Werewolves. A secret war. A non-linear timeline.
Sounds like pure chaos, but writer Simon Spurrier and artist Ryan Kelley are wrangling that chaos in the new Image series Cry Havoc. Inspired by William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the duo are set to "unleash the dogs of war" with Lou, a jill of all trades, who couldn't find a place for herself in the world until she becomes possessed with an ancient spirit and receives it's supernatural abilities. But just because she's found a place in life, it doesn't necessarily mean it's a good one.
Newsarama talked with Spurrier about Cry Havoc just after it's January debut, delving into the personalities, the mythology, and the writer's belief on credits in comic book work.
Newsarama: Simon, so, Cry Havoc debuted last month. How has the reaction been for it so far that you've seen?
Simon Spurrier: If anything, non-stop press has been a bit of an understatement. I was caught unprepared for the amount of effort I would need to put in, or I should say, want to put into marketing and public relations. This is my first Image book --
Nrama: Besides Gutsville, right?
Spurrier: Yes, but given the modern world’s reliance upon social media and such things in which I’ve never had to be in charge of...I just didn’t know how much effort to put in for the book to be successful in that regard. So I guess I just did as much as I humanly could. Which has meant dozens and dozens of interviews and emailing of retailers.
Retailers, as a creator, are your first line of reliance. If you can persuade the retailers that your project is interesting and is going to do well for them, and that there’s enough of it stashed away in a war chest to complete things and there won’t be gaps on their shelves and schedules and no screw ups, it will only help you. You have to sell it to them in order to sell it to the public. Even after all that, it all lives or dies on how good it is and I’m delighted to say that we’re starting to get reviews in and they’re all uniformly really good. I say that literally knocking wood as the things I tend to write have been historically things that people really, really get and respond to and I have the some of the most loyal fans in the world. Or something that people just don’t get and not their cup of tea, but so far Cry Havoc has hit a homerun. I cringe as I say that as I don’t really trust myself with that. Ask me again in a year and I’ll tell you how it really did.
Nrama: So, werewolves. We've seen them in horror movies since the beginning of cinema. They're part of our pop culture; everybody knows the Wolfman and such. Sometimes stories use lycanthropy as a metaphor, how do the beasts in Cry Havoc differ, if at all?
Spurrier: Well, I guess the thing to say there I tend to see mythology especially as it relates to monsters as two different things, and I love both of them.
The first one is the very human instinct to taxonomize everything. I like to look through folklore and point at a monster and say “ohh, I know what that is” and I like that. In fiction and fantasy, there’s this idea that you can treat these incredible and strange beasts with some rational logic and be able to label them and deal with them in a real world sort of way.
But we are dealing with clearly made up and not real things. So, the way I tend to see folklore is that a canon of continuous concepts; it’s a continuum. I like to use the world pluripotent when describing the concept of myth. You can use any core myth or core story, any monster or piece of gossip--basically any tale--to say things about anything else. That’s why the most enduring monsters keep popping up in fiction. Those tend to the be the ones that are the most agreeable when used as metaphors when saying shit about other shit.
That’s not saying that Cry Havoc isn’t about, at the top level, werewolves and monsters with guns in Afghanistan investigating things because it most absolutely is. It’s the sub genre of monsters with guns I’ve always responded to and I’m sure most comic fans respond well to that as well. I’ve always had a fondness of that imagery and so thinking about it at great length, I came up with a controlling idea which seems to unify all the things that are in cry havoc, I think I found a way to have my cake and eat it. I get to tell a story full of cool characters, sexy times, monsters, action, violence and all the stuff you think about in a book about monsters.
Also, I think, it’s a little bit smarter than the average bear and contains an awful lot of thoughtful stuff that some books don’t. For example, the endless conflict and control which defines how we act in society. When you think about stories with control and chaos, it’s not that big a leap to see certain aspects of this tale: military, politics, pharmaceuticals as agents of control. Mythology, creativity, passion, violence as manifestations of chaos. Neither good nor bad, it’s a story of a woman who is caught between control and chaos. so it doesn’t seem completely incongruous to be telling this type of story using these different type of elements.
I guess that’s the long-winded way of saying that the beasts that appear in Cry Havoc are monsters in their own right but are stand-ins for avatars for some of the themes and notions that the story is concerned with.
Nrama: Cry Havoc has a story structure that's so...peculiar. It's non-linear has it jumps back and forth, back and forth, but doesn't become disorienting. It reminded me of Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, with each color filter means a different location. Tell us about the time settings here and each stage of Lou's life?
Spurrier: I mentioned earlier on that I tend to think of controlling ideas when I come up with a story. There are natural progressions in a story and they have a rhythm. This is all slightly unnecessary for me to say as if you’re reading this I’m sure you’re a fan of comics and you already intuitively know what I’m about to say, but I would suggest to you that the art of making comics is the art of disseminating information at a regulated pace.
When I sat down to plot Louise’s life, I quickly realized that there are three distinctive phases in her story. It starts with her in London, where she is a street musician living out her slightly flaky disorganized life with her girlfriend who is more uptight. She gets savaged by some horror, which she assumes is a werewolf, but is much darker than that, and her life starts to fall even more apart as a result. She is then seen in Afghanistan where she’s embedded in a unit of private security quarters. If you’ve heard of Blackwater, it’s similar to that. Except that this unit is made of people like just Lou--shapeshifters.
They’re on a mission that Lou hopes will allow her to shake off this curse inside her. A little later still in her story, we see she’s held captive by the very person from Afghanistan she went to find. Now, I could have told that story in that way in the correct fashion. But the rhythm of the story demanded something different. It felt the most satisfying when those three phases were told side-by-side. I found out that if you laid these three stories like that, it took on a better form. There were matching peaks and troughs throughout these threads that which felt really good, and exciting and interesting.
Because this is how the story wanted to be told, I’m always painfully aware that if I’m left to my own devices, I will tell a story that is dense and complicated, full of every little thing that pops in my head. That’s the story I want to read, but it’s not the story that everybody wants to read. I have to remember that a lot of comic book readers don’t want to be scared of the chronology. You’re automatically jumping backwards and forwards there’s a risk you’re going to lose your audience.
The really cool idea was that we just gave these three phases in Lou’s life to a different colorist. By chance this whole thought process was happening, the comic book industry as a whole was going through this convulsion, a much needed convulsion, that colorists have been historically poorly treated and get very little credit. Very few people celebrate on what they bring to the story. So this was the perfect opportunity to demonstrate exactly that.
We’ve got Matt Wilson doing the middle of the story, set if Afghanistan, which is cobalt colors and highly textured fixtures. You’ve got Nick Filardi doing her in London in the beginning of the story, which is cold cyans and misty colors, which give way to vibrant purples. And you’ve got Lee Loughridge at the other end of the story, with her trapped in this mysterious prison we’ve started to call “The Red Place” because he tends towards reds and crimsons and really stark jarring flat tones. So the three different styles work together and I don’t think they’re jarring enough for the reader, but I do think they are different enough that the reader can tell instantly where Lou is in her life at that moment.
As far as we know, nobody has done this before, and it’s the perfect and unprecedented demonstration of what a profound impact colorists have upon the tone and vibe of the story.
I should add, by the way, that while we’re talking about colorists and their historical lack of credit they’ve received, colorists were not so long ago regarded as support artists that were barely worthy of mention. Comics being a collaborative medium there are far more members of the team than just the writer, artist, and colorist.
In this case we have the splendid Simon Bowland on letters. He’s one the best letterers I’ve ever worked with. He’s been with 2000 A.D. for many, many years and it’s an art that even less appreciated than colors were. I genuinely believe there will be a slow enlightenment on what an arcane but important role the craft of lettering plays within reader’s enjoyment of the comic. We also have designer Emma Price, and this is her first design work in comics but you wouldn’t know it. At the time when people are with colorists, and hopefully soon with letterers, people realizing that just a critical role designers play in creating these artifacts we buy every month.
I think we’ve always been slightly guilty as readers that these things come from the sky fully-formed, but they don’t. Somebody has to write them, somebody has to draw them, color them, letter them, and increasingly somebody makes it their task to turn this into a beautifully designed artifact. That’s what Emma has done with Cry Havoc and I genuinely believe it’s one of the most attractive bits of publishing on the shelf this month. She’s also a co-artist with Ryan on the A covers. Ryan does these very loose pencil and ink sketches of monsters in the series and Emma turns them into these wonderful, utterly unique covers that are unlike any other comic book on the shelf.
Nrama: Lets get into the story of the series. In the first issue, as well as the second, we see this meshing of supernatural powers and military weaponry. If could this be an actuality, do you think it could work? How does it work in Cry Havoc?
Spurrier: I think this is about how these seemingly incongruous elements with the folklore and horror, something you’d expect from a fantasy or horror story and the strict down hard edges of a war movie. I touched on this earlier, but what I would say I have a very acrimonious idea about genre that it’s not really fit of purpose. Think about horror, western, sci-fi, period. These adjectives aren’t even describing the same sorts of things, let alone anything useful about what genuinely matters, which is the story itself.
So I approach it differently, with a controlling idea that matters to me. I’m not going to tell you what the central idea behind Cry Havoc is, as I think that would give shit away, but by starting from that perspective you quickly realize of all sorts of stuff which wouldn’t fit together if you were thinking of boring old genre terms. Is there something awesome about gigantic monsters twatting Taliban terrorists? Yes, there actually is.
And I suspect that if the events in Cry Havoc actually happened, I’m guessing it wouldn’t take long for state-oriented powers would come in and sweep this. We live in a world where we are increasingly forget how to experience wonder and forget some things that aren’t necessarily true, still have meaning. We’re very good as a society at wanting to control everything, even as uncontrollable as it may seem.
Nrama: Let's talk about your career.
Spurrier: Yes, let’s!
Nrama: You've been doing this for a few years now with books at Marvel, BOOM!, 2000 A.D., even Warhammer novels under your belt, and you have a handful of creator-owned works as well, why did you feel Image was the right place for Cry Havoc?
Spurrier: It’s a privilege being a comic book writer than an artist that you can do multiple projects all at the same time. The various publishers have a different level of freedom vs. control...which is weirdly relevant of what I’ve been talking about...and again, neither of those extremes are good or bad. Sometimes, in some stories, you want to be edited and controlled and be working with other people’s characters in a purely work-for-hire sort of way because you’ve grown up with these characters and love them to bits and don’t want to be creating a world from scratch. So it’s a privilege to work on things like the X-Men, which you’re sure that all of your readers will recognize. There’s this cache that comes with these characters before you even write a word. There’s a great deal of pleasure to have telling that story and the editor is there to have your back and make sure the story is as stripped down as it can be and to make sure it’s correctly targeted at exactly the right sort of people.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are sometimes where you want to be left alone and pure freedom; to go alone and to do something you wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else. So it’s a case if you’re crazy lucky like I am who gets to work with these publishers who find that they want to work with you too, which is the dream. There are some projects you find that they just have to be dealt with in a particular way. In the case of Cry Havoc, it’s a really experimental story and it had a lot of wrangling when it came to this coloring stuff and getting the story told the way it wanted to be told. It’s not an easy story to pitch. We jokingly elevator pitched it as it was coming together with this really cheesey line which is “this is not the story of a lesbian werewolf going to war, except it kinda is”. Which I think is very funny and it probably sold thousands and thousands of comics that we wouldn’t have sold if we haven’t used that line. As an elevator pitch to the publisher to make the thing, that probably wouldn’t have worked.
So it was pretty clear from the get-go that this would be a labor of love and do things by ourselves. Image is fabulously supportive and prepared to take these risks, but working with them what you get is the support and the infrastructure. You get their advice, their technical advice as well, and you get the brand. That’s what we wanted. Everything else, we thought would be bloody hard, but we could do it ourselves.
Nrama: Okay Lou, our heroine, is a soldier, a girlfriend, a musician, and of course a werewolf. How would you define her as a person?
Spurrier: Well she’s not really a werewolf. I know I’m splitting hairs here, but she’s convinced she’s a werewolf...wherein fact she’s actually something a little bit stranger and darker and older other than that. I would argue that the werewolf as an entity is just one very small part of a far larger prototypical mythology which is prevalent in Britain and Europe. It is obsessed with shaggy, spectral hounds and dogs. It has multiple names, depending where you are, but I think the werewolf has become the face of that, but that’s neither here nor there. The question pertains to who Lou is.
I would say we all know somebody a bit like her. She’s creative, musical, brave, passionate, but also flakey, disorganized and infuriating if you know her. She’s the type of person that has been told her whole life that she needs to get her shit together and takes that to heart. As a result, she’s never stopped and wondered if this dose of chaos inside her is a good thing. That’s one of the tensions in Cry Havoc is that she goes off looking to rid herself of this, but that may not be the best thing to do.
Lou is also gay, by the way, and people sometimes ask me why and the long answer that I really shouldn’t have to give is that it is cogent to the story, but it’s not vital to the story. I could probably have told the same story, it would not be a lesser story. The short answer is: why shouldn’t she be gay? I think we’re all occasionally guilty of assuming that a story about a gay person is about gayness and that’s ridiculous.
Nrama: Last question, Si. The first issue is out, with #2 coming this week. What can fans expect from Cry Havoc in the first arc? What are you excited for them to see most as the story progress?
Spurrier: Oh golly, we have a whole bunch of stuff coming up. In #2, we have Hulk Smash-style splash pages and a big surprise at the end of that issue. We’ve an Icelandic chronic masturbator, we got more monsters than you shake a stick at, and a slow reveal of a dark conspiracy bubbling in the hills of the Pakistani border. We’ve got a fat racist. I mean he is literally puking his own guts out. We’ve got an enormous crow headbutting a Predator drone out of the sky. And we’ve got a floating head with its own poisonous entrails dangling beneath it attacking a legion of rifle-wielding soldiers.