Marvel Comics’ Avengers are considered Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Routinely saving the world on a regular basis, up and coming heroes following in their footsteps, like the Young Avengers, have some big shoes to fill. In a way, it could be argued that the burden these young heroes bear is even more difficult than that of their elders because not only do they have to live up to the example set by the Avengers, they also have to deal with the difficult task discovering who they are and their place in the world.
Writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie set out to demonstrate just how dangerous, exciting and heart wrenching that life can be when they kicked off the latest volume of “Young Avengers,” a series also designed to present a singular vision of what super hero comics could be like. Their critically acclaimed run on the book is about to come to a close with “Afterparty,” a two part epilogue that runs through “Young Avengers” #14-15. In preparation for that celebration, we spoke with both creators, and their editor Lauren Sankovitch, about their run on the book.
CBR News: Let’s start at the beginning, Kieron — what was your initial reaction upon being offered “Young Avengers?” In our past conversations, you talked about how you couldn’t write the type of book Allan Heinberg wrote —
Kieron Gillen: My initial response was pretty much, “Hell no!” [Laughs] Axel [Alonso] kind of talked me into it. He was a fan of the stuff I did in “Generation Hope” and my other work, so he felt that I could do something really interesting with the book, and wanted a big vision.
He said, “With a creator, you almost want to force their interest, in a way.” He mentioned that’s how Peter Milligan’s “X-Force” came about, [which] in particular was one I loved. So I thought I would at least give it a shot and see what I thought. I eventually found a take that I thought was very interesting and I could pull off that was radically different from the original run, but at least vaguely justified around the same concept.
I also thought about who I was going to do the book with. I thought, “If I’m going to do this book, I’m going to do it with a team that really excites me, which is when I started talking to Jamie.
Lauren what made you want to be part of this book?
Lauren Sankovitch: There were conversations that happened before I came on the book. Like Kieron said, Axel basically approached him and said, “Hey, did you want to do a take on the ‘Young Avengers?'” He was mulling it over when I expressed my desire to work on the book on no uncertain terms. Then a little bit of gladiatorial combat happened where I defeated all comers. [Laughs]
This was a book that I felt very strongly about and demanded. Having worked with Kieron on “Journey Into Mystery” and knowing Jamie I thought this would be a unique undertaking and I wanted to be a part of it. I was, and it’s been pretty wonderful.
Jamie, what were your initial thoughts when Kieron started talking to you about “Young Avengers?”
Jamie McKelvie: It was interesting. I got involved because Kieron wanted me on board. I thought it was a great opportunity for us to do “our thing” on a Marvel book. My work at Marvel has primarily involved me following up from somebody else, like when I came on board “Defenders.” This was an opportunity for the two of us to start a new thing and establish our own little corner where we could do our own thing.
I try not to think about or worry following from someone else. There’s not a lot you can do about it one way or another. So you just sort of get on with it.
So the idea for “Young Avengers” to be this sort of singular statement from the two of you, originated with you, then?
McKelvie: No, that was Kieron’s idea.
McKelvie: So, blame him. [Laughs] No, we wanted to do our own thing and this was a chance to do it.
Gillen: We thought, “Let’s not try to do a lot of things that are given while still trying to stay basically pop music.” Those are two contrasting masters, though. We thought, “This is ‘Young Avengers.’ Can we have them be young instead of doing it as a tribute or extension of something else? Can we work out a way to have these things operate a little differently?”
McKelvie: Yeah, we didn’t see much point in doing the same thing over again. Allan and Jim’s [Jim Cheung] book was such a great thing in and of itself, and there was no point in us trying to do that over again. We thought we’d do something else and that’s what we did.
You talked in the past about how “Young Avengers” would be a book featuring more than just the work of the two of you, that it would almost have a gang mentality to it. And two “gang members” that have contributed to almost every issue are artist Mike Norton and colorist Matt Wilson. How important were these guys to the overall story?
Gillen: Mike really has drawn more windows this year than any man should draw. [Laughs]
McKelvie: And a lot of rubble as well. He likes drawing rubble, so I don’t feel so bad. He does a lot of our background elements. He’s incredibly important.
Matt and I have been working together for a long time. He colors a page in exactly the way I want. The way he does it and the palette he uses pushes the images in directions I never expected, but works every time. I definitely wanted Matt along, and I definitely wanted Mike along. Mike’s been a massive help since “X-Men: Season One.” We had a crazy deadline on that book and we got through it.
Gillen: Another important creator I want to mention is our letterer, Clayton Cowles. The lettering in “Young Avengers” does a lot of tricky stuff, and Clayton is responsible for the contents pages, which have become quite an important part of the book. Our first issue had a double page spread, and pretty much every issue since we’ve done things with the contents page. Clayton comes up with them himself, or we throw some ideas at him. He’s executed all manner of lunacy.
The structure of the book is quite important. Instead of putting the content in the front or the back, we’d put them in weird places, like halfway through issue #2, which almost became two smaller issues because of it. We work that into our structuring. Clayton is as key a member as anyone else.
McKelvie: Absolutely. People have commented on the contents pages — how often has that happened?
Sankovitch: Clayton, Matt, and Mike, and all the other creators added so much more to this project. We really were a team, building all of these pieces together, and it would not have worked as well without all of the people who ended up working on it.
There was so much different input that went in, even when we were doing things like putting together a recap. Clayton might chime in with an idea, or Matt might say, “What if we do this?” It was just a very fun, organic process. Everybody had a say. Everybody wanted to participate, and there were no bad ideas; there were just ideas we didn’t use.
McKelvie: Yeah, the exchange of ideas was a lot of fun. Matt would often send, like, four versions of a page because he had different ideas about colors. It was really cool.
For the book’s cast, you used several members from the previous Young Avengers team along with some new blood in the form of Marvel Boy, Ms. America Chavez, Loki and Prodigy. What do you feel those characters added to the book?
Gillen: They made it feel like it was our book. Originally, just the new cast were ours. It felt like these were our characters, and we are very clearly a different book, in terms of the visuals. Then Jamie redesigned the uniforms of the three original members we kept on the team, and that made them feel like our characters in a way, too. The versions of the “Young Avengers” from the first series are quite different from ours, especially with the Demiurge costume, Kate’s slowly changing outfits and even how Hulkling’s clothes have their own kind of feel. But for starters, they weren’t marked out as ours. They were slightly different characters.
Miss America Chavez has a long running secret that we’ll reveal in the last issue that kind of changes how she’s perceived. That’s past the point though. For me, they’re young adults who have found their own identities as people as opposed to Wiccan and Hulking. Hulkling has many great attributes as a character, but he’s called Hulkling. [Laughs] He’s not completely his own person yet. There’s a certain naÃ¯vete to those characters, and the other characters are a bit more their own human being, the finished article. It allows us to contrast the sort of growing procedure.
Then, Loki was one of our core original ideas. The idea that Loki puts together the Young Avengers and it’s all about the manipulations there of whether conscious or unconscious.
Was there a sense of unfinished business with Loki that also led to his inclusion in this book? Because you started “Young Avengers” after you finished your long form story with young Loki in “Journey Into Mystery.”
Gillen: When I planned out “Journey Into Mystery,” I knew how it ended and I thought that would be the end of me writing the character. I was about halfway through my initial plans when I realized the guy who was going to follow up my work with Loki was me.
The me who wrote “Journey Into Mystery” is a completely different entity than the me who wrote “Young Avengers” in terms of the aims. Part of the aims of “Young Avengers” was that I knew there was talk of an “Agent of Asgard”-style book. Me and Lauren had discussed it at the end of “Journey Into Mystery.” This was a way to help set that up; to take Loki on a journey that would ready him for his next big adventure. Same as all the characters, really. You’re trying to leave the characters in better places. Not necessarily happier, of course, but better.
So it was the same architect working different jobs, but it’s not really a continuation. I was working different designs aesthetics to the character each time, but there’s always unfinished business. That’s kind of what the Marvel Universe means. Elements of my “Thor” run were picked up in “Journey Into Mystery,” but they were separate stories, and there’s never an ending to that.
Since we’re on the topic of team structure let’s talk about two Young Avengers from the previous series who played limited and different roles in this one: Speed and Patriot. Why did you change the roles they played for this book?
Gillen: One of the reasons I didn’t want Tommy on the team was, I thought it skewed things and made them Wiccan-centric. The book already skews that way anyway, and I just wasn’t interested in telling the stories Tommy would have been involved in.
He was a character I liked writing. Issue #6 was a lot of fun to write and it gave me a way to change the structure a little bit. I enjoyed bringing Prodigy in. He comes from outside of the circle. He wasn’t part of Loki’s plans. He’s brought into the team for mysterious reasons.
Then, with Patriot, it was a case of, “You can’t do this and that.” The one thing I could do with Patriot, essentially, was do this. In “Young Avengers,” we’re not harkening back to any particular stories in terms of pastiches. We don’t do parodies of previous Marvel Comics. We do, though, take certain Marvel stories, especially Avengers ones, and reimagine them from the very core. Probably the most core one is that Loki puts the team together in “Avengers” #1. So that’s we did. Mother, in many ways, is Ultron, the worst creation of somebody. So it was a Hank Pym story in some ways. In a messed up Cthulhu/Lovecraftian way, Patriot is our Ronin story. That’s probably the easiest way to put it.
That’s a pretty good segue into my next question about main antagonists; Mother and Patriot seem to be inspired by the entities of H.P. Lovecraft. We know that Leah came into the book from needing a foil for Loki, but what made you want to add a sense of cosmic horror to a teen super hero book?
Gillen: The great insight of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror is the kind of existential horror, the idea that you’re up against things that are impossible to comprehend. Basically, the universe is large and uncaring and you’re small and puny and make no difference. That existential element works for this book, especially since there’s a lot in there about reality manipulation and what ideas are.
Characters that come from that angle, whose natures are completely incomprehensible, fit the sort of stories we’re doing, well. From top to bottom, our season of “Young Avengers” is about communication breakdown. The emergence of Mother means that the adults and the children simply can’t understand each other anymore. It’s very easy to say, “Oh the grownups are bad guys.” That’s only true, though, from the perception of the people following the book. [Laughs]
One of the big unanswered questions of this series will be what the adults think is happening. So this isn’t a book about the young versus adults — t’s about, “We have to complete this spell to understand each other here. How do we move forward?” That stems from the low level with the parents and the high level with Mother, Patriot and the reality-warping stuff, which is trying to understand them. It’s a book about the failure of communication in many ways.
Two other ideas I picked up on were the ideas of romantic love and how it affects people, and responsibility, both in terms of growing up and being a hero.
Gillen: Definitely. Love is the heart of the book. There are two dovetailing romances. One is between Wiccan and Hulkling, and the other is between Marvel Boy and Kate. Wiccan and Hulkling have this moment of transcendent love in issue #13. It’s one of the key parts of the issue. It’s a moment where they genuinely understand each other and they save the universe. It’s an old fashioned, only slightly ironic “love will save the world” kind of beat. Then, at the same time, there’s a beat where love fails because the other person is in love with the reality of an earlier love, to the point where they almost don’t care about anything else. Marvel Boy dumps Kate for the idea of an old girlfriend that doesn’t really exist.
So it’s about when love triumphs, when it fails and, once again, communication, which I already talked about. Love really is at the heart of it, though, and for me it was a lot of, “What sort of things have not been done as an A-plot in a Marvel Comic for a very long time?” This is a book about the end of the universe, but rather than the problem being, “How do we defeat the Builders,” it’s using the characters’ emotional lives as a solution to the problem. Or not.
Responsibility is a classic Marvel theme; responsibility and power. When I think about the differences between Marvel and DC characters, to me, on some level, Marvel characters are at their best when the problem is partially them. As opposed to DC characters, where the problem is generally the universe they find themselves in. Look at the differences between Wonder Woman and Thor. Wonder Woman came into the world as an ambassador for peace, and Thor, because he was a bit of a dick. [Laughs] Those two characters have very similar origins in a lot of ways, but while Thor ultimately has been sent here to save us, he’s also been sent here as kind of a punishment.
That’s sort of what we did here. Issue 13 is where our heroes sort of fall to their weaknesses or transcend them and become myth-level to save the universe. Fundamentally, the first step of saving the universe is saving it from yourself. That’s quite explicit, later. It’s less about evil parents and more about evil teenagers. Or, at least, your own possibility for evil.
There’s also some discussion about the responsibility of what to use your power for, so it comes at that question from a different angle. There’s a beat in the final issue where Wiccan goes, “This is good. I should probably stop now.” It’s almost a “I’m too young to have kids” beat. He thinks, “I need to learn a bit more before doing this.”
Sankovitch: It’s at that moment where he’s got just enough self-awareness to realize he can’t take that on. He’s grown up enough to realize that he hasn’t grown up enough.
Gillen: Yeah, that’s completely the beat I was going for. Whenever we get into power and responsibility, usually the thought is, “Oh I must do everything.” That’s not responsibility, though — that’s self-delusion. I think self-awareness is what all characters are trying to grow for.
Leah, of course, ended up essentially being Loki’s self-destructive and self-hating impulses made flesh, and walking off with his real power. She’s Loki’s therapist. She was never really Teddy’s. She’s actually Loki’s. Then, at the end, L, so he manipulates himself into a situation where he has to. That beat plays all the way throughout the book, again and again.
Let’s talk a little bit about the plotting process of the book, and how the three of you worked together. Kieron, you’ve worked with Jamie for so long — do you guys usually discuss stories ahead of time? And Lauren, what sort of input did you offer? When was it just a matter of sort of letting them do what they do best?
McKelvie: We have this sort of psychic link going on with tentacles. It’s really disgusting. [Laughs]
Gillen: It’s not really telepathic; it’s more psychopathic.
Sankovitch: It’s very British.
Gillen: [Laughs] I know the sort of areas that Jamie likes to push in his art, and part of my aim was to give a possible showcase to the stuff that Jamie does and many people don’t.
As Jamie said earlier, he’s aware that he’s never launched a book at Marvel, so he early on set the tone for the book. He does these moments between two people with sideways glances and the askance moments really well. Half the stuff would be structured in that almost-biographical storytelling style; very clean and panel led. The other stuff would be based around just going mental. Then the idea of going between the two gives the idea of fantasy and reality. I tried to build the comic specifically around the strengths and weaknesses of Jamie’s style. Then, when Jamie asks, “Can we do a page like this?” I try to work out a way of implementing that.
A lot of the themes of the story are on me, in terms of what we approach. The “what” is me and the “how” is very much the pair of us. We really wanted to create the best possible stage to showcase what we do.
â€¨The question of who’s more important to a comic story, the artist or the writer, could be argued back and forth forever, but I don’t think that hard line is really it. The artist develops the cast, and Jamie brings a lot of that to the table, especially in terms of how the characters look and move and the clothes they should be wearing.
Sankovitch: Working on this book was unique, given that Jamie and Kieron have sort of this telepathic hive mind link between each other and finish each other’s sentences. They are so adorable, you want to puke on yourself and them.
Sankovitch: As an editor, I was not quite the third wheel, but I’m kind of the extra person there, keeping their vision tight and focused. They both came into this feeling very strongly about where they wanted to take the characters and how they wanted them to interact. There was a very clear through line, even from the very beginning, almost the first pitch, which was refreshing and exciting. These guys are the boat, and I was just making sure that we were still on a straight line the entire time. So there wasn’t a lot to do. They didn’t need much wind or story water.
McKelvie: She would occasionally shout, “There are rocks over there!” [Laughs]
Sankovitch: [Laughs] Yeah, the book really, from top to bottom, has been fun. We weren’t just making comics — we were having a good time. We’re telling stories with these characters, but we’re living with them and actually experiencing what they’re experiencing. It just feels very real, despite the fact that part of it takes place in a crazy realm that has no backgrounds and featured panels hanging in the air and weird parasitical Mother monsters. Despite all that, it still felt grounded and refreshing.
Gillen: In a way, the process of doing “Young Avengers” is being Young Avengers. We talked about the gang mentality at the start; we just didn’t know how close it would be. It was essentially a gang of people doing a book about a gang of people.
If I knew how close that was going to be I wouldn’t have said it; because as the book came to an end we had our own third act excitement. Where it was, “Oh, my God — deadlines!” And things did get increasingly painful at the end. Jamie McKelvie almost killed himself, and there was always something that rose the stakes. In a very real way, we would look at the comic and be like, “Yep, been there.” Then me and Jamie made out and saved the world. [Laughs]
McKelvie: [Laughs] That’s true.
Sankovitch: Yep, they’re adorable.
Jamie, can you sort of walk us through how the book’s more unique visual sequences come about? My favorite one was at the end of the first arc where we followed Marvel Boy through a club and the carnage he caused there. What inspired that sequence?
McKelvie: The idea behind many of those was to tell an action sequence in a unique way — and then never do it that way again. So for each of those scenes, we probably had five to seven ideas on how to do them and we decided on one. A lot of those ideas came from Kieron. Some of them came from me.
Sankovitch: And some were shot down by me. [Laughs]
McKelvie: Yes, yes. [Laughs] For the Marvel Boy one, Kieron had written the script for issue #4 and he showed it to me while I was working on the set up for the issue. He showed me his ideas for the issue and I thought, “No, hang on — I don’t want to do any of those.” Actually, I think it was because we were on a train. At the end of the carriage on trains in the UK, you have the sort of safety poster, which tells you where the exits are and that kind of stuff. I thought, “That’s what I want to do with this action scene.” We talked back and forth, and once I did the page, we realized there was space for the key at the side.
I wanted those types of scenes to be an integral part of our story. With that one, we realized we could have these dual internal dialogues for Marvel Boy. One of them was speaking to the reader and one was what he was actually thinking at each given point. I thought we could add that to the side. That came out of us wanting to do it that way. That wasn’t in the original script. That gives you the idea of the sort of back and forth that’s constant when we’re working on these things. That back and forth determined how the page turned out, and I think it turned out okay.
One of the things you did in these final issues was really open up the world of this series so it could be inhabited by almost any of the Marvel Universe’s teen heroes. How important was that to you? And can you comment at all on what that means for the concept and line up of the Young Avengers?
Gillen: I think that’s more something for the creators of the next season of “Young Avengers” to decide. In our final issues, they save the world. That’s near the end of December; then a few days later, they have the Afterparty on New Year’s Eve. My idea is that every New Year’s, the young people of the Marvel Universe get together and have a party to celebrate the fact that they’re still alive.
There are a lot of teen heroes in the Marvel Universe, and all of them are aware they’re part of a universe with characters like Iron Man and Thor. They have their own desires and aspirations, and “Young Avengers” was a big song for those people and hailing them without cherry coating it. It was like, “You’ll never be Iron Man one day. It doesn’t matter just as long as you keep being yourself.”
We’ve basically told one big story for 15 issues. By the end, there’s a clear statement of many things, some of which are contradictory because I have a tendency towards irony.
Sankovitch: No kidding. [Laughs]
Gillen: I’m basically right, Lauren, aren’t I?
Sankovitch: Of course you are. [Laughs]
Gillen: Because I never really worry about what anyone else is doing in response to us [Laughs].
How does it feel to wrap things up and sort of take a bow with your friends who are guest penciling “Afterparty?”
Gillen: We did a panel at the Thought Bubble convention, and we had all these people crammed in this small room like this 1980s Industrial video. It was a packed house, and I thought we could lead a political movement from here, easy.
Gillen: That community aspect of it was kind of overwhelming in a way. When you get people coming up to you that are fans or even Becky Cloonan, who is walking around with Jamie as we’re doing this interview —
McKelvie: She is.
Gillen: She liked the book enough to ask something very specific, linking back to my first issue, and she drew the Marvel Boy story in issue #15. The gang and the clannishness of the book are important to me because it’s about humanity.
You’ve wrapped things up, but were you ever tempted to stay behind and do more than just a “season?”
McKelvie: No, I think we both decided that we had done what we wanted to do and we should leave on a high note.
Sankovitch: From the very beginning, the guys had a really clear idea of what story they wanted to tell. We thought, “Okay, we’ll tell that and see what happens.” Then we got into it and realized that this was the statement. This was what was going to be said, and we don’t really need to say anything beyond that. It’s self-contained; has a beginning, middle and end, and is this one giant story that sort of sums up Kieron, Jamie and company’s thoughts on being a Young Avenger.
Gillen: The weird sort of thing was, we got the book in January, and we end it in the first week of 2014. The last panels of our final issue are pretty much the first couple of hours of the New Year. So we literally did one year of a comic book and said, “Okay this is how we think comics could be in this genre in 2013. Take what you like and leave what you don’t.” And enough of it worked to make me happy with it. You’re never going to be entirely happy, but we did manage to do a big pop statement comic at a major comics publisher to enormous acclaim. There are definitely worse fates in the world. [Laughs]
McKelvie: Yeah, I totally agree. I’m extremely impressed by the fans that all seemed to get it, and I really liked that it started in January and ends in January as well. It’s good to do a year and then be done.
Sankovitch: It’s been a trip. This has been a book that, like I said from the very beginning, I was very passionate about. The book itself has been wonderful, but also, the journey of getting there has been so fun, ridiculous, special and crazy. There’s nothing like working with your friends.
Gillen: That friendship is important. It sounds a bit sappy. [Laughs]
Sankovitch: It does. It’s really ridiculous, but I think that’s been a big part of what made this book work, at least in terms of us getting the issues out and working together. We actually, for the most part, all like each other
Gillen: I honestly think we need a big group hug and then roll down a hill like a human Katamari.
Sankovitch: [Laughs] Yeah, and then just snowball all the way down the hill.
“Young Avengers” #14 hit stores December 18; Issue #15 rings in the New Year on January 8.