Interview with Si Spencer the Comic Book Author of Bodies
As the Bodies mini-series from Si Spencer and Vertigo is ending soon, I talked to Si about how he got into comics, where Bodies came from, and how crazy it made him. If you’ve been following my reviews of Bodies, you probably know that I’m a little obsessed, so I really enjoyed getting to talk to Si about the series, even though I’m so sad about it coming to an end on February 25 (When’s the sequel out, Si?!). Check out the interview below!
I mean, check out that picture to the right (from Si Spencer’s cameo role in soon to be released movie The Trap). Why wouldn’t you want to read an interview with Si Spencer?
Stefani: Let’s talk about you first. Describe yourself in three words.
Si: Toxic Retro-chic Umami
How did you get into comics? Writing or otherwise?
Comics in the UK were an elusive thing when I was growing up in the sixties. There were a ton of British kids’ titles with one page funnies, but the Marvel and DC stuff was really hard to find unless you picked up the black and white reprints. The first encounter I really remember was the old Bob Kane three panel newspaper Batman strips – my Gran used to save them for me in a scrapbook and at the same time the Adam West series was running on Brit TV. Seems strange to imagine now, but as six year olds we never spotted the camp or the stupidity; it was just gripping.
Anyhoo, like most normal people (sorry fan-folks) I gave up reading comics when I hit puberty and discovered books, girls, music and various ways of slowly killing myself. Then this amazing post-punk affair called 2000AD hit the newsstands and that got me back into comics again in my early twenties, an age which mercifully coincided with the grimmest postwar decade in Britain, the eighties. For the vast majority of people of course it was the decade from hell – in my home town, youth unemployment was running at around 75% – but if you were young, good-looking, single and smart in a cool city where everyone else your age was in the same boat, it was a creative haven. And this was the time that Alan Moore was knocking out strip after strip, Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Miracleman, Halo Jones, Bojeffries so with plenty of time on my hands I was devouring comics and that got me into whole new genres of stuff like Eddie Campbell and Paul Grist’s early home-produced work.
I’d already been writing pretty much daily for around fifteen years by then; I’m ashamed to say thanks to the influence of a particularly pneumatic young blonde English teacher’s encouragement. She set us a task to write a chapter of a novel a week for the whole school year and I was so anxious to impress her and so horribly precocious, I finished mine in a week. At the time I was pretty much top of my year in English and maths but when I started big school the maths teacher was a guy and was no competition for a curvy beautiful blonde with a ’70’s hippy idealism and attitude to teaching. It really is quite mind-boggling to think that my entire future life-path was purely made on that one random hormonal decision by an insanely optimistic and randy teenager… jeez, I could have been an accountant, a banker… I could have been happy!
But I digress; I’d been plugging away trying to be at various times either the British Ray Bradbury, Richard Brautigan or Raymond Carver when I hooked up with Adrian Dungworth, a comic artist looking for a writer. I don’t come from a background or culture that does creativity – I never had any idea how things got published or written or anything and like a lot of my generation had been brought up to believe that was something other people did. For instance, it genuinely never occurred to me that I had to post my work off to people; I somehow thought that publishers would hear on the grapevine that I was a writer and discover me. To be honest, it’s a good job I didn’t send anything off because I’m not sure the world was ready for shittily written novels with titles like ‘Chaos and Cunnilingus’ or ‘The Fat Imbecilic Boy’.
Anyway, Adrian was talented and had friends in the industry and a totally different attitude and expectation to me and together with his girlfriend we started putting together a self-published anthology title called Sideshow (and this was of course way before the internet and cheap computer printing – this was old school). That was enough to both give us a little bit of exposure, some contacts and more importantly give me a little confidence and help me find a voice.
At the time, Fleetway (2000AD’s publishers) were massively branching out with Crisis and Revolver, publishing non SF, political stuff and I sent them a whole bunch of short stories from my ‘Raymond Carver’ period. I just hit really lucky that I picked the one time to be writing wholly uncommercial non-mainstream stuff at the time there was a publisher looking for it. Next thing I knew I was a comic writer.
Do you remember the first comic you ever loved?
The first ones I loved would have been the British weeklies; great silly kids’ stuff like The Beano, Dandy, Whizzer and Chips, Cor and Monster Fun, but the first narrative comics I ever loved were those Marvel reprints – the first X-Men, Avengers, Fantastic Four etc, but once I started seeking out the real thing I was mainly DC. I had a friend who dug comics too and in that way that you do, we divided up so that he was Marvel and I was DC so that we could amicably swap titles. About the only Marvel thing I stuck with as a kid was The Forever People, but most of my focus was on Superman, Batman and Flash. Somewhat pathetically however (in the true sense of the word) my absolute favourite was Aquaman which was a massive problem because at the time I couldn’t swim, so I’d spend my Summer holidays solving crimes and fighting baddies in my head that all took place just on the shoreline and in the shallows.
What are a few of your favorite comics from recent years?
After several false starts, Britain is finally experiencing a genuine publishing revolution in comics, so while there’s a lot of great American stuff out there, indulge me while I fly the flag for a little while. I’m currently in absolute jealous awe of Rob Davis’ The Motherless Oven and Glyn Dillon’s The Nao of Brown is one of the prettiest books you could ever see (and yeah, I have an editing credit on it, but I’m not biased). I love Daryl Cunningham’s documentary pieces and Ian Culbard’s dreamy almost Moebius-like art and the new Kickstarter miracle success story 21st Century Tank Girl is both a hoot and just an incredible work of art. Next thing on my to-buy list though is Jacques Tardi’s World War 1 series – I saw most of the original art in the most astonishing exhibition space at Angouleme last year; people were leaving the gallery literally shell-shocked and in tears.
Four time periods, four detectives, four murders. Same M.O, same location, same corpse. That’s the hook, that’s pretty much what I sold to the wonderful Shelly Bond.
But that’s just the maguffin – it’s not a whodunit or a whydunnit or even really a howdunnit. It’s a thousand hooks on a single fishing line and it’s the line and the fisherman that count, not the hooks themselves. And the line is cultural identity and patriotism, the good and the bad and how the individual behaves inside those paradigms. If that makes it sound tedious it’s also about rampant gay shagging, a vicious criminal gangster, a kickass muslim woman cop busting racist heads and a hot and crazy amnesiac terrorist.
This is the only comic I’ve read with four different timelines and characters, each weaving together to make one (crazy but awesome) picture. Where did the idea come from and did you always have it as four separate sections?
That was always in the original pitch that came to me in a dream. I literally woke up with that two-line pitch above in my head. Shelly had been trying to get me to pitch something called ‘Bodies’ for months and suddenly it seemed like we had a fit. I sent her the logline with the proviso underneath that I had no idea how it worked or what happened or when and where the characters were, but with a pitch like that it had to be written.
A few people have made comparisons to ‘Cloud Atlas’ but it’s not really the same sort of thing; in retrospect, I think it’s probably subconsciously influenced by an incredible English writer called Alan Garner; if you’re not familiar with his work, check out ‘Red Shift’ and ‘Thursbitch’ to see what I mean.
What was it like to have those four characters roaming around in your mind?
I can laugh about it now but that’s because I’ve been on medication for four months (seriously, this book damn near broke me) but at the time it was pretty intense. Just as a technical challenge it’s really difficult to write a six page segment with a recap, development and a cliff, but then to weave those into four acts each issue that advance the overall serial arc was insane. On a personal level it was even tougher – a lot of the imagery and magical content comes from things I’d already been dabbling with and a lot of Maplewood’s early chapters tie into my experience of loved ones with Alzheimers. Then there’s that tricky thing that always happens with characters once you start writing – the slippery buggers start acting of their own volition. I had no idea Edmond was gay when I started writing him and as for Whiteman – jeez.
Again, massive kudos to Shelly Bond for his character; in my first draft and story notes he was very much ‘a worthy jew’; a good brave courageous guy who fled the Nazis using guile and smarts and joined the London police to do good but became a victim of anti-semitism again. It was the only strand that Shelly said she didn’t like and she quite rightly told me to rethink it; it was hackneyed, clichéd and in its own weird way, lazy and anti-semitic. So I went the other way and tried to create a character without redemption, without mercy and almost without motive – a true sociopath. He’s not ruled by greed or childhood psychoses or a lust for power or dominance. He runs entirely on the survival gene. And that’s a tough place to take your head – I tried about three times to redeem him but always shied away from it. There’s a moment in issue 7 that really hurt my brain where he has the ultimate incentive to change and for several drafts he took it and then I realized that was betraying the character.
But to actually answer your question, I spent six months being a repressed gay Victorian, a vicious sociopath, a Muslim woman and an amnesiac every day all at once. What do you think it was like? Whiteman was tough to shake off, but Maplewood was the worst because after writing her I’d literally be forgetting how to speak.
As I finished each issue, I felt like I was always left confused, in a really good way. I know you can’t give away the ending quite yet, but will our questions finally be answered? I kind of hope not all of them will be.
Man, that last sentence is reassuring. I never set out to answer all the questions I’ve asked – I don’t think that’s always the writer’s job. I made the points I wanted to make and I’ve left a lot open to interpretation. Anyone who’s read a lot of my stuff will know I can’t resist the odd page or two of personal polemic and I always knew that there’d be one in the final issue, but I hope I’ve kept them fairly subtle in the rest of the book. I’m horribly aware that a lot of people out there in internet world have been racking their brains and losing sleep over this book so I’m nervous as hell, but I’m really hoping no-one was expecting a scene where the Corpse invites everyone into the drawing room and explains everything away beat by beat. Besides, only a fool would write a book like this and answer all the questions – I want people demanding a sequel!
[Give it to meeeeeee!]
I’ve seen several people comment on Bodies’ openness to all people and all types. This is a selling point for me as well. Can you talk a little bit about this – the fact that while these characters are gay or Muslim or Jewish or whatever, that’s not what defines them. They are human not stereotypes.
Again, thanks for saying that. There’s been a small minority who’ve criticized the book for being willfully PC and ticking issue-led boxes but that was never my plan. The whole ethos of the book is that British identity and culture, and especially London’s, has multiculturalism hammered through its DNA – how am I supposed to do that with a bunch of straight white Christians? It’s a book about prejudice – it needs to be peopled by characters who experience that. What I have tried to do is make them as interesting, funny, dynamic and flawed as possible outside those cultural signifiers and I’m hoping that’s come across.
I like that we have four different artists to match each timeline because, while they flow together well, it very clearly creates a separation and allows the reader to stay with that particular character. Did you know you’d have four different artists when the idea came or did that develop with the story?
I’m all about rules; rules give you a structure and stop you getting too self-indulgent or losing the plot. As soon as I started drafting a plot breakdown I knew this could spiral out of control and that I’d get hooked into one character at the expense of another so Shelly Bond very kindly wrangled me some extra pages per issue so I could stick to that six page per period format. Once that was decided, we realized that we were going to have to ask some poor artist to come up with four different sets of reference, four major character templates, four styles… it just wouldn’t have been fair so the four artist format just made logistical sense. Once we’d decided that we could pick brilliant artists and play to their various strengths without giving them too punishing a schedule.
It was a huge gamble, because we risked losing any sense of coherence between the time zones, but Shelly brought in the magnificent Lee Loughridge who really binds the book together. His colour palettes are different for each period but they’re all in the same warmth-zone (yeah, I don’t really know what means either – I made that up. I’m no artist) so it gives a consistent throughline.
I love them all for different reasons. Edmond because as a writer, I pretty much seduced the most unseducable man on the planet, Whiteman because he genuinely shocked me with his awfulness, Maplewood because despite all the bewilderment, she’s always looking for the up-beat and Shahara because y’know… she’s Shahara. There’s quite a personal connection there because she’s based on someone I knew who was killed in the London 7/7 bombings – I didn’t know her well, she was the teller in my local bank but I used to her see sometimes in the local bar after work (drinking coffee of course) with her colleagues and we’d chat. She was a devout Muslim but a modern London-born woman who loved music and fashion; we started talking because she loved my shirts and would always compliment me on them. On the morning of July 7th she had a dentist appointment so instead of going straight to work, she got the 38 bus into town and got blown apart by idiots pretending to be of the same faith. I wore her favourite shirt of mine every 7/7 until quite recently when it started to fall apart, so this seemed like a more permanent and public tribute.
The focus in Bodies isn’t really on “what’s going to happen” (at least for me) but more of a “what are the characters going to do next?” I’m constantly surprised by what the characters do and say (the end of Shahara’s pages in issue 7 – are you kidding me?!). No one really seems to be who we first thought. (And now they all seem to be Karl. Ha!) Everyone is both good and bad. What say you? :)
I’ve kind of answered this already I hope, but I’m really glad to see you say it. For me one of the few redeeming features of keeping the monthly format is that in a world of box sets and Tivo and everything on demand, just for a brief while I could keep people on the edge of their seats for a whole month then f*ck with their heads again. There’s a guy on Twitter called Alex who I’ve nearly broken through sleepless nights and it’s great to be able to inspire that sense of expectation. In a way I feel sorry for people who only buy the trade ‘cause they’ll miss that old-school sense of expectation.
After reading issue 7, I felt so so bad for Maplewood. Will she be redeemed?
Well of course I can’t tell you that. What is redemption anyway? Will she know she is loved is the bigger question I guess – will any of us? Will I, once the final issue comes out?
If some crazy person still hasn’t picked up Bodies, convince them to now.
The story’s kinda fun and the characters are interesting to be around which is always nice, but I think the best reason to buy it is because it does something only comics can truly do in terms of narrative. And the artwork is some of the best you’ll ever see – seriously, this is four artists at the top of their game.
And if you don’t buy it, terrible things will befall you. Seriously, there’s some genuine hardcore actual magic in those pages and people who read it are by definition more blessed, luckier and infinitely more sexually attractive than people who don’t.
I could seriously ask you a million more questions, but let’s wrap it up with this: can you give me a word or two about the following – Jack the Ripper with tentacles, three of our characters with the fourth’s face, Shahara and a plastic fork (I’ll never forgive you if it doesn’t work).
Jack the Rippers tentacles – possibly the worst death metal funk band ever. Three of our characters??? Did you miss the dog and the baby and the newsguy and all the rest? The plastic fork-which-is-actually-a-spoon/stirrer – all I can say is massive kudos to Meghan for her amazing Hitchcockian povs on those coffee cups and the moment it disappears.
Anything else you’d like to say?
What else is there to say except Know You Are Loved.
You are too, Si.