2013 has been an exceptionally busy one for writer Si Spurrier, who kicked things off with the BCA-nominated “2000 AD” storyline “Trifecta” and subsequently added various projects at Marvel Comics, Vertigo, BOOM! Studios, Titan and Avatar Press to his already impressive resume.
His most recent project, “Disenchanted,” is a webcomic about folklore, society, pixies and magic. Published by Avatar, the series is distributed online for free, and will later be collected into a series of trades — the same system which has worked well for Spurrier’s other Avatar series, “Crossed: Wish You Were Here.”
At the recently concluded Thought Bubble festival, we spoke with the writer about his year, the launch of “Disenchanted” with artist German Erramouspe, maintaining the delicate balance of writing work for hire and creator-owned projects and more.
CBR News: How long have you been coming to Thought Bubble?
Si Spurrier: This is number three. It’s one of these things which has grown a little bit bigger year on year, and this year I was worried it might not be quite the same vibe — but somehow it is. I greatly suspect this will be eventually the biggest comics convention in Europe, if it’s not already. It somehow maintains, and this will somehow sound pejorative but it’s not meant to, the ‘town hall’ vibe that made it so nice in the first place. Everybody looks forward to it all year.
So the first time you came, it would have been with 2000 AD.
Predominantly. I’ve been working on and off for Marvel for longer than anybody remembers so back then it was mainly 2000 AD, along with “X-Club.”
How did you move from 2000 AD to companies like Marvel?
At 2000 AD, I formed a working relationship with artist Frazer Irving on stuff like “Simping Detective.” One of the first things we did was “From Grace,” a really experimental thing which was a biopic of this curious winged man in the future. It starts with him lying on his death bed, remembering his life. We knew it was going to get very complicated because it bounces backwards and forwards in his own timeline — so, we came up with this idea of assigning a spectrum of colors to the issue. When you see a scene from the beginning of his life, you see reds and purples; in his youth, the coloring is yellow, and then green, then blue, so you’re always able to navigate where you are within his timeline
That sums up the sort of thing we’d do at 2000 AD! We would do anything.
Frazer and I started a book called “Gutsville” [at Image Comics], which is one of those “whatever happened to…” books when people do their Christmas roundups each year. While we were making that, we got noticed by Marvel and went for a meeting with them. Frazer was picked up by DC [he illustrated one of the “Seven Soldiers” stories] around that time. As a result of that meeting, I started doing bits and bobs with Marvel. I did some Wolverine one-shots and then a Silver Surfer mini, and so on and so forth.
That reminds me — the Silver Surfer mini was predicated almost entirely on the editor [Aubrey Sitterson] checking out our 2000 AD work, so he was obviously impressed enough by the sci-fi vibe that he thought I’d be a good fit for Silver Surfer.
What do you think has been the key in keeping your own voice when you do work for hire?
It’s almost necessity. I think you’re always going to keep your own interests and fascinations. My own do not include writing big, A-list hero stories. That stuff falls under “ambition.” If I’m going to do that stuff, then I have to find something with the story which interests me. When superheroes work, they work really well, but I find it a challenge to do that sort of stuff — “X-Club” is different, as it plays into a lot of things that I find really interesting. A lot of the stuff that I’ve done with Marvel has been about finding a thing within the character which interests me or is characteristic of my voice, so I can have a jolly with it.
One of my biggest problems is that I don’t believe that if you woke up with a set of powers, the first thing you’d do is put on a lurid outfit and go off to fight crime. That makes me sound like a cynic, but I do think people are, on the whole, good. I think if you woke up with powers, you’d try and do good stuff — but it wouldn’t happen in the way comics suggest it would.
Which is a little like the mission statement of your “X-Men Legacy” run.
I think all the obvious stuff you’d do — solve global warming, cure poverty — doesn’t make for a very good comics story, and would also negate every other story Marvel have coming out. I think the X-Universe in particular is just very useful for my particular set of neuroses. The X-Men come complete with the notion that it’s not just a bunch of guys being goody two-shoes. It’s a statement of survival, or whatever other metaphor you choose.
When they were first created, “X-Men” was an on-the-nose metaphor, with that idea of Malcolm X Vs Martin Luther King. When you think about it, it’s not a very good message for race, because these are kids who develop their powers around puberty and their parents are not mutants; so there’s a question of familial acceptance. This is, instead, the perfect metaphor for sexuality and personal identity, rather than racial identity. I’m not involved with “Inhumanity,” but from what I understand, it’s to do with familial lines and ancestry, a more apt metaphor for race.
And that talk of ancestry and origins leads up to your new Avatar series “Disenchanted,” which is being published online right now. Can you tell us more about the premise of the series?
The way I’ve been putting it is “‘The Borrowers’ meet ‘The Wire.'” It’s about crime and racial tension and the decay of magic and tradition, on a very small scale. The series is about a city, a tiny city made of cola cans and cereal boxes and milk cartons, built in an abandoned London underground station. It’s kind of beautiful, an ensemble piece set around this new generation.
I was fascinated by British and European folklore. All the creatures of folklore — pixies and goblins and boggarts and fairies — all these quaint things we’ve thought of as quite twee, because they’ve been appropriated by fairy tales and toy lines. We think of them as being a little bit crap, which, they are, frankly.
Nobody believes in any of the old folklore anymore, because we humans have become an urban species. We’ve moved from tribalism to globalism, and now transitioning to gestaltism. But let’s pretend that they’re real, and remember the reasons why they were first invented — to answer questions like, “Why does my hair get knotted in the middle of the night?” or, “Why do dewdrops appear on cobwebs in the mornings?”
We don’t really have much time for superstition anymore, so the metaphorical question of the whole thing is, “Is it a good or bad thing that our traditions are now decaying?” The slightly more on the nose way of looking at it is, “What if you are one of those creatures?” They are literally superstition made flesh. They’re trying their best to maintain their old traditions, but they can’t.
What was it particularly about the folkloric aspects which struck you?
Folklore, to me, is a story which at one time was the most powerful type of story — a religion. Things which were held as fact, but have since perished and faded, and become these slightly forlorn packets of story which are now disparaged or sanitized, or turned into kids toy lines. That’s not how they started and not how they should be treated. I think they should be treated with respect, even if they have lost their dignity. So that’s the overriding obsession I have with this and folklore in general.
My interest at the time I came up with “Disenchanted” was the way in which urban, city life has changed the way in which people read stories. People used to be far more prepared to accept stories without needing any direct fact. My suspicion is that when you have multiple competing stories in the same place — competing religions, competing superstitions — their unique edges get filed away. This is either a good thing, and can be called integration and we’re all now part of a larger accepting community; or it’s really sad, and all our traditions and superstitions — as irrelevant as they arguably are — are being lost. That’s a fascinating thing, and too good an opportunity to let up
How did you decide on the size of the series? Were there worries about it being too grand in scale?
It’s a little problematic, actually, as readers coming to the site to read it will find there are so many characters. It’s such a big world, and it takes a little while to become familiar enough with it.
Partly to assuage that, we’ve added to the website a massive suite of world-building materials to read through. So we have maps of the city, and when you look at them on the site, you can explore them and zoom in on them. I wanted to work out exactly what every neighborhood was, what kind of people lived there and so on.
To give you some ideas of how big these designs were, these plans took a year to make — and when you lay out the images on the floor, they fill the size of a barn. We scanned each and every one of them in.
The first story is very focused on that idea of a city and society.
In these first few weeks, we felt it important to encourage people to not get lost — we’re just dropping them into the middle of this world. It’s a chance for me to exercise my world-building fetish. We’re four or five weeks into it now, and we’re at a point where you can start from the beginning and there’s enough there to really grab you.
How has the experience of working with artist German Erramouspe been?
I still haven’t met him yet, actually. Most of Avatar’s artists are based in South America. They have a studio set up there, so six or seven artists all work there alongside one translator/manager. We had several of them pitch for us, and German seemed just perfect for the story. He’s been with us since the beginning, and is fantastic. I’m a little draconian with the scripts for “Disenchanted” and do all the layouts myself, for all the reasons I mentioned above.
I think the point has now arrived that I can stop doing that and he’ll know how to lead the story himself. He’s a consummate storyteller. He started out with a whole world he was unfamiliar with, but he never said, “I don’t understand how this works.” He got into it straight away.
This marks your second digital webcomic through Avatar Press, following “Crossed: Wish You Were Here,” where everything is available online, for free, with the intent to collect it all into trades down the line. How do you find writing for digital?
Given that Avatar have only just gone to comiXology and got their stuff online, yeah, they’ve been pioneers of this funny little way of getting things out to people.
When Warren [Ellis, with Paul Duffield] did “Freakangels,” he chose for each page in web format to correspond to a single printed page. That worked very well, what with Warren being a master of true decompression. For me, the downside of that format is having to scroll down to the bottom half of the page.
I feel that on the whole — although Warren made a gimmick out of that a few times and used it cleverly — that interrupts my suspension of disbelief. So when writing “Crossed,” we made the decision that each printed page would correspond to two digital pages, in landscape, so they would stack on top of one another.
That means, in very prosaic terms, you’re restricted on the layout of the page, because no panel can be longer than half a page. But the really funny thing is when you discover the benefits to this. You can change scene and character halfway through a page, which you’re not supposed to do. Now, every half page can be a cliffhanger.
I started to worry how it would look when this was all collected together on a printed page — as you’ll know, when you look at a printed comics page, the eye can cheat you and read ahead. The only mechanical control you really have over the reader is the page turn. And yet, I’ve found that when you flick through a printed version of these webcomics, the brain recognizes that you’re following in a pattern and you don’t tend to read ahead.
I think the brain is smarter than we give it credit for in recognizing these patterns. With “Crossed,” for instance, towards the last episode of the third arc — which is coming up in a few weeks — I played a trick. The first half page (or screen) you see has four panels on it, and the next has four. Then the next has three, then three. That moves to two, then one — and it creates this rollercoaster of pace. It’s part of the beauty of comics. A set of four panels, although it takes time to read, fools the brain into moving quicker. The more time it takes to read a page, the less time you feel is passing. You can really muck around with that sort of stuff.
Do you think working digital-first has given you a greater opportunity to experiment?
The thing about “Crossed” is that it’s not my property, so all I have to do with it is tell funny stories. The premise of “Crossed” is so simple — it’s about a world where bad impulses are contagious — that it’s not even the focus of the stories anymore. It’s just a backdrop so you can do any sort of other story you please.
I’ve done romances and road stories and adventures and all kinds of things in my run. Part of the beauty for me — and this was like 2000 AD and “From Grace” and multi-colored pages and all that — is that this is now my new experimentation ground. I wrote a blog post on my tumblr recently called ‘Tell Not Show.’ It’s about how you can really muck around with the rules of comics, find out what works and what doesn’t, once people are comfortable enough with the premise that they don’t need the world constantly re-explained to them.
With “Disenchanted,” because it’s such a detailed world, it felt disingenuous and poorly-advised to start mucking around with narrative tricks, because you have to concentrate on letting people know how the world works, first of all.
At New York Comic Con, you announced a further project with Avatar, called “Neurotrash.” Can you tell us anything about what we can expect from that series?
It’s a true creator-owned project, but it’s in the very early stages so I can’t tell you too much about it. It’s again set in a city, set in a future where being youthful is considered disgusting. The whole population are voluntarily, gently, anesthetizing themselves into a blissed-out coma
Like if the experiments in “A Clockwork Orange” had worked out and been approved of by society —
It’s all very voluntary, in the story. Life is better when everybody is calm and nobody’s ambitious or aggressive. The only people who don’t fit into that picture are the people at the crossroads between childhood and adulthood. They’re rebellious, not taking the pills they’re meant to take, and so they are hated by society.
It’s about a gang of street kids who work out a way to pull off a particularly spectacular heist, and what happens as a result.
Over the past year, you’ve had digital projects with Avatar, runs on Marvel books like “X-Men Legacy” and next “X-Force.” You’ve also worked with BOOM! Studios, 2000 AD, Titan — how do you manage such a workload?
It’d be nice to say I’m a brilliantly strategic puppet master who is deliberately avoiding shackling myself to any one group or another, but it’s more that I like to feel I have a lot of things going on. It feels like it’s useful to have a portion of my career dedicated to things I’d describe as “selfish” — creator-owned, all about me. And it’s beautiful when they do well.
“Six Gun Gorilla” is in that category — [it’s] sold out and a massive seller, but I wrote it just for me. It’s masquerading as a ridiculous western about a gorilla with guns, when actually it’s an obscenely layered metafictional exploration of loss. It’s about a man who has lost everything, and is trying to come to terms with that. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of in the world, and I’m thankful that, despite it being a selfish little story I wrote for myself, it’s done so well. That much be at least partly because it had such an incredible artist in Jeff Stokely.
I have that portion of my world, and then at the same time the big exposure jobs, the Marvel gigs. If I was only doing it for the exposure, I’d find it really hard to write. The trick, as I said before, is to find the thing about the stories which excites you. I’ve been lucky to be able to do that.
I do wonder sometimes whether brand is something an author should think of. I’m sure we can all think of some writers where the same preoccupations come up again and again, and part of the reading experience becomes about that. It’s not just about reading the story, but it’s about reading the work in a context where it lets you into the writer’s life, and interests. I’m obsessed with story, and obsessed with language. I had this same conversation with Garth Ennis recently and he said, “Tell good stories, and the rest will come.” I think he’s probably right.
Readers can find “Disenchanted” online now.