Apparently Jason Aaron suggested he should be into Country but Gillen said because he’s so alien, so passionate, and has no concept of musical purity he cares more about “what would fill a dancefloor” and will listen to anything, hinting of a change of direction in the New Year story. Other questions included what it was like writing teenagers when they are both much older Gillen replied “I think I understand being 17 better now than when I was 17”.
It has to be said that for an EIBF event, this probably had the highest bar for accessibility of any of the comics events I’ve been to. Anyone in the audience who wasn’t already up to speed on their work could well have been very lost. Luckily, I don’t think anyone was left behind, as questions about the state of the comics industry showed, and the signing queue looked as if everyone at the event was a fan. It was a great insight into how comics are created, and again showed the great flexibility of the EIBF.
Oh, and hello to Martin Gray and his friend Steve, who I met in the queue. If you’re a superhero fan, you could do a lot worse than have a look Mart’s blog, Too Dangerous For a Girl. Here they are, waiting for the event.