Before the announcement of his new book, Alienated, we sat down amongst the bustle of NYCC and talked to Simon Spurrier about his country-spanning comics career, his proclivity for outcast heroes, and why Americans are so darn extroverted.
AiPT!: We were just talking about New York City being a hectic place. Does being in New York City breed any story inspirations for how eclectic and crazy it is?
Simon Spurrier: Oh, sure. I’ve come back here most years for the show and there has never been an occasion where I didn’t encounter ridiculousness. For instance, yesterday morning, I was in a diner having breakfast and there were two ladies who sat down at the table behind me. And I was working on my laptop so I didn’t really pay much attention. But you know how you can sort of tell from the way people are talking what’s going on? My assumption based on the way they were talking was that they were business women who were having some sort of meeting. It was all very formal. So I didn’t really pay much attention. Until, just because my attention just started wandering, it turns out it’s a bride having a meeting with her best friend to formally express her disappointment at the fact that her best friend missed her wedding because she got Hamilton tickets. And it was done in this extremely sort-of business-like way where they’re all being very respectful about it. I respect that you are disappointed in me, and I own the responsibility for your disappointment. It was extraordinary. [laughs] It was all I could do not to transcribe the thing while I was sitting there working.
But yes, to answer your question, New York is a city of stories and you don’t have to look very far for them.
AiPT!: That’s even a writing assignment that I’ve been told or have heard about. Go into a coffee shop somewhere and transcribe and you can learn dialogue that way. The way people really talk is with plenty of ellipsis and pauses. And it’s not clean stuff.
SS: It’s a beautiful place to just dip in a slightly perverse way into people’s stories. Many years ago I wrote a novella called Unusual Concentrations which is about a man who sits in coffee shops all day writing and accidentally starts writing the details of conversations around him. Because he’s in a coffee shop in the middle of the city of London, the conversations he’s overhearing are loud, arrogant businessmen discussing the deals that they should really be keeping quiet. This guy ends up essentially blackmailing people with all this information that he’s gleaning just by spending his life in coffee shops. You can tell a lot about people from cafes.
AiPT!: Give us your origin story.
SS: Sure. I came to comics quite late. I mean, comics in the way we mean. I have beautiful memories of Calvin and Hobbes and Asterix, and things like that, which, as a child, it never really occurred to me that these things equal comics in a way that when I was sixteen or seventeen I discovered Judge Dredd and it felt like I was discovering comics in a way I never had. Of course I was a young, arrogant little assh*le. As soon as I discovered comics I thought, I can do that and do it better than anybody else is doing it right now. And 2000 AD was my drug of choice and my in-road. I don’t know how much you know about 2000 AD, but it’s an anthology magazine, weekly anthology, with five or six stories in each issue separated into five page chunks.
AiPT!: Do they still do Future Shocks?
AIPT!: I submitted to them a few times.
SS: Right, so you know exactly what I’m talking about. Future Shocks is their dedicated slot for new writers and new artists. So I just got into the habit of submitting relentlessly to them for about three years. And after those three years, now as a nineteen year old, it finally occurred to me that I should probably be paying attention to the editor who’s sending all these rejection letters rather than just assuming he was wrong and how dare he.
AIPT!: It’s nice you got letters from the editors though.
SS: Oh sure. In fact, I still have a letter from the editor of the first ones I sent in was David Bishop, and he got so fed up with me sending in this crap. I have one rejection letter from him and it just says, and I quote: “No, no, no, no, no, no! No.” And that’s all it said. “Best, David Bishop.” But eventually I started paying attention to the advice and it was good advice. And so my first gig was actually as a result of a, I went to a convention, and they did a pitch fest for Future Shocks to be orally pitched. And I won the contest and got the gig. And then the second job is always much harder than the first one because you have to sort-of prove that it wasn’t a coincidence.
So I just kept going. A pretty decent chunk of my first few gigs as a ridiculously ambitious nineteen-year old was just tenacity. I don’t think looking back there was any real trace of thought or talent involved in very much of it. I just had to learn quite quickly to accept every assignment and more importantly to find something about every assignment that interested me and that I would be able to make it good. Because the readers can tell if the writers not interested in what they’re writing.
From 2000 AD I started getting seen by some Marvel editors, associated myself with artist friends, collaborators—which opens a lot of doors. People ask me what’s the best advice for getting into comics and it’s not be good, it’s not read, it’s not write, make your own comics. This is all good advice. But it’s not the right advice. The right advice is: be part of a community. Be around people, talk to people about comics, about your comics. Because you never know where the first job will come from. And it would be nice to believe that it’s a meritocracy and if you are good you’ll get work. It doesn’t work like that. You have to be good—that’s a bare minimum. But you have to be good and be in the right place at the right time and know the right people so that when your friend, who is an artist, gets a job, the first person they want to write it is you.
Or somebody who you happened to have a coffee with at a convention is looking for creators and they think of you because you’re the last person they spoke to. It’s an awful lot of coincidence based around people. And it does not hurt to surround yourself with people because you’ll be better at your job as a result of having had some critical voices.
AiPT!: That leads into my next question. Looking at your career, you’ve gone from British comics, you’ve gone to Marvel, written Star Wars, you’ve done The Dreaming, you’re working at BOOM! now obviously, Image stuff. So many different companies. What’s it like to work with different editors and all these different characters—sometimes at once?
SS: It’s nice. I feel like if I were focusing on one outlet then it would probably drive me mad. I’ve always been a writer who gets bored really quickly. So if I’m going to do an ongoing series, I have to really care about it or I have to have an awful lot of changes and twists and relaunches built into the story just to keep my interest. So the way I tend to deal with this is to just keep working with different people. I’ve been doing it for long enough now that I’m extremely friendly with all my editors, trust them all. It’s just a case of building relationships. It goes back to what I was just saying about community. If you build relationships, your work will be better and it will consistently reward you.
My editor at BOOM! for example, Eric Harburn, we’ve made so many great pieces of work in some ways because he’s a pain in the ass and pokes and pokes and pokes and forces me to chip away and make it better, make it better, make it better. And he’s always right. When you are starting out, you don’t get anywhere unless you’re ambitious, but it takes quite a while, it took me quite a while, to realize that I can devolve my sense of self-criticism to other people and believe them when they criticize. They’re not doing it to be a pain. They’re not doing it because it’s their job. They’re doing it because it will be better as a result of the change.
So yeah, the different outlets present different opportunities, different ways of keeping myself interested. And it’s just kind-of a great privilege to be able to pivot from writing a Star Wars book to a kind of extremely dense book about teenagers or something that’s a little bit literary, or something that’s just big dumb and fun. I feel like if I didn’t have the means of telling multiple different stories at once then yeah, I would stagnate and go crazy. It’s a real honor to be able to have that luxury to bounce around as much as I do.
AiPT!: How did you get working at BOOM! specifically? Did it have to do with the editor you were just mentioning?
SS: I think the first BOOM! was a work-for-hire book called Extermination. Which was the only time anyone’s every come to me with the idea—the idea was—hey, we want to do superheroes in a post-apocalyptic environment. And that’s a great start. I don’t know how they found me. I guess they’d seen some of my Marvel work or something. I should probably ask these guys, actually. I don’t know! [laughs]
But as a result of that book, I formed a relationship with my editor, he saw that I had the chops to tell longform stories or that I had more ideas than I knew what to do with, let’s start using some of these ideas.
AiPT!: There’s a lot of pressure for working at Marvel, with established characters, but is there the same amount of pressure for independent stuff? Or is there less? Or even more?
SS: It’s so different. They both scratch very different parts of the brain. When somebody comes to you and says, hey, we want you to write this character, and it’s a character you know and you love, there’s a little bit of your brain that feels less pressure actually because you don’t have to work very hard. You don’t have to establish this character, you don’t have to establish their world. Everything you bring to it is new additions to that character. Like, the expectation is people already recognize what that character is. Or at least the world they are apart of. It’s a little bit fan fiction-y if I’m honest. If you can come to it from a position of passion, then it’s a joy to write stories about characters you already know and love.
Whereas creator owned comics, the pressure is all about establishment, it’s all about introduction, it’s all about making this world feel functional, making the economics of this world feel like they work. I love that. I can do that whether or not I was writing them down. I’ve spent my life inventing worlds that seemed to function and then telling small stories in them. It is as simple as being given the opportunity to make that into something which people can buy and read and hopefully enjoy. I don’t know if that answers your question. But I guess the short version is, the pressures are extremely different.
AiPT!: All your stuff really seems to focus on building worlds, building a society, especially around gods and myths and demons and devils. How long do you take to prepare your worlds before you pitch them to artists or editors?
SS: It varies depending on the project, the world, the artist. My general starting point is I want the world I’m creating to feel functional. I want it to feel like when you close the book, the world carries on. An awful lot of the time, writers who create worlds and they feel as though the stakes of the story that they are telling have to relate to the worlds.
Hey, I’ve created this universe therefore my story should threaten the fate of the universe. I feel like that’s kind of lazy, you know? Why not create a world that works and then tell small stories in it? And you can keep going back to the world telling different stories, because the world ain’t going anywhere, it’s just the characters.
Blade Runner is the perfect example. The story in Blade Runner makes not a jot of difference to the world, but you feel that the world is functional. You feel like this has clearly got history but the story’s not really about the world per se. It’s about the human characters being human. I love that stuff. But when it comes to some of the worlds I’ve created, especially for BOOM!, what often happens is I have the core of an idea and I have a sense of how the world works and then we go and we find an artist. And what the artist brings to the aesthetic and design, changes an awful lot of the way the world works and the stories we tell inside that world.
So I’m always a little bit reticent to get too in detail about my preparations for telling a story because I know I’m just going to change everything when an artist starts drawing it anyway. I love this way that the worlds slowly amalgamate as a result of both my input and the artists. I’m never in a rush to settle things before the artist gets there.
AiPT!: So your comic scripts are malleable?
SS: By the time I’m scripting, no. By the time I’m scripting I feel like the artist knows what they’re doing, I know what I’m doing. But in those opening preparatory stages, I try to resist being too confirmed in any of the details.
AiPT!: I was looking over your work and I was noticing a pattern. I don’t know if this is intentional or not, but it seems like you favor outcast protagonists. I’m thinking of like the Bud and Ennay relationship or even Lucien from The Dreaming. There are these bigger characters than him in some respects. Is that something that you’re intentionally putting in, something you’re self-aware about?
SS: I do tend to gravitate to characters who are able to stand on the outside of something looking in. Not really consciously; I don’t particularly see myself as some sort of dreadful outcast. I guess I’m a little bit analytical. I like to sit and watch the world rather more than I like to participate in it, so there’s plenty of that. I’m also just contrarian [laughs] and a little bit bloody minded.
AiPT!: Are there any dream artists or writers you’d love to collaborate or work with in the future that you can tell us about?
SS: Sure, I mean, no names that immediately spring to my mind. As soon as I finish this interview they will all immediately come to me. Let me take a couple of steps back. A couple of years ago, I was hanging out at a pub with Brian Vaughan, he’s become a friend of mine. And I said to him, what’s the secret? We were drunk. That’s the sort of thing you say to people when you’re drunk. And he said, it’s not complicated. Find an artist who makes your work feel better than it was before they drew it, and keep working with them.
And you can see that in all his work, and all my other heroes and mentors very quickly found their artist and kept working with the artist. You can see it with Jamie and Kieron, you can see it with Garth and Steve Dillon. Nowadays, more so than itching to go and work with great artists who I respect and admire, although I do want to and would love to, I just want to keep working with the artists that I have worked with and I know I can work with. Always. Because they’re friends and because they’re visionaries and they make my work better.
So Jeff Stokely, Matias Bergara, a guy I’m doing this new thing with, Christian Wildgoose, he’s extraordinary. He’s been a friend for years. And I’ve been hoping to work with him and I know that as a result of the work we do together I will want to keep working with him as long as there are opportunities. Bilquis on The Dreaming—she’s extraordinary. Have you watched her inking videos?
AiPT!: Like on Instagram? I’ve seen some of her stuff. It’s amazing.
SS: It’s like zen meditation. You can just sit and watch that little brush for hours. All these people, I have been ridiculously lucky to collaborate with. And I use the word collaborate in its truest sense. This is not, I write words and they draw what I tell them. It’s that they have made the stories better. Before I ever take the opportunity to work with some A-list artist, I will always choose to work with these people who I know I can work with. And that’s the essence of comics for me, is maintaining these relationships.
AiPT!: I guess we could go back a little to the UK and the US. You’ve been in both worlds. Are there any lessons you think that the US could learn from Britain or do you think Britain could learn any lessons from the US?
SS: If I had to characterize the distinction especially in terms of writing, in terms of the stories that we like to tell, I think that British culture is that we are afraid of doing anything unadulterated. We find it extremely difficult to be open and honest without puncturing our own earnestness, usually by telling a crap joke or insulting somebody affectionately. We find it quite uncomfortable when there are open displays of affection.
I mean, I’m generalizing horribly. This is not true of everybody. And it’s probably more true of me than it is of the British culture in general. But I think there’s something to it whereas as I think the American psyche is far more extroverted, far more content to be honest. And the distinction between those two extremes is such that your quintessential grumpy Brit will often feel like an American is being insincere because we can’t pass that much earnestness without assuming that there is something cynical or skeptical about it.
Again, I’m generalizing dreadfully. But that’s often the comedy tension between the two cultures. And I can bore you for hours about why I think these two separate psyches have developed. Ultimately it has a lot to do with history, it has to do with Britain having this Imperial hangover whereby we are always certain that there is a bigger mechanism standing behind us than ourselves.
Whereas the Americans psyche, which is planted in fertile soil of self-determination, individuality, expression, one man one gun, all that stuff. It seems mythical. It seems somehow magical and a bit daft but it’s there. I think it’s really rooted in the DNA of the American psyche.
AiPT!: So do you think that comes through in the comics industry? Can you tell even through comics?
SS: Yeah. Look at the way that the American superhero, at its most pure and quintessential, is something that just could not exist in the British culture. Because we find it inherently ridiculous [laughs] in many cases. I’m not speaking from my part, I’m speaking from the British psyche, I can’t believe that Superman would be that good and that earnest and selfless. There must be an ulterior motive and therefore I’m suspicious of him.
I think that there’s a reason that when British writers get their hands on American superheroes, they develop not necessarily benign layers of secondary context and meaning. This is why for instance, I’m relaunching Hellblazer next month. That’s a perfect character for me because he is literally a grumpy British f*cker who walks around pointing out how impossibly earnest everything is.
But the beautiful thing with these two cultures, is that we can have somebody like John Constantine, somebody like me, looking for the ulterior motives, looking for the cynical sh*t that lurks behind the goody two-shoes Boy Scout vibe and not finding it because it’s not there. I’m having to confront the fact that actually some people really are that good, some people are that’s selfless. And there’s no response.
AiPT!: Because he has to straddle humanity and pure evil, essentially.
SS: As difficult as I find it to believe the superhero trope, it’s beautiful. It’s so aspirational and it’s so good that it is out there in the world making people want to do what’s right. And that’s to come back to the topic of the British and the American psyche, it makes me uncomfortable that I struggle to believe in these characters. Why should that be? Why can’t I just be happy with this paragon of humanity and goodness? So there’s something very constipated about the British emotional psyche I think. But it’s a fascinating subject.
AiPT!: Yeah, I mean, we can’t generalize fully, but you got me thinking about, within Britain or the UK, you’ve got Garth Ennis, who, if he gets his hands on somebody, he’s like, ah, Spider-Man’s an idiot—Punisher’s the real deal. But then you have somebody like Grant Morrison that’ll wax on about how pure Superman is. It is pretty interesting how even within Britain there are different takes.
SS: British comics is a whole different subject ranging from the problematic fascism of a character like Judge Dredd to smutty comedy down at the viz end of the spectrum and these are all things that we lean into. It’s interesting to see which of the British comics do well here and which don’t.
AiPT!: That’s a good point. So I’ve kind of gotten through all my questions, so tell me about this new project here.
SS: We’re announcing it today. It’s a new book I’m doing here at BOOM!, a creator owned project with Christian Wildgoose, my buddy from Britain who is an exceptionally good artist. It’s called Alienated. I’ll give you the cheap and lazy elevator pitch: it’s what if ET was discovered by three troubled teenagers rather than one goodie two-shoes.
AiPT!: Very good. You gotta get those movie pitches in.
SS: Oh yeah, elevator style. What if ET was not a little brown turd but a genuine alien, you know? Something ineffable and problematic and awkward and predatory and hungry. So yeah, it’s basically the story of three outcasts who encounter an alien super predator in the woods one day and use it to murder a bully.
SS: Hilarity ensues.
AiPT!: Dark hilarity.
SS: It’s kind of Heathers by way of ET, I guess.
AiPT!: More movie references! Very good. I love it.
SS: But yeah, it’s beautiful. It’s all about what it is to be visible. To be seen and understood as a teenager especially. But for all of us in this strange world we’re living in today where anybody can publish their thoughts but nobody’s listening.
AiPT!: And the metaphor is of course teenagers feel alienated themselves.
SS: Exactly. It’s an on-the-nose title.
AiPT!; Well, you know, if it works, it works. How long is this gonna be? Six issues? Twelve?
SS: Six issues. In and out. Extremely multi-faceted, dense little miniseries. Which just becomes more and more intricate every time I sit down to write another issue. I’m very in love with it and I can’t wait. I think we’re going to show off a bunch of covers this afternoon at the panel. Yeah, Christian’s a real talent. It should be very beautiful.
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