BLOG Crossing The Lines With Si Spurrier: Interview
Si Spurrier is one of the most consistently interesting, and versatile, comic authors working today. A 2000AD veteran, he’s also made science cool (And frankly demented) again in the Marvel universe with X-Club and is ending the world an agonisingly slow, incredibly horrific week at a time in the superb Crossed web comic, Wish You Were Here, for Avatar. I caught up to him to talk about his work, his plans and what terrifies him.
Let’s talk about Extermination first of all. What influenced the idea?
“At the risk of sucking all the drama out of a potential anecdote, Boom! brought the idea to me. Sorry. Bit more to it than that, thank goodness. Matt Gagnon had conceived of this story in which – as he put it – Batman and Doctor Doom have to team-up to save the world from an alien occupation. Which is a fun and oh-so-very evocative idea in itself, and came complete with character designs for our main guys. Me being me, I couldn’t help but start sticking my oar in and making tweaks, and the thing, which quickly emerged as most exciting, was to play with was the disparity between ‘classic’ superhero stories, and this radically different, grim, adapt-or-perish wasteland in the aftermath of an extinction-level event. I’ve always been affectionately cynical about certain spandex characters – it strikes me that readers have for decades been cheerfully suspending a lot of disbelief by choosing to accept that ‘get powers/gadgets = fight-crime’ is a rational position to adopt – and I liked the idea of seeing that simple, moral-two-tone world through the lens of something far darker and more brutal. It’s ‘Mad Max-meets-superheroics’, basically. Flashbacks from a time of horror to a time of bright, silly simplicity.
“Plenty more going on as well, of course. It was important to me that the ‘alien threat’ be truly unique and truly alien, and the plot is a lot twistier than a lot of people will be expecting a straightforward survival story to be. But yeah, at its core the idea is all about taking notions of ‘heroism’ and ‘villainy’, in the flashy vaudeville spandex sense, and injecting them into a world where such concepts have no meaning at all.”
There are a couple of different culture clashes in there, with hero and villain, and American and Brit, both powering the relationship between Nox and Red Reaper. Do you think the attitudes to disaster differ on either side of the Atlantic?
“I’m not sure about attitudes to disaster, but – generalising wildly – I do think there’s a disparity in levels of cynicism and moral aspiration. In the UK the word ‘hero’ takes on a slightly icky aspect: we find it difficult to believe someone could be genuinely selfless and good without some selfish ulterior motive, so we’re automatically suspicious of these posturing boy scout weirdoes in their capes and costumes. That tends to manifest – in Brit-written spandex comics – as deconstructionist, sarcastic, satirical stuff, and hence often the villains (whose motivations are, at the very least, slightly simpler) end up getting the lion’s share of the wit, intelligence and One-Liners.
“That’s a recipe Extermination appears – at first – to adhere to. But like I said: things are a lot twistier than they seem, and both these guys have some surprising hidden depths.”
Inevitably, superhero fiction is viewed as drawing from everything that’s gone before it. Who are the influences on Nox and Reaper?
“The starting position was, simply, that they were analogues of Batman and Doctor Doom. One’s a moral fulcrum: intransigent in his beliefs, full of moral conviction, haunting the urban night, refusing to kill his opponents, etc. The other’s an aristocratic megalomaniac science-genius. As the story begins both characters wear those influences on their sleeves, but it’s worth mentioning that even before I started telling the story a few other bits and bobs snuck into the mix: Reaper borrowed a dose of smarm and bombast from Doctor Nemesis (who I’d just finished writing in the X-Club), while Nox is far more of a bundle of simmering rage than Batman ever was. In fact, Reaper enjoys testing his limits throughout episode one. I decided pretty quickly that the “non-killer decides to kill” character arc was a bit too obvious, so I had fun playing-up to expectations only to get it out the way nice and quickly in issue one. It’s what happens next that really matters.
“Aaaand, as I keep slyly suggesting, there’s a lot more going on behind those masks than just ‘Batman vs Doctor Doom’. These guys have secrets, agendas, loves and losses. Even at their most united – and by the end of episode two they’ve jointly hit upon a f**king massive goal – their reasons for pursuing the same end aren’t ever as synchronised as they seem.”
You drop fascinating hints about the invaders in issue one. Will we get to find out more about them?
“Yep, certainly will. Little by little. In fact, a lot of the flashbacks in episode two are concerned with the nature of ‘the alien invasion’ itself. Which (again: because I’m me) isn’t really an invasion at all. And these things aren’t really aliens, in the they-came-from-outer-space sense.
“Sorry. Being a cryptic bastard, here.”
How long is the book? Do you have an endpoint planned?
“There is a planned endpoint, yeah. I know precisely how this story – or, rather, this part of the story – ends. But I’ve been careful to build-in the means to tell subsequent/related tales. As for how long it’ll last: my lips, alas, are sealed.”
Any story is, to some extent, influenced by the time it’s written in, and I was wondering whether you think there’s a shift towards grimmer, bleaker fiction in the second decade of the century? As you say, the world Nox and Reaper find themselves in is incredibly grim and very far from where they started.
“Ooof, tough one. I think… well, look, let’s stick to the subject of superheroism in particular, otherwise we’re getting into all kinds of complex ground. It’s probably fair to guess that there’s a sort of tonal waveform… Over the past couple of decades we’ve wibbled back and forth between – on the one hand – ultra-gritty, ultra-nasty, ultra-violent horribleness, and – on the other – earnest spangly ‘it’s okay to be a hero’ boyscouty stuff. Neither is any better or worse than the other, particularly, but it is interesting how things so often oscillate. That said, even when one trend or the other is at its apogee there are always concessions to the other side of the coin available. So… I honestly don’t know how Extermination relates to that spectrum. Frankly the aim was to confound it altogether: switch back and forth between the shiny silliness and the grim horribleness, and let the simple fact of the contrast say things about both.
“If I had to choose, I’d say I come down on the cynical side rather than the shiny aspirational side, but ‘Superheroes! Get! Dark!’ shouldn’t automatically imply gratuitousness.”
Yes, Nox’s unhinged little smile in that final panel did seem to suggest something very nasty starting to happen. There’s almost a sense of the world being a blank canvas now and Nox realising just how much freedom he has. Did you find yourself changing how you wrote Nox in particular as the book’s continued?
“Nox’s arc was locked-in from the start, so – whereas he does change considerably – it’s not as though he ran off and started writing the story himself. I just wanted to get the whole ‘will he kill?’ thing out the way nice and quickly, so it wasn’t hanging over. The things we find out about him – and Reaper – in the aftermath of that first step are far, far more interesting.”
Is there a scene you’ve written that’s disturbed you?
“Not per se. Now that episode two’s out in the world I can discreetly mention the grisly thing our heroes find down in the tunnels of Kass’s camp. It didn’t disturb me to be describing that scene (hey, I’m a Crossed writer – it takes more than that), but I got a little bit freaked by how natural and obvious it felt to adopt Red Reaper’s attitude to the whole thing: ‘This is the best use of this resource.’”
More on Crossed, X-Club and Spurrier’s novels on the next page…