Wednesday, 13 March 2013

An Interview With Kieron Gillen On Kid Loki & Journey Into Mystery: "Trust Your Instincts" (Part 1 of 2)

from JIM #630, by KG & Richard Elson et al
         
nb: to anyone who'd quite understandably prefer to skip the introduction, the interview proper begins three paragraphs down;

It's easy enough now to look back at Kieron Gillen's 18 month run on Journey Into Mystery and agree that it's as important as it's entertaining and thought-provoking and moving. Yet it would have been almost impossible for most of us to predict that that's how the tale of "Kid" Loki would pan out back in early 2011. Of course, Gillen had already produced some fine work. The two series of Phonogram which he and artist Jamie McKelvie had created, for example, were marked by smart-minded, innovative and often touching storytelling. But to forecast in April 2011 that JIM  would ultimately deserve to be ranked in the company of epochal titles such as Alan Moore's Swamp Thing or Neil Gaiman's Sandman would have been considered, at best, somewhat over optimistic. After all, JIM was just one more seemingly minor-league title spun out of yet another line-wide Event. At its heart was a character who'd often seemed worn through after decades of service as a fiendish trickster. Who could possibly care too deeply for a series with the apparently hooky premise of a magically de-aged version of Loki? In fact, who could care too much about Loki himself? To be frank, my own feelings were that this would be at best a worthy distraction, and that despite the undeniable craftsmanship of all involved, it would soon disappear, sunk by the marketplace's indifference combined with the endless disruptions of company-mandated crossovers. That it would actually prove to be a thoroughly compelling run, and that it would close with a profoundly poignant and satisfying climax, was entirely beyond my ability to even begin to imagine. 

From JIM #623, by Kieron Gillen, Doug Braithwaite et al, July 2011

But Gillen's run on Journey Into Mystery did quickly establish itself as one of those all-too-rare comics which prove that the shared worlds of Marvel and DC can be used to facilitate personal, sharp, emotional and gratifying storytelling. In collaboration with a cadre of artists and editors, Gillen's story of Kid Loki's short life has captured a series of distinct audiences, from chin-stroking reviewers to enthusiastic cosplayers. This contradicts one of the great modern-era myths of high-minded comics criticism, which often sniffily argues that the canvas of a continuity-bound, superhero-filled universe will inevitably undermine the value of the work set within it. Indeed, that's one of the things which Gillen's run was designed to discuss, and, as Tom Ewing has illuminatingly written, the epic of Kid Loki has challenged a great many assumptions about how such comics can be created and consumed. As such, Gillen's Journey Into Mystery works as top-notch entertainment as much as a source of literary fascination. It's saturated with meta, and yet its primarily the pathos-drenched tale of a lonely boy struggling to manipulate events towards their best possible outcome. Trying to maintain any pretence at critical distance here would be pointless. It's all very well attempting to project a sense of evaluative cool, and I do understand that speaking honestly can come across as sycophancy. But why pretend? Gillen's Journey Into Mystery was an exceptional series, and such things come along so rarely that it would be ridiculous not to celebrate the achievement.

From JIM #637, by Gillen & Carmine Di Giandomenico
 
The interview which follows was begun just as the final issue of JIM appeared. Since I'd had the opportunity to be briefly exchanging a few words with Kieron Gillen anyway, I decided to suggest an interview. It was an act of chutzpah, of course, but it struck me that here was a chance to find out more about a series which genuinely mattered. The thought struck me that I would have always regretted not trying to ask, say, Alan Moore about his Swamp Thing run if I'd made his acquaintance in the mid-Eighties, and that I ought not to shy away from taking a chance here. With exceptional generosity, Kieron agreed to the request and we exchanged e-mails about how to proceed. From a series of his ideas, I opted for the chance to discuss his career on JIM and Uncanny X-Men over the past few years. KG suggested that I send him one question at a time, which would allow the conversation to develop its own life. In doing so, I tried to avoid queries that had been asked many times before, while attempting to ensure the questions weren't too narrow and prescriptive. At times we'd swap questions and answers over a few days. At others, a couple of weeks would go by. Eventually, the process hit a natural end and what follows is edited together from several months of conversation. Given what a little-league site TooBusyThinking is, it was terrifically generous for KG to give up his time in this way. (Indeed, the UXM part of the project is still nearing competition.) Yet from the beginning, the hope for me was that this interview would eventually present something of a snapshot of what it was like for Kieron Gillen to be working on two different projects for a major American comics publisher at the same time. What did he learn from the process? Where had it been either especially challenging or particularly rewarding? Can the presence of crossovers actually be turned to good use? In such a context, we also discussed the development of Kid Loki as a character, the importance of music to a writer's creativity, and, importantly, the baleful business of those %&!* Elves in fantasy.

My sincerest thanks, of course, to Kieron Gillen, and also to the good folks at Marvel who helped enable what follows;
 
From JIM #639, by KG and Richard Elson

 1. If you could speak to the Kieron Gillen of a few years ago before he started on Journey Into Mystery and Uncanny X-Men, how would you advise him? What didn't he know that you wish he had?

If you're a writer and you've the misfortune to be in the pub with me, one of my relatively freshly minted pieces of advice is: "Sooner or later, everyone becomes a cautionary tale." Moore, the recent Morrison backlash, Miller, whoever. This is both depressing and oddly freeing.  Frankly, if discussions about Alan Moore are most commonly accompanied with an eye-roll, we're all fucked.

When the more self-aware strand of wannabe writers are looking at the industry they pick apart people's careers and decide which bits worked and which bits are mistakes. You try your best to use the former and avoid the latter. The problem with the "mistakes" is that i) you realise what caused a chunk of those mis-steps, and they were in fact the only sane response to an insane world and ii) you end up making a shitload of new mistakes all of your own, which the next generation will try to learn from. I'm aware that I'm well on the way to being a cautionary tale now. C'est La Vie.

I suspect the advice I'd give would be actually pretty prosaic. "In about four months time, Marvel are going to introduce something called Double-Shipping. This will mean the three books you're writing will become the equivalent of 5 books. This means that you're doing far less of the other work you were planning to do. If you want to have any indie work out before the end of 2012, you need to lose one of those books quickly". But I'm not sure if I'd even (have changed things) given that. It'd have meant leaving Generation Hope even earlier, and the best parts of Generation Hope were what happened past the first arc. Would I honestly give advice that made me not write Gen Hope 9 or 10? And frankly, if I left Gen Hope at issue 5, it'd look to the outside world like I'd been sacked for being rubbish or something. That would just lead to a different set of problems. 

It'd just be a list of minor stuff: leave Kruun in a wheelchair, give the extinction team a coherent uniform, give Sinister solid red eyes to dehumanize him, ask about the specific nature of the creepy neighbour before he's drawn, rethink that first Leah/Loki scene, etc, etc. Give some information about the specific strengths and weaknesses of the artists you work with, so I can rethink the stuff that didn't quite work like I hoped. Boring craft stuff, really.

Or I could just say "It turns out okay. Trust your instincts. Trust your friends. Pick slightly more fights."

From JIM #628, by KG, Whilce Portacio, Allen Martinez et al
        
2. Can I ask you about what those instincts were, and about your more considered thoughts too, when you were approached to take custody of Loki in Journey Into Mystery? To the outsider, it hardly appears to have been an offer which might result in the kind of acclaim which the run generated. What was the brief you were offered, and how did you initially view this opportunity in terms of your own interests and ambitions? 

I sort of had a master-plan for my last two years of work, which like all plans didn't survive first contact with the enemy (i.e. Reality). 

In terms of my career, I was aware that I hadn't had to do even a medium-length run on a book that showed what I was capable of. Finding a place slightly out of the way in the modern mainstream, and cultivating it in my own image. Basically, I wanted to do something that fit into my creative history the way that Animal Man or Secret Warriors fitted into Morrison's and Hickman's.  Knowing the marketplace, I was thinking conservatively in terms of length. If it took off, 20-30 issues would be feasible. Having the experience of dancing around the current Marvel comics universe, I was always thinking about making it being able to robustly survive and even subvert whatever crossover it found itself in contact with. Which, when 75% of the story ended up being crossovers, was thinking time well spent. 

But basically with JIM I wanted to do the novel. Here's what I can do if you give me 20-30 issues. Here's what you can expect if you gift me 20-30 issues of your time to entertain you.
   
From JIM #644, by KG & Carmine Di Giandomenico
  
In terms of specifics, I was asked after I left my fill-in time on Thor whether I had any interest in doing a secondary Thor-universe book. I'd learned a lot in that particularly crazy 13 issues, and wanted to actually put it in practise, with time to set it up a little more. I've previously said Siege: Loki is where JIM clicked into being, and that's true. An often political book about characters lying to each other. When I conceived it, I presumed we'd have an adult Loki for the run - so clearly, it was going to have a different shape. I had the image of Loki as Elric, basically. You can see a little hint of that in that page in Siege: Loki where he throws off his cloak to reveal the armour, the sword and the whip. 

But that all changed with Kid Loki, obviously.

In short: I decided that this would be the book I could risk writing without much worrying about how out-of-step it is with mainstream comics, entrusting that if I wanted to read this kind of stuff, other people would too.  I'm not such an unique snowflake, y'know? And a pop-Vertigo book in the Marvel Universe was compelling. Also, fantasy. Not much fantasy in the MU. It was the first book I wrote after I finally came to terms with primarily being a fantasy writer, which is a realisation I'd been dodging for about a decade. 

To be honest, I'd be lying if I said I didn't write it hoping it'd get the sort of response it did. It was me seeing an opportunity to write the sort of book I wanted to do, grabbing it by the throat and bloodily wolfing it down.

Ugh. I used the word "career". Dirty.

From JIM#622, by KG & Doug Braithwaite et al
   
3. It seems to me that you’ve not just been ambitious in JIM, but exceptionally so. For example, you didn't just acknowledge the influence of some really fine and even indisputably great creators in your work. You also seemed at times to deliberately engage in a debate with their work. This seems to have gone way beyond what often passes as "homage". You appear to have been deliberately positioning your work so that it both recognised the achievements of some excellent creators while making a claim to be taken equally seriously. There’s not many folks who’d start off the tale of Kid Loki in JIM – a story about stories, and ultimately, their limits – with those magpies, which immediately both evoked Sandman and expressed a determination not to exist in its shadow.(*1)

So, is it true that you were consciously being THAT ambitious and from the start? What did that involve, on the level of craft and confidence? Was this your version of what the Manics had wanted for their first album, a tilt not just at “very good” but “Great”? Did you ever feel that you were reaching too high, or that the things you were aiming for in the work might elude you?

This is a tricky question, so I'm going to dodge it.

Like a typically oft-wanky Brit comics writer, Watchmen was a book I dissected to an appropriately scary degree. Its particularly clockwork genius is something that lends itself to that. Repeated imagery, repeated motifs, complexity of structure, etc. It all sits there in its crystalline perfection. Watchmen, for me, was always a book that was primarily about that intensely deployed craft. The surface supheroes-in-the-real-worldisms are the least of its appeal. Its about the absolute immaculate design of it all.

So you can imagine my surprise in 2002 or so, I read the interview where Moore says that they pretty much made it up as they went along.

I still remember Charlie Chu (Now an Editor at Oni) and me just sort of staring at the interview disbelievingly. Like... how? How was that even possible?

But it's possible.

With JIM, I  had a bunch of themes I wanted to explore. I knew the end point. I knew what it's about (And, to state the bloody obvious, "knowing what it's about" is the thing you need to hold onto as a writer on this kind of thing. Problems come when you momentarily lose track of that. If you don't know which way's north, you're going to get lost). I also knew that it had to be flexible. For all the detail, JIM's storytelling mode is that of the pub raconteur, going on interesting detours before heading back to the main thrust.
         
From JIM#629, by KG, Wilce Portacio et al

So I don't think planning for it to be capital-G Great is what it's about. It's about making sure there's space for the possibility it could be great or good or at least as good as it can possibly be. If you write it as well as you're able, you'll be able to make all the pieces align and it'll become something that those from the outside won't believe wasn't all carefully constructed in advance. Some themes of JIM weren't quite as prominent as I thought they would be (Class, for example). Some themes which weren't explicitly there when I conceived it became absolutely central (Feminism, for example. There's Feminist content to most of my work, but Matt's introduction of the All-Mother made me double-down there). And, best of all, some things are things I discovered about how I feel about art by doing it (the relatively quiet theme of Games Vs Stories, for example. Something I'll come back to another time, I suspect.) 

And - er - that answers the general thrust your the question without really getting into engaging with the specifics of how JIM dances with its influences and forebears. That's even trickier. JIM approached its forebears in various ways. If you were to make it simply polar, one would be entirely playfully with a grin (Like Nightmare's first line being a howl of HE'S RIPPING ME OFF right at the reader) and the other considerably more pointed (Your comments bring to mind China Mieville being a bit suspicious about stories hailing the awesome magical power of stories. Because who profits from the idea that storytellers are magical and important? (Writers, obv.) I think it was its best when it was both simultaneously, like the V-Masked Loki blowing up Stonehenge.

I believe Douglas Wolk described JIM as the most affectionate killing of your fathers in recent comics. (Here.) I don't think he's wrong.

Does that answer the question? If you want to focus on any areas I've skimmed over, please ask.

From JIM #632, by KG & Mitch Breitweiser et al
  
4. You talk about having a “master plan”, which got quickly challenged, and a clear direction, which you held onto. You’ve mentioned your ambitions too. Yet I can’t think of another mainstream book which had to work within such serious constraints and yet still ended up so thoroughly acclaimed. As you say, JIM seemed to have been regularly enmeshed in crossovers. Not only were you having to respond to line-wide Events, but you were often actively crossing over with other individual titles even when that wasn’t so.

I can see how your “pub-raconteur” approach, as you described, with its sense of purpose and space for digression, would work well here. But is there a sense in which these various crossovers and so on actually helped the work and your writing chops as well? Did they cause you to develop storytelling muscles which might otherwise not have developed? Were there key or at least positive aspects of JIM which wouldn’t have turned up without all this interaction? It’s often said that the modern superhero universe and the way in which it’s directed and marketed hurts creativity. Can all that complexity and direction actually work positively too? (Or perhaps not?)

(I’ve rarely seen a comics writer discuss this, and even when they do, it’s usually it’s in the sense of “I did what I had to do as well as I could and then got back to following my own star”. )

Ah - I've failed to be clear with something. It's worth stressing the master-plan is less about how JIM specifically would work and more what I wanted to do with the last two years of my writing. The basic master plan was to just give the best portrait of what writer I was, in lots of different ways. One enormously successful pop-mainstream superhero book (Uncanny X-Men), one cult fantasy book also operating in the mainstream (JIM), something distinctly written for a hard-R audience (UBER over at Avatar) and hopefully a couple of minis (THREE and PHONOGRAM 3). Frankly, I wanted to at least have the potential be the most commercial and critically acclaimed writer of my generation. And I haven't done that (Synder takes that particular prize, and rightly so). In practice, nothing outside Marvel came out. At the time of writing I've got just shy of 22 issues of my own stuff written and with artists, and none of it has dropped yet.  Don't get me wrong - I'm happy with what I've done, but I'm also aware that where I am isn't where I planned to be, in terms of the work I wanted out there.

(The up-side is that with all that written, it'll come out when it comes out, and I can actually spend my non-Marvel time writing new stuff. With any luck, some of that could even drop in 2013, which will make me appear to be the most productive man in comics. Well - at least until the stockpiled work runs out)

From JIM #642, by KG & Carmine Di Giandomenico
    
JIM's relation to crossovers is one of the stranger things about it. I described it as a novel earlier, but it's a 30-odd issue novel that a full 3/4s was tying into other books and a full quarter was actually primarily written by other people.  Yet somehow it holds together. I talk about JIM being miraculous, and that's the one that rates the highest. In a real way, it's less that the crossovers stretched writing muscles and more that JIM literally couldn't exist without them. When initially conceived  I knew that JIM would be tying into Fear Itself for its entire length. As usual, I leaned into it. I planned those 8 issues to dove-tail completely with Matt's Outline, with one eye on making sure my ironic counter-point to its narrative would play off entertainingly from what Fear Itself had done immediately before - and one eye on making sure it worked as a singular entity by itself (I always said if FEAR ITSELF was WW2, we're a movie about the Enigma code. You don't need to know more than the bare shape of WW2 to understand a film about the Enigma code, after all). After my original planning, I realised that the schedule had another couple of JIM issues on - which lead to that very tight response-structure I'd planned to be entirely thrown out of sync. That lead to inserting the two extra issues into the structure - the Mephisto Issue and the Volstagg one, which both ended up being some of the most popular issues of the run. Frankly, the extra space to introduce the wider picture in the Mephisto issue was a particular boon.

I'd written JIM to be able to end at the end of Fear Itself, if sales weren't great. However, I also realised if we *did* continue, I couldn't just start the "real" story. As I said, a run of 30 issues, 10 issues is basically a third of my book. If I was to tell a 30 issue novel, I had to keep Fear Itself right at its heart. Basically, and I say this with my tongue deep in my cheek, it meant that I'd designed the whole of Journey Into Mystery to be the greatest Fear Itself tie-in of all time

And honestly? Most of that is just internal mental stuff. You don't view the crossover as a problem. You take it with an incredible straight face. Yes, this is the most important thing in the universe and write like that. I did a similar thing with AvsX over in Uncanny.

In terms of following my own star, with all these jobs, I knew that there was a star already there. With JIM, it was a case that if I was tying in 10 issues, those 10 issues would always shape where I was going to end up. With Uncanny, I knew it ended with Cyclops going to jail before I wrote the first line. With Generation Hope, I knew it was all leaning towards Hope-as-Messiah. The job for the latter two specifically felt like the execution of that story. I went into the job with no illusions about that. I wasn't hired to do what Morrison did with New X-Men. Uncanny X-Men is that core X-Men book which is in the heart of the maelstrom. And frankly, I wouldn't have changed it. If you find yourself running the last series of The Shield, you don't annihilate all that dramatic momentum by going a completely different way.

From JIM #641, by KG, Richard Elson et al
  
5. You said you came to the conclusion that you were an author of fantasy. If you think it’s relevant, why did you fight that definition of yourself and why accept it? And how did accepting that fact affect what you did with Loki and JIM? What does being a writer who accepts the importance of such a tradition mean to how you go about your work?

Well, I burned out on awful mainstream fantasy books as a teen. That leaves scars.

I'm not saying anything new here, but mainstream fantasy tends to be a socially conservative genre. Go grab any of the obvious Moorcock or Mieville essays, and I'll basically agree with them. And frankly? Science Fiction writers are just much cooler. I tended to think of myself as a speculative fiction writer until a particularly wise ex called me on my bullshit. If your speculations are basically "what if music were magic?" you're a bloody fantasy writer, dick.

Obviously, as Moorcock and Mievelle and many others show, it doesn't have to be like that, but when so much shit fantasy accepts turning foreigners into monsters and having your heroes slaughter the fuckers as a standard trope, it's problematic. As much as Tolkein's work lies right at the heart of me as a writer, I'm aware that if I was living in Middle Earth, I'd be an orc. I'd be working in one of those smelting pits until some elf decides to shoot me.

(Don't start me on Elves. My perennial bugbear. Elves are basically "What If Aryans were right about there being a master race". Fucking Elves.)

From JIM #626, by KG & Doug Braithwaite et al
 
In short: I resisted defining myself as a fantasy writer because fantasy tends to be iffy. I became fine with it when I realised how core it was to how I processed and commented upon the world. And, of course, the tradition of anti-trad-Fantasy Fantasy writers is always looking for recruits. Hell, the problematic nature of the genre makes it almost too easy. In any other genre would I got away with THE MANCHESTER GODS ARE ACTUALLY THE GOOD GUYS as a reveal? But in a genre that demonises technological progress and hails the status quo of inherited power, you just put someone in a black hat and a bit of soot and everyone presumes they're another working-class/foreigner-surrogate to be stomped on by the pretty blonde people.

I find myself laughing at how much bile I end up spewing when you get me on this topic. Magic Swords +3 Against Scarabs Are Serious Business.

Coming tomorrow: More on how the character of Kid Loki came to be: the writer's appreciation of his readers; the pleasures of collaboration: making Events and crossovers work, and a great deal more.I hope you'll consider popping by.

From JIM #637, by KG & Carmine Di Giandomenico
          
The second and final part of this interview can be found here.

Notes

1. Just to show how patient Mr G has been, this question originally included the following babble, as I tried to explain what it was I was trying to say:

"There's the matter of Other-World, for example. Alan Moore had left it as a dimension which Captain Britain "saw as a place of ancient ruins and tranquil medieval splendour", and that's how it tended to stay. But you argued on an ideological level that such a mythic representation of the nation ought to involve the industrial as well as the rural , which means that you weren’t just adapting other folks' work, but debating with it too. With Gaiman's work, you didn't just occasionally play with the traditions that he tapped into and the tales that he produced in Sandman. You seem to have studied his work and worked out a different way to represent "story" within the fantasy comic which nodded towards Sandman while taking a quite separate path. And so, at JIM's conclusion, there appears to be a purposeful contrast between Morpheus' end and Loki's. The Sandman's passing ultimately empathises the way in which story can inform a community coping with the inevitably of death by lending it meaning. But Kid Loki's death draw's much of its pathos from the fact that we know he’s no hope of any further influence, let alone an after-life in story, because no-one will ever know he existed. It's a tale that’s less about story and more about the limits of what story can do. At the end, only KL’s own personal narrative can count in any way at all, and even that dies with him. (Which is why Loki's death, for me, hurts so much. It's the secularist's terror of an entirely meaningless universe, which I've never seen represented so mercilessly in a comic before.)"

Crikey! It's a good job that never saw print, isn't it? 

8 comments:

  1. Oh man, I just saw this interview linked from Twitter and I am hooooooked.

    Interesting questions, thoughtful responses, this feels rare. Good stuff.

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    1. Hello Damon:- thank you for such generous thoughts. They're much appreciated :)

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  2. Well done, Colin and Kieron. Well thought out questions, with well thought out responses. This article was a great start to my day, and I am excited to read the rest!
    So many strong irons in the Too Busy fire right now! Keep this up, and you won't be the "little-league site" that you claim to be for long!
    I'm particularly impressed with KG's awareness of himself as a writer, and the jobs he has taken on. It really does feel like you've harnessed a rising giant in the field, Colin. I'm ashamed to say I haven't yet collected all of KG's JIM run, but at least know I'm working toward that goal. I am excited to read them in one go when I do.

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    1. Hello Brian:- I'm glad you enjoyed the interview. KG lent me a ridiculous and of course welcome degree of access here and it was always my hope that it would prove interesting to folks who might not be completely involved with his work yet. I wish there was an Omnibus edition of the JIM stories that I could point you towards, but each arc is currently in print and most are available in smart hardbacked editions. Whether as individual issues or collections, I guess it's obvious that I think they're worth acquiring.

      JIM certainly was a book which has reminded me of how much fun it was to be able to pick up books such as Gerber's Howard The Duck, Moore's Swamp Thing, Morrison's JLA, Simone's Secret Six, and so on. Of course, his and Jamie McKelvie's Young Avengers is currently proving to be a title to treasure. If you're not already, that might be a train you'd appreciate riding.

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  3. Thankfully, and in no small part to yourself, I heard the "All aboard!" when Young Avengers was leaving the station (to torture your analogy)(and I know how you feel about torture). I couldn't get into Phonogram, but your review convinced me that I read it wrong, rather than the work being at fault. I'm enjoying YA greatly!
    And, as luck would have it, I picked up nearly the entire run of Simone's Secret Six just last night! Again, based on your good words. I look forward to more delightful comics reading in my near future!

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    1. Hello Brian:- I often worry about recommending books for fear of leading anyone astray. After all, what do I know? But with the likes of Young Avengers, Secret Six and JIM, I feel far more confident than I usually do. It's hard to go wrong with them, and I'm pleased to hear that you've stacking up such choice reads :)

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  4. Roll on Part Two, Colin, because Part One here is a fascinating, illuminating read. I love how Kieron strives to improve his craft, and properly thinks about how any strip he's writing can fit into the larger tapestry of the Marvel Universe (while sneaking in a few subversive threads).

    Never mind collections, Marvel should (yes they shoukd!) re-release every issue of JiM with unifying covers and contextual backmatter to allow latecomers to catch up with a splendid series, with the new presentation acknowledging its worthiness to stand alongside the likes of Sandman and Swamp thing.

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    1. Hello Martin:- I think you're absolutely right about Marvel finding a way to exploit JIM's growing reputation. It's not a comic that ought be read out of sequence, though it can be and enjoyed as such. But it is a book which could speak to audiences that it didn't entirely reach while it was alive, and some form of smart campaign could surely pay dividends. The two other books you've mentioned benefited greatly from being repackaged and kept in the public eye. JIM would too.

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