Disenchanted with the Urban Experience: An Interview with Si Spurrier
As a performance storyteller, I have a soft spot for comics that bring mythology into the present day–such as the urban fantasy webcomic Disenchanted, which focuses on creatures from European folklore living in the 21st century.
I asked Disenchanted author Si Spurrier about the uses of folklore in his work, writing for digital vs. print formats, and what happens to us and our stories in the contemporary urban world.
First things first: what is Disenchanted?
Let’s start with the nuts-and-bolts answer to get that stuff out of the way.
Disenchanted‘s a free weekly webcomic published by Avatar. It runs every Monday over at www.disenchantedcomic.com, alongside an amazing assortment of worldbuilding articles, expansions and (best of all) the brain-breakingly amazing maps of the story’s main locations. After going live each episode remains online forever, so that this grand, trippy project expands every week. Twelve new pages, all free-to-air. But then every six months we collect it up into print form and put it in bookstores too. It sounds crazy, but we’ve discovered that this sales model–I guess it amounts to “try before you buy”–is hugely rewarding.
So there’s that. But on a less prosaic note, Disenchanted is about culture, crime, family and folklore.
It starts with the premise that the sad remnants of all Europe’s forgotten mythical “little people”–the brownies, the goblins, the pixies, the faeries, the kobolds, and so on–-have slowly drawn together into a vast miniaturised city built in an abandoned London Underground station. The human world has no need for them any more, so like all dispossessed and disillusioned societies they centralise, huddling together for comfort. Alas, like all bewildered immigrants in uncaring new homes, comfort isn’t high on the urban agenda.
The story’s focused on the members of a single Fey family. (I’d refer to them as “fairies” if I hadn’t learnt to my cost that that word tends to generate a set of twee expectations Disenchanted deliberately avoids.) They’re a family of outsiders: a minority in a vast (albeit miniature) metropolis made of soda cans and milk cartons, populated by other races. So our story is an ensemble, following the ways in which the different members of this dysfunctional clan respond to the temptations, corruptions and horrors of the city: “Vermintown”. One character spins into organised crime, one becomes radicalised in their faith, one joins the law, one seeks solace in drugs, and so on.
So I guess on a base level Disenchanted is about cities. About the way in which folks and families are liberated, crushed or corrupted when forced through the urban filter.
But by mixing into it a note of fantasy (Vermintown relies on magical glamours, domesticated rats and siphoned-off human energies to function), I get to use the whole thing as a really neat metaphor for faith, culture and tradition, and the ways in which our own violent urban century are eroding them all–-for better or for worse.
Lastly, on a less wanky level, Disenchanted is quite simply about mythical creatures fighting, fucking, pimping, pushing and policing. It’s about love, racial prejudice, religious hatred, community values and supposedly cute beings behaving very, very badly.
It’s The Borrowers meets The Wire. And it’s great.
What gave you the idea for Disenchanted, and why did you decide to situate it in the realm of folklore?
I think a lot of it developed naturally from a set of ruminations and anxieties bubbling in my brain since I moved to London a decade ago. I tend to describe myself as a disappointed realist: I have little faith in religion, superstition or magic, but I’m drawn to the idea of myth and unrealistic weirdness nonetheless. I suspect most writers are.
Anyway, one of the first things you notice, moving to a city, is how the “urban experience” (awful term–sorry) tends to have a polarising effect on faith and culture. The “old ways” are often eroded or torn down altogether in the crucible of integration and homogenisation, and in those small pockets where they remain they become exaggerated, distilled; fundamentalised. That’s a fascinating phenomenon, and even after spending waaay too long thinking about it I still haven’t decided if the gradual loss of superstition is a good thing or a bad thing. Answers on a postcard.
But to explore that question? It felt like a fun twist to play out the whole thing through the eyes of those with the most to gain or lose. That is: the living, breathing personifications of the “old ways” themselves.
Disenchanted, in a very real sense, is a story about the city where magic went to die.
Why release this as a webcomic, rather than in print first or as single issues in digital format?
It’s a model that Avatar has used before with enormous success. There seem to be various reasons for why it works. In some cases it’s simply that people start reading online and decide they’d rather wait for the trade and hold the book in their hands (never underestimate the value of tactility, as the actress said to the bishop). But in a lot of cases we find people are actively reading the free online version, but decide they want to own the book too when it’s available. Possibly that’s out of creator/publisher loyalty, possibly it’s the collector-instinct, mostly I believe it’s just about the inherent importance of artefacts. We like our entertainment-sources to say as much about us as we take from them, and you can’t prominently display your favourite webcomic on a bookshelf.
Anyway, for whatever reason: it works. In Disenchanted‘s case we’ve capitalised further by turning it into a truly unique worldbuilding experience. We’re forever adding articles and colour to the wiki on the core website, and those astonishing maps I mentioned before really are something else.
How is writing a webcomic script different from writing a script for a print comic?
The script itself is similar; it’s the suite of surrounding considerations which are subtly different. A huge part of writing comics is concerned with the regulation and control of pacing, and writers quickly come to intuit the use of those tools when working in a print format. I could waffle endlessly here about fiddly technicalities which won’t interest or impress, but what it comes to is the manipulation of the reader’s brain through the medium of their eyes via the dissemination of pictorial and textual information. More-information-per-story-unit slows the pace, less-information-per-story-unit speeds the pace (and “information”, of course, includes illustrative detail just as much as plot or dialogue).
On a printed page the human eye has certain freedoms. For instance: the ability to skip from the top left of page 1 to the bottom right of page 2. It’s cheating, but you’d be amazed how many people sneakily “check ahead” if something catches their eye. This is why a lot of big “splash” moments in print comics will tend to be designed so they fall on odd-numbered pages, after the turn. In print, the mechanical need to turn the page is really the only truly absolute control you have over the reader’s capacity for surprise.
In digital comics things become a lot more free (and hence more complicated). With something like Disenchanted we chose to construct the webcomic using landscape-oriented pages to suit the screen format. These will eventually be stacked, one on another, to form portrait-oriented pages in the print version. So suddenly we’ve got the means to impose surprises, scene-changes, chapter-breaks and big dramatic moments in ways which would technically be halfway down a traditional print page. Big difference.
…and all of that’s not even to touch on the realities of presenting weekly “episodes” of far shorter length than the usual monthly issues. That requires a whole different set of instincts about how best to parcel-out plot, how to encourage readers to come back week-in, week-out, etc. I’m lucky in that I came to comics through 2000AD, where the weekly episodic shortform strip was the norm, so I like to think I have the versatility to do both.
I guess the bottom line is that there are small but potentially profound differences in how you regulate the narrative in these various forms, but they’re ultimately all the same in that they rely on an intuitive feel for how best to compartmentalise units of story and flow.
Disenchanted takes place in an abandoned Tube station. Will we be seeing more of these lost/forgotten spaces from the human world in the story?
In the physical sense? Yes, one or two. Though–at the risk of sounding pretentious–I’m more concerned with the “forgotten spaces” which occupy the parts of the human mind which were once such fertile ground for myth.
How did you allocate each race’s powers in Disenchanted? In particular, I’m curious about the boggarts being able to sense when someone is lying and the leprechauns having the ability to alter reality through creating and changing stories.
Ha… equal parts folkloric research and febrile invention. I decided to normalise each of the races’ forms of magic under that wonderful homonymic term “glamour”–or “Glams” in the streetslang. In many cases it was just about associating each ethnic group’s specialities with something culled from legend. Boggarts, for instance, are usually considered malevolent, and associated with the creation of fear (from “boggart” we get “bogeyman”). Hence it felt right that the Boggart population would be this hated, ghettoised group, regarded as monstrous because of its singular antipathy towards the “vastfolk” (humans!) whom the other races abstractly idolise. Their glamours, therefore, operate through the control of pure fear. In the example you mention the Boggart was able to spot a lie a mile off because the liar was frightened.
In a similar way each of the races has its defining culture which informs how it uses glamours. The goblins are all about acquisition and measurable social status; the pixies are about growth, fertility and harvest; fey glamours revolve around art and expression; leprechauns are consummate raconteurs (and bullshitters), and so on.
This is exactly the sort of world-building colour which it’s so delightful to construct. It should never get in the way of the story, nor be a required part of the enjoyment of the comic, but as a bonus it’s great fun. It’s precisely why we set up the Vermintown Regular— a set of online wiki articles–to account for all this detail.
When you talked about Disenchanted during the Avatar panel, you mentioned “the existential problem that is the city”; the city also seems to represent a place of crisis in work like Crossed: Wish You Were Here, where the extreme violence committed by the Crossed is very much associated with the city. What is it about cities, or the concept of the city, that you find existentially problematic?
(Oops! Think I probably covered this above – sorry!)
I’d add simply a half-formed nugget of pseudotheory which I keep gnawing on in my spare time. It’s uncharacteristically frilly of me, so forgive the work-in-progress Armchair Expertness of it all. It’s this:
The older I get the more convinced I become that religion was the first technology, efficiently enabling humanity to transition from tribalism to globalism. Like all technologies its very success should have resulted in its own redundancy, whereupon we all cheerfully intuit a new conceptual technology which will allow us to transition from what we are now to… well. Whatever’s next. I have theories about what that New Tech might be, but that’s not really relevant right now.
The problem is that religion (which is frankly no more than the somewhat varnished Power Of Stories disguised as the Power Of Fact) hasn’t been deployed evenly and equally. Hence we find ourselves with huge slivers of the planet ready to transition onwards, while other groups maintain religion was the ultimate goal all along.
My theory is simply that the modern Urban Experience is what happens when these two extremes of disparity–neoculture vs. anteculture–attempt to equalise.
Expanding on that, between Disenchanted, Six-Gun Gorilla, Crossed: Wish You Were Here, and your Judge Dredd stories, there seems to be a theme of dystopia/the world gone wrong running through your work. What is it about that concept that appeals to you as a writer?
Ha. I think I probably inadvertently answered that above too, one way or another.
Simply put: stories are about change. It follows that some of the most uplifting stories start from a position of exaggerated dystopia (real, social, economic or moral) and endeavour to present a Change For The Better.
The leprechauns’ power in Disenchanted poses interesting questions about the power and effects of narrative. What role does the idea of the power of stories play in your work?
Oooof, I’ve touched on this above too much already. I could (and do) literally talk for hours about what I think stories really are, but… this isn’t the place for that. At the risk of sounding exceedingly pompous everything is story, and story is everything. I say that not to glorify or mythologise the role of the writer – it’s a privilege to be able to Make Shit Up for a living without trying to characterise it as some dark and dangerous power – but because it’s true. I believe “story” is literally the filter through which the human brain is able to make sense of an uncooperative reality.
The one neat certainty I can offer is that all stories must have endings if they’re going to have any value at all. You can cheat that by constructing an infinite series of modular stories-and-sequels, but the whole notion of the “endless ongoing story” is – I think – valueless at best and parasitically grotesque at worst.
And finally, who are your writing influences – in comics and otherwise?
Ah, almost precisely who you’d expect, I think. I’m extremely fortunate in that I can name both Garth Ennis and Warren Ellis as my friends and mentors, which may sound like an odd mix. They sit at almost diametrically opposite ends of so many different spectra – style, approach, preoccupation, comportment, engagement – and yet both draw similar sourcelines of gratitude, respect, inspiration and influence from the same man.
That’s Alan Moore, of course–who remains the most intuitively brilliant teller of stories I’ve ever had the singular privilege of meeting. And more importantly, the most inspirational agent of exploration I’ve ever felt operating upon my desire to Do New Stuff. He leads not by example but by challenge.
Outside of comics? Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird remains the most devastatingly perfect example of narrative incision and emotion united, I have more than a soft spot for the often cruel observational purpleness of Dickens, and if you’re after an unsung queen of atmosphere it’s Susan Hill every time. Oh, and I’ve just worked my way through the complete Bertie and Jeeves stories by PG Wodehouse, which are never less than an unalloyed delight.