By Ben Morse
Kieron Gillen wants to exploit the X-Men.
To be more accurate, the newly minted co-writer of UNCANNY X-MEN alongside Matt Fraction as well as the sole scribe on GENERATION HOPE wishes to closely examine mutants place in today’s Marvel Universe, and that includes a focus on exploitation.
“Corporate culture and consciousness, identity issues, celebrity—oh, definitely lots of celebrity—exploitation,” lists Gillen when asked what themes he and Fraction will be exploring. “The creation of a modern functional society from the wreckage of the old. Trying to share a world between increasingly polarized groups. The concept of survival. The concept of ‘survival’ just not being enough. The idea of reclaiming the future, and the idea of the future.”
An avid fan of the X-Men for years, Gillen has leapt into Utopia full tilt, with great enthusiasm tempered by a firm desire to tell stories with the big action and high drama that have always been a hallmark of the title, but that speak to society’s big issues as well in also keeping with the tradition of this flagship series. “Quarantine,” the first arc with Gillen joining Fraction and featuring art by Greg Land, features the return of the self-serving guru Sublime as well as the debut of the twisted Lobe and his “New X-Men,” all while our heroes battle a plague decimating their numbers.
Meanwhile over in GENERATION HOPE, Gillen and artist Salva Espin have introduced a new generation of mutants currently following would-be messiah Hope Summers, but complicated times lie ahead for Cable’s surrogate daughter and her group of “Lights.”
Marvel.com rang up Mr. Gillen across the pond in jolly old England to find out what he’s got in store for X-Men new and old.
Marvel.com: We spoke a bit at New York Comic Con about how, in addition to being a great super-powered soap opera among other things, Uncanny X-Men has always been a book that has tapped into the zeitgeist of society and attempted to comment on relevant issues. As a fan, how have you seen this commentary evolve over the years?
Kieron Gillen: As a fan, the answer is sort of in the question. Wherever society has been, the X-Men have been to. Even if it's not been commentary, its aesthetics have tied directly to the moment in time. It's never been a retro book. It's always looked contemporary. It's always been of its time, and a good barometer of where the [comics] industry's head is at any moment.
Marvel.com: How do you intend to work in stuff like the interpersonal drama and straight up action into your run alongside the stuff you mentioned already?
Kieron Gillen: I want them to be hand in hand. The concept of “survival” is what Scott's been living for years now. And with Second Coming, in a real way, he won. What now? That's his core emotional struggle, and how much he is able to let go or not will shape all his personal relations. The ideas should become drama and the drama should become ideas. It helps that the book is a little—for want of a better word—political. There's that bubbling tension in the Namor/Scott/Emma thing, but that's something that affects how their society will work. They need Namor. They need Atlantis. How can they make this work?
And action is always going to be key, but I've been a big believer in the super hero-battle-as-metaphor as well as the eliciting of yelps of awesome! I mean the three way fight between Lobe's “New X-Men,” The Collective Man and the scratch-team of non-quarantined mutants will hopefully work as a showcase of both the powers of the characters while also reiterating what the story's really about.
Marvel.com: What do you consider to be the most important X-Men stories and which creators have impacted you the most? How will these influences play out in your run?
Kieron Gillen: The current “Year Zero” of X-Men stories is still [Grant] Morrison's NEW X-MEN, really. Rather than a [traditional] super hero “team” set-up, it was repositioned as a book more about mutant culture, and that's a theme which continues to now. Utopia is that idea boiled down to a single incandescent dot of light. Scott's little island paradise is the future of mutantkind, for better or worse. Where do we go from here?
You'll probably see the Morrison influence most in the “Quarantine” arc, which is putting a spin on quite a few of his toys—Fantomex, Sublime, etc. The next arc picks up something from [Joss] Whedon's run on [ASTONISHING X-MEN], and will hopefully have a similar direct, emotive and sharp style. And then...oh, this is getting way in the future now. I'll stop.
Marvel.com: Who are your favorite X-Men as a fan? Have you found yourself gravitating towards different one as a writer?
Kieron Gillen: It's funny—I suspect my favourite X-man is actually Beast, who is the one guy who I'm nowhere near, though he's got a tiny guest-spot in GENERATION HOPE. After that, it's probably Emma, who is the sort of conflicted diamond-with-fractures character I like. Also, incredible bitchy meanness.
What surprises me is how I've settled in with the biggest characters. I mean, Wolverine. He's Wolverine. Part of me was nervous about writing a character who's been done by so many great people. Was there anything else to really say with him or are you just going to turn into pastiche? I was worrying for nothing, really. He's a character with a distinctive voice [that] has something to say in almost any situation. I felt similarly about Cyclops, and working the way through his clipped emotionality is something I'm finding interesting.
Best of all is when the characters surprise you. I was talking to [writer] Si Spurrier, who did the splendid [X-Club one-shots], about how much fun Doctor Nemesis was to write. Which I could see, but what I didn't realize was how much Doctor Nemesis would steal scenes just by his mere existence. Similarly, Danger is proving enormously useful, especially during the “Quarantine” arc. Oh, and for some reason, Pixie and Dazzler's interaction leads to about four times as much dialogue as I can fit in the comic. They just like talking to each other. You can almost see Northstar rolling his eyes.
Marvel.com: In “Quarantine,” as you mentioned, you and Matt are bringing Sublime back into the picture—what is your take on the character?
Kieron Gillen: Sublime is complicated in that he's deliberately contradictory. He created an entire philosophy—the third species/TransSpecies Movement/Homo Perfectus/U-Men—solely as a means to his larger ends: keeping himself at the apex of evolution. In this arc, we're much more interested in the ideas rather than the reasons he made them; because when you release ideas in the world, they mutate faster than boring old genetics. Like any prophet or guru, Sublime inspired people—and what people do in his name isn't going to be 1:1 faithful to the original gospel.
Basically, rather than religion, we were interested in turning it something a little more about corporate exploitation and capitalist evangelism, for want of a better phrase. Lobe's an agreeably warped individual.
Marvel.com: In the first issue of “Quarantine,” we saw both a new team of pseudo-X-Men created by Sublime as well as Storm and Angel bring a motley crew of their own together to fill in—what’s in store for both these groups as the story continues?
Kieron Gillen: The San Francisco team are in the awkward position of basically having to do the adventures while Cyclops and company sit on Utopia and drink herbal tea. They've got to clear up all the problems in the city and are the front line in terms of looking for a cure for the mutant flu. The “New X-Men” are rich fans who are having a holiday in spandex. And, clearly, they're going to learn what that actually involves. I hope they survive the experience, y'know?
Marvel.com: While the Sublime elements of “Quarantine” play out, what’s going on with Emma Frost, Kitty Pryde, Fantomex and Sebastian Shaw over to the side?
Kieron Gillen: It's our counter-melody to the main plot, personal and intense rather than affecting a whole people. Emma with Kitty's angel and Fantomex's devil on either shoulder, trying to work out what to do about a problem like Sebastian Shaw and trying to make them understand why it's even an issue. Emma's not someone who wears her heart on her sleeve—“It just leaves the worst kind of stains, sweetness”—but she needs people to understand what Shaw and her are about.
It's basically a bad-break-up plot. The worst, in fact.
Marvel.com: At this stage you’ve worked with Greg Land as artist on “Quarantine” and are getting set to script for Terry Dodson next. Do you alter your own style at all to play to their contrasting strengths? What do you see as those strengths?
Kieron Gillen: You always get better results when trying to write something which plays to an artist. With Terry, we wanted to do an arc which was very much his arc and a definitive, tight, driven little story. Kind of a “If you read one Terry Dodson X-Men story, read this one” thing; a total showcase for him, and what he can bring to a page. I basically wanted something which was romantic adventure fiction which mixed fantastical visuals with real human connection. When you see the first two pages, you'll probably see the poles of what we're up to right there. It's primarily an arc about Kitty and Colossus, which clearly contributes the romance.
Greg's a different artist, leaning more realistic and someone who excels in bringing glamour to the page. As I said, celebrity and corporate-imagery is a big part of the “Quarantine” arc, and the glossy, fantastical, advert-perfect people in their incredible clothes just sells that. When Greg draws a party or a basement of the Hellfire Club, it creates that world-view of excess. And there's lots of room for irony too; Scott having a streaming cold is funnier when he's as handsome as Greg draws him.
I'll also say this: if you need someone to draw a guy in a gimp suit, call Greg.
Marvel.com: You mention celebrity and exploitation as being somewhat central to you and Matt's run. That being said, do you feel like the perception of mutants in the Marvel Universe has shifted from the traditional "hated and feared" to something else resembling more how we treat heiresses and celebrity television stars? Have they gone from being one form of curiosity to another? And if that's the case, are they really any closer to achieving Xavier's dream of acceptance, or has Cyclops just, like you said, settled for survival?
Kieron Gillen: Hated, feared and the object of total fascination. I think that's the fair description of the position of mutants in 2010, and, no, it's not enormously better. And I do think it's interesting that the character who most believed in the idea of Hope-as-Messiah, Cyclops, is the one whose cynical, pessimistic instincts most lean him away from trying to live like that. And totally understandably.
The X-Men as alienation/prejudice metaphor is something that's always been present. But I think we're interested in what actually underlies the metaphor, rather than tying it to a specific real-world struggle. The mutants are the future of humanity. What people hate and fear is that it makes them obsolete; the mutants will be the end of us and our power. It's the sort of thinking which underlies a whole load of prejudice anyway—that giving equal rights to a group who's been suppressed means that, relatively speaking, the power of the dominant group also falls. Mutants are that writ large. If they gain power, we will lose everything. But that's a lie. The mutants are us. They're us with talents we don't understand or really comprehend—which his where we get to celebrity. If the X-Men are celebrities, they're the ones whose abilities have put them in this insane position of world-wide fame rather than heiresses. They are the future. And we're trying to crush them or control them or ruin them. It's the old versus the new, and hurting the future just to keep the drip in the arm of the present. We make the new the Other because we're afraid of what it says about us, how obsolete it makes us.
Marvel.com: Moving over to GENERATION HOPE, in the first issue, we got to see the “Lights” in action together, but how would you describe their group dynamic? Are they a team? Will they become one?
They're on the way. There's already a bond between them—or, at least, between them and Hope. The exact nature of it is one of the book's big mysteries, and there's already some evidence which should be disturbing. This only gets more noticeable as we progress. When characters start realizing that they're loyal to this girl for no reason they can see, you can imagine it's going to create drama.
But there's a core of a team there, though they've totally been thrown into it. One of the more unusual things about GENERATION HOPE is how it sort of reverses a traditional intro arc. As in, rather than the team getting together, deciding about what they're like and then going on a mission, we drop them right in there, and only really figure out what it means after all the buildings have stopped exploding.
Marvel.com: Continuing on the personal dynamics route, what relationships between the Lights will you be delving into initially? Which ones do you find most interesting to write?
Kieron Gillen: The relationship between all the Lights and Hope are the obvious ones. Currently, Idie views her almost as a literal messiah. Teon is doggedly devoted. Gabriel is crushing on her. Kenji is rejecting her entirely. Very strong reactions, both hate and love. Only Laurie is walking a middle line, and it's actually that which makes her relationship with Hope perhaps the most important. She's the sensible one. As such, she's the one who's aware that none of this is very sensible at all. Gabriel/Teon and Laurie/Idie are also a couple of pairings which are interesting.
And there's some fun interactions with the already established X-Men. Teon and Wolverine is worth keeping an eye on. And Teon and the White Queen, for that matter. Hope and Magneto and Xavier in issue #5 is a lot of fun. Also, Kitty.
Marvel.com: How is the Hope we’re seeing here different from the little girl we saw grow up with Cable or even the young woman from Second Coming? How is her character evolving?
Kieron Gillen: She's grieving. She's lost her foster-father who's the only father she's ever known. Being the sort of girl he raised, she doesn't do that by falling apart. She does that by throwing herself into something else. She's still resistant to the idea of being the Messiah in a capital-M sort of way, but in terms of doing what the messiah needs to be doing—as in saving mutants—yeah, she can get behind that. It gives her life meaning again. And in some way, it means that Cable's sacrifice has meaning.
She's also getting used to the 21st Century. She's a girl out of time. She's also a girl with few ideas of social mores. She does a lot of shouting, which I quite like.
Marvel.com: You say the Lights will start questioning why they've trusted Hope so implicitly, which I imagine will lead to some conflict between them and her; by the same token, does the mutual recognition of something being off bring them—excluding Hope—together as far as a common paranoia or drive wedges between the entire group?
Kieron Gillen: The response is going to depend entirely on the individual, and be fluid. Depending at what point in the story they are, they're going to feel very differently about that relationship. And, yes, that includes Hope. I mean, when she becomes aware that what she feels in her guts are her new friends actually could be in thrall to her. well, that's going to hurt. As I said, she's lost her Dad. And she may be some kind of using parasite. I think everyone has occasional fears about their friends—as in, are they actually their friends, or is it only because of something else. Do they actually like me or are they using me? The chance that your relationship with someone is a lie is something which messes with your head.
In short: yes, lots of room for drama. You may suspect when things are going well it will draw them together and when things are going badly it'll only be a source of friction.
Marvel.com: What can you reveal about Kenji and the source of his “inspirations”? Is there more to him than just being the villain of the piece?
Kieron Gillen: I normally say “I believe the work should speak for itself” and it'll certainly become clear by the end of the first arc. But for those who are wondering, I'd direct them to the first line in the book, where Kenji mumbles “I Am Becoming Art.” And then look what happens to him. As a creator, Kenji is a little in hoc to his influences.
Marvel.com: Beyond the first couple issues, what would you list as long-term plans or mission statements for this book?
Kieron Gillen: The first arc is really about laying out that long term plan. Hope has her Captain America moment in issue #3, which says what GENERATION HOPE is for. In short, it's about the blooming of a new generation of mutants, and tending that particular garden. It's the opposite book to UNCANNY X-FORCE. That's a black-op team. Gen Hope is a rescue team.
Marvel.com: How closely will this series tie to UNCANNY X-MEN?
Kieron Gillen: It'll tie in naturally. I want the links to be synergistic. As in, either book will stand alone, but those who read both will get something else. That's one of the advantages of a shared universe, and the fact I'm involved in both books means that I can do that very gently. You'll be able to trace the development of the characters across both books, and hopefully lead to an increased feeling of “reality.”
GENERATION HOPE #2 arrives in stores this Thursday, December 2, while UNCANNY X-MEN #531 hits stands Wednesday, December 22.