Simon Spurrier Interview

by Nick Devonald on February 28, 2020

Comics: The Gathering recently got the opportunity to ask the legendary Si Spurrier a number of questions about his current run on Hellblazer, his new series Alienated, and writing for comics.

Hi Simon. Thank you for taking the time out of your incredibly busy schedule to answer some questions for us.

We’ll start off with an easy question, Si or Simon? Depending on the comics I’ve seen both, I’ve even noticed the same comic calling you both (looking at you Hellblazer).

Abstractly the rule is: Si in real life, Simon in credits. But real life Si is frequently a forgetful little bollocks who fails to tell editors about the rule. Hence the confusion.

How did you break into the world of comics? And do you have any advice for someone thinking of getting into it?

2000AD - it’s that simple. The UK’s foremost comic, and still the only pro publication with a slot set aside for tryout writers and artists. The “Future Shock” is a compellingly difficult form -- 4 or 5 pages in which to tell a hi-octane story with a shattering twist -- and I spent years in my late teens sending in endless shitty submissions. But after you’ve got the knack you can do anything.

Which comics are you reading at the moment?

Remarkably few, to my shame. Just not much time (parenthood and crunchy work schedule). I tend to dip into old favorites from the groaning TPB shelves whenever I feel the need for a hit of quality comics -- a quick sideways glance at recently-read titles takes in Swamp Thing, Preacher, Joe Sacco’s stuff, the Nausicaa omnibus, etc. Depends on mood.

If you met someone who had never read any of your work and had to recommend just one piece of work which perfectly encapsulates you, the definitive Simon Spurrier if you will, what would you recommend and why?

Oh fuck me, no idea. The problem is I feel like I’m always moving on from old projects and not daring to look back. I tend to cringe when I reread things, no matter how well they went down at the time. The Si who wrote Numbercruncher is clearly a very different person to the Si who wrote Godshaper. There are certainly themes and stylistic motifs which run right through, but still.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Coda, if only because it feels so airy and visually centred that I can enjoy it for the remarkable quality of the art alone, and not spend my time picking holes in my own choices. It’s a truly beautiful book.

Have you got any upcoming projects in the works you can share with us? There’s a real trend towards comics being adapted onto the big/little screens at the moment, can we expect any adaptations of your work in the future?

Nothing I can be specific about, alas. I have - let’s see - five comics projects in various states of development or go-ness (not counting the ones currently being published -- Hellblazer, Dreaming, Alienated). Of those five I know for sure two of them will definitely happen, and of the remaining three I’d probably lay odds on one or two of them trotting out of the gate.

(Part of the problem with being a busy writer who likes to work in defined chunks of story is that you’re constantly having to think ahead to the next project, and you never quite know how many of them will go live. It’s often nerve racking to know that three months hence you could be either be unable to pay the bills or impossibly over-subscribed. The trick is to play the odds with great care, to avoid pissing off commissioning editors.)

This all becomes way more complicated (to get to the other half of your question) because there are indeed various TV/Movie things going on in the background which occupy my time too.
I don’t make a big fuss about this in comics circles (if only because the response is often “so?”) but I’ve done quite a bit of work in TV now - originally as an art director, now as a writer - and I enjoy it hugely. But it’s even more perilous, in that field, to count one’s chickens before they’re hatched. The comics industry is full of creators who made a big song and dance about how X or Y project was getting adapted to screen, only for the whole thing to fall mysteriously silent. Hollywood is extremely good at saying “YES!” when what it actually means is “Maybe! Except Probably Not, And It’ll Take About Two Years Before We Say So.”

A little dose of dour British pragmatism there, sorry.

You’ve worked with some incredible talent. Just looking back over the past six months or so you’ve worked with Bilquis Evely, Aaron Campbell, Chris Wildgoose and Matias Bergara, amongst others. How important is finding the right collaborator?

Roughly as important as breathing.

Comics ARE collaboration, distilled and defined to their purest form. Approaching it without an appreciation of how utterly important your collaborators are would be like trying to run a marathon without any legs.

You’ve got to meet and work with some industry legends like Neil Gaiman. What are your personal highlights of working in the comics industry?

Oh heck - I think in most of those highlights I was so ruinously drunk I can’t be sure how much really happened.

Neil’s a mensch, obviously. Unbelievably generous with his time, thoughts and creations. Actually, thinking out loud, it’s strange that of all the industry luminaries I’ve had the privilege of meeting, it’s the ones - like Neil - who act as a calming presence that stick in my mind, as opposed to the Big I Am types who enjoy the performance.

Like... Garth Ennis has become a very close friend over the years, simply because he’s an utterly decent (and extremely funny) man who has not a shred of pretentiousness about him and doesn’t give a fuck about his own supposed celebrity. See also BKV.
And, of course, spending some quality time with Alan Moore is very hard to beat. Another totally calming presence, in spite of the great anxieties one inevitably has when meeting one’s hero. He speaks slowly, listens when other people have thoughts, smiles a lot, and is utterly, utterly brilliant. One comes away from a phonecall with Alan feeling infected by intelligence, like some peculiarly cerebral species of Contact High.

You’ve wrote for a number of different comics over the years, X-men for Marvel, The Dreaming for DC, along with a number of creator owned comics for Image and lately Alienated for Boom!. Does the experience change much between the different companies and do you have a preference for who you write for?

They all offer quite different experiences. Surprisingly, Marvel and DC have quite distinctive vibes, operationally, and that’s before you even get into the naturally diverse range of approaches one takes, and relationships one builds, with individual editors. The benefit of being a writer is that you can always be working on multiple things at once, so my preference is quite simply to keep my options open and work for all of them, on as wide a range of projects as possible.

When writing a big title like Hellblazer how much freedom do you get to tell the stories you want to tell? Do you pitch idea’s and need to get a yes or no, or do you more or less get the freedom to go crazy and do your own thing?

It’s always a balance. With Hellblazer I’ve had far more freedom than I dared to expect, and I suspect that’s a reflection of the mutual respect I have for the folks keeping tabs on me. Honestly, an editor you like and trust is worth her or his weight in gold.

With Hellblazer stories there are certain boundaries we shouldn’t cross, and certain continuities we shouldn’t breach, but on the whole the editorial steering takes the best form: making stories better, rather than worrying about what I can and can’t get away with it.

There’s something quintessentially British about Hellblazer. Do you think that’s one of the reasons of its success?

Yeah, probably. I think the most exaggerated forms of British humor -- cynical, sarcastic, bleak and blacker than dragonshit, but always with a kernel of hope -- plays a little better with US audiences than the most exaggerated forms of US humor play with UK audiences. I have some big and dubious theories on why that should be, but that’s very much a 5th Pint Or More conversation for the pub.

Ultimately I think John Constantine is simply a Bastard With A Conscience, and that’s a compelling setup for anyone, anywhere.

I love the supporting cast in Hellblazer. Noah signing is such a nice touch. Then there’s Nat, the hard as nails Glaswegian who’s more layered than she appears at first glance. Where did you get the inspiration for them?

Mostly they’re individuals I know, or more often coalesced hybrids of multiple people I know. Or sometimes just people I’ve watched in the pub. I lived in London for just shy of 20 years, there’s no end of inspiration.

With Hellblazer you’ve not only perfectly captured a well established character (Constantine has been around for 35 years) but also made the story and supporting cast your own. How challenging is that? Do you need to do a lot of research first?

I guess one of the reasons I’ve always yearned to write HB -- and why it feels so right -- is that what other people might call research I call time off. I read a lot of occult nonsense for the fun of it, I spend a lot of time in pubs, and I spent my teens hoovering-up every Hellblazer comic I could find. It’s all pretty baked-in by now.

Can you give Hellblazer fans any hints of what’s upcoming? Just a little titbit of what we can expect in the future?

“Sleeping with the fishes” springs to mind.

Oh, issue #6 is a particular treasure. That’s a slightly closer look at Noah, but we took a lot of inspiration from Gaiman’s “Hold Me”. It’s a haunting oneshot about loss and love, and it features some of the best work Aaron Campbell’s ever done. Mindblowing stuff.

I’m not sure what I expected with Alienated but it blew my expectations out of the water. How did you come up with the idea for Alienation? It’s a six part series. Is that the entire story or will this just be the first arc?

That’s the entire story, for now, although I’m always open to the idea of sequels if the right story strikes.

It’s an idea I’ve been turning over for ages. It started as a simple question -- “would would you do if you had the power to change the world?” -- then evolved into a variety of more interesting questions: “what would a teenager do if they had the power to change the world?”; “what would three teenagers do if they had the power to change the world?” and so on.

Eventually I realised I was circling around a really fucked-up version of E.T., in which the kid who finds the alien isn’t a Spielbergian heart-of-gold Everykid, but a bunch of troubled and opinionated outcast teens. And in which the alien itself isn’t a wrinkly little turd with a face but an ineffable star god with a ravenous appetite. That’s Alienated.

One of the things I like about all the characters in it are how relatable they are. We either know someone like them, are them, or have been at some point in our lives. Who do you relate to the most and why? Are any aspects of them based off you?

There’s a little of me in all of them, I think. The details and outcomes are fictional, of course, but at different times in my life I’ve felt pretty akin to each of them, for longer or shorter spells.

How much do real world events influence your writing? Brexit has just happened, and while we’re waiting to feel the impact of that will it show up in your work? Hellblazer has already had several references to this, can we expect more going forward?

Depends on the project, really. Hellblazer’s the sort of book where some background politics are inevitable -- although even then one has to be careful not to pin things down too much. These stories are supposed to be readable for years to come, by a range of readers, and nothing ages quicker than the present. The trick is to tell stories which spin out of the current state of the world -- and might even pass the odd comment on it -- but which focus nonetheless on timeless human drama.

Alienated faces similar challenges. I could’ve gone whole-hog with teenage slang, for instance, but in a couple of years that’ll just sound daft. And one of the recurring themes has to do with the ease with which modern teenagers can communicate with the wider world -- there’s no middlemen or quality-controllers any more, just “publish to web”. I suspect that’s creating a whole generation of kids who erroneously think the world cares what they think -- that, in fact, they deserve to be noticed -- when unfortunately the opposite is true: the people in charge don’t give a fuck. Hence we’re going to see a lot of emotionally crushed millennials emerging into the workforce feeling betrayed and dispossessed over the next decade, as they realise that the ability to be heard isn’t the same as actually being listened to. The character Samuel is obviously a little preview of that. ANYway, the point is: these ideas and behaviours are here to stay, but the specifics -- YouTube, Vloggers, cellphones -- will likely evolve. So it’s a tightrope walk: making a story feel relevant whilst giving it longevity.

Something like Coda, on the other hand, dodges all of these bullets, and speaks more to fundamentals of human behaviour than to the realities of today’s world. Which can be enormously freeing.

Your incredible run on the Dreaming is finishing up soon with #20. How has it been working on the flagship Sandman title? How do you feel finishing up?

Mixed emotions. Delighted to have told the story I set out to tell, proud as punch of all that we’ve achieved, but gutted to be stepping away. The biggest wrench is saying farewell - for now - to the collaboration with Bilquis. No exaggeration, she is quite simply one of the greatest comics artists alive.