Thursday, September 24, 2015

No. 46 Si Spurrier

First Prog: 1232
Latest Prog: 1812 – quite a while ago now, but I can’t believe he won’t be back some day.

First Meg: 3.46
Latest Meg: 324 – again, surely he’ll be back one day, when he runs out of X-Men tales to tell for Marvel.

Total appearances: 199
- not including his long-running and very entertaining series of articles about film and popular culture that ran in the Megazine some years back. But it is including the episodes of Metro Dredd he wrote that were reprinted in the Megazine.

Creator credits:
The Scrap; Bec and Kawl; From Grace; London Falling; The Simping Detective; Lobster Random; The Vort*; Harry Kipling (Deceased); Chiaroscuro; Numbercruncher

Lobster Random's very name betrays the essence of Spurier's work.
Art by Carl Critchlow

Other writing credits:
Judge Dredd
Zancudo – technically a spin-off from Ant Wars but arguably its own thing
The Angel Gang
Fink Angel
Plenty of Future Shocks and other one-offs

Notable character creations:
Becky Miller and Jarrod Kawl
Jack Point
Miss Ann Thropé
Lobster Random

Notable characteristics:
Complex plots; complex language; outrageous ideas; film and TV references; trying to be clever; actually being clever; trying to be funny, and succeeding more often than not. First person narration.

Spurrier's writing style emerged fully-formed.
Art by Nigel Raynor

He can do wordless action scenes, too!
Art by Peter Doherty
On Simon:
Simon ‘Si’ ‘El Spurioso’ Spurrier was by no means the first fan-turned-creator to work for 2000AD, but circumstances have perhaps rendered him the most visible fan-turned-pro in the comic’s history. As far as I can tell, pretty much every new writer and artist who started on 2000 AD since the early 1980s was something of a fan. I mean, who wouldn’t be***? And let’s not forget that if you wanted to work in comics in the UK any time after about 1986 there was really only one mainstream option.

What marks out Mr Spurrier is a) he was a pretty high-profile letter writer for a period, penning poetry and many a paean to the thrills of the day in the Nerve Centre; b) he won the first ever pitchfest – a competition in which hopeful writers pitched their best Future Shock idea to a room full of 2000 AD convention goers. The winner was selected by audience vote, and would see their story published (with a certain amount of editorial caressing, one assumes).****

Maliss from The Scrap acts out the emotions Spurrier may have felt during Pitchfest
Art by Richard Elson

He had, unsurprisingly, actually sent in plenty of scripts to Tharg before this point, presumably meeting with his share of rejection, so it’s doubly unfair to accuse him of getting a writing gig out of nowhere - but one fears this reputation may ever follow him around, at least in 2000AD circles of a certain vintage.

Leaving that aside, it’s noteworthy how rapidly Spurrier rose from an occasional Future Shocks writer to a regular scribe of short one-off series (The Scrap, From Grace) to someone with a bunch of recurring series (Bec and Kawl; Lobster Random etc.) Within a few years, he was practically writing half the Prog some weeks, and some of the best bits of the Meg as well. Talented bastard.

Kipling on overdrive
Art by Boo Cook

While he does have some very apparent stylistic tics and tricks, it’s impressive how Spurrier puts them to use on stories that couldn’t be more different from each other in tone and subject matter. As is typical, he’s generally had more success with the serious stories, but he’s also had the bottle to tackle out and out comedy head on more than once, in one notable case scoring a huge hit.

Let’s get down into the details, eh?

Spurrier likes his characters to have ADHD
Art by Gary Crutchley (I think)
After a few typically imaginative, irreverent and verbose Future Shocks, he was thrown in the deep end with not just an out and out comedy series – always risky, always difficult – but with a series that specifically called to mind one of 2000 AD’s most beloved comedies, DR & Quinch. The only similarity really is that both feature jokes and students, but it’s enough. In fact, Bec and Kawl was arguably more similar to then-current TV show Spaced, another dangerously well-liked thing to be compared to. Early episodes laboured ‘students are lazy’ stereotypes...

Trying too hard
Art by Steve Roberts
  along with as obvious as possible Sci-Fi references, but it was passable enough*****. 

Not just invoking a plot point from Ghostbusters, making sure we know that's exactly what's happening.
Art by Steve Roberts

Later episodes were actually pretty clever and funny (aided by artists Steve Roberts, who was learning on the job every bit as visibly as Spurrier).

As if in response, he lurched the other way entirely into a sombre Dark Future short story, The Scrap. It’s also, I think, one of his first forays into experimental writing styles. For a five-episode thrill, it doesn’t half jump about in time, in narration, and generally in what the status quo is with each new episode. In short, it’s kind of hard work to read – but rather impressive if you put the effort in.

A typically frantic mixture of action and exposition
Art by Richard Elson

An equally typical bit of semi-exposition. Note the hand placement  lead character Maliss is now pregnant.
This is significant! Spurrier will not hold your hand.
Art by Richard Elson

Channelling lessons learned from both stories led to Lobster Random, one of Spurrier’s more enduring creations. God it’s a weird series to describe. In a sentence: an aged war veteran with brain surgery and giant lobster claws uses his skills as a torturer to help villains get money/revenge/whatever, while all he wants for himself is a) not to die and b) to have mecha-sex with robots of various vintages. Oh, and each story is designed to bring on as many weird-looking / sounding characters as possible, all tied up in plots of farce-level complexity. 

Ah, you gotta love a narrator who comments on his own narration.
Art by Carl Critchlow
At times it’s a bit too much itself for its own good, but it’s also an incredibly 2000ADish series, and I’ll love it for that forever.

From this point, Spurrier split his efforts pretty seamlessly between the Prog and the Meg, delivering a mixture of all-in-one, usually fairly serious horror stories, alongside lunatic short recurring stories featuring the most outrageous, yet readable characters he could muster.

This is about as close as you'll get to a simple depiction of what Harry Kipling is all about.
Art by Boo Cook

Colonial-Brit-throwback-zombie-Godkiller Harry Kipling tried very hard but didn’t quite connect. Noir-movie-throwback-undercover-Judge-clown-faced-PI the Simping Detective tried equally hard and landed with a bang. Lead character Jack Point been gone for years before resurfacing to help out with Trifecta, but seeing him again was like welcoming back on old friend. Being a Dreddworld strip, Spurrier was free to make use of various floating characters, notably an alien Raptaur, rival PI DeMarco, and her ape assistant Travis Perkins.

Jack Point only narrates in white on black.
Art by Frazer Irving
Spurrier does an excellent job of keeping the same routines fresh.
Art by Simon Coleby

If there’s one thing I haven’t brought up yet it’s how well-suited each of Spurrier’s collaborators were on all these outlandish forays, all the way back to Steve Roberts on Bec & Kawl. The likes of Carl Critchlow, Boo Cook and Frazer Irving have a very personal and distinctive tone and style, which matches Spurrier’s equally distinctive voice as a writer. The key note being ‘as weird as possible, but always trying to make sure that the weird suits the story, rather than being weird for its own sake’.

Somehow, even the way Spurrier chooses to mimic different genre narration styles ends up being a style in itself. Compare the Chandlerisms of Simping Detective with the world-weary crabbiness of Lobster Random. Maybe it’s all the made up gobbledyslang that he enjoys, throwing half-words together with non-words that echoes John Smith without the reach for poetry.

Even the brutal first-person perspectives of the villainous protagonists of From Grace and London Falling had a way of talking/narrating that felt like Spurrier’s voice, as channelled through vastly different characters. I mean, you can’t get more different than a mass murdered and a family man. Both stories are well worth another look if you haven’t read them in a while. Behind all the stylistic stuff lie two pretty stripped down stories about character, and what drives people to do the things they do (with violence).

London gangsters re-imagined as legendary monsters
Art by Lee Garbett

Spurrier's philosophical side: an exploration of what it means to be evil.
Art by Frazer Irving
Which leads me to my all-time favourite Spurrier tale, Chiaroscuro. I think what marks it out is his refusal to hide behind outlandish settings and characters, choosing a real-world and potentially autobiographical tone instead. I mean, I don’t think it relates to incidents from Spurrier’s life specifically, but he is a self-confessed film geek, and I wouldn’t put it past him to be a gorehound. Ostensibly a thriller about a film fan searching for a haunted film, the story ably explores themes of obsession, and minutiae of mondo movies, and dives into ‘real’ pre-Romero zombies in a way that few others ever do.******

Ever seen Faces of Death?
Art by Cam Smith aka Smudge

You know, the ones born of Voodoo
Art by Smudge aka Cam Smith
 Meanwhile, back in the Megazine, Spurrier turned his hand to Judge Dredd himself, but more memorably to some old supporting characters, the Angel Gang. I think by this point it was obvious that he’d be a good fit for the characters – a motley collection of redneck weirdoes who love torture, and speak with their own particular brogue. All they really needed was someone to give them a bit of plot to hang off, and Spurrier has no trouble teasing out plot.

A journalist tagging along with the Angel Gang? What could possibly go wrong?
Art by Steve Roberts

Don't eat that burger, Elvis!
Art by Steve Roberts
I find plotting in comics to be something that 2000 AD has always done rather well, in a way that superhero comics seem to have given up on. Spurrier especially seems to enjoy finding ways to have characters solve super-convoluted problems in ways that readers just can’t guess. His most recent series, not commissioned by Tharg but printed in the Meg, is the apotheosis of this. Numbercruncher has great characters in it, but it’s driven by an incredibly clever bit of worldbuilding, rule setting and plot machination. How can a dead person escape from the afterlife to reunite with his true love? Spurrier can show you one way – and while it does involve the power of love, it’s so much more intricate than that.

Maths and violence
Art by PJ Holden

We miss you, Si Spurrier. Don’t you go changing.

You'll never have enough of weird.
Art by D'Israeli

More on Si Spurrier:
The man's own Blog
A fun general interview about Story on Comics Bulletin
A radio interview with Alex Fitch (not Frith) of Panel Borders that covers his 2000 AD career.

Personal favourites:
Art by Carl Critchlow
The Scrap
Bec and Kawl: Attack of the Cones; Freakshow (sadly his scripts only got good in time for this series to end)
The Simping Detective
Lobster Random (If you like one story, you’ll like the lot I reckon)
The Angel Gang: before they wuz Dead
Fink Angel: Pizen impossible

*Sssh! Don’t tell anyone!

**Sssh again!

***Mark Millar is one exception, who has been pretty open about the fact that he was a long-term fan of American superhero comics, and didn’t read 2000 AD. I’m sure this is true of some other creators, but I expect most of them grew up reading (and loving) 2000 AD.

****I went to DreddCon 3 (I think) and bottled out of entering the pitchfest. I didn’t see Si Spurrier, but I did see (and indeed vote for) Arthur Wyatt - another who has gone on to become a regular writer for Tharg. These days, budding artists can go through a similar ordeal at Thought Bubble if they dare.

*****It’s hard to put my finger on why, but the latest iteration of this type of strip, Survival Geeks, seems to work a lot better.

******For the sake of showing off my own film-geek cred, I’m going to use this final footnote to recommend some hidden gems for readers who liked Chiaroscuro and wanted to see some films that explore similar themes: The Serpent & the Rainbow; Cannibal Holocaust; Cigarette Burns and most especially Tésis. And, for a palate cleanser, maybe Evil Ed.

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