The Gap Between Panels / The Importance (Or Otherwise) of Stories

Si Spurrier has a lot of things he wants to talk about in the six issues of his 2016’s miniseries Cry Havoc, pencilled by the redoubtable Ryan Kelly. Some of it spills out of the panels and into copious backmatter notes providing further details about the variety of exotic fairytale monsters that appear in the story. Fans of world folklore (or Mignola’s Hellboy) will certainly get a kick out of all that. More interesting for me is the theory, one could almost say the theology, that inspired the story, which Spurrier goes into in this interview.

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Spurrier has obviously drunk deep from the British Invasion well of inspiration, particularly scribes like Neil Gaiman and Mike Carey who have pontificated on the importance of “stories” to the way people structure reality. One character in Cry Havoc spells this out pretty clearly in case we miss it: “a human brain can only think in stories”.

I’ve personally always found it rather suspicious that the guy who argued that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” was himself a poet. It’s probably natural that a lot of time spent writing stories and thinking about them would lead you to see their influence absolutely everywhere you look, but I’m a bit more cautious about this, especially given that the definition of “stories” is rather loose and seems to stretch quite widely. It is undeniable that our brains don’t process information in the logical way computers do (that’s probably why we had to invent them). But trying to group together metaphors, superstitions, religions, philosophies and social structures all under the banner of “stories” may be an unhelpful simplification, if a flattering one.

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The paradox is that while Spurrier is liable to overclaim about the importance of stories (we apparently can’t think in any other way), the animating idea behind Cry Havoc is that they may be losing their purchase on the contemporary mind. Spurrier notes that today’s culture is caught between an “anodyne empiricism” and a “very radical, fundamentalist religious view”, both of these tendencies taking a far too literalist approach to myths, stories and ideas. My guess is Spurrier is yearning for that sweet spot where the fantastic isn’t dismissed or taken literally but used as a way to focus our understanding of ourselves and other people – magic as metaphor to makes sense of our lives.

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I don’t think we’re in any danger of losing that, particularly if we judge by Cry Havok’s own success in this area. The main character Lou is taken over, and her life thrown into a tailspin, by a supernatural monster that can serve as a symbol for a lot of things related to growing up and becoming an adult – precarity, mental ill-health, the lack of a life-project through which to achieve transcendence (borrowing from the existentialists a bit there). Spurrier understands that symbols become cyphers if they just relate to one thing – and the most interesting aspect of Cry Havok is that ultimately Lou’s lycanthropy is not reducible to a single cause, but is a slice of inexplicable chaos that destroys her settled life and relationships.

The hero moment of the book is therefore when Lou rejects the simplistic explanations behind the various mythic creatures in the story (vampires = sex, zombies = death), but reveals them to be mysteries that resist explanation. They emerge in the gaps between our knowledge of ourselves, ones which Lou refuses to abjure, but also refuses to be defined by, or even to give definition to them. It’s just “life”, man. The book is almost a manifesto against interpretation – of accepting that sometimes you can’t know what’s going on, even in your own head.

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How that squares with the idea that we need these metaphors to understand the world is difficult to say. But if I’m being a bit hard on the intellectual underpinnings of the book, it’s only because it’s so refreshing to have a creator put so much thought into the work they are creating, and I haven’t read an anglophone comic this interesting in a good long while.

Almost as impressive is the sheer craft of the book, which splits Lou’s story into three intercutting time-periods, literally coloured by three separate colourists. Using different artists to distinguish between parts of a single book is a common enough technique in comics (the French series The Chronicles of Legion is a good example). Using colourists and colour palates makes for a more subtle effect – although it’s drawn out at the beginning through captions labelled beginning, middle and end.

I didn’t realise until I read the notes, but the three parts also consistently use different layouts as well – 8-panel grids for the character-driven bits in London, 6-panel grids for the action-orientated bits in Afghanistan, and a 4-panel “widescreen” grid for the epic ending. Panels frequently merge, and there are splash-pages (including a very nice captionless page-turn splash that cuts across a break-up conversation), so the effect isn’t immediately obvious. But the constraints the creative team decided to impose on themselves is nonetheless admirably crazy. It’s almost as if the book in itself is living up to its order vs chaos theme – its regimented layouts and colour palates providing some signposts in a story that otherwise cuts wildly between different settings and genres.

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One of the unifying elements is Si Spurrier’s masterful control over tone of voice. This is an element present in a lot of his work, which is very heavily narrated in captions, rather than stripping captions back and giving prominence to dialogue in balloons. Characters frequently start talking in balloons and then move onto captions that drift over separate events, creating a kind of montage effect. Almost every page leaves a line hanging, to be completed overleaf – a tic that’s reminiscent of Watchmen’s scene-to-scene visual mirroring. Alan Moore wanted to provide a kind of “bridge” between scenes to create a sense of fluidity to the reading experience that kept the reader going, but it mostly just called out the artificiality of a comic’s construction, and he dropped it soon after. Turns out using sentences is far more effective. The writer behind the ones in Cry Havoc is definitely one to watch.

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