Wed, 28 September 2016
This week, the boys talk to writer Simon Spurrier about his Image Comics series Cry Havoc, a tale of squad-based black ops lycanthropic action! Si talks about the book, his influences with the story, and reflects for a moment on his time writing the Marvel Comics character Legion. Also, the gang talks about their thoughts on The Magnificent Seven!
Cry Havoc is available in comic shops everywhere and on Comixology now!
Si was incredibly generous enough to transcribe the interview portion of this episode so we decided to include it below:
Like most of my ideas: organically, bit-by-bit. I tend to think of creativity in terms of oysters wrapping layers of spit round a grain of sand, rather than some exquisite pearl arriving fully formed. Ideas are far less about magical inspirational thunderbolts and far more about time, mutation and effort.
I've always been a nut for folklore, so I suppose that's where it begins. I'd started seeing some weird patterns in mythology: repeat beats and unexpected analogues with a bunch of the prevailing preoccupations of our age. Identity, dispossession, self-control, prejudice. It's all there. Ultimately I realised I was sympathising with a lot of the monsters which served as moral shepherds in the old stories: don't go near the deep water or x will get you... ; don't talk to strangers, one of them might be y... All our best bogeymen are really just cautionary common sense dictats dressed-up in creative creature-feature ways - metafictional Bad Cops - and the tragedy is that our own modern world has lost all interest in these splendid beastly manifestations. We live in an age which takes everything literally; we've forgotten the importance of things whose reality is hazy. Which, y'know. Totally sucks.
So, okay, I found myself wondering what it would be like to be one of those creatures. How would you respond to feeling redundant, forgotten, unneeded? How would you go about making yourself, and your people, relevant again? And how would that story play on a very human level?
Before I quite knew what I was doing, all these ingredients were blending themselves together and demanding a particular shape. A story about a woman struggling with the chaos inside herself, infected by an occult curse, who's forced to travel into a warzone (in the company of other metamorphosing monsters) to try and heal herself. And stumbles upon a far wider (and wilder) global situation as a result.
Depending how you look at it, Cy Havoc's either a thoughtful (but exceptionally violent) take on the classic "monsters with guns!" subgenre exclusive to comics, an intensely political dissection of the human race's obsession with control, or an extremely personal story about a woman trying to work out who she is against a backdrop of fiends, firepower and fragility.
All stories are transformative, of course. Shapeshifters have served as a useful shorthand for all sorts of thematic tissue. Western conceptions of vampires, for instance, have wound-up centred around notions of class, culture and decadence - the long shadow of Byronism. The werewolf lends itself well to more interior (and often secret) struggles: sexuality, madness, identity... The beauty of having even the shallowest grounding in international folklore is that one quickly realises how thoroughly boring the Hollywood darlings of the monster world really are when compared to their global cousins. Vampire analogues from Asia, to pluck a random example, are not only a billion times more inventive and horrifying than our widow's-peaked cape-wearing cliches - I vaant to suuck your blutt! - but serve completely different functions in the cycle of cautionary superstition I mentioned a moment ago.
I wanted to tell a monster story which was quite overtly about something. I wanted it to be fun and crazy and violent and beautiful and all the things you'd expect from a book about slavering creatures, sure, but also deeply and accurately rooted in "real" lore - if you know what I mean - and all of that serving a very specific function. I won't spoil the end of the arc, but for all Lou's ups and downs this tale ends with a really brave, positive personal revelation, hinging around notions of identity, self-belief and mental wellness. We literally couldn't have reached that point without relying on the complex, nuanced, but visually wonderful canon of metamorphosing monsters we've played with.
Sure, of course -- although (pedant that I am) Heart of Darkness is the story of the visitor, Marlow, not the rogue Mr Kurtz - just as Cry Havoc's central story is about Lou, not Lyn O'Dell and her Afghan refuge for monsters.
Actually, I'd argue Heart of Darkness is just one exceptional example of an ur-myth which has been around since before history was history. A reluctant hero undertakes a journey into the frightening unknown, often seeking to retrieve or destroy a piece of civilisation which has been lost to the wild. Along the way the traveller realises the true journey has little to do with the wildness of location and everything to do with the wildness of the human heart. What starts out looking like a physical quest winds up being a spiritual transformation.
That sounds horribly trite, when you put it like that, but there it is. I like to think Cry Havoc subverts and mutates that archetype in some pretty major ways, but Conrad's prose is too beautiful to resist a nod at the start of the journey.
The quotes serve several functions, but most importantly they orient the reader's expectations about the different stages of Lou's journey. And, frankly, they remind the casual browser that beneath the monster-mashing violence on the page there's a loooot of meaty stuff going on. Emergent motifs of cages, restraint, captivity, expression, humanity, reality, and stories about stories themselves. Cry Havoc is absolutely the sort of book which rewards re-reading.
Me showing off, basically. I can make a pretty good case for everything in CH serving a function of the character, tale or theme, but I can't deny I relished the chance to drop a big smoking formalist experiment on readers with my first proper Image book. That all my collaborators - Ryan on art; Matt, Nick and Lee on color; Emma on design and Si on letters - that they've all made the reading experience as effortless as possible is testament to their collective brilliance.
Too many influences to mention - ambient rather than specific, frankly - but I've always enjoyed describing CH as "Jarhead meets Pan's Labyrinth", so let's go with that.
Simply, he's the best storyteller working in the industry today.
Modern comics are overflowing with incredibly stylish talents and exceptional illustrators, but I worry we're losing touch with the single most important skill any artist needs: narrative momentum. That requires a grasp of the nuts-and-bolts technical guff - directorial craft, basically, and you'd be amazed how many A-list artists don't have the first clue about eye-tracking, crossing-the-line, angle-selection and so on - plus a thoughtless intuition for the flow of a story.
Comics is quite simply the art of controlling the dissemination of information across a series of units of time and space. Doing so in the most perfectly-paced, easily-followed, beautiful way possible is the holy grail. That's especially true if you're talking about a story bumper-packed with experiments, formalist shenanigans and multiple layers of meaning.
I just wrote Cry Havoc. It's Ryan who makes it readable. It doesn't hurt that his sense of monster design and location is second to none. That guy's a big, big talent.
Planned from quite near the start, anyway. While plotting the series I realised Lou's story was demanding that it be told in three separate but parallel threads. Simply, by placing them side-by-side rather than consecutively we accessed all kinds of fascinating enhancement and juxtapositional patterns in her life, struck-up relationships between unexpected moments, and in general could do some really unique comicbook storytelling. The biggest problem with that sort of experimentation is that one risks losing one's audience. They've never seen anything quite like it, so how are they supposed to know that the scenes on this page don't follow-on chronologically from the scenes on the previous page?
It's been an accepted technique in comics, tv and movies for yonks that flashback scenes be rendered in black and white, or a similar reduced palette, so audiences don't get too muddled. I figured what we needed was a more sophisticated version of the same, which could differentiate not just two but three separate time periods, and do so in a rather more nuanced way than simply switching to b&w.
All this was taking shape at the same time a much-needed conversation was going on in the broader comics community, about how poorly colorists have historically been treated; rarely credited, often dismissed or ignored altogether in critical analysis as a Support Role.
We realised we had in our hands a means not only of helping to visually distinguish our three narrative threads from each other, but to demonstrate in powerful fashion just how much of an impact colorists truly have on the feel of a comicbook page.
Thanks to the different - but differently beautiful - styles and palette choices of Matt, Nick and Lee, a reader can quickly and thoughtlessly orient themselves in the chronology of Lou's tale while reading Cry Havoc. One artist, three colorists; three very different vibes.
Worth saying, I hope we're on the cusp of an even wider enlightenment in comics, with all the other so-called "support" roles - inker, letterer, designer, editor - achieving the same levels of critical legitimacy as colorist are beginning to receive.
It's a collaborative medium. It all falls apart when you take away ANY of these roles. Conversations about Who's More Important Than Whom are fundamentally idiotic.
Absolutely, yeah. I didn't want to overburden readers with detail, but I wanted it to be accessible to those who're interested. Story decisions, formalist techniques, real-world history and detail, and above all folklore.
I approach every story with a very clear ending in mind. This is a pretty massive topic, so I won't go too deep, but I believe stories are a primal technology in the human understanding of reality. I also believe comics are the most perfectly evolved form of narration to tune-in to that perceptional reality. That all sounds massively pretentious, sorry, but I'm not making it up. As creators and readers we all deserve to be a little more proud of how utterly fucking sophisticated our chosen medium really is. Fabulously clever while seeming fabulously simple. Comics are magic.
Anyway, I digress. My sense is that a story isn't a story unless it has an end, so I'm pretty down on the increasingly outmoded notion of the true "ongoing" book; as in, a story which just runs and runs. Most publishers, and most creators, are more sensibly focused these days on a form of modular storytelling in which each arc of an ongoing book serves as a self-contained story, with subsequent arcs feeling more like sequels than some perpetual breathless continuation.
I mention all this to illustrate that, for me, Book 1 of Cry Havoc is a full story. In its simplest conception it's the tale of a woman, Louise Canton, trying to work out how to coexist with herself. There's a whole bunch of other stuff going on - monsters and mercenaries and global politics and conspiracies and drugs and mental illness and romance and a giant boar who can't stop masturbating and blah blah blah - but yeah, that's the core thread. By the end of Arc 1 Lou has closed that particular book. She knows who she is, she knows how to be.
Arc 2, if and when it happens, will adjust the lens. Per current thinking, I reckon it'll be the story of how Lou applies that knowledge to the wider world. Who else is affected, what changes... I have a looot of ideas, and a lot of fun stuff to say.
But, yes, "if and when", not "when". Put simply, creator owned comics are difficult and exhausting and have precisely no guarantee of remuneration. That's especially true of something as ambitious and difficult to describe as CH. Ryan and I - the whole team, actually - sweated blood and planted full crops of grey hairs in making this book. We couldn't be prouder of it, and the reception has been miiiiind-blowing. But, sorry, uncomfortable truth, we're not exactly putting in orders on that brand new yacht we've been eyeing-up just yet.
We have every intention of circling back for Book 2 in the near future and, oh boy, it'll be worth the wait. But we have to spend a little while spinning some other plates first. (For instance, I'm building up to announcing a new Image book which will be about a million miles away in subject and scope - can't wait to tell you more about that.)
Until then, Cry Havoc is a story. Which has its ending. And which - I genuinely believe - really matters as a result.
Really glad you enjoyed it. It's... difficult to reflect on that work. I like to think everything I wanted to say about that character, and more importantly the themes I wanted to explore with him, are there on the page. It's achieved this weird sacrosanctity in my memory, and I'm weirdly resistant to saying anything more about it. It doesn't need a director's commentary, behind-the-scenesery, bloody endless playlists, to enhance the experience. It's a story about a kid whose worst enemy is his own brain. In the end he finds a way - the most bittersweet and mischievous way imaginable - to harmonise himself with it.
(I say "mischievous" because at least a small part of my decision to end that series the way I did was to ringfence the story. Whoever else comes along and reboots, rethinks or retcons the whole thing, those 24 issues will always be A Thing.)
I suppose the only important thing to say, with the benefit of a little distance, is that I continue to be moved, every year, by people who felt that run spoke to them in a really positive way. If I fuck up every other story I ever write, if I never do anything worthwhile ever again, I can say with my hand on my heart that I helped a few brave, struggling young people love themselves a little better than they did before.
Oh heavens, all sorts of things.
Musically, I'm on a Puscifer binge at the moment. Their latest album Moneyshot is as excellent - and undefinable - as anything they've ever done. If you haven't yet picked up the M for Milla mix of The Mission, featuring Milla Jovovich, you are so urged. Barnstormer.
Comics... I've been working my way through Peter Bagge's Buddy Bradley books, which are an extraordinary mix of hilarious, heartbreaking, horrifying and uncomfortably real. A clear primogenitor of The Simpsons, but with drugs and sex and suicide and people behaving abominably. A genuine clusterbomb of a series.
In prose, I just committed myself to the gargantua that is Alan Moore's Jerusalem. So far: not just as mind-meltingly clever as you'd expect but dripping with humanity and heart. He really is an exceptional brain.
I recently took out a subscription for Fortean Times, which I heartily recommend. Informative and endlessly entertaining weirdness. Exactly the right balance between agnostic scepticism and incredulous delight in the unknown. Perfect breakfast browse.
TV: rewatch of Deadwood recently completed. I just did my first stint as a staff writer on a US show, actually, so I've been even more infuriatingly formalist about viewing experiences than usual. Deadwood remains, in my opinion, the best written ensemble show ever made. Not just for the exquisite dialogue, which - exquisite - but for the cleverness of its transitions. Comics creators could learn a looot from that show.
Movies: I finally got around to The Ninth Configuration. Holy shit. That's all I'm saying about that. Holy shit. Watch it. I could name about six super-successful movies of the modern era which either owe a great debt, or have cribbed mercilessly, from it.
Videogames: finished Fallout 4 - beautiful but narratively annoying - and went straight back to Witcher 3 for the latest DLC. Curmudgeonly monster-hunter who just wants to get paid, annoyed to discover himself surrounded by flouncy knights and cod-Arthurian chivalric wank. That's 100% my bag, baby.
Boardgames: Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective. Breathtakingly clever. Just get it. Get it right now. Go sit in a lovely pub with your favourite people and Go.