Based on the first two issues I previewed, Si Spurrier with Ryan Kelly have crafted a captivating story about identifying the monsters inside and out. Cry Havoc, described as mixing “the hard-boiled militaria of Jarhead with the dark folklore of Pan’s Labyrinth,” is a fascinating piece of work, so I was excited to speak to Spurrier about his process, innovation and inspiration for this series.
How much did you study monster lore, the military and the Middle East to prepare for Cry Havoc?
Ridiculous amounts of research went into the both parts of the tale, but it always feels more like a treasure hunt than hard work when you’re truffling for story things.
I’ve been a nut for folklore for as long as I can remember. Mostly, in that field, the research was a case of starting with what I already knew then looking up the finer details. I think there was only one occasion – a plot point I’d arranged around a flawed memory of a particular type of Persian monster – that required me to really lose myself in the literature to find a solution. The beauty of international mythology is that there’s always something weird and wonderful out there to fit any gap.
I had to do a bit more homework when it came to the specifics of military hardware, the geography of mujahideen territory and the fucking horrible realities of CIA rendition, but them’s the breaks. Ryan, as always, rose to the visual challenge with consummate ease.
But yeah, research came pretty late in the day, for this one. The central premise of the tale was there from the get-go. Put simply: a young gay woman, living in London, gets overwhelmed by her own inner-chaos after she’s mauled by a mythical beast. To try and fix herself she’s compelled to join a military organisation composed of other shapeshifting fiends – other global faces of folkore – and forced to travel across war-torn Afghanistan. The mission: to locate and put down a monstrous revolution.
As for how I ended-up fascinated by the melding of myth and military – or, if you prefer, the old with the new; the chaotic with the controlled – that needs a slightly wider background to explain. Bear with me here, I’d Doing A Theory.
See, to me, folklore is a canon of living stories. Or, actually, dying stories – I’ll come back to that. They’re articles of whimsy and creativity and chaos which bridge the gap between fiction and faith. And that’s colossally important in today’s polarised world.
My contention is that humans are living increasingly disenchanted lives. We’re forgetting the wonders of fiction. People are lurching towards psychic extremes: some veering towards an anodyne sort of rationalism – let’s call it an acceptance of Realpolitik – which essentially amounts to losing the ability to be moved by the unreal. Others are veering towards radicalised religion, which I’d describe as an orthodoxy based on mistreating stories as fact. Both are extremes defined by taking things too fucking literally.
(None of this is especially front-and-centre in Cry Havoc, by the way, before I start giving the impression the whole book is one big preachy circlejerk. Quite the opposite: it’s a very intimate tale about one woman, with frequent episodes of insane hyperviolence, but all this stuff is there in the background.)
Anyway, I’d argue that the so-called “war on terror” is the bleeding wound at the heart of this polarising trend, radiating waves of order and fear across the planet; hence it’s the perfect touchpoint for a story about stories.
Myths are dying. They’re being wiped out of our collective unconscious because, simply, they don’t fit into our lives any more. I think that’s a crying shame. So I simply got to wondering what it would be like to live in this chilly world if you were a myth. How would you react to the slow dwindling of your people and your power? What methods might you use to try and regain your relevance?
That’s what Cry Havoc’s about, really: stories trying to stand up and be counted. And doing so using the only tools and tactics the human race presently seems to understand: weapons, chemicals, terror.
There are a lot of different kinds of characters you could explore with this concept. What made Lou, a blue-haired violinist from London, the person you wanted to focus on?
Honestly? I’m not sure I can easily explain. She was just… there. Right when and how I needed her.
That sounds wanky, I know, and I don’t mean it in a meta way. Given all the big metaphorical and thematic stuff gurgling away in the story, Lou simply presented herself as a perfectly relatable, likable, simple person to give it the perspective and poignancy it needed.
I can’t exactly describe her as an average Jane, so it’s not that. She’s a musician, she’s not straight, she’s amazing and strong and awesome, and her greatest enemy is indubitably herself. (Echoes of my work on X-Men Legacy, there – “I rule me,” right?) She’s centrally characterised by the relationship she has with her own capacity for chaos. If you met her during the first parts of her story you’d recognise her as a fun, vulnerable, messy-minded flake. We all know people like that. People who spend their whole lives being told they need to get their shit together, but never quite seem to manage it. I often find myself looking at those people and wondering if maybe they’ve got it right, and the “get-your-shit-together” crowd are actually the problem instead of the cure.
In that light, Lou stepped into this story perfectly poised. All that passion and untidiness gets released, in a moment of savage monstrous violence, and prompts the story’s oscillations between chaos and order.
With, y’know, giant horny boar-gods, exploding billygoats, astral crows knocking-down predator drones, and some fascinating reflections on hyena junk.
What made Ryan Kelly the person to draw this story?
I’ve wanted to collaborate with Ryan since I saw his work in Northlanders (then went and caught-up on everything he’d done before). When I started developing Cry Havoc he was the immediate and best choice.
Ryan’s one of the greatest storytellers working in comics right now, and I say that without any exaggeration. Our industry is literally heaving with incredibly stylish artists whose visual signatures are as unique as they are trendy… but when it comes to the ones who can actually use sequential images in a clever, unpretentious, intuitive way to make stories happen? That’s not nearly as common a skill as it should be.
Ryan’s the best of both worlds. He can draw anything I ask – architecture, weaponry, monsters, ghosts, sensitive human moments and epic military engagements – and he does it all with a sense of narrative progression second to none.
How did you and Ryan decide on the three colorists (Nick Filardi, Lee Loughridge and Matt Wilson) who are working on the series? How did all of you choose which of the parallel threads each colorist would work on? Has it been difficult to incorporate all three threads into every episode? The easier way to use three colorists is probably for them to each use drastically different styles. But in Cry Havoc the differences, while most certainly there, might only be noticed by those with a bit of a trained eye. What appealed to you about that subtlety?
Forgive me lumping these questions together: it’s easier if I just splurge about the mechanics of the story and why we’ve ended up presenting it the way we have.
Basically, the central and most obvious part of the tale, when I sat down to really think about it, turned out to just be the middle third of something bigger and more important.
Taking its cue from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, that middle section follows our heroine Lou as she 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 crazy-ass shapeshifter who seems to be spearheading some sort of folkloric uprising, from a fortress high in the mountains.
So, that part of the story’s got it all. Helicopters, lithium mines, predator drones, rampaging monsters, opium poppies and blazing guns. Lou’s completely out of her depth throughout all of it, but she believes that if she survives the experience her reward will be a return to normality. She’ll be cured from the curse which has infected her. Of course it’s not that simple, and the journey changes her notions of what “normality” actually is.
But I quickly realised that’s only part of the story. I wanted to know who Lou was before the mission, and how she’d come to be so disgusted by her own inner-demons. Likewise I wanted to know what might be said between Lou and that same crazy-ass shapeshifter when they finally met. So I could’ve told that far broader tale in three consecutive sections, one after another – London, Afghanistan, Mountain-Fortress. But each segment is so very different from the others that the book would keep changing its tone and pace every couple issues. At the same time I noticed some cool patterns starting to form when the three parts of the story were laid down side by side. There were rhythmic peaks and troughs where the drama synchronised, and in other places some really funky juxtapositions where this phase of Lou skewed towards chaos and that phase of Lou skewed towards control. It felt like I’d written three neat little melodies which just happened to form an orchestral barnstormer when played together. Very unexpected, very amazing.
The problem, of course, is the whole thing could easily end up feeling like a mess if not handled carefully. The trick was to make it as easy as possible for readers to distinguish between the three threads. There are a couple of formalist storytelling tricks Ryan and I used to help that along, but the biggest one is – yes – that we’ve assigned a different colorist to each of the phases in Lou’s life. One artist, three hue-wranglers.
This all came about because – just as we were about to start the book – a discourse was gathering steam throughout the industry about how shitty a deal colorists have historically had, and how poorly their contribution is recognised. Ryan and I realised we had a fortuitous case of harmonious goals on ours hands. We wanted a way of visually distinguishing between three different flavors of Ryan’s art; the coloring community wanted a way of showing off how impactful their work is upon a story. Hey presto: let’s use three colorists.
Matt, Lee and Nick have known each other forever, so they basically came as a very awesome package. My sense is that their styles are all pretty dramatically different, and we’ve added a secondary mechanism to distinguishing their work even further. The earliest scenes set in London use a blue-toned palette, the middle scenes set in Afghanistan use stark ochres and grainy textures, the later scenes set in the mountains tend towards vibrant reds. I think it works really beautifully, and as far as we know Cry Havoc is the first project to deliberately use colorists in this way.
You were very specific in your retailer video about why you’re calling them episodes. How many episodes do you consider a season?
I’ve waffled before about my belief in the importance of endings, so “episode” always feels like a more honest description of “a Chunk Of Story” – it being episodic, after all – than simply “issue”. Just a personal preference, really. I could just easily say “chapter”, though I suppose I’d sound even more pretentious.
In this case, the first season is six episodes, with a very definite and hopefully very powerful conclusion. That should tie-off the thematic strings of the first arc’s controlling idea, and launch us (after a short break – as per Image’s current policy) into the next season.
The tagline indicates how difficult Cry Havoc is to pitch in a sentence or two. Were you at all concerned that would impact its chances at publication and/or finding an audience?
It’s become a bit of a running joke with myself that I tend to come up with stories that can’t easily be described in a sentence. Frankly I don’t see that as a weakness: it’s a sad fucking world that only cares about Things when they can be reduced to a platitude or related to Other Things, but I’m aware I’m in a minority there, and there’s a sensible utility in being able to précis one’s story. Luckily I have the privilege of being able to devolve responsibility to the people around me, whose opinion I trust. These days when I first show a new project to my friends, peers and betters, I not only ask them what they think but also what’s it about? In this fashion – and I can’t tell you who gave me this line, but ooooh it’s a goodun – we get the best and most mischievous elevator pitch we could ever hope for:
It’s not about a lesbian werewolf going to war, except it kind of is.
You clearly put a lot of yourself into this story. What are you hoping to get out of this story, not just professionally/financially/creatively, but also emotionally?
It comes down to stories, ultimately. Myth, folklore, monsters, acts of heroism, conflicts of ideology. It’s all just competing stories. I could spend hours telling you why I believe that human existence is (and can only be) understandable in terms of these funny little narrative units that have a beginning, a middle and an end, and why comics are the most perfectly engineered technology we have to respond to that. But I’d sound like a nut at worst or a pretentious arserag at best. So here’s the bottom line: stories are the most wonderful parasites we will ever know.
It only seems fair to me, and this is broadly my mission statement with Cry Havoc, that we acknowledge their power.
The Final Order Cutoff (FOC) for Issue 1 is January 4th. Use the order code NOV150842 for Cover A by Ryan Kelly and Emma Price and NOV150843 for Cover B by Cameron Stewart. For more from the clearly eloquent Si Spurrier, follow him on Twitter and Tumblr. You’ll be glad you did.
Writer of Stuff. Journalism for The Beat, articles for websites, blogs for businesses, comics for publishers, and so on. Writing is my least and most favorite thing.