Simon Spurrier & Ryan Kelly Interview
Interview conducted by James Ferguson
Cry Havoc's first arc has been collected in a stunning trade paperback from Image Comics entitled Mything in Action. Writer Simon Spurrier and artist Ryan Kelly teamed up with colorists Matt Wilson, Lee Loughridge, and Nick Filardi to bring together this horror comic in three parts. I had the chance to speak with Spurrier and Kelly about the book, the process, what scares them, and more.
James Ferguson: What's the elevator pitch for Cry Havoc?
Simon Spurrier: Gah! So many different answers. The caveat here is that I have a slightly testy relationship with the whole ridiculous notion of Genre Categories, so I often struggle to explain exactly what a story's about in neat, codified little sentences. Hence, we've gone through various versions of How Best to Describe Our Baby, from its inception up to the launch of the trade paperback this month. They range from the purely functional (“Infected by an occult horror, a young musician finds her life and identity collapsing, and joins a group of military monsters in war-torn Afghanistan in an unlikely bid to heal her pain”); to the referential (“it's like Jarhead by way of Pan's Labyrinth”); to the egregiously eye-catching (“It's not about a lesbian werewolf who goes to war... except it kind of is”).
Actually, we rather regret that last one. It glibly reduces an awful lot of identity and sexuality issues which the comic itself takes as far more fluid and mutable. That's just a little demonstration that one can pour good intentions into a heartfelt story, but still shit the bed because PR's a whole different beast. Nobody gets into writing or drawing comics and expects they'll need to be a nifty salesman to boot, but that's the reality. There's an awful lot of putting one's foot in one's mouth before one realises how to stand. Lesson learned.
Ultimately Cry Havoc is a story about one woman trying to work out who the hell she is, while surrounded by horrific and often violent creatures clipped from the global unconscious we chirpily call Folklore.
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JF: Being that Cry Havoc is not technically a werewolf comic, do you have any issues with it being described as such?
SS: See above. Same-same, really. :)
As a storyteller, one has to intuitively believe in nuance: in the capacity for a single image, phrase, blink, look, colour, musical tone or whisper to convey and inspire a billion complex and wondrous things. As a story seller, one has to intuitively be able to condense a billion complex and wondrous things down to a single easily digestible nugget, to snag the attention of disinterested browsers. These two disciplines are quite literally opposites, and yet when one gets into the game of creator-owned comics, one has to be a jack of both trades. It's all dreadfully zen.
So, no, Cry Havoc isn't about werewolves. There aren't actually any werewolves in it. There are several Barghests – which are these massive slathering spectral hounds from European folklore – and a whole frothing ton of other transformative human/predator monstrous emergences... but no literal werewolves.
On the other hand it just took me 45 words to say so, and that's 15 times more than “WEREWOLF AT WAR!” So if a reader's decision about whether or not to pick up my book hinges on their understanding that it contains a few core things – monstrosity! metamorphosis! Military! – then, hell, call 'em bloody werewolves at war and leave it at that.
The only additional point I'm at pains to make is that Cry Havoc is the sort of book which is about stuff. There are some deeply embedded controlling ideas – which I won't spell-out here for fear of spoiling things – and a huuuuge amount of folkloric research. I love Big Dumb Monster Books as much as the next person, and don't subscribe to the view that as entertainment-junkies we should feel bad about enjoying light material... but Cry Havoc ain't it.
It's nasty, it's deep, it's dense, and I couldn't be prouder if I tried.
Ryan Kelly: Anyone who has read Cry Havoc knows it's a complex story with a lot going on. Simplifying the series down to a collection of taglines isn't ideal, but I guess that's the nature of the business. All the catchphrases like "werewolf" "lesbian" and "war" offers an entry way but it doesn't truly encompass everything that is Cry Havoc. You have to read the whole story.
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JF: How did you keep track of the three different timeframes of Louise's story?
RK: Everything in the script was was very episodic and structured, from the panels to the beats and captions. It sounds very clinical, but the uniformity makes for good story-telling at times. We wanted to make some of Lou's domestic scenes feel very plain and banal to intensify her more beastly moments.
SS: This'll sound terribly pretentious, but they sort of looked after themselves.
The original idea was simply to tell a story about a woman going through an occult identity crisis, finding herself on a journey into the heart of darkness in a modern theatre of war. But as I plotted it out, the flashbacks sequences, which described how it all began, became increasingly important, and the final act started to jump up and down for more attention. It got to the point that the “travelling through Afghanistan” bit was just 1/3rd of a far wider tale. I could've just plotted each phase in chronological turn, but they're all so different in tone and genre that I think that would've felt like three different comics shunted together.
And then, the mini-miracle. When I simply laid-down the three phases side by side, rather than one after another, I realised they synchronised in lovely and unexpected ways. Climax beats corresponded, confrontation beats juxtaposed. In each phase Lou seems to be heading towards one thing, gets diverted by something else, and reaches a fateful decision. So yeah, the storylines took over and threaded themselves. Our biggest challenge wasn't to do with negotiating the morass ourselves, but finding ways to make the task a bit easier for the audience.
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JF: What was the process like working with three colorists on Cry Havoc?
SS: A dream, basically.
Ryan and I were both keenly aware that Cry Havoc is a challenging read. We had important things to say, but it would've been so easy for them to get lost under the weight of plot and theme... unless we found smart ways to differentiate and distinguish the story's threads. Ryan's an absolute master storyteller, with the invaluable knack for making dense moments seem spacious and pacey, and he did all the heavy lifting for me. But then we decided to lean into the opportunity to do something experimental.
Amongst all the tricks and techniques we considered, it just so happened that – at that moment – the comic book industry was taking a long hard look at itself and feeling righteously shitty about its historical treatment of colorists. No cover credits, little recognition, often relegated to a hazy “support role” bench along with letterers and designers (who are themselves no less vital and no less deserving of recognition. Their time, I hope is coming.).
By working with Matt, Nick and Lee all at once – one colorist per time-phase in the story's chronology – we not only gained a whole new storytelling tool, which helps the reader differentiate the complex threads of the tale and navigate its thematic waters, but we also cheerfully shone a much-needed light onto just how much of an impact colorists have on the overall tone and dynamism of a story.
Any fears we had about the logistics of the operation were quickly squashed too. Those three guys know each other from way back when, and their collaboration immediately turned into a glorious bout of shit-talking, affectionate competitiveness and banter. The rest of the team could just sit back and watch them go.
RK: It was awesome. Nick, Matt and Lee really elevated the artwork. I feel like they were the main artists on the book. The three separate time periods stood apart and had their own style and visual language.
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JF: How did the design for Louise in wolf form and the other creatures come about? This is some really terrifying stuff.
SS: That's one for Ryan, really. He took that bull by the horns and did an exceptional job. My one directive was that he start with a recognisable monstrous archetype - hence, "werewolf at war!" - and then twist it as hard as he could. We've ended up with these deeply unnerving entities, visceral and spectral at the same time.
RK: I don't like doing character designs and it shows. Plus, my art can be inconsistent since I like to change my mind a lot. As a solution, I aimed to draw the monsters more dream--like, with swirls of energy--but still show teeth, eyes, fangs and claws.
JF: What are some horror movies and/or comics that you're into?
SS: Surprising nobody, I'm a massive fan of Pan's Labyrinth - that sort of indulgent beautiful ugliness is entirely my bag. Likewise the sort of stripped-down, genre-defying creepiness of the ‘80s classics: Alien, The Thing, etc. I think The Orphanage (there's that Del Toro influence again) and The Babadook are the two best bits of horror cinema I've guzzled recently: the first is under-the-skin creepiness at its best, the second a masterful massaging of every something-in-the-dark trope you've ever seen.
Comics... are tricky. The mechanisms for horror in a static medium are entirely different from those in a dynamic form. There's no "boo" moment, no cunning wafts of non-diegetic music. Hence most horror comics are obliged to incline to either revulsion (Garth Ennis's Crossed being an exemplar of the form done cleverly and right -- but still not for everyone) or a more inferential, unnerving, tell-don't-show sort of approach. Alan Moore's current Providence is as wildly clever and shit-you-up disturbing as anything he's ever done, and in that I include his genre-defining run on Swamp Thing. I can't think of many examples of comics where I've been unnerved (or horrified) by the artwork alone. I guess I'd softly cite the Attack on Titan manga, wherein the design of the eponymous giants hits that "familiar but wrong" sweetspot dead-centre.
RK: I'm not really influenced by a lot of horror art and film, which is weird because I like to draw it. Movies like Poltergeist and Amityville Horror have an effect on me because I can get really scared by things you can't see. Things that inhabit another world. I'm enjoying Stranger Things, which seems to embody that theme. I buy the works of Junji Ito because I like the stories. I'm fascinated by stories of characters preoccupied with their own mortality. I'm not really into the style of horror that's about killing and inflicting bodily harm…even though I draw a lot of gore in some of my comics. So, that's a weird twist.
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JF: When was the last time you were really scared?
SS: Uff, boring answer, sorry. 36,000 feet, New York to London, hungover and exhausted, middle of the night, sleep-meds keeping me slap-bang in the grimmest grade of hypnopompia - sleeping brain, awake body, gah - and: cue the worst bout of turbulence I've ever flown through. The woman behind me started praying, people were crying, one of the stewards fell over and hurt her ankle, all that jazz.
Not the spookiest of experiences, I concede, but for raw bloody panic nothing comes close. (It's totally irrational panic, too -- planes almost never go down because of turbulence.)
In spookier territory, I've had some proper clench-your-bumhole-Si moments while freediving in the Mediterranean. The most memorable one, perhaps, was the occasion that a hitherto serene and current-free ocean kept gently pulling me back to a gap in the rocks, twenty feet down, where a wrought-iron chair (the kind you'd expect to find in a Victorian gentleman's garden, if you can picture such a thing) sat perfectly upright, weed-coated and polyp-infested, in a shimmering shaft of sunlight, with a big brown moray eel coiled neatly in the centre of the chair, staring at me. Brr.
I've heard it said that all stories are one story, and that story is "a stranger comes to town." A lot of the best horror simply flips the lens. You're the stranger, and you don't belong.
RK: Probably on a plane or boat. I fear boats and water because I can't swim. Planes, too. I can't fly. I'm petrified of heights.
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JF: What's next for Louise and Cry Havoc?
RK: I don't know. Lou and her monster friends are too good a story to leave alone, I think. I'd like to draw some more if readers want more.
SS: That's something of a "wait and see" question I'm afraid - and that's as true for me as anyone else. Alongside a whole bunch of other stuff the first volume tacitly follows Lou's attempts to work out who and what she is. By the arc's end, we've answered that question in pretty spectacular fashion. Vol 2, if and when it happens, will focus on how she applies that self-knowledge to the wider world.
I've picked out a couple of super-peculiar monsters - some of my favourite gribblies in a whole world of lore - and have a pretty decent handle on how the story would play out.
The "if" part of "if and when it happens" hinges, frankly, on schedule terrors and financial viability. That's not the answer I'm supposed to give, but it's the truth. It turns out (who knew?) project managing a creator-owned comic is an extremely difficult and utterly stressful experience, especially when it's as complex, experimental and tightly-plotted as Cry Havoc. Vol 1 was a labor of love in every sense - hence, a tough act to follow with anything but the most judicious planning and experimental of ambitions - but by nobody's metric was it a strategically mainstream book. I think the current plan is for Ryan and me to go and spin some plates elsewhere - in my own case I'll be launching a very different project; fun, light, joyous, young - through Image at the end of the year, and then circle back round for some more monstery machinations in 2017.
HorrorTalk would like to thank Simon Spurrier and Ryan Kelly for taking the time to speak with us today. Cry Havoc: Volume 1 – Mything in Action is now available at your local comic book shops and online.
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