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Fairies Wear Steel-Toed Boots: Simon Spurrier’s “DISENCHANTED”

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You may not know it yet, but Simon Spurrier is your new favorite writer. I didn’t know it either, see. He took me by surprise. Years ago I stumbled upon some issues of a crazy comic series called GUTSVILLE that actually involved a civilization in the belly of a whale. It was the craziest and most amazing thing, but it was never finished. Then I found the deliciously wicked EXTERMINATION by Boom! Studios, and I thought its amazing dialogue and British witticisms seemed familiar, but I didn’t make the connection until I adored X-MEN: LEGACY, CROSSED: WISH YOU WERE HERE, and now the incredibly wacky webcomic DISENCHANTED, which is finally seeing its first print collection this week. In short: they are all written by Spurrier (along with novels and many other things). In the following interview, he has much to say (eloquently!) on the subject of fairy tales, the fey, legends, and mythology, and how DISENCHANTED not only breaks them all down but beats them merrily into the ground with a literary baseball bat.

Famous Monsters. Although “warped fairy tales” are a trope oft explored in comics, hardly anyone has taken the route of tackling actual fairies in favor of reinterpreting typical schlock like Cinderella and Snow White. Why do you think that is? Is it because actual fairies have a thread of paganism in them that isn’t as easy to “deconstruct” as a Disney fable?

Simon Spurrier. Actually, I’d guess it’s almost the exact opposite. There are so many layers of narrative history and tradition heaped upon the diminutive little bastards that—all else being equal—writers with de-constructivism in mind wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation if they tried. There’s so much sex, blood, distorted animism, and repackaged superstition that’s implied by the simple word “fairy” and its less daffy-sounding etymological ancestors—faerie, fae, and so on—that it really should be an unputdownable fountain of inspiration. And yet a lot of writers go to extraordinary lengths to avoid using the “f” word. My guess is that the main problem revolves around the term “fairy”, these days connoting something very different: a suite of associations starting with glittery, cute, sweet, wish-granting, flowers, etc., and ending with some deeply ingrained casual homophobia.

As mythological beings, fairies have been sanitized. They’ve been appropriated by cutesy Victorian tastes, then relentlessly reshaped and reimagined by the more corporate parts of the human psyche, until nowadays your basic archetypical fairy is probably to be found on a pink-toned shelf at Toys R Us, rather than enacting natural fertility-rites in a space-and-time-confounding glade at the heart of an unsettling forest. Fairies have become twee. A bit crap, in other words. So you can appreciate why so many writers steer clear, or at least look to sidestep, the unfortunate frilly side of the modern envisaging and focus on the more nebulous business of hidden realms: Arthurian high-fantasy and so forth, tying themselves in linguistic knots to avoid saying “fairy”.

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Luckily for me, one of the central ideas I’m exploring in DISENCHANTED is about the relationship between modern society and remembered folklore—the way that human religions, superstitions and cultures erode or distort according to the ways in which people live, particularly when it comes to cities—so it made perfect sense to attack the subject in a really blunt way. DISENCHANTED is basically about creatures who are agonizingly mired in sentimentality, told in the most unsentimental way possible.

FM. As big of an a-hole as he can be, I sort of got the notion that Fig is the story’s “protagonist”—he’s progressive, rebellious, good looking, and snarky. He also gets more likeable as the characters around him devolve into murderers and political pawns. Who do you see as the protagonist, or is this more of an ensemble piece for you? Is there anyone pivotal that you have yet to introduce?

SS. To my mind it’s very much an evenly-balanced ensemble. You’re right in that Fig is, arguably, the protagonist of certain parts of the story, often purely because he brings not only the naivety of youth, which makes such a useful entry-point to a new world, but is rebellious and independent-minded enough to be compelling. On the other hand—as you’ve noted—he can also be a horrible little sh–. Contrary bastard that I am, I don’t like to make it too easy for readers to get comfortable with their favourite characters.

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In fact, there are stages of the story wherein each of the various family members take that “central” role—whatever that really means—to drive the plot. Tael has the same naivety as Fig with none of the arsehole-attitude, but a lot more credulity; Sal is an idealist trying to make the best of it; Tibitha is a disillusioned leader who doesn’t believe her own lessons anymore, and Stote is… well. Stote’s a very complicated fellow. The plot of DISENCHANTED is so elaborately interwoven—I have multi-colored narrative charts here fit to smite an editor’s sanity—that there shouldn’t ever be a point in which all the characters aren’t embroiled in ongoing and proactive events, so it’s really just a case of figuring out which one is having the most dramatic impact at any one time. Ideally, readers will variously identify with one character slightly more than the others. But frankly, you could take the macro position that DISENCHANTED is the story of the family rather than of any one or other of its members.

As for other characters not yet introduced, there are a couple still to appear. More notably, there are a couple of seemingly minor roles which are going to become very pivotal over the next few arcs.

FM. DISENCHANTED has a lot in common with books like PREACHER, HELLBLAZER, MERCY SPARX, and ANGEL SANCTUARY in that it’s terribly attractive for storytellers to take a “sacred” religious notion and drag it through the mud. Comics writers do it a lot with superheroes, too. Why do you think this is such an effective narrative tool?

SS. Good question. I’d offer that it’s a natural part of the narrative instinct. I think people in general, and writers in particular, have a believability threshold when it comes to goodness, moral decency, or sacredness: we simply struggle to feel interested-in, related-to, or inspired-by characters or concepts which are too bloody perfect. We’re so inherently aware of our own capacity to be flawed that we’re incapable of sustaining belief in anything more than a couple of notches higher up the scale. It follows that storytellers are forever looking for new angles, new perspectives, and new challenges to deploy against any cultural paragon of virtue, be it a god, a superman, or a folkloric tradition. In as much as most writers would probably agree a good piece of work should have some sort of socially-valuable meaning—the moral at the end of the story—I guess you could look at the practice of writing as “testing moral archetypes to destruction”.

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In the case of DISENCHANTED, there’s that extra layer of meta importance, too. I’m of the opinion most of human experience can be described as an expression of the technology that is The Story. When your characters and their world are quite literally part of that technology because they’re a result of folklore itself, you can have some fun with the overarching themes of the piece.

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