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Pop Culture Looks Like David Bowie

Any attempt to quantify David Bowie, who died Sunday at age 69, feels fleeting, mostly because it was Bowie’s business model to defy comprehension. He didn’t fit into a neat box by any conception of boxes or neatness. We could look at the music, of which there was lots but somehow still not enough; we could see his perennial presence on the top music charts since 1972; we could admire his work on screen; or we could marvel that Bowie, no joke, was an innovator in the development of a financial product.

Still, one of the largest parts of Bowie’s legacy remains the aesthetic imprint he’s had on pop culture. And one of the most significant media to assimilate the aesthetic of Bowie was, oddly enough, comic books. Trying to trace the artist’s influence there led us to the expert: Kieron Gillen.

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Gillen is the comic-book creator behind “Phonogram,” a series about Britpop and the life of a fan, and “The Wicked + the Divine,” an Eisner-nominated series from Image Comics that studies fandom, fame, and the life of creators by considering pop culture to be theology. It involves a pantheon of real-life theological entities taking the form of pop musicians, one of whom is a Bowie-infused take on Lucifer. The work of Gillen and frequent collaborator Jamie McKelvie — which also includes a run on the “Young Avengers” series at Marvel — is heavily influenced by music, with Bowie seemingly a regular muse.

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A cover of Issue #1 of “The Wicked + the Divine,” from 2014

Image Comics

I talked to Gillen shortly after Bowie’s death about the music legend’s impact on his work, comics as a whole and the world at large.

Walt Hickey: What was your relationship with David Bowie?

Kieron Gillen: It’s weird. Weird is probably the wrong word, but I’m relatively late to David Bowie. The first time I really let Bowie into my life was going to university. I had a friend and she was a Bowie obsessive, and it was such a weird thing for her to be obsessive over. She was a Levellers fan hippie girl, which might not mean much to anyone in America —

WH: Nope! Could you go into that a little bit?

KG: She was a bit of a crusty, which was the music scene you could possibly describe as a lot of dreads, and a lot of the concept of authenticity. So it always stuck out a mile, her love of Bowie, this Nietzsche-quoting creature.

It’s kind of just grown across the ages really. Bowie’s like — it’s that awful quote, there’s a molecule of Hitler in everyone’s lungs? — there’s a molecule of Bowie in everything in pop culture. You take away Bowie, you lose a lot. There’s so many things he did.

WH: I want to zero in on David Bowie in comics. I was a big fan of “Sandman” in college. The Lucifer character there was very clearly inspired1 by Bowie, and I know that in WicDiv the character Luci is inspired by Bowie, and then I looked into it a little bit more and Grant Morrison’s Joker takes elements of Bowie, and it seems like he’s left a footprint in a lot of places, like you were saying, but in comics there’s definitely a not-so-subtle Bowie fandom going on.

KG: I think I would agree entirely. Literally a couple days before Bowie died, I was reading the back matter for the fancy edition of “Watchmen,” where they have the script and the pictures, and [Alan Moore, the author, is]

Dr. Manhattan, from "Watchmen"

Dr. Manhattan, from “Watchmen”

DC Comics

talking about how the major influence for Dr. Manhattan was “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” Bowie acting in that.

Specifically how, in “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” you don’t really realize it’s happening over decades to begin with, because people are aging around him, and it’s that out-of-time moment. You take away Bowie, and you take a major part out of “Watchmen.”

If you had Matt Fraction [creator of “Sex Criminals,” “Hawkeye” and “Casanova”] here, Matt Fraction would be having a very different conversation. There’s obviously a lot of Jagger in “Casanova,” but there’s a lot of Bowie in “Casanova” too. You ever listen to “We Are the Dead” by Bowie? “We Are the Dead” turned up on a “Casanova” soundtrack. That was my way in on that period. There’s so many different periods of Bowie you can go into, and any one of them is a sufficient career for most people. I found that fascinating.

bowie -- good evening

Luci, from “The Wicked + The Divine,” Issue #1

Image Comics

You talk about WicDiv and its influence — there was a time early on when we talked about making all the pantheon be Bowie aspects. You could probably do that!

WH: You could definitely do that!

KG: Twelve different stages in his career, map them out into different gods, and that would have been fun. We laughed but then thought, no, too much, even for us.

Bowie gave a lot of different people excuses to be themselves. Or just discover themselves and that there’s lots of different ways to exist.

“Labyrinth” [the 1986 Jim Henson movie starring Bowie] is a large subtext into a large generation of female creators in fantasy. You can certainly see that there. There’s tendrils, and you can see a lot of different people pay tribute to Bowie, how far those tendrils went.

WH: It seems like a lot of folks who are really well respected and really well regarded in comics and in literature have been harboring secret Bowie fandom for such a long time, and in some cases not-so-secret.

KG: Yeah, ours isn’t strictly secret. It’s enormous. I actually had a dream about Bowie dying! I need to dig out when I actually had this dream, because I tweeted about it: He was collaborating with Warren Spector, a very famous game designer — he did a game called “Deus Ex” amongst other things — collaborating with David Bowie on a big multimedia project. And I said, “That’s amazing!” and he said, “It’s not that good, he’s dying, he’s only got a little bit of time left.” And I’m sure people have dreams about this kind of thing all the time, but I’m not a very superstitious person, I’m pretty rationalist, just like my books, but there’s a way of him creeping into people’s lives like that.

WH: There are several incarnations of Lucifer in comics that shout out to Bowie, one’s yours. I was wondering what your thoughts on the Bowie-Lucifer connection were.

KG: There’s a level of performative-ness. He’s like a walking science-fiction device, you know? I never told Jamie, but I was thinking “Bowie as Tilda Swinton,” that was my original idea for Luci. And he realized instantly, I just meant Tilda Swinton, which I had just been hinting around. And at the same time, then the video comes out with him and Tilda, and it’s like “Oh, Bowie’s aware of that!”

bowie mug shot

David Bowie’s mugshot, from a 1976 arrest for marijuana possession in Rochester, N.Y.

bowie comic mug shot

An alternate cover of “The Wicked + The Divine,” Issue #2, for Beach-Ball Comics

And that’s what I find so fascinating about “Blackstar” and listening to it. First, how good it is. Second, you go to that line in [Sylvia Plath’s poem] “Lady Lazarus,” “Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well.” I wonder, I listen closer to “Lazarus” now, did he mean that as a buried Lady Lazarus riff? The whole “dying is an art” thing? That Sylvia Plath poem. That only just occurred to me. I’ll have to think about that some more.

Wow, you’re getting me in deep pop obsessive mode.

WH: It seems like you’re the guy to talk to about this.

KG: Back to the fact that he is so many things, the idea of him being Lucifer. Obviously using Bowie as Lucifer is a certain nod, as well, because WicDiv is kind of dancing with pop history. We take from a lot of places and it’s kind of about that process. So there’s a meta element of having our Lucifer. We chose one era. We chose the Thin White Duke era. There’s been a lot of articles about Bowie’s more problematic phases. Bowie — as the level of coke abuse and flirting with fascism as the Thin White Duke era — that’s the era we took and made Satan.

We kind of like interrogating that concept. That is very typically one period of Bowie. There’s different bits.

We talk about Marvel Boy, our take on Marvel Boy as the boy who fell to Earth, in “Young Avengers”? That’s very Bowie influenced. Though obviously he’s a lot dumber than Bowie ever was.

WH: You wrote about videogames before writing comic books, and earlier you had mentioned Deus Ex. Do you see Bowie there at all?

KG: I can’t see much Bowie in Deus Ex now that I think about it. Of course, he’s been in a videogame. Did you know that?

WH: What? No!

KG: There’s a game called “Omikron: The Nomad Soul,” which was about ‘98 or ‘99, and it’s by the game designer David Cage. He did “Fahrenheit,” he did — the one where you have to cry and weep a lot — “Heavy Rain.” Bowie performed a gig in the game. He actually did a couple tracks of the soundtrack. Just reading from Wikipedia, Bowie “had some input on the storyline and game’s design, makes two cameo appearances within the game, although not as himself; first as Boz, a game character,” etc., etc. It’s all on the Internet. Bowie was interesting in that way!

WH: What are your thoughts on “Blackstar”?

KG: I’ve said WicDiv’s about death. I’ve said it’s about me dealing with the grief over my dad’s passing. And as dark as “Blackstar” is, I find it incredibly exciting to think you can have 29 years of incredibly fruitful creative life behind you, and as you’re dying you might be able to do something like this.

I retweeted someone else saying this, but David Bowie looked death in the eye and thought, “I can use this.” That’s pretty inspiring. And even if the album was crap, it would be! But I don’t think that, I think “Blackstar” is fascinating. I think it’s really, really fascinating. One of my friends was talking about the musical nods, little bits of previous music he had done. There’s a wonderful lift from a track from “Low” in one of the tracks. That requiem-ness of it, that idea of a summing up — “I’m going to make my final statement here” — that’s incredibly powerful.

The final issue of “Phonogram” comes out Jan. 20, and serendipitously has a David Bowie story in the B-side. The third trade paperback for “The Wicked + The Divine” is out Feb. 2. Gillen can be found at @KieronGillen.

Footnotes

  1. Even this is an understatement: Kelley Jones, who drew the character, wrote, “Neil [Gaiman, ‘The Sandman’ series author] was adamant that the Devil was David Bowie. He just said, ‘He is. You must draw David Bowie. Find David Bowie, or I’ll send you David Bowie. Because if it isn’t David Bowie, you’re going to have to redo it until it is David Bowie.’ ”

Walt Hickey is FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

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