Kieron Gillen on the Origin, Rebirth and Closure of his Comics Treatise on Music Worship, Phonogram

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Music is magic, or so the idiom goes. Whether through its ability to transport the listener through time, to a place or a feeling, music has a tendency to bypass other sensorial hurdles and stay there. For some, this is enough; we all live with music in our lives one way or another, and to a large group of people, the experience and its default boundaries are as fulfilling as need be. For others, however, music can become an obsession—and it’s through this definition we enter the world of writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie’s Phonogram.

Debuting in August 2006, Phonogram is the story of how a certain set of addictive personalities allow the power of music to transform their lives, harnessing this magic for their own gain. Since the debut of first volume Rue Britannia, Gillen and McKelvie have become one of the most well-known duos in comics; with colorist Matt Wilson joining them in 2008 for the follow up miniseries, The Singles Club, they’ve become a nearly unstoppable comics-creating machine, with a popular and successful run at Marvel on Young Avengers and their new series of pop icon gods, The Wicked + The Divine, which was recently optioned by Universal for a TV series.

Now the team travels back to its roots for a story teased in 2006 (Phonogram V1 #3) and announced in 2009 (Phonogram v2 #3), now resolved in The Immaterial Girl, the story of new protagonist ,Phonomancer Emily Aster, as she goes to war with Claire, an aspect of Emily’s personality that she literally sacrificed to a god on the other side of her own reflection.


With The Immaterial Girl debuting Wednesday, Paste chatted with Kieron Gillen about the latest and the last Phonogram, its origins, its rebirth and its eventual release.

Paste: I re-read Phonogram v2 #3, “We Share Our Mother’s Health” this morning. It was a really interesting experience because back in that 2009 issue, you started teasing everything for The Immaterial Girl.
Kieron Gillen: Yes—it’s what we in the business call “foreshadowing.” [Laughs]

Paste: I also enjoyed that it references a different title for the book as, which was The Word “Girl.”
Gillen: We changed that. I don’t use many lyrics as titles outside of Phonogram. I explicitly don’t let myself do it. A couple of them snuck into The Wicked + The Divine as chapter titles, but generally speaking I don’t let myself do it. I think it’s overused as a technique. However, with Phonogram, the fact that each one of our volumes had an original title: Rue Britannia wasn’t a quote from a record, or The Singles Club. It’s something we could own. The Word “Girl” was of course a reference to the song by Scritti Politti, and the song is very explicitly an analysis and deconstruction of the word “girl,” and what that even means; whilst that’s very applicable to the book, I’d rather have something original. And I was just walking through town one day and thought, “Oh, The Immaterial Girl. That’s perfect.” There’s a lot of a Madonna in here.

Paste: And it has that aspect of referencing music without being the direct title of a song as well.
Gillen: Exactly. And same with Rue Britannia. It’s a riff on something else, but all of Phonogram is a riff.

Paste: Looking back to 2009 where there were plans for the third volume, not in terms of specifics, but how did the ideas of the story grow between then and now, six years later?
Kieron Gillen: It’s tricky. The core remains; it was always kind of a war of personality between Emily and the Girl in the Mirror. It was always about music videos, it was always about our take on that as a major motif. But with the specifics, it always comes from when it’s actually set. I realized at least part of it was set in 2009, but before then I played with different settings and times by going through my life and trying to figure out the right time to do it. I remember a particular Amanda Palmer gig I went to here in London, and I worked out how to use Amanda Palmer here in the book at a certain point, but then of course Neil came out on stage, and I thought, “Oh, I can’t have fucking Neil Gaiman in my fucking Phonogram comic.”

So you flirt around with it, but now that I know where it’s set the main stuff comes from there, the 2009 of it all. As I say in the back of the comic, a variety of things happened in 2009 as an incredibly fantastical backdrop, but it’s nothing to do with anything that happened in real life. I suppose that’s the main change, the general sweep of it all, but otherwise I remain pretty constant.

Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #1 Interior Art by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson

Paste: One thing that I found fascinating in revisiting Phonogram, at least with Rue Britannia, is that the book starts as “David Kohl’s story.” He’s the main character, everything revolves around him, and we meet all these fantastical characters including Emily, but it’s still “David Kohl’s story.” Singles Club less so—we focus on different people per issue—but there’s still a little bit that feels that, even with David Kohl in the background, it still feels like it’s his world. The Immaterial Girl is not; this is Emily Aster’s story, so how does that change the dynamic for how you approach Phonogram?
Gillen: In some ways it’s a shame that so little Phonogram exists. In my head, it is much more complicated and variable. The fact that the canon — ugh, there’s a word — is so relatively limited means that everything in it is much more important. Explicitly, The Singles Club was an attempt to blow up everything in Rue Britannia in that this isn’t really David Kohl’s Brit-Pop adventures anymore; that’s not what Phonogram is; it’s what that story was. Singles Club was multiple leads, multiple settings, anti-retro and as contemporary as we could make it at the time. Especially when we had the B-Sides, the back-up comics in every issue, it was meant to explode the idea of what Phonogram could be. We always said that if we did a story set in the middle ages, we could do it justifiably after The Singles Club.

The fact that we aren’t doing anymore Phonogram after this… well, no significant Phonogram anyway, but while Emily Aster is the lead, more stuff gets warped. We tried to make it more of an explicit trilogy, and all the major characters who had any significant story arc left get to have it in this story. Issue #4 is Laura and Lloyd, it’s explicitly a Laura/Lloyd issue, and Kohl obviously plays a back-up character now similar to the role that Emily played to him in Rue Britannia. He’ll still get his “end of an arc” between that and the B-Sides, though.

Is it Gibson that said, “a writer never actually learns how to write books, you learn how to write the book you’re currently writing”? That’s kind of what it feels like. There’s a lot of stuff we wanted to use, a mixture of autobiography and absolutely fantastical bullshit. How do I best arrange this material in a way that vaguely holds together? [Laughs] Phonogram is weird, at least compared to The Wicked + The Divine, and WicDiv occasionally loses people by being a bit weird. Then there’s Phonogram, which is so off the chart batshit.

Paste: I also think, it’s appropriate when we look at Phonogram as your first big comic, at least in terms of bringing people into the Gillen/McKelvie dynamic, as it were. Now time has passed, you can put a stamp on it with all of the things you’ve learned or been influenced by since.
Gillen: I’ve said this before, I think, but Phonogram 3 is a missing link of a book. I wrote it all before Young Avengers; these six issues technically existed before I wrote any of Young Avengers, and it has just been sort of sitting there. Jamie even did the first three pages of the book before starting Young Avengers. If anyone did a history of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie as a collaboration, or at least if you kind of skew it towards what I was thinking, a lot of the stuff in Immaterial Girl was me trying out stuff I then did in Young Avengers. We did the book semi-Marvel Method, where all the fight scenes and weird shit is done without the full script, but the first time I actually did that was in Immaterial Girl; all the music video sequences are done Marvel Method, all the real world sequences are full script.

I suspect there’s probably stuff I’m homaging in Young Avengers from Immaterial Girl. Only now people will be able to say, “Oh! Kieron was referencing something no one else had read!” [Laughs] You’ve got to remember, originally we were planning to do Phonogram at the same time as Young Avengers.

Paste: With Immaterial Girl focusing on a young Emily Aster in the 1980s and featuring sequences from 2001 and 2009 in it, Phonogram is very time-specific. A lot of the book’s glossary uses the phrase “period appropriate” when explaining the referenced bands. So when writing this in 2012, and editing it in 2015, is it difficult to put yourself back in a 2009 mentality in making sure the story doesn’t get too far ahead of itself?
Gillen: In 2012 I’d just done the research. I had the calendar for what happens when, I knew what albums were released, and for the fictional stuff I’m just making shit up. The book is a series of period pieces; we start in the mid-80’s, and we’ll go to 2001 or 2009, but in the B-Sides we’ll go to 2015. That’s the thing about Phonogram: it’s always been period pieces of historical work. Occasionally the historical stuff is contemporary, but even when you do the contemporary references it’s designed around specific times; Singles Club is just that night, you know?

And I’ll cheat, but I’ll explicitly try to write the cheat in—there’s one record that’s quite important to the story of Immaterial Girl, but it wasn’t out yet. [Laughs] So that becomes a plot point, and it’s just part of the magic of it all.

Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #1 Interior Art by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson

Paste: That sounds like a pretty magical/Phonogram-y thing that you can get away with. A different way to get an album leak, so to say.
Gillen: Yeah. It’s a metaphor through Kohl, our metaphorical music journalist, him getting an advance or a leak or something. As we say in Phonogram, all the magical acts are metaphors. If it’s not designed as a metaphor, we won’t use it. Phonogram is very purist, as opposed to The Wicked + The Divine, which is very playful, mixing mythology fast and loose. WicDiv is austere, but Phonogram is very post-punk; it’s very ordered and very serious, even when it’s joking.

We have blinkers on, as in this is how we want it to appear, and if there are changes beyond these parameters it ceases to be Phonogram. And it’s funny because I’ll never write a lead character or any other story like that, really, but here the blinkers are always there. It’s almost like an aesthetic straitjacket.

Paste: As it was completed earlier, did you work differently with the ideas behind Phonogram, as opposed to your approach for Young Avengers and The Wicked + The Divine?
Gillen: A little bit. Like I said, Phonogram’s weird. I say that a lot, but I’ve kind of proved it overall. I’ve written completely functional Phonogram B-Sides since then. I talk about myself a lot, and obviously Jamie McKelvie and Matt Wilson are enormous parts of it as well, but in the kind of weird autobiographical bullshit thing, Phonogram’s me—and what I mean by that is, this big lump of world view and life experience.

You’ve got to be in a certain place to write it, I think. The first issue of Immaterial Girl, I literally started writing it when… I was at a Marvel Summit, I’d lost my wedding ring in the hotel room. I couldn’t find it. I did get it back eventually, but I had to leave the country, obviously distraught over this, and go back to the UK. I go to my house in North London at the time, and immediately locked myself out—as my wife was away for the weekend. So now I’ve lost my keys, I don’t have my phone because my phone’s in the house, I think I had my wallet. All I know is, I’ve got a friend who’s having a birthday party that night, so I go to the party, crash at their place, and I’ve basically been entirely stripped away from my life. It’s basically disappeared, and I am, at least on a very small level, temporarily homeless; I could break into my house, but, you know, right now I’m homeless — I’m distraught, I’m in a really weird emotional place, I’ve lost everything I gained since then, I’m raw Kieron Gillen… so I found an Internet cafe and started writing Phonogram. That was when the first script started happening.

In Phonogram, you just know when it’s time to do it. That’s the best way of putting it. It sits in my head, and grows, and eventually has to explode. I often describe it like a boil, and the story is vile pus, which is obviously meant to horrify people, but has an awful truth to it. And once I’ve done that, the other issues come through a sense of necessity. There’s less playlists now; for the first issue of Rue Britannia, I loaded up whatever mp3 player I had at the time with every single track I owned from 1993 to 1998, including the stuff I hated. I put it on shuffle, and that’s all I listened to the entire time I wrote Rue Britannia. That was an attempt to actually show how I really felt about these records, but you get these kind of cliched ideas about that without immersing yourself, and a) listening to it did bring back certain memories, but also b) it also made me remember, “Oh, I really do hate Kula Shaker that much. It’s not a joke. I really do hate it.” [Laughs] And believe me, being forced to listen to something really makes those emotions click. In The Singles Club too, it was also based around a single playlist. That playlist was very intense; these specific things were happening, it’s all about timing.

With Immaterial Girl, I don’t think I’ll ever release the playlist I used for it. It won’t make sense to anybody else. It’s weirdly designed for connecting things for me.

Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #1 Interior Art by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson

Paste: Looking at Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl, I feel like there’s a lot more going into it. Expectations, familiarity with your work, Jamie’s work, and an understanding of concepts. I know where Phonogram is supposed to come from, I know how Phonogram has affected me in the past, how it has made me feel, and now these things are all playing into the new issue — but I can still view it as something new. Any time it goes left when I expect it to go right, that still feels right to me; like I’m reading a brand new series. Phonogram: Rue Brittania #1, it’s the beginning of the series, we have no expectations for what could be going into it, and while now we can go back and say, “Oh, these are the Young Avengers guys, these are the WicDiv guys,” at the time we open the issue and there’s David Kohl in his black clothes, Superman t-shirt and we don’t know what to expect from him.
Gillen: I find it interesting because, issue #1 of The Immaterial Girl has more in it than any issue #1 of Phonogram, ever. Now it’s like, okay, how many people are new readers? Trades have done pretty well for Phonogram. But how many people are literally going to pick it up and have it be their first Phonogram experience, where their first experience with Phonogram is that picture of 1980-something South London. I’ve tried quite hard to introduce everything you need to know in this issue; the thing about Phonogram is, if you’re willing to accept that world then you can roll with it, and some people aren’t. Some people want a lot more handholding.

So we were quite careful there, as we always thought that each volume of Phonogram was meant to be like an album. You should be able to pick up each one, and we’re going to re-introduce our theme. But for the original Phonogram, for all the weird ideas behind it, it had a basic structure. The first issue is like a merging of essays with this narrative structure, that’s what Rue Britannia did. Obviously The Singles Club was much more experimental with everything, but at the same time on the surface it appears lighter. With Immaterial Girl, now we’re just throwing ideas at the page. Obviously the lead is Emily, but how we choose to play with that, especially when we bring in Claire, who is also the lead — it deliberately feels different. I find myself re-reading the original essays I put in Rue Britannia, and I think, “wow, you were brave. Or stupid. Or one of the two.” It’s just, that’s how much we were trying to put this out there, but now we’re a little more guarded.

Paste: With first issue, the essay starts, “This is a statement of intent.” That’s the first one right off the bat. [Laughs]
Gillen: Which reviewer was it… Jog. He does a lot of stuff, he’s been around forever and writes for the Comics Journal. He’s a really good writer and I like him a lot. He reviewed the first issue of Rue Britannia, which I remember, and it fascinated me. All of the reviews were, and some reviewers were very defensive of it, in that sense that they were being judged for not liking the music even though they were kind of aware that the book was quite smart or something.

Some of these reviewers, very deliberately even when doing a very negative review, wrote it with their own two-dollar words, if you know what I mean. “I can’t just slag this off because it might appear I don’t get it.” [Laughs] I used to be a critic, I do always pick apart people’s craft, but Jog on the other hand, he had the requisite confidence to not have anything to prove. The most interesting thing he said was, “You can see them sweating.” The idea of how desperate to impress our first issue was—which made me feel, “Yeah, we’re rumbled. It’s 100% true.” If we never got to do another comic, that was the comic we were doing. And that probably hurts it, and there’s a lot of stuff we mock in the early Phonogram, which is probably tied to our own execution since we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. But as you can probably tell, that really did matter to me in a way that is… Lloyd-esque. [Laughs]

Paste: Looking at Phonogram: Rue Brittania #1, I’m happy to admit that I did not get every reference. But, keeping in mind that the new Gillen McKelvie brand is a lot bigger now, and the new Phonogram is being viewed as a new album that has to be accessible to new readers that still remains true to yourselves, does that in any way change what you think you should be referencing? Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl comes with a big, obvious reference to [the ‘80s group] A-Ha, which I think everyone can get, but as you dig deeper into the issue and start seeing more bands referenced… I would imagine compared to A-Ha, there may be less people who get the “Babes of Suga” bit.
Gillen: That’s funny. In the UK, the Sugababes are a very enormously big pop band. It’s one of those bits where, A-Ha is probably on the same level as the Sugababes in the UK, but in America? Hell no. [Laughs] We’ve said that we don’t make it easy for ourselves, because the problem with Phonogram is that it has to be true.

To us, a lot of the references, especially the big references where we’re doing video pastiche, the fact that we’re explicitly homaging the biggest videos of the ‘80s does make it accessible in a way that I don’t think Phonogram has always been. People will be aware of the homage. We’ll hit the “Material Girl” homage soon, I think it’s the second issue, and A-Ha’s “Take on Me” is very much a leitmotif throughout the whole series, so that kind of stuff will be quite easy to follow… but it wasn’t really done to make it more accessible. It just happens to work because this series is about pop videos. [Laughs] And of course the pop videos are actually about being haunted by who you were when you were younger, and your childhood starts becoming sickly. I use the word fever dream a lot to describe Phonogram, and there’s a degree of it in Rue Britannia, but there’s even more of that in Immaterial Girl.

But there will always be those little bits where we’re not as populist… I mean, we talk about electroclash, for fuck’s sake. [Laugh]

Phonogram: Rue Britannia Cover Art by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson

Paste: In the past you have said that Phonogram is about how we consume art. Do you still find that to be a central tenet of The Immaterial Girl?
Gillen: It’s essentially about people’s relationship with art, and what does that really mean—especially vis a vis identity and image. Emily does a big speech to Shambles about what video is, and you can either agree with her or disagree, but that’s very much the theme of Immaterial Girl right there. At least one of the themes. In the back, I note that in the actual material that’s come out with Phonogram, the core link is aging or time, or stuff across time. How things felt then, how things feel now, do I regret it—that’s something you see all the way through Phonogram. That’s slightly different from what you’ll see in The Wicked + The Divine, which is about death. Looking back across Phonogram I see more now, but I still say it’s fundamentally about how we love art, and how we let that divine us and how it’s not always a good thing.

We put a one-paragraph description of what Phonogram is at the start of the book. That was added quite late, and it was like, well, how do we even describe Phonogram in a paragraph? I try, but it’s “it changes their life, generally for the worst.” There you go. That’s Phonogram. That was one of those ideas people who didn’t like Phonogram had—that people who became Phonomancers had this air of superiority, that we thought they were better than “the mundanes” or whatever. That’s 100% against our intent, and that reading comes from cutural presentations of music elitists rather than anything actually in the book. It’s always been that these Phonomancers are addicts chasing a thrill they once had and can’t really access as much. It’s explicitly stated at the end of Singles Club: everyone does this, but only Phonomancers get obsessed by it. [Laughs]

Paste: Do you find thatThe Immaterial Girl’s conflict between Emily and Claire, the Girl in the Mirror, changes the story now that there’s a more explicit antagonist? Everything in Phonogram has always had to do with crises of identity, from Rue Britannia and David Kohl’s interactions with himself and the world around him, in terms of music as he loses himself, forgets his favorite bands and has to recover that by the end. With Immaterial Girl literally being Emily in direct visual/physical conflict with herself, these two different halves, does that change Phonogram?
Gillen: The problem with Phonogram is it’s about how you listen to music. As such, the problems with villains is kind of a big conceptual issue. With Singles Club, the villain is an idea. In Rue Britannia all the Retromancers are little more than ciphers, and I felt uncomfortable in turning anyone there into a villain because that’s not what’s really going on, but in Singles Club I kind of made everyone the villain. The point being is, experience is subjective from one perspective, but by seeing all the perspectives we can understand how everyone hurts everyone while being the hero of their own story. That’s kind of how I sized it up.

In creating a villain for the Immaterial Girl, I had the semi-great idea of making the villain yourself. That becomes a dialectic argument with an enemy we’ve created to embody the opposite. Take the Joker, if you will; Batman has his Joker, and he’s his central antagonist and dark mirror. In Phonogram, the dark mirror is yourself. That allows me to create someone who I think is quite a compelling antagonist, but also sympathetic — and I can refrain from demonizing anyone, if that makes sense?

Paste: Sure. And in that classic Gillen way, we have a mirror as both a literal object and a metaphor at the same time.
Gillen: Not subtle, me. [Laughs]

Phonogram: The Singles Club Cover Art by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson

Paste: We live in an age of revivals. Arrested Development Season 4, new Twin Peaks and X-Files. Everything we loved that might’ve ended before it could have an actual ending is getting a second chance. Do you see Phonogram in the same vein at all? Or does the fact that Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl was going to happen in 2009, and then in 2012, and now is finally happening in 2015, exempt it from that trend?
Gillen: Maybe? If someone were to put that in an article, I don’t think I would necessarily disagree with that. I don’t particularly see it like that, but Phonogram is a weird, ‘00s comic book. It was, in its own small way, important. It’s the line that Kohl says to Lloyd about Los Campesinos!; you’re never going to be big big, but you’re going to be big to some people—and that’s Phonogram. There are more people into Phonogram than I would’ve thought, is a good way of putting it, but it feels genuinely good to finish this.

The weird thing is, like, with the B-Sides, I evidently can get away with writing “final” Phonogram stories. The other B-Sides, those stories always took place earlier than The Singles Club. Now I’ve put new stuff into this issue, flashing forward to June 20th, 2015 as the latest date in one of them. You’ll see Kohl completely bald, and the scariest thing I wrote in the entire comic was the B-Side, “Everything and Nothing,” when I wrote about how old Mr. Logos would be. Lloyd is now 27, and that’s the scariest sentence I think I’ve written in all of Phonogram.

Paste: And I don’t know if this verges into spoiler territory, I honestly can’t tell, but I do like that your essay references the real Kid-With-Knife being all grown up now as well.
Gillen: I just went to his wedding last weekend. I did the best man speech, which I think went quite well, and I included the entire real explanation of why he actually is called Kid-With-Knife, which is highly funny. [Laughs]

Paste: Is that ever something that’s going to be revealed to the public? Or is that for a future Behind-The-Scenes story?
Gillen: There was originally, at least for part of my plan in Phonogram, the fourth volume of Phonogram, which is something I definitely don’t want to do anymore, since I have a better idea for something similar. It would have shown Kohl before he meets Britannia, set in his home town of Stafford. It’s about being a dodgy punk rock/metal kid in a shitty nowhere town, and it’s about Kohl and his close friends before he got to be as cool as Kohl is, whatever “cool” means (as in he’s not very). If I ever did that story, that’s where I would’ve put the Kid-With-Knife story. The actual explanation I’d end up doing in the book would just end up being two panels, where someone goes, “So why is he called Kid-With-Knife?” and the next panel is Kid-With-Knife with this enormous machete out and Kohl saying, “Duh.” [Laughs]

Paste: You’ve been working with Jamie McKelvie and Matt Wilson for quite a long time now. You and Jamie have been together forever, whereas Matt came in with The Singles Club and has been working with you since. You mentioned with The Immaterial Girl you had aspects of the Marvel Method in there, but how has that changed how you might have worked with Jamie and Matt in earlier Phonograms, where there was a lot more structure? I recall that all Singles Club issues felt both structured in story, but also the design of the pages, whereas now you’re at a comfort level where you clearly trust each other to just do the right thing.
Gillen: You’ll probably see more about what we’re trying to do more in later issues. It’s only the last two pages of the first issue that we get into the music video universe. You’ll get to start seeing what the Marvel Method looks like for us, and it’s quite Young Avengers-y. As we start getting into the bigger set pieces, it’ll get extremely Young Avengers-y. It’s more homage as weapon, or deconstruction; when I say deconstruction I mean like a zombie, in the same way that a zombie deconstructs the body. All the homages we do are kinda sickly, that’s kind of what we end up doing.

Anyway. I’ve always trusted Jamie. There’s a lot more trust in the covers, I suppose; Singles Club covers were heavily designed, whereas these I’ll just let Jamie do whatever for the image, and it’s an image that both works for the book, while also presenting a softer deconstruction. They’re not meant to be poured over like in Rue Britannia, or read like in The Singles Club; some of those covers, for The Singles Club, there’s more text on them than in some comics. That’s definitely a bit more relaxed, I think, but as a whole Phonogram is still … it still leads anal.

With the issue structure, we’ll do B-Sides for every story again, I’ll do less essays, but here it is — it’s Phonogram. I haven’t deliberately not mentioned the B-Sides so far, mostly because I didn’t to want to a) promise them because we might change our minds, but b) they were kind of the pitch? For Singles Club we made it part of the pitch, as in here is this idea of how a pop comic can be. As artwork it worked very well; as a sales thing, it did fuck-all. [Laughs] It was the exact same sales as Rue Britannia, so we might as well not have done it. Part of me was tempted not to do it in that kind of “fuck the lot of you” sort of way, but… [Laughs]

So it’s easier now, I guess. Or, easier is the wrong word — but the fact that I wrote it all in 2012, now I’m actually approaching it as an editor. Some of it really does need some reworking, but as an editor I can approach the material as, “This is what exists, and there was this guy back in 2012 who wrote some stuff, and I’m not him anymore.” And that’s one of Phonogram’s things, isn’t it? Yes you’re them to some degree, but you’re also not them anymore. I’m trying to parse that guy’s argument and what he was going through.

Paste: Jamie has actually become quite the renowned pop artist as well. He’s done album covers for Art Brut, he does posters and t-shirts for CHVRCHES. You can see that bleed into Phonogram now, at least in terms of — well, not to harp on that one idea, but we look at earlier issues of the series where you express your love for pop, but now we can consider both of you actual pop stars.
Gillen: It’s our imperial phase. [Laughs] We have made a contribution to pop, whatever that means. It’s a weird realization; oh, yeah, you’ve done stuff now — as in, there’s a body of work that we’ve done, I don’t know many issues we’ve done, but certainly looking at The Wicked + The Divine, we’ve definitely fed into pop music a little bit. We’re at least aware that we can see some influence, is maybe a way we can put it? And I don’t mean it in an egotistical way, but rather that we’ve been around for a bit and we’re definitely no longer the hot new indie kids.

Before this interview I finished my last few pages for the Marvel Universe, the last five pages of the final Angela I’m writing, so I just signed off on the Marvel Universe—and it’s drawn by Kody Chamberlain, who did some of the art for my first comic for Marvel in 2008. So I found myself mentally in 2008, which is when The Singles Club started, and I’ve been sitting here and thinking about time. So, yeah, we’re very much aware of what we have done now, as in we’re quite proud of our work, which is weird. I just wanted to have a series of books I loved and was not ashamed of sitting on the shelf, and I think I’ve managed to mostly do that. We count ourselves as very lucky. Just like a pop star.

Paste: That is maybe one of the most quotable things I think I’ve heard you say. You’ve had a few guises in writing, right? You were known as The Sad Writer in Journey into Mystery, for example, and obviously you and Jamie have your personalities that I think fans see you both with (especially when you do stuff in WicDiv to kill all their favorite characters), but do you find that that acknowledgement of persona, with time having passed and with stature gained, has an effect on you at all?

Gillen: That’s an interesting question. I think we’re more comfortable in ourselves now. I think we have less to prove? The fact that, with WicDiv having sold as much as it has, it’s like, yeah, we don’t need to be insecure motherfuckers anymore. [Laughs] Phonogram has always had something to prove. This is one of the old jokes about the book, but I think we’re more comfortable in our skin than we ever have been.

I must have told you this before, stop me if I have, but when Matt Fraction was doing Casanova with the Twins (Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba), and we were just starting out doing Phonogram, in my head we were the only two comic books in the universe. I viewed it as a competition between me and Matt, in terms of writing anyway, about how far we could push this thing. It was kind of like a Beach Boys vs Beatles thing, though I was probably more like The Who in this metaphor. [Laughs] And Matt, at this point, was writing Iron Man; at this point, I’d written nothing but Phonogram. So this idea, that there’s some kind of rivalry or artistic competition between us, is ludicrous—but I felt that. And I talked to Matt about this later, and Matt kind of felt it too, as in, here’s this very weird and personal dance for just us lot, like there was really only ever an audience of one.

Paste: Which is great, because there was an issue of Casanova advertised in the back of the first Phonogram.
Gillen: Sure, of course. And I suppose I think less of that sort of thing now. I don’t necessarily feel that Phonogram 3: The Immaterial Girl is dancing with Casanova: Acedia. The current Casanova is astounding, but it doesn’t feel like we’re Reed Richards and Doctor Doom anymore; Matt being the big American hero and I’m the bitter European. [Laughs]

So that’s not there in Phonogram as much. God bless Phonogram, it just feels like unfinished business that we’re finally finishing. We get to do this three-volume statement, and that is… basically my 20s. The Wicked + The Divine is my 30s. I’m still working out what I do next.

Paste: So in wrapping up, both interview-wise and Phonogram-wise, with this being your last statement on this idea, on this era, is it a bittersweet symphony (to steal a title)? You and Jamie and Matt are still working together, you’re all doing The Wicked + The Divine; you have this entirely different series, and here’s your coming back to an older book so you can all say goodbye.
Gillen: Especially towards the end, the whole final issue is very bittersweet, so I can’t wait to see what people make of it. I’m very fond of the last episode. The B-Side as well, really.

I will almost certainly use ideas similar to Phonogram in the future. They just won’t be Phonogram, is the best way of putting it. There’s a couple of things I can strip out of Phonogram that would’ve been arcs, and I suspect I will probably try to write that before I die. Stay true to your obsessions and your obsessions will stay true to you, to paraphrase Ballard.