Between fantasy and horror: interview with Simon Spurrier

Between fantasy and horror: interview with Simon Spurrier
Between 2018 and 2019 Simon Spurrier wrote “Coda” and the relaunch of Hellblazer. We spoke with him about these two new series.

Since many years Simon Spurrier has emerged as one of the most interesting writer of the US comicdom: this caustic, irreverent, resourceful English author wrote, between 2018 and 2019, some of the most acclaimed comics in the US market, like Coda, a one-of-a-kind fantasy that received many accolades and nominations, and the relaunch of Hellblazer, which brought the character back to the atmospheres that made it one of the most successful books of Vertigo. Lo Spazio Bianco contact the author to talk with him about his works, their genesis and their development.

Coda_1Hi Simon and thanks for your time. I would like to start talking about Coda, one of the most appreciated comics of 2018 and 2019 by both fans and critics. In this work you brought the readers in a very particular fantasy setting, which mixes some classical elements of this genre to a post-apocalyptic scenario. Where did this idea come from?
I think I’d always intended to do a Swords ‘n Sorcery epic at some point. One of those bucketlist things. But in practice every time I tried to approach that genre I got demoralized. There’s just so much existing High Fantasy material out there, and it’s mostly pretty bad. Endless cliches, and it takes itself waaaay too seriously. It felt like I couldn’t start writing without first tripping over elements from elsewhere. Eventually I realised if I was going to do anything in that oeuvre at all, the kindest thing would be to drag the whole genre outside and shoot it. That’s where Coda came from. I started by identifying everything about high fantasy that annoys me, then I murdered it. Things on the list ranged from my own petty grievances (pomposity, the ridiculous names, the casual racism, the hamfisted metaphors) up to the single greatest genre element in there: Magic. In too many fantasy stories magic is this Deus Ex Machina force which triggers plot elements without cost or repercussion. It’s a Get Out Of Jail Free card, which has led to the whole genre getting flabby and lazy. So I got rid of all the magic. Well, mostly. The better analogy would be that magic is to Coda as gasoline is to Mad Max. You can’t rely on it. The Old World depended on it utterly, and that’s not an option any more. So either you get busy trying to survive without it, or you spend your time fighting over what little of it remains. In Coda, both things are very much on the table.
Anyway, the first thing I discovered when I approached fantasy with euthanasia in mind was that a whole new world of vibrancy and opportunity opens up when you make a step change like that.

 The main character is Hum, a bard. A very interesting choice, that allows you to talk about the meanings of stories and storytelling. What is the impact of stories on our reality, and what role do fantasy story have in this context?
 I take the slightly pretentious view that we, as humans, cannot understand the world or anything in it without the mental technology of storytelling, so a lot of my projects wind-up having some slightly meta element about them. Stories about stories.It’s always risky making your central character a writer. Very easy to stumble into Mary Sue territory. My approach was to make Hum a very unreliable narrator, whose reportage slowly turns out to be riddled with self-deceit. Comics are great at juxtapositions like that, where the words and images seem to be saying different things at the same time.

Telling stories is also a way for the character to go on in his journey, that’s why he is writing (or pretending to write) a diary. I am curious: is there somehow an autobiographic element in this choice?
Not consciously. I don’t keep a diary, myself. But I know myself well to know there have been times in my life when I’ve unconsciously changed the narrative emphasis of my own journey — even my own memories — to escape from feeling guilty or ashamed. Hum just takes that notion to extremes: adapting his own goals in such a way that he has to keep moving, keep surviving. He’s built himself this dumb little saviour-quest by ignoring the emotional realities — and he gets stung badly when it all falls apart. It’s a pretty interesting approach to a post-Apocalyptic world, even though I say so myself. Most PA fiction focuses on the practicalities of survival. I’m more interested in what motivates people to try and survive in the first place.

Another theme that really got my attention and involved me in the story is the reason behind Hum’s journey, which is connected to his relationship with his wife Serka. Hum’s journey (I cannot call it quest, he wouldn’t like that) is a story of a personal growth, a way to realize that accepting the other as it is, in every aspect, is the base for love and for living in a society. Do you think that this message is the key for the success of the series?
Yeah, partly. We sort of meander through Hum’s self-deceit to the point that he’s forced to confront his own shabby behaviour. He’s been lying to his wife and lying to himself. He’s been telling himself he’s trying to save her, when in fact he’s trying to change her. What emerges from the catastrophe that follows is a more pragmatic approach to life: “we muddle through.” Before that point (despite his cynicism) Hum is actually a secret idealist. A lot of my work, it turns out, involves idealists confronting the reality of their ideas, and realising things are never as simple as they seem.

Matìas Bergara did a terrific job on this book, creating a world full of bizarre creatures and breathtaking landscapes. How did your collaboration start and how was the work together?
He’s one of the best artists alive today, and I don’t say that lightly. We were connected by our Coda editor Eric Harburn, who is spookily good at creating great collaborations. Matias and I immediately realised that our respective passions make our work greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a joyous partnership.

Coda_2

Since a couple of years you are part of the Sandman Universe, writing The Dreaming. This is a pretty endless universe of stories, characters, atmospheres. What is your connection to Gaiman’s stories and what’s the space you carved out for yourself in this universe?
I was privileged to be chosen by Neil as part of the team tasked with telling new tales in the world he created. As I said before, I’ve always been interested in stories about stories, so The Dreaming really is a perfect fit. Oddly enough I approached it like the world’s weirdest Western. It’s a frontier town whose Sheriff has gone missing — what happens next? The town just happens to be the elastic realm of the human unconscious, the Sheriff is a conceptual personification more powerful than any god, and there’s a conspiracy building to steal his crown. It’s heady stuff.

You are now writing Hellblazer, one fundamental comic for US industry and in particular for Vertigo’s history. Many fans would like to see the good, old, “true” Hellblazer. Who is John Costantine for you and how did you got in contact with him?
I’ve been a Hellblazer fan for as long as I’ve been reading comics. It doesn’t hurt that I lived in London for most of my life, have an active interest in the occult and have a natural suspicion for anyone who describes themselves as a Hero. I’m not saying I’m like John, but I think I can get into his head a smidge easier than others might. And I’ve absolutely known plenty of people who – magic notwithstanding – are on a very similar trajectory to JC. Ultimately he’s just a bastard with a conscience. That’s a really compelling mix of ingredients, for any reader.

John-Constantine-Hellblazer-1 Being a British writer as many others who preceded you makes you feel more involved in the story? Or is it an additional responsibility?
A little of both. I think you can definitely tell when non-Brits have tried to write John. Not just because the voice is ever so slightly wrong, but because the approach and deep-rooted cynicism are so quintessentially British. As for responsibility, I guess Hellblazer is always going to be a slightly more politically-minded book than others. That said, we don’t want to alienate readers with niche issues they know nothing about, nor do we want to risk the book aging really badly when it loses all relevance, so the key all along has been to use the current state of the world as a way of generating stories about human drama — timeless and universal issues — rather than making the stories about the current affairs directly.

Is there a particular run that you took as inspiration? And in which direction are you going to bring the series?
I always point to the runs by Delano, Ennis and Carey as my personal favourites. That is, not counting the first and still best: the American Gothic arc of Alan Moore’s Swamping Thing. That’s very much our key inspiration, actually. My run on Hellblazer takes the form of multiple short arcs – anything from 1 to 3 issues each – which collectively form a far longer run. That way we can hop between different tones and different tales without ever stale. Hence we go from a very dark tale about murderous angels to a more comedic one about Constantine’s Number One fan, and the onwards to an extremely spooky story about ghosts in hospitals. It’s good to keep it varied.

Interview realised via e-mail between January and February 2020

Simon Spurrier

Simon Spurrier

British author grown up in the world of fanzines and self-production, Simon Spurrier made his debut in 2001 on 2000 AD, writing stories such as Lobster Random, Bec & Kawl, The Simping Detective and Harry Kipling, up to some episodes of Judge Dredd. In 2007 he made his debut in the US market with Gutsville (Image Comics, together with Frazer Irving) and Silver Surfer: In Thy Name (Marvel Comics, with Tan Eng Huat). Since then he has written many series for many different publishers: among the most important we remember X-Men Legacy vol. 2 (with Tan Eng Huat), X-Force (with Rock He-Kim) and Star Wars: Doctor Aphra (together with Kieron Gillen) for Marvel Comics and the big hits with BOOM! Studios, such as Six-Gun Gorilla and The Spire (miniseries both realised with Jeff Stokely) and Coda (with Matias Bergara). Since 2018 he has also worked for DC Comics, where he joined the Sandman Universe writing The Dreaming (together with Bilquis Evely) and Hellblazer. In addition to comic book writing, Simon Spurrier is also the author of novels and prose stories.

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