Si Spurrier's new release from Boom! Studios, "Extermination" #1 is nutso. And I mean that in the best way possible. It's nutso though. Wonderfully nutso, but still nutso. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where a Batman-esque superhero and a Dr. Doom-esque villain must team up to take on lots of crazy, chaotic alien creatures, all while getting on each other's nerves in the best buddy cop, action flick mode--but totally set in a warped, super-heroically satirical world.
I had the opportunity to chat with Spurrier about "Extermination," chaos, superheroes, aliens and more!
MTV GEEK: What made you want to tell this story?
SI SPURRIER: At the risk of giving a disappointingly prosaic answer: Boom!’s Matt Gagnon approached me with the concept and asked if I’d like to get involved.
There’s more to it than that, thank the dark and pagan gods of Comickery. See, he described the kernel-of-an-idea along the lines of: “Batman and Doctor Doom team-up in the aftermath of a successful alien invasion to try and save the world” – which is fun and funky and drips with possibilities in its own right. But what my brain decoded straight away was “Mad Max-meets-spandex”. Which did strange things to my egobox and lit little fires under my adrenal gland. I’ve always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with the superhero subgenre, and in that simple little four-word logline I spotted the chance to bury a couple of well-aimed axeheads in the surface-layer conventionality of Guys-In-Costumes-Hitting-Each-Other. I saw an opportunity to tell a – literally – “post-spandex” story, in which the grim realities of the storyworld are so profound, so all-encompassing and so bizarre, that all the tidy twotone morality of Big-2 comics simply wouldn’t fit.
Forgive the wanky storytalk that follows, but I think it’s important. My feeling is that there’s no better way of investigating characters’ attitudes towards a Thing™ than simply taking it away from them. Do they mourn it? Do they go crazy? Do they adapt to the loss? Do they flourish? Or do they try to reclaim what they’ve lost? In "Extermination", based on that one conceptseed at the top which started it all, I saw straight away that the “Characters” in the equation are a classic hero and a classic villain, and the “Thing™” they’ve lost is – wait for it – a world where words like “hero” and “villain” have any meaning.
Now that’s a f@#!ing interesting story. I wanted-in immediately.
GEEK: Can you describe the tone of "Extermination"?
SPURRIER: Part of the key to the series-concept is that the tone is split in two.
On the one hand we’re frequently dipping backwards in time to the world as it was before “the extermination” – this extinction-level event which has annihilated the planet and wiped out the vast majority of human life. Before the horror the storyworld was ostensibly similar to what you’d find flicking through the pages of any mainstream spandex-book: men and women with remarkable abilities, whose first impulse upon achieving Said Uncanny Gifts is to squeeze into a skintight outfit and go fight crime. It’s bold, it’s over-the-top, it’s explodo and mad and colourful and morally simplistic and – above all else – it takes itself 100% po-facedly seriously.
"Extermination," of course, does not take that stuff too seriously. So we’ve quietly exaggerated the tone in fun little ways. In Jeffrey’s art, during those flashbacks, every character is constantly overacting, mugging, knuckle-biting and palmfacing. The dialogue is markedly different than that during the “present day” sequences – heroes and villains cheerfully rattle-off ridiculously long sentences about insane sci-fi gobbledegook; people make grand moralistic oaths without feeling remotely self-conscious, there’s no cursing, etc. Even the lettering has been differentiated from the stuff used during the present day: more dramatically emphasised, more excitable. We saw the whole thing as a balls-out homage – with just a little bit of affectionate pisstakery – of “classic” superheroism.
Aaaaand then we juxtapose all of that against the real meat of the story: the bleak, broken, ruined world of the present. Tonally, it couldn’t be more different: stripped-down, wide-angle, desolate. Jeffrey’s under instructions to use full-page-width panels as much as possible, there’s far less dialogue, far more quiet moments of space and uncertainty. That sort of thing. Of course it’s not all Mad Max style wastelands and jury-rigged vehicles – although there’s a lot of that – the whole “aliens” angle is vital to the present day tone too. But the aliens are… well. They’re alien. They’re not like anything else anyone’s ever seen, so I hesitate to waffle too much about them here. Let’s just say there’s a strong vein of psychedelic horror running through "Extermination," which invades the bleakness intermittently.
GEEK: Who are Nox and Reaper?
SPURRIER: As I said above, the starting position was that they each represented a “classic” trope from superspandexery. Nox was going to be a nocturnal vigilante – a Batmanalike – while Red Reaper was a superscientist with a penchant for world-conquering – a pseudo-Doctor-Doom.
Buuuut it would’ve been kinda lazy – and hindered our efforts to make "Extermination" as unique and awesome as it deserves – if we’d left it there. So both characters quickly took on other aspects, other traits, other nuances and idiosyncrasies, to differentiate them from those archetypal roots. For instance, when we first meet Nox he seems a pretty straightforward guy: uptight, conservative, buttoned-down. Kind of a douchey, frankly. We’re going to quickly discover there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface, and – even before the end of episode 1 – we’re aware that he’s never more than a couple of seconds away from exploding.
Red Reaper’s just awesome. A “mincing science tyrant”, as he’s described on the page. He’s smart, he’s witty, he’s got a bit of a Doctor Nemesis thing going on (á la "X-Club")… he just also happens to be a megalomaniac with a craving for power. And, c’mon – nobody can blame him for that.
GEEK: A big part of "Extermination" #1 is the fundamental differences between Nox and Reaper's methods. Can you explain how they're different and how that will play out in further issues?
Can’t go into too much detail, obviously. As with all stories of this ilk – I want to say “buddy movies”, but these guys totally ain’t buddies – the emergent similarities and differences between the two leads are the main thread of the narrative, so I’m loathe to spoil too much. What I will say is that when we first join them, in this corrupted and deadly world, they’re setting themselves certain minor goals – essentially finding supplies and tech – but survival is the one and only underlying task. That very quickly changes – far grander stakes emerge – and it’s the different ways the two characters approach the new goals that will define them.
In very simplistic terms, Nox is a man of action – an honourable warrior who uses his brain and his body as weapons, supposedly to fight crime and Make-The-World-A-Better-Place. Reaper, by distinction, is a man of science: a tinkerer and a builder, whose vast intellect has (until now) been deployed in the pursuit of cultural domination. One of the biggest questions underlying everything that happens in "Extermination" is how these roles – which have defined their thoughts and methods for years – have been forced to change by the new realities of the world they inhabit. There’s no “crime” for Nox to fight; no “culture” for Reaper to dominate.
GEEK: So far in the first issue, we've got Huskers, Alien Murder Monkeys and Dreamforming, where did you come up with this stuff?
SPURRIER: Ha. I jokingly describe my twitter self (@sispurrier, for the record) as “a weirdist masquerading as a wordist”: bizarre ideas are kinda my crackpipe. In taking this job, the first and most important stipulation I had was that the Present Day stuff would dodge as many of the hoary old clichés as possible. One of the aims of the flashbacks is to show how fundamentally silly the spandex genre can become when it’s overly formulaic, so it was critical that the apocalyptic New World Order wasn’t just a rehash of familiar ideas in the same way.
For instance, the blurb says that this is a post-alien-invasion world. But, really, the invaders – the EDDA (and no, I can’t explain why the gangly aggressors are called that) – aren’t really “aliens” at all; at least not in the conventional sense. And calling it “an invasion” is stretching definitions too: as we’ll see in Episode 2, the extermination occurred in a far more dramatic, and far less obvious, way.
Basically I wanted to avoid all the easy options: no bug-eyed aliens in flying saucers, no “hive-mind brood consuming natural resources”, no mutilated cattle and vast attack-ships. The EDDA are far stranger (more truly alien, ironically) than mere Aliens. If human “technology” is based on pure physics – levers and wheels and energy-transfer – then EDDA tech is entirely psychic: glittering astral engines of abstract thought and shifting design. All the madcap ideas which suffuse "Extermination" – all the horrible and weird and enigmatic dangers our “heroes” encounter – evolved partly from my need to break the mold, aaaand partly from the practical needs of what these creepy critters are rrrreeeally up to.
…which is something Nox and Reaper are going to have to find out for themselves. What are the EDDA? What are they doing on earth? And, perhaps most importantly, how did they arrive?
Hahaha. I think I covered some of that – at least the parts of it I’m allowed to describe – above.
GEEK: Can you talk a bit about the challenge of balancing over-the-top sci-fi action, humor and horror successfully (which you do!)?
SPURRIER: Again, I think it’s a matter of necessity. For one thing, “horror” in the movie sense doesn’t tend to work very well in comics. There’s little chance of making readers jump out of their seats, so the writer – and the artist – are instead compelled to disturb; to intrigue; to force readers to invest their imaginations in something imperfectly understood, so that when the answers start to hit the dust the emotional payoff is all the more intense. The best “horror” comics are, more accurately, “creeper” comics.
That said, the one commonality between comic horror and movie horror is that it simply won’t work when it’s relentless. There’s a reason “comic relief” is so-called: it clears the air like a smarmy palette-cleanser between creepy courses, and makes the next episode of disturbia, or seriousness, or whatever-it-is, all the more powerful.
It doesn’t even need to be comedy, really, spacing-out the heavier stuff. Action sequences perform precisely the same function – and "Extermination’s" full of those too. But the subject matter I was playing with was too delicious to avoid the comedy aspect – the chance to make a few wry observations about this weird little subgenre which has come to dominate western comics to such an extent that we close our eyes to its inherent daftness and suspend our disbelief beyond all reasonable limits. So, yeah, humour seemed the most sensible recourse.
It’s also worth mentioning that I started writing "Extermination" off the back of the X-Club serial I did for Marvel. Arguably the most popular ingredient in that title was Doctor Nemesis: the X-Men’s resident bombastic snark-maestro and science-bastard. I found that I really enjoyed being able to write spandex action in a straightforward manner – with all the over-the-top sci-fi fun it entails – whilst still including in the mix a sarcastic shithead who cruelly editorialises about the insanity surrounding him. Even better were the moments when Said Sarcastic Shithead gets taken down a peg or two. So those were some of the snide ingredients I wanted to bring to "Extermination" too. For all that he’s technically “the villain”, Red Reaper seems (to start with) far more likeable, and far funnier, than his straightlaced hero companion.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a twisty character-story if there wasn’t a lot more going on than that. How things appear at the start of our tale – especially the more obvious personality traits of our protagonists – are not necessarily a reflection of What Lies Beneath.
GEEK: Can you tell us about working with Jeffrey Edwards on this? What's he bring to the table?
SPURRIER: Versatility’s the key here, I think. Jeffrey’s been able to hit exactly the right notes of over-the-top melodrama we need for the flashback scenes, whilst capably toning it all down – adding nuance and subtlety – for the present day stuff. He’s been serving-up some gorgeously wide-angled scenes of devastation and blighted-America, and his quieter character moments are very tense. His action sequences fair crackle with smulchy knucklebait and jarring impacts, and his monsters (and let me say at this point that monsters are very, very dear to my heart) are delightfully weird.
GEEK: How much of the look and feel comes from him, how much from you?
SPURRIER: I think it’s a pretty decent share, for this gig. Jeffrey came to the table when Boom! had already designed the look of the main players (as did I, in fact), but I think we’ve both made the world very definitely our own. I’m a bit of an adjective-fiend when writing my scripts, but Jeffrey’s done a great job of taking the overblown descriptions I feed him, hitting all the beats I ask for, and adding his own vibes and compositions to the mix.
GEEK: Where do you see this series going? How long will it run?
SPURRIER: I have to be a little cautious about answering this… Let’s just say the present story has been structured so it has a very definite ending, but there are a looot of fiery hoops to jump through along the way. And there’s plenty of room for further arcs set in the same world… though I daren’t even hint whether our main characters will be all present and correct for subsequent appearances.
GEEK: The first issue has already sold out, what it's like knowing there's so much early interest?
Boom did a very smart thing with the “Episode 1 only $1” strategy. I think it’s encouraged a lot of people to take a punt on a title they might otherwise have missed, so it’ll be fascinating to see how well the interest sustains for episode 2. It’s the sort of creative flag-waving the “smaller” publishers (by which I mean – not the Big Two) are increasingly obliged to innovate, just to get the attention of readers and retailers. The Crossed webcomic I’m doing with Avatar falls into the same category, I think: the idea is to build-up a thunderhead of interest by offering the comic online without any fee (www.crossedcomic.com by the way – 12 free new pages every week), then trust that people will want to own the trade when it hits shelves later in the year. These are exciting, paradigm-altering times we’re living in, and these non-massive setups like Boom! and Avatar are, so far, way out ahead of the corporate publishers in exploiting the shift.
GEEK: You've got this and "Crossed: Wish You Were Here" going right now, both titles deal with complete and utter chaos, what's appealing about that to you?
SPURRIER: It’s not so much the chaos that appeals; it’s the requirement for change. It’s all about taking characters who have an established, comfortable status-quo then dumping them in a quagmire of shit they have absolutely no way of dealing with. The results are infinitely variable – sometimes you’ll find yourself learning new things about the seemingly tired old status-quo that went before; sometimes you’ll pick scabs off open wounds and find a swampy brew of humanity and inhumanity underneath; sometimes it’s just a fucking exciting romp. In the Crossed webcomic it’s about exploring people’s limits: all these guys who have absolutely no preparation for the depths of survivalist depravity they’re forced into, struggling to retain their humanity, their hope, and their honour. In "Extermination" it’s about looking at morality – and particularly the simplistic “goodies Vs baddies” morality of superheroes (and, not incidentally, the preferred narrative of modern politics and media) – through a fractured lens: discovering that morality is always always always relative to context.
GEEK: Is it possible for storytelling to go too far?
SPURRIER: Never. Humanity – or, rather, the experience of being a human and relating its meaning in society – is storytelling.
Sure, you can go too far with subject matter (although I’m someone who tends to think the cry of “I’m offended!” is best met with “And?”), you can go too far with style (although even then it’s all a matter of taste; there’s no fixed rule), and I suppose mmmmmaaaybe you can go too far with experimental storytelling techniques – though I’ve never seen a narrative experiment yet which wasn’t worth performing. But storytelling itself? Nope nope nope.
GEEK: What's next? What else have you got on the horizon?
SPURRIER: Many exciting things.
The "Crossed" webcomic will be running for… well, for at least two years, free every-bloody-week, and possibly longer, so that’s absorbing a lot of my time. I’ll also be doing several arcs for the bi-weekly Crossed: Badlands comic, but I can’t say much about that yet.
Elsewhere, I have projects set up with 2000AD, various things in the “maybe” file with Big! Publishers!, and a brand new creator owned comic I can’t talk about yet. Aaaand, last but not least, I’m starting a new prose novel, to follow in the wake of Contract and A Serpent Uncoiled.
"Extermination" #1 is on shelves now.