Come With Me If You Want To Be Awesome: Kieron Gillen's "Young Avengers"

In the Marvel Universe, being a teenager is, like, hard, okay? Not only do you have to deal with the predictable melodrama of physical and social changes, but odds are pretty decent you're also contending with a very unpredictable superpower as well. Oh, and you probably have to save the world. A lot. Mostly after you've done something to unintentionally jeopardize the safety of it, like conjuring an evil dead-parent impersonating entity that is ready to suck the life force out of all of your friends -- amiright, Wiccan?

The balance between creating teenage superheroes that are equally relatable as kids and aspirational as heroes is tricky. Fortunately, Kieron Gillen is all over it in "Young Avengers."

Penciled by Gillen's long time collaborator Jamie McKelvie with support from the ever-prolific Mike Norton, the series follows veteran YA members Wiccan, Hulkling and Hawkeye along with Kid Loki, Marvel Boy and Miss America as they save the world -- currently from themselves. The series is just four issues in, and it's already clear that the creators are assembling something unexpected both in the comic and out, including the upcoming addition of former New X-Man Prodigy to the team's roster and a Tumblr dedicated to the team, featuring issue-specific playlists created by Gillen himself.

Gillen spoke with CBR News about the relationships between creators and readers, his approach to writing for teens and not at them and his future plans for comics domination.

CBR News: Your work on "Young Avengers" is vastly different from your work on the Avatar Press book, "Uber," which is basically about superheroes and Nazis. What is it like writing for a young adult market at the same time as you're writing for an adult audience?  How do you get into those headspaces?

Kieron Gillen: The odd thing is, that's how it's been for all the time I've been at Marvel. I've been working on adult-only work all that time, but it's just not come out. The first issue of "Uber" was written five years ago, before I'd written a single story in the Marvel Universe. Between "Uber," "THREE," "The Heat" and "Phonogram 3," there's just shy of 30 issues of stuff that simply haven't come out yet. So how is it? It's the same as it's always been.

You keep things carefully separated, really. I keep ahead of deadlines, so unless something has gone terribly wrong, I don't have to bounce between multiple projects. It's a case of one week I'm writing "Uber," the next I'll be doing "Young Avengers," the next I'll be doing "Iron Man." Hell, ideally, I try to do several issues back to back of one book so you can really go into the headspace.

It stops you getting bored. Just doing the same thing, forever, has been what's scared me ever since I was a kid.

What did you do in your youth to avoid getting bored?

Well, as a kid, I came from a medium-sized Midlands town. I was bored a lot. If you read [Jamie] McKelvie's solo comic, "Suburban Glamour," you could easily apply a lot of that experience directly to me. A lot of things are about escape, or wanting to escape. I occasionally get to do a story about that -- the original plan for "Phonogram 4" would have been around Stafford, but I've abandoned that.

To avoid boredom, really, I did what I do now, professionally. I made shit up. I wasn't a loner. I made up stories and games for everyone else to play. I painted the schools I was at with elaborate fantasy universes in my head. It was a sort of mental parkour, really.

And when I was bored of one fantasy, I'd make another one. Or find one to explore that someone else had made up. Active imagination: always a dangerous thing, but good to prevent boredom.

The ways in which "Young Avengers" interacts with Tumblr/Yamblr and other forms of cross-media storytelling is really interesting.  Was this something you had always wanted to try, or was it "Young Avengers" specific?  

Well, the actual introduction page in the issue was the idea of Jacob [Thomas.] The design is Clayton [Cowles] and the text is Jacob. But that it seemed logical says a lot about how we do work.

I'm Internet native, but I went further into Tumblr when I was doing "Journey Into Mystery." I came in when I became aware there was an active and living fanbase of the book. I lurked for a while, and ended up setting up a Tumblr and engaging a little. When I knew "Young Avengers" was happening, I could tell I'd have to go further. It just made sense.
Of course, doing things like a string of essays on the characters wasn't exactly Tumblr-friendly.

Jamie and I both come from a ziney-kind of background. We believe in a low stage. The relationship between creator and reader, performer and audience is something we consider sacred and something that should be always under-mined in effort to make sure the shared humanity is never forgotten.

It also struck us as a giggle.

In "Young Avengers" #3, you responded to a letter from a reader who was upset that the book opened with Kate and Noh-Varr the morning after a night of casual sex. I loved your response:

"Space prevents me writing at length, so I'm going to have to be a little briefer than I'd like. Probably the easiest way to respond to your concern is picking up on something you said: 'I do care that this is how the majority of young people act in modern society.' This is where we differ. I do. If I'm going to do a book about being late-teenage, I feel it is vital TO DO A BOOK ABOUT BEING LATE TEENAGE. This includes variable expressions of sexuality and romance. To be honest, I think this book is perhaps too coy if anything. Teenagers aren't rated Teen."

It seems like there is a bit of a gap between ultra-clean kids comics and ultra-explicit adult comics, and the way you approach sexuality in "Young Avengers" is refreshing. Is this a direction you feel like comics are heading in? Do you feel like there are blocks in the industry for creating sex-positive content in young adult geared material?

I think you're right, basically. I think mainstream American Superhero comics lag a little behind other expressions of teenage life in culture, and if you don't do that, you're risking writing comics that appeal to the parents of teenagers rather than the teenagers themselves.

In terms of blocks, I suspect a good chunk of it comes out of comics being a visual medium. Text is a great obfuscator of content. You can read a book, and your parents will never know that it contains matter they'd have trouble with, because they're never actually going to read it. But comics, being visual, are transparent. At a glance, they can judge it -- and so often judge it at a glance, without actually reading it.

So you walk a line. I started "Young Avengers" with the scene for a number of reasons, but one of them was certainly seeing if Marvel would let me do it. If I weren't able to write that, I'd have had to bow out of the gig, because there would be no way of doing anything I thought worth doing.

Marvel didn't even raise an eyebrow.

I think the biggest blockade to the creation of the content is creators not choosing to create the content.

A continuing theme in the book thus far is dead parents. Parents who are literally dead, and parents who are dead inside (temporarily?). Do you think it's important for kids to go through the stage where their parents, including their ideas and expectations, are the enemy?

I'm not sure about important. I think "unavoidable" may be nearer the mark.

Like most things in "Young Avengers," "dead parents" is both literal and metaphorical. It's made me smile a bit the reducing of the plot of "Young Avengers" to "Evil Parents."

No, that's not what it's about at all. It's a story about a complete and utter communication breakdown. I hammer that note hard in the fifth issue, so I suspect it'll fall into place.

You've collaborated with McKelvie often in the past, and your previous work has been quite different than this re-launch. How did you work out the look of "Young Avengers?" Did he draw to your playlists, or were your playlists inspired by his art?

It's interesting how much of "Young Avengers" happens outside of the script. We e-mail, we instant message, we talk in pubs. Doing it is a lot like how we worked on "Phonogram," in terms of the fluid approach to the page. Hell, I even try and push it further.

One of my aims for "Young Avengers" was to make everyone realize Jamie McKelvie is the superstar that I've always known he is, and a lot of that works into how I choose to write a page.

Yes, the art -- but conversations do inspire the playlists too. When Jamie talks about Jessie Ware being an influence on how he sees Kate, I both get it, and move it onto the playlist. That he nods towards Frank Ocean being how he sees Prodigy, I nod excitedly, and almost kick myself that I didn't make that explicit link. But those ideas are coming from my treatment, and it's always a back and forth.

I suspect Jamie doesn't listen to the playlists. They're very much for me. Jamie and I share a lot of musical taste, but it's far from 100%.

I loved Jamie's redesign of Captain Marvel's costume, and everything that went into that,  especially the parts about treating her like a professional woman instead of a gymnastic stripper.  I've noticed that the costumes of the "Young Avengers" cast are updated and feel more authentic for the characters as well.  Did you have any input on that?

I did. I said to Lauren [Sankovitch], "Let's get Jamie on this project and let him do his thing." That's all the input I needed. I don't want to get between Jamie and his muse.

We talk about stuff. We share character influences and references. We have insight into characters. More importantly, Jamie and I share an aesthetic about how these things should look. That appearance comes from character and this is a visual medium. How a character dresses says something about them. Even if it's, "I don't care how I look," it says something about them. There's a story on people's bodies and we like to write it.

You make several mentions about the intended age range for the comic, including at the end of issue #4 where Miss America makes the comment about the book being rated PG-13, yet this doesn't have the feel of a PG-13 book. What kind of restrictions do you have? And has any proposed content been vetoed so far?

The content isn't ever the real problem -- [it's about] the treatment of the content. And as I generally can see the boundaries, I'm pretty good at predicting where they are.

The only place where I hit something and was surprised was when they were in the club, and a note came back that we couldn't have anyone other than Loki actually drinking. Which made me a blink, but -- hey -- America!

What can fans continue to expect from the book?

It's a little obvious to say, but I'd note that losing expectations is a good thing for fans to do.

A lot so far has been groundwork and introduction. I've been sliding guns onto the mantelpiece, as is my usual method for longer structure. Part of my aim with "Young Avengers" was to try and bring forward the energy that the final eight issues of "Journey Into Mystery" had into an early part of the run. I've put the pieces where I want to, and from now on, I think we're going to get that. Issue #4 got the response I hoped it would. Issue #5 is just as hefty. #6 is a step outside the norm, doing a kind of slice-of-life/Lovecraft collision thing, but will still hit in the guts. #7 is -- a little bit of reintroduction after a 3-month time-gap, but lives off the tension of what surround it. And 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15 are just full-on.

The aim has always been to be the definitive superhero book of its generation. I mean, we'll probably fail, but that's neither here nor there. We want to be the book everyone else rips off.

"Young Avengers" Issue #5 will be released on May 22. For more YA goodness, check out Gillen's Tumblr at http://kierongillen.tumblr.com. Be sure to check the spoiler policy before you see that which can never be unseen.

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