Si Spurrier: The Only Hope for the Ravaged Masses of HumanityA comics interview article by: Steve Morris
Simon Spurrier is the newly-announced writer of X-Men Legacy for Marvel. BUT! Who wants to hear about that, for God’s sake? He’s also the writer of Extermination, a series which sees aliens destroy the World. The only hope left for the ravaged masses of humanity are the last superhero left standing, Nox, and his arch-nemesis Red Reaper, the mostly deadly supervillain on Earth. There are no X-Men in it, but if you like to see people using gadgets, kung-fu and shotguns to kill aliens, you’re in luck. I spoke to him about the series, which continues later this month.
Steve Morris: Extermination basically starts off with a scenario which Marvel/DC could never hope to do: end of the world. The heroes all seem to be missing, and only Nox and Red Reaper are around. Is there a little bit of commentary here, about the state of mainstream superhero comics right now?
Si Spurrier: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, obviously the mission statement with Extermination was to tell a ripping apocalyptic nuts-out exploding psi-tech yarn about a couple of fascinating characters from opposite sides of the moral divide, but the mischievous intent beneath that was always about shining an unfamiliar light on a few of the questionable conventions of the genre. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big spandex fan – when a superhero story works well it says something about the world, morality, aspiration, idealism – but all too often it’s about using a really dodgy logical paradigm (to whit, “Holy shit, I’ve developed an amazing superpower! Obviously I must now go and fight crime!”) as an excuse to see a bunch of simpleminded morons hitting each other. As far as I’m concerned there is simply no version of a human society – fictional or otherwise – where that sort of moral two tone, posturing, violent fuzzy-logic genuinely makes the world a better place.
So with Extermination the concept was as simple as it was fun. Let’s accept the silliness of superhero conventions, let’s show a world where dressing in a colourful outfit is synonymous with being a Good Person, let’s have team-ups and ridiculous one-liners and overblown villainous schemes and daft weapons and all that… and then let’s take away every fucking thing that gives it meaning.
Steve: What most interests you about taking mainstream superhero ideals and transplanting them into a hopelessly unheroic situation?
Spurrier: I want to see what happens to these clichés we’re all so familiar with – the nocturnal knight! the mincing science-villain! – when their natural context is taken away. Who flourishes? Who fails? What’s quickly become apparent is that you can start with the most tedious one-note moral absolute in the world, and he’s automatically going to start revealing hidden depths. There’s a lot of fun stuff lurking just below the surface of Nox’s and Reaper’s brains.
Steve: Was there a reason for the ‘enemy invasion’ they faced, or is it more important as setting and tone than as a plot point? How much of the book do you see as straightforward story and how much is exploring theme?
Spurrier: A little of both. Frankly the alien bit was built into the concept when Boom! approached me: we want you to write a story about a couple of superheroes in a world where the alien invasion actually worked. Which is a fantastically fun story in and of itself, but I wanted to make that the background – the context, if you like – rather than the controlling idea. The practical mission our guys are on is fundamentally bound-up in the invasion – the hows, whys and whats of it – but it’s the relationship between the two of them that really matters.
Of course, me being me, “alien invasion” is an altogether too simple way of describing it. The EDDA (and no, I can’t tell you why they’re called that) aren’t like anything we’ve ever seen before. Their technology is entirely telepathic, their arrival on our planet is a mystery our heroes are going to have to solve, and why they’ve chosen to come here is… well, icky.
Steve: So far we’ve seen, and obviously this is totally in my mind and certainly not what you were planning absolutely not, a Wolverine analogue, a Superman analogue, and the two main characters who appear to resemble elements of Batman and Lex Luthor. Could we expect a Wonder Woman to show up anytime soon? Perhaps a version of delightful pink welsher Pixie?
Spurrier: Ha! Keep your freaky rarebit-gobbling fetishes to yourself, mate.
Nox is obviously and unashamedly a Batman analogue – at least, he is to begin with. We’re going to discover there’s rather more to him than meets the eye. Reaper I initially envisaged as a sort of Doctor Doom character, but he quickly developed a life of his own and wound-up getting a bit camp, a bit snide. (I’d just finished writing X-Club: I suspect the ghost of Doctor Nemesis was still clattering round my head).
As for what else we’re going to see: that would be telling. But there will be Things To See, oh yes. Oh yes indeed.
Steve: Red Reaper has been running rings around Nox so far, gleefully so. Is it hard not to just have an entire issue of Reaper making jokes at Nox’s expense? Is it easier to write a supervillain, because they have fewer moral boundaries to cross?
Spurrier: It is hard, yeah. He does rather take over. And I’m not going to pretend I don’t far prefer writing the bad guy to the good guy. There’s something rather wonderful – rather manipulative, frankly – about making readers fall in love with someone who suddenly turns round and does something abhorrent. I like fucking with people like that. I are Bad Person.
And yeah, I think you’re right, for what it’s worth, about the moral boundaries. But it’s more than that, I think. I’m so inherently suspicious of a lot of superhero characters – nobody’s that bloody altruistic unless they’re a monomaniac, a sociopath with an ulterior motive or a religious fucking zealot. So whereas I’m not exactly condoning a career-path as a world-conquering mass-murdering supervillain, at the very least it feels a lot more honest – to me – than the alternative.
But possibly I’m just weird.
Steve: You’re a member, if not an operator, of Warren Ellis’ ‘Whitechapel’ forum. Was his style an influence on your writing, particularly works like Extermination?
Spurrier: I’m solely in charge of Whitechapel these days, and it remains a thriving community of wrongheaded weirdoes, perverts, artists, future junkies and similar freaks. Warren’s been an amazing mentor to me – advice, introductions, bummed cigarettes and last-orders whisky – so I can’t understate my gratitude, nor the influence he’s had on my career trajectory. Weirdly – and I’m certain others would say I’m protesting too much here – I don’t feel as though his style, his particular voice, has rubbed off on me all that much. I tend to think (or maybe I tend to hope) any tonal similarities were in place before I ever met the guy: I was writing Lobster Random for 2000AD as a curmudgeonly claw-wielding future-tech curmudgeon long before I first read Transmetropolitan, for example. Plus I think my stuff tends to be a bit more emo than Warren’s: for my money he writes the best Likeable Bastards in the world; I like my bastards crying about dead kittens. Then eating them.
Steve: Recently you also finished work on X-Club, a miniseries focusing on the X-Men’s science team. It also felt like the first time in ages somebody celebrated the X-Men as a symbol of diversity. What was the starfish’s name?
Spurrier: The starfish is pure and beautiful and unique, and as such is above the need for something as prosaic as a name.
I had so, so, so much fun writing X-Club. Frankly I’m still slightly amazed Marvel let me get away with it: it’s a weird, niche, mad little book. A bunch of dysfunctional scientists led by a megalomaniacal superpomp savant doing crazy quantum mechanics, bio-engineering and buggering about between the walls in reality. Oh, and of course the whole Mechaphile thing. I’ve been waiting to tell that story for ages – Madison Jeffries and Danger have always had a bit of a crackly tension between them: it was just waiting for someone to step up and say “that bloke’s totally in love with a machine.”
The book went down amazingly well, anyway. I’ve since been offered a rather tasty newer, bigger, meatier Marvel book – I can’t talk about that just yet – so someone somewhere obviously approved.
OH, I WONDER WHAT THAT BOOK MIGHT BE SIMON
Steve: When dealing with the weird science bits, your approach to making it understandable was, typically, to make it funny. How important is humour in your writing?
Spurrier: I’d say it’s all-important. I’m a great believer in comic relief (the narrative technique rather than the slightly creaky let’s-help-starving-kids-by-dumping-gunge-on-celebrities annual British telethon). I think that if you’re going to try and take readers somewhere challenging – whether it’s dark, violent, complex, trippy, sexy, unconventional, whatever – you’ve got to reward their patience by making them smirk. It breaks the tension, reassures people, reminds them that they’re experiencing entertainment rather than preachiness. Something like X-Club was a gift for that, because I could toss out all these bleeding-edge sciencey concepts – proper technobabble bullshit, y’know? – then have Dr Nemesis giving a derisive little snort and saying something snarky. It’s not a classroom lecture, folks, relax, enjoy. (And, PS, maybe you’ll fucking learn something along the way.)
That’s a far harder technique to apply with something like Crossed, where the diary-based narrative is so earnest and personal – it’s tricky to cut away to smarmy little asides to defuse a tense moment. So sometimes I just deliberately don’t, y’know? Let the tension run. Make people uncomfortable. That’s what diaries are for, after all: to disarm the reader with pure honesty. That said, Shaky’s very good at gallows humour: some black little comment about something horrific. And when all else fails, making up a silly word, ideally containing a naughty swear, will generally pop the atmosphere like a balloon.
Steve: What published word combinations are you proudest of creating? I’m rather fond of “the laboratory of violence”
Spurrier: I’ve been doing some Simping Detective for 2000AD recently – it’s this batshit insane homage to Philip Marlowe set in (Judge Dredd’s) Mega City One, about a private eye whose undercover “disguise” is to dress like a clown. He’s got a neat line in doubleclever noir analogues phrases – my favourite so far is “more layers than a dyslexic dragon.” Think about it.
I guess the place to go and experience a wraparound wordnuke of ridiculous portmanteau Spurrierisms would be here:
I made a very silly video to help publicise my last novel. It’s the sort of thing I should probably be slightly embarrassed about, but of course I have absolutely no shame.
Steve: What was the starfish’s name?
Spurrier: I would tell you, but it happens to also be the name of one of the Dark Elder gods, and if I type it here my laptop may turn into an aetheric portal into a realm of pure shiverlight. Which would be totes rubbish, and might possibly hurt.
Steve: Do you have any more plans to write them again? If, that is, they don’t become Avengers. What else do you have on the horizon right now?
Spurrier: No plans for more X-Club titles in the near future, but… shall we say… in all probability you haven’t seen the last of those guys in a Spurrier-scripted comic. There’s a… a Big Marvel Thing on the horizon I can’t talk about just yet, but expect an announcement in the next week or two.
Elsewhere? More projects on the go with Avatar and 2000AD, the continuing adventures of Nox and Red Reaper in Extermination, and at least one creator owned book sidling out over the next six months. Aaaaaand on top of all that I’m supposed to be writing a new novel. I had a life once. Send help.
And now, because I would never hide my mistakes from you, the loyal readers of Comics Bulletin… I present a terrible embarrassment I made of myself:
Steve: You worked for Eastenders! I just noticed this on your Wikipedia page. Do you think it’s fair to say you gravitate towards writing uncompromising, rugged heroes like Dr Nemesis, Red Reaper, and Dot Cotton?
Spurrier: Ha, nice try, but my suspicion is that you’ve confused me with the highly talented and thoroughly wonderful Si Spencer, who did indeed used to write for Eastenders. You’re not the first to confuse us (in fact, I got an “in” with a highly prestigious editor whose name I’m far too polite to reveal, when he mistook me for Mr Spencer and endured 15 very confusing minutes of a meeting before twigging he’d got the wrong Si), and it’s made all the more complex because I did indeed work for the BBC for a little while; albeit as an art director.
As for rugged, uncompromising characters… yeah, I guess there’s a bit of that. But it’s more like I enjoy presenting these unflappable snarky sharp-tongued people and then bringing them down a peg or two. The as-yet-unnameable Starfish served precisely that function: there’s nothing funnier than a snide know-it-all bastard unwittingly revealing himself as a lonely saddo.
Steve: Is there ANYTHING you won’t put in Crossed: Wish You Were Here?
Actually, that’s glib. There’s loads I won’t put in there. Part of the challenge of writing Crossed was that it not just be gratuitous violent rapey nastiness. What makes Garth’s original series stand out head and shoulder above some of the other apocalyptic zombieish dreck out there at the moment is that it’s full of heart and cleverness and empathy, and the horrible evil backdrop is just the engine which spins those gears. I wanted to hit a similar sort of tone with Wish You Were Here: something more than just rape and gore and grossness.
The diary format was part of that, as was the vaguely metafictional approach of writing myself into it. There’s a whole bunch of wanky double-clever thematic stuff I’m oh-so-slowly exploring, but I won’t bore you with that. What I will say is that, given the precedents set by other Crossed series, it’s obviously important from time to time to show readers just how bad things can get. Never too often, never too much: just so they know that the periods of quiet in between are tenuous, doomed to be broken, drenched in tension. And I kinda think it’s juuuust about possible to treat some of these gross out moments with just a modicum of dark humour. The series opens with a guy fucking a dolphin in the blowhole, for godssake: an image which makes people smirk then feel sick.
Steve: Y’know how there was a starfish in X-Club? What do you think its name was?
Spurrier: Rupert, all right? Its fucking name was Rupert. HAPPY NOW?
Extermination #3 is out on August 29th, X-Men Legacy starts in November, Crossed: Wish You Were Here is available online and will be put into print at a later date. Spurrier’s novel mentioned above is called A Serpent Uncoiled, his Twitter is @sispurrier and you can protest his dictatorial rule on Whitechapel by visiting the forum.
And in case you were wondering, this is what Dot Cotton looks like: