Early next year, Si Spurrier and Ryan Kelly will be unleashing Cry Havoc, a new series from Image Comics. It’s gorgeous stuff that is filled with monsters, mythology, and military action. We had a chance to chat with Spurrier about the new series, what to expect from it, and how it feels to have Alan Moore gush over your work. Check out our conversation with the comic luminary below.
Nerdist: So, I’ve read the first issue and it’s fabulous, but for folks that have yet to hear of Cry Havoc, can you give us the pitch? What’s it all about?
Spurrier: “What it’s about” is one of those perennially tricky notions, and this tends to be true of a lot of my work, in the sense that Cry Havoc isn’t quite like anything else out there and hence is tough to define in reductive terms. For instance, trying to classify it according to genre just results in an unfeasibly long list: it’s a romantic-metaphysical-military-political-war-thriller black-comedy-gay-kitchen-sink creature-feature. Doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, y’know?
I’ve solved this problem by simply asking other people to tell me what it’s about. That’s how we came to our daft but splendid elevator pitch:
Cry Havoc isn’t about a lesbian werewolf going to war, except it kind of is.
I can ante-up on that with a bit more detail, if you don’t mind a slightly charmless précis. Cry Havoc is the story of a gay London street-musician, struggling with her own identity, who gets violently attacked by a supernatural being–she assumes it’s a werewolf, but she’s wrong–which comprehensively fucks up her life.
To try and do something about it she’s dumped in the middle of the so-called war-on-terror in Afghanistan, and embedded with a unit of private soldiers (think Blackwater). Each of whom, like her, conceals a monster inside themselves. The group’s goal: to locate and kill the leader of an incipient revolution, who may be the worst fiend of all.
So, I hate loglines–they really don’t tell you much at all–but the nearest we’ve come with this book is something like Jarhead meets Pan’s Labyrinth. Mania, myth, military.
The other thing worth mentioning here is that we’re trying something unique with the storytelling. We’ve taken the three sections of the character’s story–the beginning in London, the middle in Afghanistan, and the end in… a mysterious location I can’t say much about–and we’re playing them side-by-side rather than consecutively. In other words, we transition between the phases of the protagonist’s life in a very unusual way, letting them strike sparks off one another and juxtapose.
To make the most of this mechanism, we’ve got a different superstar colorist working on each section of the story: Nick Filardi, Lee Loughride, and Matt Wilson. The effect–which is totally unprecedented, so far as we know–is incredible. It really helps differentiate the three parallel time zones, and it shows off just how profoundly the colorists’ art impacts the finished article.
N: You open the first issue with a quote from Heart of Darkness. did you draw inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s work? The story structure–finding the rogue commander–is slightly similar.
S: It was never intentional, but I quickly started to see parallels.
The central portion of CH–the Afghanistan part: all assault rifles, armored personnel carriers and fucking great boar-monsters–is pretty explicitly a journey towards chaos, a dark and savage and beautiful and untamable thing. As with Heart of Darkness (and of course the movie it inspired, Apocalypse Now) it’s a journey which challenges the assumptions of those who make it. And, also as with Conrad’s novel, that chaos is manifested in the form of a single person: an otherworldly rogue who’s broken from the rigid structures of order and is fomenting a new, chaotic dawn.
I tend to argue this is actually a sort of archetypical proto-narrative rather than something uniquely pioneered by Conrad (though HoD truly is f-cking magnificent). It plants its flag in that thematic landscape of chaos vs order, passion vs control, anarchy vs fascism, savagery vs safety, etc etc, with the unrivaled efficiency of the Quest narrative. Look for it and you’ll see echoes in dozens of other stories, ancient and modern.
Cry Havoc’s unique approach is to see all this meaty stuff through a lens of folklore and monstrosity, which opens up new, exciting associations. Over the course of the first six episodes we’ll get subtextual flavors of Realpolitik, mental illness, sexuality, state control, surveillance and sexuality, all disguised within the fabulous concept of people who turn into beasts.
(I’m aware I sound like a tosser harping on about all this thematic stuff. Please be assured that, on the surface, Cry Havoc is a story about a lost woman trying to find herself. With added monsters, exploding billygoats and some interesting observations on hyena junk.)
Hilariously, I picked the Conrad quote at the start of issue one because it sets the scene so nicely for another of CH’s preoccupations–reality vs fiction–rather than any structural similarities. And maaaan, it’s such a great line:
“For a time I would feel I belonged still to a world of straightforward facts; but the feeling would not last long. Something would turn up to scare it away.”
N: When I first heard about Cry Havoc, it was described to me as a new take on werewolves. Do you see it that way? Is there a mythology you are drawing from, or are you going for a whole new take?
S: I mean, I guess the first thing to say is that it’s not a werewolf story, although it does indeed feature a central character who gets bitten by a big slobbering canine monster and finds herself similarly afflicted. It sounds like I’m splitting hairs, but folklore is such a huge and richly-recorded subject that you really can draw these taxonomical distinctions between, oh, say, this type of dog-monster and that type of dog-monster; this shrieking shinto bird-fiend and that; this shit-your-heart-out-terrifying Malaysian vampire and that one.
In the case of our heroine, the specific breed of beast she’s been afflicted by is the ubiquitous “black spectral hound” of ancient European tradition, which has been known by dozens of names–shuck, gytrash, shagfoal, etc–but in CH uses the catchall term “Barghest.”
The second thing to say is that, actually, all of the above genuinely is just splitting hairs. If you have even the slightest interest in folklore, myth, and legend, you’ll already know that all of these wonderful entities–monsters, heroes, gods, demigods–don’t exist in a bubble. Each one is a luminous and bloody blur, smeared across geographical regions and centuries, in which local folk-tales run together. Traditions breed, histories mutate, religions syncretise. Trying to put clear labels or names on any of these ideas (and that’s what they are, ultimately: living ideas) is pointless. In fact, a dedicated folklorist swiftly comes to recognize proto-myths: shadowy ancestor-stories lurking behind the flashy tales that have survived the Hollywood apocalypse. The barghest, the werewolf, the shagfoal: they’re all just faces of something older and more primitive. Literally: the beast lurking beyond the campfire light. And, symbolically, the beast which could be lurking inside any of the people around you. It’s rich stuff.
One of the joys of Cry Havoc has been to bring together loads of different monstrous ideas, from all over the world, and letting them play in the same sandbox.
It’s my contention that we live in an increasingly anodyne, unsentimental world. One portion of the population adheres increasingly to empiricism and fact, the other becomes swiftly radicalized in its religious views (which is really just the process of treating ideas as if they’re facts). Both sides are guilty of taking things way to literally. Reality TV is the cultural apogee of one faction; scripture the opiate of the other. We’re forgetting the importance of fiction. We’re losing the skill to respond to something beautiful and whimsical and important as if it were real even when we know it isn’t.
And, hey, this gradual erosion of our relationship with fiction is playing directly into the hands of those who make it their business to control and regulate us. Humans are never more efficient little sheep than when shorn of all whimsy, all ridiculousness, all empathy. All wonder.
For me, folklore occupies a middle ground between fiction and fact. These are ideas which have flirted with becoming articles of faith. They’ve accumulated a little metaphysical meat on their bones. They know what it is to be believed. But in today’s world? They’re treated as entertaining nuggets of trivia at best and risible illustrations of credulity at worst. They are sneered at. And they are very very slowly dying.
Cry Havoc arose when I simply wondered what it might be like to be one of those ideas. To experience that cultural death by a thousand cuts. To feel yourself slowly becoming less… and less… relevant. What would you do? How would you try and save yourself and your people? What action might you take to force the world to remember you?
What emerged, almost by accident, was a perfectly-tooled metaphor for literally anyone alive who’s ever felt dispossessed or disenfranchised. I suspect that’s probably all of us, at one time or another.
N: Ryan Kelly’s work is amazing in this book. How did you two sync up for this project?
S: I’ve been an admirer of Ryan’s work for ages, and righteously envious when Gillen hooked him for Three. When the idea (and opportunity) for Cry Havoc started coming together, I knew Ryan would be the perfect guy for the job. It needs someone who can handle both ends of the scale-spectrum–the epic to the intimate–and every point on the emotional continuum in between. And because of all the formalist experimentation I’ve inflicted on the story, it really needs an artist who’s not only supremely flexible–in style and pace–but has an instinctive gift for storytelling. You’d think that last point applies to pretty much any comic book artist working professionally today, but you’d be amazed. We live in a climate where a flashy signature style is sometimes held in higher regard than the ability to actually, y’know, tell a story.
Regardless, Ryan fits the bill in all these categories. He can draw literally anything you give him, he handles it all in his perfectly recognizable but utterly unpretentious style, and in my opinion he’s one of the most naturally gifted storytellers there is.
And, it turns out, he gives great monster.
N: On the art side of things, the book makes use of three different colorists with each handling a different setting. The effect is superb. Is this something you are keeping up throughout the series? How did this concept come about?
S: Oops, sorry, I think I shot my proverbial load on this topic earlier. All I’ll add to my above excitement on the subject is that Ryan and I were getting serious with CH at just around the time that the comics industry was having a very important collective wake-up convulsion about the serious under-appreciation colorists have suffered for years. We were groping around for interesting visual ways to help differentiate the three different threads of our story, and the answer was there waiting for us. One artist, three colorists. Let the world see how powerfully that all-important stage of the comics collaboration can impact the tone and feel of a scene or sequence.
In the same light, it’s not only right but a great privilege to mention our utterly superior letterer Simon Bowland–maestro of an art form every bit as unforgivably overlooked as coloring–and our extraordinary designer Emma Price. Cry Havoc will unequivocally be the most beautifully put-together package on the shelves this January.
N: Cry Havoc feels like a very personal work for you, something a bit more grounded in the “real world” than the works folks might know you for. Do you feel as though you have something to say with this book?
S: Ha! I like to think I have something to say with every book I do, no matter how concealed it may be.
In something more obviously fantastical like The Spire the controlling ideas quickly become metaphorical or allegorical, but (if I’m doing my job right!) they’re never less relevant or powerful. The beauty of Cry Havoc is that amidst the blend of reality, fiction, myth, real-world events and human drama I get to deploy pretty much every conceivable genus of the “creation of meaning” imaginable.
Which is a very wonky way of saying: yes, I have something to say with Cry Havoc. Quite a few somethings, in fact. I muttered before about the scope of thematic territory it covers, and I think your readers will have gathered from all my waffling here that the controlling idea (which I’m not going to state aloud – that’s the book’s job) has a lot to do with chaos and control.
N: How many issues of Cry Havoc can we expect? Is it an ongoing or is there a certain tale you are out to tell?
S: As with all Image series on the shelves these days, we’re presenting Cry Havoc as an ongoing series in potentia, which operates according to a rough “season” format. In practice that means the first arc will be six episodes long, then a break of a few months, then–assuming the readership support is there–ever onwards with more.
N: Finally, what’s it like having Alan Moore say such nice things about your comic? Did you send him a copy or did he just happen upon it? I imagine that was quite a thrill.
SPURRIER: “Quite a thrill”, haha. You are a king of understatement.
I’ve had the enormous privilege of getting to know Alan over the past couple of years, thanks in no small part to our mutual friend (and boss) William Christensen over at Avatar Press. Alan’s been fabulously generous about my work for that publisher, even requesting that I continue the longform story he started in Crossed+100. Given his enduring fascination with the permeability of fact and fiction, and his particular affection for British folklore, I thought it was worth screwing up all my courage and giving him a look at Cry Havoc. I was not disappointed.
Bear in mind, Alan’s the guy whose work, more than any other, persuaded me to get into comics in the first place. The guy whose formalist experiments and knack for observational drama is literally second to none in this medium. The guy who–simply because I knew I’d never match him if I tried to emulate him–keeps me trying new and weird stuff every time I start a new project. I genuinely wouldn’t be me, let alone doing what I do, if it weren’t for the abstract notion of that shaggy-headed experimenter, hazily glimpsed on some unreachably distant podium, in what passes for the motivational centers of my brain.
Having him say nice things about my own work? Heart-burst levels of pride.
Cry Havoc #1 hits comic shops on January 27, so get to your local store and pre-order this bad boy. Trust us, you want this book.