Crossing The Line: An Interview With Simon Spurrier
Jan 15, 2013
Simon Spurrier has had several jobs, but none is probably more exciting than his online gig. He's the man in charge of writing Avatar's Crossed online webcomic. But he's also ventured into the print medium, like the upcoming Crossed Annual. We asked Simon to elaborate more on what he's doing with Garth Ennis' legacy.
PREVIEWSworld: You're the writer for Crossed Annual 2013 (DEC120854), and this issue is a "standalone." But one of the characters in the story ties into what you're doing over at crossedcomic.com. Could you explain more about the synergy between your web work and this issue?
Simon Spurrier: Sure. First up, I discovered to my surprise that the style and vibe I had to take in approaching the two formats are completely different. The webcomic makes different demands upon me as a writer (and on readers’ minds, I think), and makes use of different subconscious processes and narrative devices than the print comics I’m used to. So it’s been a learning curve, adapting.
For one thing, I quickly decided I’d have to approach the webcomic with more of an eye on atmosphere and tension than I would with a print form comic. I’ll always maintain Crossed (as a concept and as a property) is a lot more sophisticated and clever than a lot of people give it credit for, but those of us who work with it have to accept it’s most commonly characterized by its total lack of borders and restraint. “The sickest thing in comics,” is a phrase I hear a lot at conventions. And, y’know what, that’s fine. If that’s what a particular category of reader enjoys about it, everyone’s a winner.
But with the webcomic I instinctively felt that vibe – “how sick can we go?” – couldn’t play the most central role. I’m playing a far longer game: I need to keep people coming back week after week (or at least twitching with nervous anxiety while they wait for the next trade) rather than trying to frazzle their synapses all at once. That’s not to say the webcomic doesn’t push itself way beyond the boundaries of what you’d find in other comics, simply that the “OH SH*T” moments have to be deployed with great care… and a lot of them are quiet “oh sh*t”s rather than eyeball-punchers.
So (to get back to your question!) the print stuff I’m doing with Crossed is basically a glorious opportunity to bridge that divide. To exercise the demon in my brain and push things even further than with the online format, but most importantly to also introduce some of the smart, thoughtful, experimental stuff I’m doing with the webcomic. The Annual you’re referring to is a perfect case in point: on one level it’s a story about a guy hacking, slashing and blasting his way through legions of Crossed on the shores of Iceland… but it’s also a gloriously twisty little tale, told in three different timestreams, with color-coded iconography and some really cunning storytelling tricks.
As for the “why”? I mean, there are all the obvious commercial considerations – the annual should serve as a gateway for readers of the webcomic to get into the print line, and vice versa – but there’s a purer creative motive too. The character at the heart of it – Jackson – is something of an enigma in the webcomic. He just shows up one day, playing the bagpipes and demanding a sheep to molest, manifestly insane… and quickly became a fan favorite. I knew sooner or later I’d want to tell his story, and the annual is the perfect opportunity.
PREVIEWSworld: Are there more plans for the Crossed web universe to intersect with the print continuity?
Simon Spurrier: Nothing planned right now, but never say never. The webcomic has such an enormous cast of characters – that’s part of the whole “slow burn” thing I was talking about before – that there are always going to be untold stories. That said, part of the tension at the heart of the webcomic is that you really never know who’s “safe” and who’s not. There have been characters full of mystery and intrigue, just dripping with story potential, who I kill-off on a whim. I like to say “that’s how real horror should work”, or “that’s what it’s like living in a Crossed world: nothing works the way conventional Hollywood expects it to work”… but quite possibly it’s just that I’m a sadistic bastard and I like to mess with the readers. I get a great kick out of reading the comments over on the Whitechapel forum every week after the latest episode’s gone live. It’s mostly people calling me a bastard then grudgingly thanking me for dragging them so deep into the story that they’re that affected by it. You can’t ask for more than that, I think, as a writer.
PREVIEWSworld: You worked previously within Crossed: Badlands continuity with issues #19 and #20. Was that a different experience than working on a "standalone" issue, or your web work?
Simon Spurrier: Yeah, pretty different. That was a story about two newly-introduced characters, nothing to do with the webcomic. It tells their story and then moves on – there’s no “dot-dot-dot” at the end. But this goes back to what I was saying before: part of the beauty of telling tales in the Crossed universe is that it’s so pregnant with possibility. The central concept is so simple (“the world’s been consumed by a plague of sadism and psychosis”) that writers and readers alike can treat it like a given, a story-setup you don’t need to waste time explaining (because there is no explanation); a background microwave radiation behind and around everything upon which you can tell just about any story you want. For instance, with issues #19 and #20 I set myself the challenge of writing a love story. A twisted tragicomic one, sure, but something heartfelt and moving all the same. I’m so proud of that script.
PREVIEWSworld: What are the nature of discussions between you and the publisher when you propose an idea for Crossed?
Simon Spurrier: Very open. I think Avatar trusts me to think things through, to mix things up; just as I trust them to flagwave if something feels like a step too far, or (more often!) not far enough. A lot of people assume (original concept-creator) Garth Ennis has a lot of input in later stories, but not so. The beauty of his idea – the genius of it – is that he set up a worldwide situation, told a story set within it, then opened it up to the rest of us. Different styles, different genres, different characters, different vibes; all catalyzed by that one central premise he established in Book 1. Garth wrote a world bible of sorts, but it’s basically just one page of common-sense rules: don’t try and explain what caused the outbreak, don’t imply the survivors have any hope of a worldwide fightback, don’t imply there’s a cure, etc. Some of the rules are bendable (eg: during one episode of the webcomic it’s proposed that one of the characters might be naturally immune to the contagion), but as long as you bend them in worthwhile ways (eg: said character gets killed instants later anyway, so no one know whether the immunity was real or not) the sky’s the limit.
Bottom line is: for me Crossed is an opportunity to experiment, to be outrageous, to be thoughtful about human nature, and – if I’m doing it right – to try and convince people there’s a lot more going on than gratuitous torture-porn. Avatar seems very willing to let me do so.
PREVIEWSworld: What do you use as inspiration for your stories when working on Crossed? Do you keep a journal? Enter notes on a voice recorder? Tell us!
Simon Spurrier: Dude, there might be cops reading this. You think I’m going to incriminate myself in print?
Seriously: it’s mostly simple imagination. “How would I react if I was in that situation…? How would other people I know react…?” etc etc. That’s particularly true of the webcomic, in which – it’s no secret – the central character is fairly conspicuously an elseworlds version of myself.
I’ve chatted to several other Crossed writers, and we all say things like “it frightens me that I came up with something as horrible as that…” But, y’know what? That’s sort of the whole point of the series – people really do have an endless capacity for cruelty and inventive horror. The only thing that separates us Normal People from the Crossed is a few flimsy layers of social/moral conditioning and the fear of punishment. Garth’s said it several times: if you truly think the sh*t you’re seeing in Crossed represents the most repulsive things humans could do to other humans, then – buddy – you’re not reading the same newspapers as the rest of us.