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Becoming Disenchanted: The Power of Story, an Interview with Simon Spurrier

A comics interview article by: Keith Silva

Simon Spurrier talks about 'story' -- yes, those single quotation marks mean everything -- the same way other men talk about Kentucky Bourbon, Jesus, Brigitte Bardot in And God Created Women or the Smith & Wesson Model 500. Some would say Spurrier is obsessed.

Like a V2 rocket, Spurrier's stories (his ideas) hit before the reader realizes what she/he has just read. And the results are no less devastating. Along with artist German Erramouspe, the colorists at Digicore Studios and letterer Kurt Hathaway, Spurrier has created Disenchanted, a fairy story -- yes, you read that right -- for adults. Sex, drugs, corruption, violence, interracial hatred and the power stories have (or had). All of it makes Disenchanted the perfect place for magic to come to die.


Keith Silva for Comics Bulletin: Faeries, for real?

Simon Spurrier: Ha. For real. For face-beating, drug-injecting, heart-breaking, interspecies-loving, crime-committing, family-tie-tying real.

Or, rather, for story-real. Which, as you may have gathered from things I've waffled elsewhere, or if not will almost certainly be gathering very shortly right here, I believe amounts to broadly the same thing. Story is reality, reality is story, and the second you pause to remind yourself that actually, idiot, it's bloody not the same, is it – because look, there are no goblins under the floorboards, and there never was a London Underground station called Wardour Street, and there has never existed a pornographer's called Dirty Dick's on the corner of Duck Lane, and so on – the second you think like that, the second you allow your own fantastical superposition to collapse and cease to be fully invested in your fiction, then you've no business calling yourself a storyteller.

(By the way, I use ''superposition'' -- a term generally found in the eerie world of quantum physics to describe a particle which exists in two mutually exclusive states at the same time until someone observes it – advisedly. ''Suspension of disbelief,'' in my view, is merely the process of entangling reality with fiction in precisely the same way. The overlap can't survive close scrutiny, but right up to that point it bridges worlds in a thoroughly marvelous way.)

In other words: if – as a writer – you can’t persuade yourself that the reality you're describing is functional and real and plausible without snickering and wink-winking about, hahaha, it's about fairies tee hee, then you've no reason nor right to expect your readers to do the same.

All of which is a pretty spectacular spot of semantic digression to be indulging this early in an interview, especially for a question about twinkly magic elves. Sorry. But for once I've laboured a point with a deliberate ulterior motive. Story is everything. Fairies – or faeries, or fey, or fae, or however you want to fucking spell it – have indeed become a byword for the sorts of floppy saccharine dismorphic glittery aggressively-genderised schoolgirl toystore crap which all right-thinking people should loathe. Buuuuuut if you're prepared to imagine a world in which faeries, and other creatures like them, really do exist – to wonder where they originally came from, how they live their lives, how a changing world has affected them and so on – then you suddenly have access to a lot of very interesting stories and subtexts. Many of which, not incidentally, joyfully subvert the aforementioned floppy saccharine (etc etc) stereotype.

Fairies, just like all the other folkloric races which populate Disenchanted – hobs, brownies, goblins, kobolds, leprechauns, pixies and boggarts – were originally manifestations of remarkably adult beliefs and mysteries, loooong before they were tutu-wearing plastic wand-botherers on the shelves of Toys R Us.

Anyway. In purely thematic terms, Disenchanted is a story about the way that we humans tend to erode, distort or sanitize our own superstitions and religions whenever we all come together in city environments. It's about whether sentimentality and folklore can survive this urban century without being forgotten. The twist, simply, is that it’s told from the point of view of the very folkloric beings who’re busy being forgotten.

So. Yes. Faeries, for real.

CB: You write in the Disenchanted 'primer' you are fascinated by folklore and 'oldtime religion.' Why do you think people stopped believing in faeries (or have they)? How did Western culture (?) come to believe 'not to believe?'

Spurrier: Good question. And frankly it's the one which lies at the heart of the story, so I'd hesitate to be unequivocal about that even if I were capable. As it happens I'm not sure there are easy answers to those sorts of questions – certainly I can't think of anything neat or aphoristic – any more than I'd be capable of putting a qualitative judgment on whether it's a good thing or a bad thing that the Western World, with all its interconnectivity, cultural osmosis and wraparound gregariousness, seems to be slowly killing off religions. And, not incidentally, in many cases lighting-up those traces of faith-based culture which remain with the blue-hot fires of extremism. I suppose I imagine it as a sort of tectonic collision, in which mountains of rationalism and globalism come punching up through a shallow sea of superstition and faith, redistributing the waters into far smaller but far deeper pools.

Is that a better world? Or a poorer world? I honestly don't know.

What I'm pretty sure about, I think, is that the prosaic everyday relationships which define each person's life are a billion times more important, more profound, more lasting and more interesting, than all that ethereal metaphysical wank which at best underlies it and at worst corrupts it.

So it's very worth stressing that all these thoughts and explorations are very much the background macro-story of Disenchanted. In a far more real and important way it's quite simply a tale about people. About family, crime, culture and loyalty. A lot of the storylines could probably have been relocated to a more ''realistic'' setting without many changes, but to my mind they work far better with that frisson of thematic context bubbling beneath. Plus I'm a sucker for world-building, and there's nothing quite like depicting brutal gang warfare playing out at one-inch-high scale. 

CB: Disenchanted takes place in a derelict London Tube station behind a defunct porno shop. Some of the characters are scavengers (who literally get shit on), abuse of one kind or another is rampant, violence and corruption are commonplace and racism bubbles below the surface. Is there anything uplifting or 'good' about these fey characters and their situation?

Spurrier: Well I think so.  I mean it's a fair point, I get it: one of the things I occasionally wish I'd changed -- and bear in mind I wrote the first episodes of Disenchanted four years ago -- would have been to've relented slightly on the grimy gritty nasty nastiness. ''Comic relief'' is so called for a reason: man cannot live by bread alone, any more than Reader can emote by uninterrupted Icky.

That said… I think there are enough guilty chuckles in there – perverse though they may be – to see us through. Walking in on a randy teenaged fairy with his tackle in his hand… insane brownie pulling the arse off a seagull… mischievous drug-fuelled geriatric biffing, etc. And in the more spiritual sense these characters are all capable of acts of extreme goodness. That's the connective thread of so much of the story: these dysfunctional family members each on their own very personal journey towards redemption or doom. Some of them are selfish, some are gullible, some are spiritually lost, some are self-hating hypocrites… but they’re all just as capable of good as you or I.  To me there’s nothing more uplifting than watching complicated, conflicted, plausible characters overcoming flaws both internal and external to make unselfish decisions. Just as there’s nothing more heartbreaking than watching them come close then fail. Disenchanted will bring us both.

CB: Fairy titties are fair game and fairy-on-goblin action is expected in story pitched at adults. You go further (and at length) to show how more wizened fairies enjoy a good (albeit wrinklier) roll in the hay. Why include the old lady with the shrunken paps (?!?!) nobody wants to look at those, right?

Spurrier: Hahaha. All sorts of motives behind that one, and I'm not ashamed to say one of them was quite simply to shock. And it made me giggle. And – because inevitably I'm going to get analytical about it too – I like the notion that there are some taboos still capable of being broken which don't come with automatic trigger warnings for those who find them outrageous or gratuitous. If you're going to depict consenting sexual relationships between characters -- and I see absolutely no reason why you shouldn't -- then there's likewise no reason why those characters shouldn't be… yes… cackling oldsters acting like teenagers. I'm actually quite proud of that little scene, because even though it makes some people wince when they first see it -- aawwww, my eeeyes -- it also serves as such a perfect distillation of the character involved. Grammer Tibs wouldn’t give a figgy fuck what we all think of her having some cheeky bdonkadonks -- pendulous crinkly chesticles and all -- and that's probably the smart attitude.

One of the great tragedies of Disenchanted, I think -- and more generally of urbanism in the real world -- is that someone at the end of her life like Tibitha, being a relic of an older and arguably more ignorant time, and despite all the horrible things she's both witnessed and done, is somehow the most innocent and joyful character in our tale. I've lived in London for twelve years and -- almost without exception -- the elderly folks I know here are a million times less cynical, world-weary and ''grownup'' than the school kids.

CB: Due to the complexity of the narrative, Disenchanted requires a lot of orientation -- who's who's and where's where's. As a writer how do you know when to back off and let the artist make the marks in order to tell the story, since, comics are, you know, visual?

Spurrier: I think it's partly a matter of pacing – you have to know when to speed things along and when to let things breathe; you have to understand that in some circumstances text will increase the pace while in others it'll slow it down or make people even more lost than they already were; and you have to understand the same principal applies doubly for the visual composition. And then partly it’s a simple matter of trusting one’s artist. With Disenchanted so much of the detail and contextual fabric was in place even before we brought German aboard, because we knew world-building was going to be critical, that I was a little worried he'd feel starved of creative freedom. As it happens he's had a riot designing not only the characters and the detail but the heart-and-soul feel of the city. So much so, in fact, that I've found myself tweaking plot-points and changing later scenes to abuse his ideas more than once.

Of course the biggest problem we faced in presenting the world of Disenchanted to readers – especially in short episodic chunks – was that the sheer dizzying amount of complexity involved might prove a real brake on grabbing people by the metaphorical bollocks and bringing them aboard the fictional train for the long haul. There’s a reason so many new TV shows, especially those of the sprawling-cast/ensemble breed, launch with a double-length episode: otherwise you’re giving viewers an unsatisfyingly brief glimpse of something complicated and overwhelming then leaving them confused. With Disenchanted we didn’t have that luxury – no 2hr pilot episode for us – so we grasped the nettle in a slightly different way and tried to turn it into a rose. That’s why the website where Disenchanted runs in its weekly installments styles itself as a ''world-building experiment'' as well as the host of the story. We've got wiki pages, design documents, historical accounts and most amazingly the maps – mind-breakingly detailed and uber-navigable guides to the city where the story occurs – to jointly keep readers entertained between episodes and to help them avoid feeling marooned.  As I write this now the webcomic has so far reached episode 13 (which I actually think is about the right sort of backlog for readers to be fully and satisfyingly hooked even without the extra material) but I like to think the many thousands who've been following and enjoying the trip from the get-go have been able to use the world-building resources on the site as a steadying-anchor to cling to through those initial stages of what the fuck is going on, who the fuck is that character, have we met that woman already, why’s that guy got a green face, seriously, what the actual fuck is going ON?

CB: Episode 7 of Disenchanted offers some self-abuse and less messy self-indulgence on the part of artist German Erramouspe. How did you work with Erramouspe to show Sal's flight out of Vermintown?

Spurrier: In purely process terms? It's probably not far off what you'd expect. I've got a series of wretchedly impenetrable spreadsheets marking out how each arc, episode, page and panel is organized – literally hundreds of pages of complicated notes – so when I come to script the thing it's a simple case of intuiting the dissemination of information in the most appropriately paced way possible. With the sequence you mention, for instance, it served a whole series of important but prosaic functions: orienting and locating the city in the reader's mind, teaching us some more about the biology of the fey, subtly altering the tone of the story, telling us a lot about the mindset of the character, inserting a hard edge for a time-delay before the next episode, etc etc. So the first task was to simply find the most elegant and uncomplicated way possible to hit all those targets at once. In this case, a dialogue-free journey from the stressful, emotionally-cloying streets of the city to the rooftops of London above. So the pace broadly wrote itself: it starts busy and becomes more languid, ending with a single splash which acts as a punctuation-pause. Breathe out. Okay? Let’s start again. Something like that. Layouts are generally unfussy throughout Disenchanted anyway: I tend to thumbnail important sequences like this onto the script, but German's global note from the get-go was to keep thing as straightforward and regular as possible. When you're telling a story about complicated characters in a complicated world --especially in very short chunks -- the absolute last thing you want your page composition to be is complicated.

Anyway, script goes off to German. He doesn't speak much English, but they're translated by his agent and off he goes. Most of the time he'll use the panel layouts I suggest, but whenever he changes them it’s always a massive improvement. He knows his stuff.  I get to see pages at pretty much every stage -- layout, pencil, ink, colour, letter -- so I'm kept busy exercising my finely developed megalomania. But, really, German got the hang of the city and the characters straight away, so he gets remarkably few notes.

 

CB: How (why?) did you decide to distribute Disenchanted as a webcomic (even though it is collected twice a year and sold as a proper comic as well)?

Spurrier: That's a reflection of my publisher's courage more than anything. Avatar Press tried something similar with Freakangels a few years before with remarkable results. And then again with my other webcomic, Crossed: Wish You Were Here. The model is simple but appears counterintuitive: you allow readers access to the material completely free of charge, in weekly installments (which remain archived online after they've gone live), and the readers reward your largesse by going out and buying a hard copy of the collected edition when it's available. I could abstractly theorize about the whys and wherefores – a mixture of preferential media, brand loyalty and the simple human nature to seek and possess artefacts to define their tastes, I think – but it comes to the same thing in the end. With Disenchanted we knew we wanted to do something similar the moment we started organically brainstorming about sense-defying maps, sprawling world-centric wikis and the satisfaction of an all-in-one-read. My guess – actually, my hope – is that Disenchanted stands up as an intriguing and engaging ensemble in its episodic form, but will feel even more satisfying and immersive when digested in the all-in-one chunks the collected editions provide. In that light I suppose you could see the entirety of the webcomic and its attendant halo of world-building ephemera as a very convoluted marketing campaign for a series of Original Graphic Novels.

CB: One of the strongest themes in your work is obsolescence. It's obvious in Disenchanted and (I could argue) Six-Gun Gorilla and Numbercruncher. So what gives, Spurrier? Why are you obsessed with the dispossessed and the obsolete?

Spurrier: Oh golly, I don't know. For a writer the only thing worse than someone analyzing your unconscious fixations, obsessions and recurring motifs is being invited to do the same.

Thinking out loud here: I suppose it's a combination of the old identify-with-the-underdog mentality and a more utilitarian set of characteristics which come from a character being irredeemably worthless: namely that anything good they choose to do is automatically seen as an altruistic act. There's probably a lot more to my fondness for lost causes than just that – I think people tend to be at their most honest and interesting when their mortality has been expressed, for example, and what’s obsolescence if not an existential form of mortality? – but I'd fear to wax on about it too much for fear of either straying into meaningless convolutions or, worse, creating the impression that I'm trying to sell a brand.

Digression: there are plenty of writers in comics who play that game. Branding, I mean. Whether it's a subject-matter which crops up in all their works, a conceptual territory or an aggressively intrusive style which beats the reader repeatedly round the head with the author's identity, it's something which comes to its apogee when the writer has ultimately made themselves, their look, their thoughts, their society, whatever it is, a core part of their work. One doesn't just read the stories they've written, one invests in The Experience Of The Writer's Existence. 

That's not a bad thing, necessarily, no matter how scathing I may sound. Frankly I go back and forth on whether it's something an ambitious writer should seek to embrace and sculpt or not. Generally I tend to come down on the side of 'not,' for myself -- I get bored too quickly if I try to tell multiple stories about the same thing, and I'm pretty abject at the whole Holding Court scenario at conventions, which seems to be somehow critical -- but it works very well (and in a non-cynical non-icky way) for a lot of my favourite writers. I suppose I'm lucky, or sneaky, in that my recurrent obsession is the nature of Story Itself, so I can just concentrate on telling the bloody things in the best way I can and get to abstractly feel as though I’ve got a brand after all. Devious, no?

CB: Here's a throwaway question: are you more interested in (obsessed with) disposability or obsolescence and is there a difference?

Spurrier: Oof, I dunno. At this late point in the interview I think I'm beyond splitting hairs too much. There is a difference, clearly, and I'm interested in both for slightly different reasons, but the mortality/lost-cause/rock-bottom vibe -- which is what draws me (and most writers, I think; it's certainly not something uniquely Spurrier) to those sorts of characters, worlds and scenarios -- is in place in either case.

CB: Outside of students in an English graduate school classroom -- I don’t know what the British equivalent is, first degree? -- or self-deprecating jerks who write for comic book review websites, no one is more obsessed with 'story,' 'fiction,' 'literary mimesis' as concepts and ideas (Six-Gun Gorilla, Numbercruncher) than you. Are you a Derrida-ian at heart? A frustrated Foucault fanboy forced to write comics? Why so complicated, Spurrier?

Spurrier: Haha, oh god. This is… this is almost certainly the sort of thing best discussed over a third glass of wine in a cosy pub on a Winter's evening, preferably with some good snacks, amongst friends. I find my opinions on the subject of story – which, yes, thank you for reminding me, I only just finished describing as my obsession – wavering between some fairly distinct extremes. In more down-to-earth moments I feel stories are ''merely'' an exceedingly useful technology – the most useful technology, arguably, and quite probably the most long-lasting – for communicating ideas. In a more whimsical, nay pretentious, mood I might catch myself using language of an undeniably spooky nature to describe the ways that stories affect reality. I won’t go there right now because I’m a rationalist at heart, but it’s worth mentioning that some of the most belovedly eccentric writers of the past, and certainly the ones I look up to the most, have not only seen narrative as a tool for changing the world in frankly metaphysical ways, but a tool whose meta-physicality is the product only of their own imaginations.

It works, in short, because you say it works.

But, yes. Let's stick to the tipsy-after-three-glasses-of-vino-destructo work-in-progress theory. It goes like this: our world and our experience of the world are not the same thing. Our eyes detect spectra of light, for instance, across a limited span of wavelengths, and our brain decodes those spectra as colours. A mantis shrimp sees the same sights in such a profoundly wider span of colours than we do, that our brains don't have the conceptual language to even wonder what that would be a like. A dog, on the other hand, would see the same thing in black and white. But then he'd also be surrounded by the numinous tendrils of odour that define his world in a very different way, which , again, we lack. These are all the same reality, remember, and yet the experience of them is unrecognizably different.

So. My theory – well, no, it's more of an intuition, really – is that in the same way our bodies and brains limit our understanding of light in a way which we experience as colour, so our understanding of information is limited in a way which we call 'story. ' It's central to the human experience. To us information is at its most resonant, most powerful, most profound, most memorable and most affecting when it is digested in the simple progression of Beginning, Middle and End.  Or, if you prefer, Thesis; Antithesis; Synthesis. This happens automatically. Every joke, every conversation, every painting, every lyric, every song, every walk-round-the-block. Our brains quite naturally, effortlessly and cheerfully repackage these untidy, ragged continuums of experience into neatly packaged story-forms.

What does this mean on a practical level? Well, all sorts of things. I'm still poking at it, frankly, and probably always will be. One thing I'm sure about is that endings are critical. Stories don't achieve true resonance during their middles unless an ending is coming, and they don't achieve lasting impact unless the ending does indeed arrive. There's a reason, I think, that the big beats in soap operas so often feel either unsatisfying or melodramatically overblown (of the former, it's because there's no hard punctuation after the climax; of the latter it's because all the emotional buildup is based upon a frail and thinly-stretched foundation and hence feels undeserved, cheesy, over-the-top, in a way that it wouldn’t if the curtains came down once and for all straight afterwards). Likewise there's a reason we struggle to remember conversations that got interrupted, or jokes that were poorly delivered. They're not neat enough for the brain to package-away without effort.

In ongoing comics that's sometimes a problem too. At their worst I see them like the sort of crack cocaine of the storyworld: a psychic parasite that preys on the human need to sprint towards the promise of an ending and then never…quite… delivering.  This is why, of course, so many comicbook writers now deal with modular stories: arcs and mini-arcs, macros and micros.

The other really interesting thing about all this is that when you accept most information is 'Story,' you can build endless layers of fractal significance into the fictions you’re creating. This is how Controlling Ideas work at their most elegant. Every scene, every image, every line, every character-journey: if all of them are telling the same story all at once, or at least different versions of it, then a masterpiece is born. (The simplest example I always give is the Pixar movie Wall-E. The controlling idea behind that film? ''Irrational Love Overcomes Life Programming.'' That's a five-word story right there, which is built into that movie at every conceivable level. You're barely aware it's there as a viewer, but it's what makes it feel like such a simple, expansive, tightly-contained story, even though in fact there's a fuckload of plot and complication going on.)

Anyway, I am the very essence of Waffling now. I mention all of this simply because it's the sort of thing I spend a lot of time thinking about, and I suspect it's the sort of thing which might be important. Not just to me and my craft – that is, the slow and often impossible-seeming trek towards becoming An Okay Writer – but, I think, to the world in general. If human experience really is story… if storytelling really is the ultimate technology… then it’s probably something we should all be paying a little more attention to.

CB: What sort of sordid tale with over/undertones of fetishism for the English language and impulses for philosophical arsewater (your word) wankery (yours too) can we expect next?

Spurrier: All sorts of irons in the pipeline or whatever the fucking metaphor is. X-Force starts in February from Marvel, which is basically me using superhumanism as a thinly-veiled metaphor for the sorts of sleazy ''control-the-proles'' black technologies, surveillance laws and skeevy covert shenanigans being played by so many enlightened (haha) nations right now.  At least one new creator owned book shuffling out in the Summer – can’t talk about that yet – then Neurotrash begins later in the year from Avatar. That’s a sci-fi romp about a world in which being young is regarded as disgusting. The logline, it may delight you to hear, is ''Junkies with Jetpacks.'' Fun.

Right. Wow, that was long. Sorry.

Next: more wine.

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