Si Spurrier and Ryan Kelly Unleash the Wolves of War for ‘Cry Havoc’ [Interview]
Si Spurrier and Ryan Kelly return to Image in 2016 for a new ongoing series called Cry Havoc. Mixing modern-day warfare with mythological monsters, the series is primarily set in the Middle East, where it follows the story of a woman, Louise, who has a few... secrets. You see, Louise is a bit of a werewolf.
There's also a further wrinkle to the comic, which plays a huge role in the story. With the series structured into three parts, colorists Lee Loughridge, Nick Filardi and Matt Wilson are each taking on one of the three segments --- making for a comic that properly demonstrates the range, differences and importance of colorists. ComicsAlliance spoke to Spurrier and Kelly about the structural conceit of the series, and the big idea that goes beyond "lesbian werewolf."
ComicsAlliance: When did work start on Cry Havoc? Was this a concept that you’ve been working on for a while in your head, and if so, was there a fragment of the series that helped you finally decide it was time to make this project happen?
Si Spurrier: I’ve had a seed of the idea for a long time. There’s simply something about that “mythology-meets-military” paradigm which spoke to me. Marvel and DC both have perfectly splendid properties which run along those lines, but whereas I’ve always been willing squeebait for the Monsters With Big Guns thing, I think it always nagged at me that there was something – some deeper meaning or juicy thematic gravy – missing. I had no idea what, mind.
It wasn’t until more recently that I took the seed out of its mental cupboard and gave it a proper look. There’s a really lovely liminal moment, with some ideas, wherein the writer is simultaneously unpackaging and building-up a concept: investigating what makes it feel intuitively right whilst adding layers of tasty narrative omnomnom. Eventually I identified the principal flavour my brain had been detecting all along – that thematic coffee-bean of potential – and the rest of the story accumulated around it organically.
In its simplest terms Cry Havoc is the story of a woman – and a world – torn between control and chaos. But that’s a very writery way of seeing it, so we’ve taken to describing the project in more immediate terms. Think of this as the visible part of the iceberg:
It’s not the story of a lesbian werewolf going to war, except it kind of is.
Ryan Kelly: There was a period right after Three (the Image series I did with Kieron Gillen and Jordie Bellaire) finished in early 2014 where I didn't have a job and I was looking for something to do. There were a bunch of projects with other writers I was trying to make happen, early on, but I just couldn't get them to fit, time-wise. But then, I agreed to draw The Dead Boy Detectives, a Coffin Hill one-shot, and a small digital release for Marvel. So, all at once, I got really busy and I couldn't make a new, creator-owned book happen right away.
I think it was in the summer of 2014 that Si contacted me about Cry Havoc. I read the one-page pitch and [it] sounded intriguing. Concepts are okay, but as an artist, I feel I need to read the first script to know, for sure, If I can commit the creative energy and hours to it. I really need to get a feel for the characters and I need to like the dialogue. It's like when an actor reads a script before agreeing to take on a role. Luckily, I was able to read the first script and I loved it. Doing Cry Havoc was a no-brainer after that.
CA: As you say above, Si, this is nominally a book about werewolves, a particular monster that has faded and risen several times over the years within British culture specifically (American Werewolf in London, Dog Soldiers, Being Human etc). What do you think it is about werewolves that strikes such an enduring chord with the Brits?
Spurrier: Ah, now that’s a big question.
Actually, there’s a whole bunch of backmatter in each issue of Cry Havoc, amongst which you’ll find essays and explanations about precisely this sort of thing. We tend to think there’s nothing worse value for money than a comic which takes thirty seconds to read, so not only is Cry Havoc an immensely layered and relatively dense story, but the package is heaving with extra info. I digress.
The short version is that the werewolf is just one manifestation of an inconceivably old tendency for humans to imagine secret horrors – shapeshifters – lurking amongst them. It speaks so efficiently to our inbuilt paranoias and neuroses, and I imagine the dedicated anthropologist could probably trace these myths back to a prehistoric animist origin somewhere in the rift valley. My guess is that it’s all part of an holistic proto-mythology – that ineffable something which lurks outside the campfire light – and (as we shall see in CH) it takes different forms all over the world.
Hence African shapeshifters tend towards lions, hyenas and invidious insects; native American “were-” myths touch on coyotes, crows and (in the South) jaguars, and so on. Europe has manifested its Night Terrors as wolves and hounds as long as humans have dared to overnight in its shivering, dripping forests. The Western world’s obsession with the werewolf – especially in movies – is just a latter-day reflection of the same.
Part of the enduring success of the werewolf, I think, is that it lends itself extremely well to appropriation by other themes. It’s very handy as a multipurpose metaphor, in other words, and it’s been very successfully used as a stand-in for commentary on culture, class, sexuality, gender and so on.
With Cry Havoc we’re simultaneously continuing and subverting that tradition. The truth is that our central character isn’t a werewolf at all – although she of course makes that erroneous assumption when first bitten, and regards it as an unforgivably tacky fate – but is something a little different. In fact I’d go so far as to say that this particular folkloric beastie is probably more closely related, than the humble werewolf, to whatever progenitor-myth sired both. It’s far less neat-and-tidy (none of that silver bullet, full-moon bulls---), and it speaks to a far deeper wellspring of human/bestial chaos --- which of course is the theme at the heart of our story. It has a dozen different names --- shuck, gytrash, shagfoal, etc --- but for the purposes of our story it is the Barghest: a ghostly black hound.
CA: How important is the Afghanistan setting to the story?
Spurrier: Critical. I wanted to tell a story which firmly locates mythology – the idea of it, I mean – in a cuttingly relevant niche.
My contention is that we live in an increasingly disenchanted world. We’re slowly forgetting the wonder and power of fiction. We’re polarising ourselves: one side towards the numb rationalism of Realpolitik (ie: losing the ability to be moved by the unreal), the other towards the joyless orthodoxy of radicalised religion (ie: propagandising stories until they become fact). Both extremes lead only to literalness. The so-called “war on terror” is the grotesque weeping sore at the heart of this apocalyptic trend.
I think of myths as living stories. Articles of whimsy and chaos which bridge the gap between fiction and faith. They’re dying. They’re being wiped out of our collective consciousness because, simply, they don’t fit the realities of our world. And I think that’s a f---ing shame. So I simply got to wondering what it would be like to live in our world if you were a myth.
Cry Havoc is about stories attempting to regain their relevance in a world which is determined to forget them. And doing so using the only tools and tactics the modern human race understands: gun, drugs, terror.
CA: Structurally, the series is split into three sections. Can I ask how you decided on using that as the basis for the series? How do the three segments work alongside one another?
Spurrier: Good question.
The story as it first occurred to me --- and, frankly, the part which most people will assume is the “main” thread --- takes its cues from the tradition of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (which spawned Apocalypse Now, amongst other works). That is to say: a journey, literal and symbolic, towards a nexus of madness and mystery, which changes the perceptions and expectations of those making it.
In Cry Havoc’s case this is the “middle” phase of the story, in which our heroine Lou travels across the war-torn hills of Southern Afghanistan, embedded with a group of “private security consultants” --- think Blackwater, basically --- each of whom is concealing a monster inside themselves. Their mission is to locate and kill a bugf--- mental shapeshifter who seems to be spearheading some sort of folkloric uprising, from a fortress high in the mountains. Lou’s completely out of her depth, but she believes that if she makes this dangerous journey her reward will be a return to normality. She’ll be cured from the beastly curse which has infected her. Of course it’s not that simple, and the journey itself changes her. The question of what “normality” truly is bubbles to the forefront.
But then, that’s only part of the story, isn’t it? Whilst assembling that tale I found myself wanting to know who Lou was before this strange mission, and how she’d come to be so very frightened of herself. Likewise, I wanted to know what might pass between Lou and that same crazy nutf--- revolutionary if/when they finally met. The flashbacks and the flashforwards started to flex their muscles.
I could’ve told this larger tale in three consecutive sections --- first, Lou’s normal life in London being ruined by a savage occult encounter; second, the journey across Afghanistan, and the episodes of militaria and monstrosity along the way; and third, Lou’s thoughts and actions when the journey reaches its climactic destination.
But then… those three segments are all quite different, and the simple practicalities of how to write and market a book which utterly changes its tone and pace every couple of issues worried me. More importantly, I started to notice some beautiful patterns emerging when I laid the three parts of the story down alongside each other. All three are fundamentally concerned with (amongst loads of other things) the push-me-pull-you struggle between control and chaos. I found there were some lovely rhythmic peaks and troughs shared by all three threads, and in other places some very exciting juxtapositions where one story veers this way and another veers that. Basically, I wrote three songs I was really proud of, then discovered that they made one single electrifying glorious A-track when played at the same time.
CA: How did you find the three colorists you're working with on the series? What did you want each to bring to their section of the story?
Spurrier: Given all the above formalist guff about multiple threads and rhythmic synchronicity, I was naturally an excited little bundle of pretentious writerly joy. But even I --- famously determined as I am not to treat the readers like they’re idiots --- had to admit that this whole fabulous arrangement could end up feeling like a mess if not very carefully orchestrated.
The trick, bluntly, was to find ways to easily distinguish between the three threads so that the reader doesn’t get lost when jumping from one timeframe to another. Ryan’s an absolute master storyteller --- one of the best, by my estimation --- so it was easy to apply some cunningly hidden structural stuff. For instance, each of the three timezones has a default page layout which controls the density and pacing of that phase of the story (the “beginning” in London defaults to a 2x4 grid, the “middle” in Afghanistan has a standard 2x3 layout, and the “end” phase in the mountains has a widescreen 1x4 panel convention). I get a little psychic stiffy over this sort of behind-the-scene structural stuff, so hurrah.
But then we hit on a really lovely additional idea. Whilst we were putting together the pitch for this book, a discourse was gathering passion and volume all throughout the industry, to do with the way that colorists have historically been treated. Anyone who’s ever made a comic knows what a critical influence a colorist can have on the finished piece, but it’s only recently it’s become normal for them to get a cover credit.
Ryan and I found that we serendipitously had the perfect slot for an unusually-shaped brick. We needed a way of visually distinguishing between three different “flavors” of Ryan’s art, and the coloring community needed a way of showing off how impactful they were upon stories. Hey presto: three colorists.
Naturally that made the book waaay harder to cast and manage, but we lucked out again in a big way. Matt, Lee and Nick have known each other forever, they’re all recognisable names in their own right (and you can’t understate the importance of having Known Talent advocacy, when it comes to creator owned projects), and pretty much the only thing their individual styles have in common is that they’re all f---ing magnificent.
Kelly: We had to go around and get a general feel for colorists' schedules and overall interest, As well as just figuring if their stye and color choices will match the book's dynamic. It was a joy to have Matt Wilson, Nick Filardi and Lee Loughridge agree to take on this project. I was a sincere fan of their individual contributions and long-admired their skill and color choices.
What I love about their work is that they're not afraid to go really weird and surreal with the color schemes, as well as add touches here and there for emotional impact. They can convey mood, emotion, and ascribe colors to critical story elements. Plus, they each do their own thing, and I love that. Nick makes the London scenes really electric, but also claustrophobic. He makes his scenes feel dream-like. Matt makes the Afghanistan scenes gritty and earthy and adds lot of texture, so those scenes feel more "real". Lee handles the future-tense scenes and those depict a world that is bizarre and bloody. Those scenes are scarier and you'll see how the color achieve that.
CA: Do you find your work changes with the different colorists' collaboration?
Kelly: It's subtle --- too microscopic to notice --- but I do feel I draw and design the scenes uniquely for each colorist. Now that I've seen their handiwork, it has influenced the way I approach my own mark-making. I think that's a sign of a harmonious relationship when a colorist's work affects the penciler's approach. It's like when you're in a band, and you're jamming and you're playing off of each other's drum fills and riffs.
CA: And what's it been like to work with Ryan, Si?
Spurrier: I’ve said this a billion times before, but Ryan’s genuinely one of the greatest storytellers working in comics right now.
We’re all very familiar with hyper-trendy artists who’re known for their mould-breaking style and visual voice, and a lot of them really are extraordinary talents... but it bothers me how the industry often puts more store in an unusual aesthetic than in the skill of a storyteller. The world is heaving with stylish artists, but when it comes to ones who can use sequential images in a smart, unpretentious, intuitive way to make stories happen? They’re like hen’s teeth.
For me, Ryan’s literally the best of both worlds. He can draw anything he puts his mind to in his unfussy but wonderfully recognisable style --- he gives great monster, for instance --- and he does it all with a sense of narrative progression second to none.
CA: What do you feel drives and motivates your lead character, Louise?
Spurrier: The same as all of us. Love, loneliness, ambition, passion, desire, boredom, and a growing fear of herself and what she might be capable of.
CA: On books like Six Gun Gorilla you’ve used a high concept to write quite candid stories about the human experience --- is that also the case with Cry Havoc? How do you feel the comic comments on stories, if at all?
Spurrier: Oh hell yeah. It’s an interesting one. It’s the first time I’ve avoided a purely axiomatic controlling idea. It’s usually the case that when you boil them right down, the thematic message inside most stories will tend towards moral extremes – x will always overcome y – which of course isn’t how reality works at all.
As I’ve said, CH is primarily concerned with chaos and control. On a long enough timeline I think it’s true to say irrational life overcomes enforced order, which is the top-level layer of CH’s central thesis, but dig a little deeper and it’s way more nuanced than that. Both extremes can be pretty repugnant, and human life is arguably an exquisite, holy, laughable tightrope walk between the two.
The beauty of telling stories about stories --- which I guess is sort of my Thing --- is that you can shine a light onto these hazy equivocations without them seeming unsatisfying. Stories have to end but they don’t have to die; they evolve and get told again, spawning sequels, inspiring variations, constantly striving for the most efficient cultural fit. Stories are the finest, most beautiful, most adaptable parasites we will ever know.
It only seems fair --- and this is nothing less than the bloody beating heart of Cry Havoc --- that we acknowledge their power.
Cry Havoc #1 will be released by Image Comics on January 27th. For more, you can follow the official Tumblr page here.