Gillen Journeys Into the Mystery of the "Manchester Gods"

The battles between mankind and the so-called forces of progress have been inspiring stories for centuries. Often these stories raise many interesting and important ideas about the nature of progress and they often end with their protagonist crushed by the forces they're trying to combat. What happens, though, when the mythical embodiment of progress and industrialization comes face to face with one of the most cunning gods in the Marvel Universe?

Writer Kieron Gillen and artist Rich Elson attempt to answer that query in the current "Manchester Gods" arc of "Journey Into Mystery," which began in #639. CBR News spoke with Gillen about the arc which finds the teenaged Loki, spymaster of the divine nation of Asgardia, in the dimension known as Otherworld battling a mysterious pantheon of mechanized and industrialized gods.

In the opening pages of "Journey Into Mystery" #639 readers see the rise of the Manchester Gods in the dimension known as Otherworld, which also serves as the collective mythic subconscious of Britain. The gods appear as walking versions of industrialized 19th Century cities. It's a unique and powerful visual, but it's one fans of Gillen's work have come to expect. The writer has made no secret about his fascination with the 19th Century. Over in "Uncanny X-Men" he's been using the character of Mister Sinister to explore some of his thoughts on the ideas of that era, and the "Manchester Gods" arc of "JIM" afforded him the chance to look at the 19th Century in a different way.

"I conceived my ideas for the Manchester Gods and Sinister at the same time. It was me thinking essentially about Britain's effect on the world in the 19th Century; what they gave birth too. With Sinister I quite literally looked at the British Class system and turned it into a super villain. And while I could explore lots of other ideas with Sinister I literally couldn't say everything," Gillen told CBR News. "So I wanted to do the Manchester Gods almost as a way to compare and contrast. It's a completely different story than what I'm telling with Sinister. So if you read this arc and 'Uncanny' you'll see my full thesis.

"When I originally conceived these stories I wasn't sure if they were going to both come out simultaneously -- but they're dropping exactly at the same time. I think people that have really been following my work will see the stuff I'm up to and the links between the two stories," Gillen continued. "Grant Morrison has talked about how he was basically doing the same plot in 'The Invisibles' as he was doing in 'JLA.' He mentioned the two stories had similar archetypes and structures and things like that. This is the opposite of that in that these are two different stories on the same subject that make very different points. They're often contradictory points, but life is complicated and irony is sometimes the only way to express things. That's basically where it all comes from."

The contradictory and complimentary stories of "The Manchester Gods" and the current arc of "Uncanny X-Men" featuring Mister Sinister will serve as Gillen's final thoughts on the 19th Century. Recently a new era of history has captured the writer's imagination. "I've got it all out of my system now. My current obsession is actually the French Revolution. So in 2013 expect Mister Sinister to grow a mustache and come up with a way to attach guillotines to his fists," the writer joked.

While the ideas and attitudes of the 19th Century play a role in the three-part "Manchester Gods" arc, they aren't the only concepts Gillen is exploring in the story. The arc is also about the collision of a number ideas including magic versus science, the cold analytical mind versus a sense of wonder, and the rural agricultural life versus the urban industrial life.

"In the second issue, #640, which is in stores now, we really dig into the conflict between these ideas. I wanted to do something about the mythology of Britain and since Otherworld is basically the mystical subconscious of Britain we could really look at what makes the nation tick," Gillen explained. "In the second issue of the arc, the Arch Druid of the Manchester Gods says, 'This is a war of ideas. How could it be otherwise?' Otherworld is literally a realm of ideas. So it's a great joy do a super hero comic and take these sweeping themes and dramatize them in what I hope will be a visually compelling way."

In the early pages of "Journey Into Mystery" #639 the Manchester Gods make it clear their intention is to conquer Otherworld and its indigenous population of mystical characters and creatures. War also erupted in Otherworld in a recent arc of writer Rick Remender's "Uncanny X-Force" and Gillen feels the fact that two wars have erupted in the mystical subconscious of Britain in a very short time says a lot about the mindset of the British people.

"I think Britain is a land at war with itself. I think it feels that way especially at the moment," Gillen remarked. "Rick and I talked so there are some very soft connections between the two wars. I reference the previous war in Otherworld in the first issue and it's one of the reasons why the Manchester Gods are causing so much trouble."

In "JIM" #639 Loki gets a chance to see firsthand what kind of trouble the Manchester Gods are causing when the rulers of Asgardia, the All-Mother, send him as an advisor to the gods and mythical figures of Otherworld. It's the first time Loki has gotten a look at the true horror of war since being reborn as a young boy.

"'JIM' is fundamentally a book about peace time, which is a weird thing. Loki has not thrown a single punch in the entire run so far. We're going on 20 issues, not including tie-in issues, in a Marvel Comic and our main character hasn't done anything physical against anyone else. That's amazing and I didn't even notice it. It was just the very natural way the character went. I even gave him a weapon at certain points, but he just never gets it out," Gillen said with a laugh. "So yes, we have Loki and he sees some horrible stuff and he's still sensitive enough to actually respond badly to it. He's just not hardened to it.

"We have a bit in the previous 'Exiled' arc where the Disir tell their story and he's holding his hands and looking genuinely distraught. He thought was happened to them was really, really horrible. So Loki's come to Otherworld as a tourist and he's heard all these legendary stories about war, but when he sees it first hand he realizes it's the worst thing in the fucking world," Gillen continued. " He then thinks, 'I've got to stop this somehow.' So that's what he sets out to do. This is Loki as CIA advisor in some developing world conflict. It's almost a Cold War situation where he's been sent in to prop up a regime against the rebels."

Readers still don't know a lot about the "rebels" Loki has been tasked with defeating. In issue #639 they saw the forces of the Manchester Gods make war against the people of Otherworld and gobble up and convert them to their industrial way of life. Why the Manchester Gods have declared war and what they ultimately want are still mysteries.

"The opening of this story is very much from a mythic perspective. Normally 'JIM' is slightly ironic. The opening of the story, though, is written in a very traditional way that the world would write about these things. 'They rose in the North; a god called 'Manchester'' is one of the most sincere sentences I've ever written. And there are certain things to admire in the Manchester Gods, especially if you look at what their speaker says in the first issue about not being ruled by gods," Gillen said. "The question is, what are they going to destroy to achieve that goal? The other big questions are where do they come from? Why are they doing this? And what do they really want? We get to see a lot of that in #640, when Loki goes into the Manchester Gods themselves."

After witnessing a battle between the Manchester Gods and the defenders of Otherworld in "Journey Into Mystery" #639 Loki's primary goal is to end the war between the two parties. In the remaining issues of the arc he'll travel across Otherworld and Britain in search of a quick and non-costly way to end the war.

"The joke in the first issue is that Loki is a tourist and he's an embarrassing tourist. At the end of the issue he witnesses this battle and it's the most horrible thing he's ever seen in his life, which makes him take the tourist t-shirt he bought off and throw it away. Symbolically that says, 'I'm no longer a tourist. I now have to do something else,'" Gillen said. "Still, he'll go to all these different places in the UK to work out a way to possibly defuse this situation. This is Loki at his most scheming. He's playing for enormous stakes."

Loki's tour of Britain will include a number of prominent places in British pop culture. "We'll visit the World's End pub in Camden, which is actually a place I've used in 'Phonogram,'" Gillen explained. "I'm also using a place called Cragside as a setting, which is down the road from an artist friend of mine who lives up north."

Loki will be bouncing off an eclectic cast of supporting players during his journey through Britain and Otherworld, many of whom Gillen introduced in "JIM" #639 such as Captain Britain. Gillen has enjoyed writing the character and has especially loved playing him off against someone as cunning and quick witted as Loki.

"I really loved Paul Cornell's take on Captain Britain, but I must admit my take relies heavily on the old Alan Moore run, where he was basically a nice guy who was almost always out of his depth. He's a straight shooting guy and one of the things I like about Alan Moore's 'Captain Britain' is it's about this straightforward guy stuck in a world that makes no bloody sense at all," Gillen explained. "That to me is the fun of the character and putting him alongside Loki has been great. He just wants to tear Loki a new one on principle upon meeting him because Loki is a lot quicker than Captain Britain. That isn't to say Captain Britain is stupid in any way, but he thinks in straight lines. He's got an engineer's mind full of straight lines, while Loki has a mind like a bowl of spaghetti," Gillen said with a laugh.

Regular supporting cast members like Loki's BFF Leah and her mistress Hela, the Goddess of Death, will also play significant roles in "Manchester Gods." Loki has owed Hela a debt for some time now and in "JIM" #639 the Goddess of Death told Loki he could repay that debt by arranging for her to sip from the legendary healing cup, the Holy Grail, which is located in Otherworld. Hela claimed she needed the cup to heal a wound inflicted upon her by the undead valkyries known as the Disir. Whether or not she was telling the truth remains to be seen.

"'Dungeon & Dragons alignments are an entirely stupid way to talk about characters in any depth. However, if we're talking surface, they do kinda offer a quick shorthand for moral codes. I've written Hela as if she were lawful evil. She's all about duty and rules her kingdom to better her people and increase their power. It just so happens, though, that her people are dead," Gillen said with a laugh. "She increases her power and the power of her people if all the other gods are dead. I've basically been playing Hela on the back foot so you see her at her best. You've seen her being lawful, but Hela is a villain. In the same way that Loki is a villain in many ways as well. So I would be incredibly suspicious about anything Hela does."

Other supporting cast members include an established Marvel character that young Loki has met before and a brand new character Gillen created for the arc. "Daimon Hellstrom, who Loki ran afoul of in our 'Terrorism Myth' arc is there, and recruited by Loki as basically an unconnected agent to run interference. When we meet him in Camden he's nursing a hangover created by over-imbuing evil," Gillen explained. "The new character I created is the Arch Druid of the Manchester Gods. He's named Wilson and he's loosely based on Tony Wilson, the Manchester music promoter and presenter who signed Joy Division and several other acts. If you're interested in catching up, a fictionalized Wilson was the lead character in '24 Hour Party People.' I couldn't think of anyone better to be the High Priest of Manchester."

"The Wilson of our story is an interesting guy. He's enormously pretentious, but he's an interesting guy," Gillen said with a laugh. "Manchester Gods' is the weirdest, most emotional, and borderline-intellectual story I've done for Marvel while still being as pure Pop as I've always written 'Journey Into Mystery.' It's as smart and odd and pop as the records Wilson stuck out. I'm generally amazed at some of the stuff I've gotten away with. I say I'm basing this character on Tony Wilson and the editors are like, 'Sure. That sounds great.' So I'm getting away with all manner of stuff, which is working scarily well on the page."

In terms of overall tone, "Manchester Gods" will be an intense and emotional roller coaster ride that can be enjoyed on a number of different levels. "This is probably the closest thing I've ever written to 'Phonogram' for Marvel. I mean in terms of the amount of theory that's beneath the fun and games. It's pretty dense," Gillen explained. "It's only a three-issue arc so it's doubly intense. And, visually speaking, I guarantee that there will be pages that are stuck on the internet and used forever. Plus this arc will have some of the saddest moments in 'JIM' so far. So get your tissues ready."

It's falls to a book's artist to fully realize the emotional moments of a story and Gillen is happy his "Manchester Gods" scripts are being brought to life by artist Rich Elson.

"Rich Elson is the artist that has done the most work on 'JIM' and he's completely owning it now. His best stuff for me is epic fantasy. I'm very glad he's doing the battle shots in the war story that we're telling. He's got this great style of violence, color, and over the top imagination," The writer said. "Rich's expressions and acting moments are splendid. When Loki looks sly and self satisfied it's great. His Leah is also quite well in terms of the constant low level of disdain. You can see her thinking, 'My life is awful. It's so bad.' And that he's a Brit means that he gets the subtle parts of the cultural references effortlessly."

Gillen is also very appreciative of the work done by "Journey Into Mystery" cover artist Stephanie Hans who designed the look of the Manchester Gods. "She came up with [the] idea to depict them as walking cities. My original idea for the Manchester Gods was actually a spore. So they would be these large cities that fire out other smaller cities miles through the air. Then when they land they grow and fire out other cities in turn," Gillen explained. "I was talking with Stephanie about it and she asked if I minded if she gave them legs and made them walk. I then thought, 'Yes. Do that. It's a much better image.' So the cover for #640 is Stephanie's original design for them."

The look of the "Manchester Gods" and their forces may remind some readers of the villainous forces of Mordor in J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy saga, "The Lord of the Rings." That's deliberate. Tolkien's beloved fantasy work was one of things that influenced and inspired the current arc of "Journey Into Mystery."

"I actually live down the road from one of the many places that inspired Tolkien's creation of the Shire," Gillen said. "He is very much an anti-industrialist; one of the major elements in his story was a fear of industrialism and he was definitely an influence on this arc."

As Gillen hinted, the "Manchester Gods" arc will be an emotionally trying time for Loki and the young god's troubles are just beginning. Subsequent arcs will find Loki embroiled in a number of dangerous and distressing adventures.

"This middle part of 'Journey Into Mystery' is about Loki having fun and games. The idea is that as chaotic as this part of Loki's life has been, it's also been quite fun. He's got a friend in the form of Leah. He doesn't have a dog as much as he has an evil murdering monster, but Thori is still his pet. Thor's alive again! Yes, The All-Mother is sending him on secret missions that may get him killed, which means he's got an ounce of nobility. So he's actually been having fun," Gillen explained. "His response to this glorious new mission is to go off and have fun. He gets to go to England in hopes of seeing all these exciting things, but instead here's the worst thing in the world, a war where people are eating each other alive. From here on in it gets quite grim. I don't want to oversell that promise of how grim it gets. It's still 'Journey Into Mystery,' but it won't be as light as it has been recently in 'Exiled.'"

Part of the reason things won't be so light is that "Everything Burns," the epic crossover between "Journey Into Mystery" and "Mighty Thor," kicks off when "Manchester Gods" ends. "'Manchester Gods' sets the stage for 'Everything Burns,' our biggest and most exciting story yet," Gillen said. "In 'Manchester Gods' Loki gets to experience the horrors of war firsthand in another country. In "Everything Burns" he'll be forced to revisit those horrors as war breaks out on his doorstep, in Asgardia."

"Everything Burns" will be Gillen's fourth arc on "Journey Into Mystery" and the writer knows he's been fortunate to tell all all those stories, especially in today's market. He appreciates the book's devoted fan base and recently discovered there's a community of "JIM" fans that are very active on the micro blogging platform Tumblr.

"They do all this fan art, and cosplay, and get very excited about the book. I follow the tags, but I lurk on the places. I ended up doing so much lurking, though, that I should actually join so I can reblog stuff. I was at the Kapow! Con and they made me a statue of Loki which was incredibly sweet. They also did a little comic strip about me as well. So 'Journey Into Mystery' fans are really sweet and wonderful. All four of them," the writer joked.

"Journey Into Mystery" #641 by Kieron Gillen and Rich Elson with a cover by Stephanie Hans goes on sale July 11.

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