Four years, 1152 pages. CROSSED: WISH YOU WERE HERE ends today.
Almost exactly four years ago I was asked to write a webcomic.
It would take place in a shared universe whose first iteration – created by one of my comicbook heroes and, nowadays, a good friend – was renowned at least as much for its unflinchingly brutal violence as for its convincingly human approach to horror, or indeed its sheer award-winning quality. It had been followed by a couple of spinoff miniseries by other writers – same world, different characters – which plumbed the depths of acceptability and transgression even deeper. It became a familiar refrain at conventions to hear fans praising the franchise as “the sickest thing in comics.”
That that is the primary takeaway so many readers have – the principal point of gratification – has always made me uncomfortable. (Though I concede there’s something abstractly pure about it. Why shouldn’t that be okay?)
I’ve since had long and in-depth conversations with readers and creators alike about the possibility of visceral horror having value, in whatever flimsy way we might choose to define that. Readers spoke about that first series with an almost awestruck sense of dissonance. The writer – Garth Ennis, of course – had not only constructed his story around a conceit which permitted almost infinite levels of gore and depravity, but also plumbed a lot of very deep – but very uncomfortable – human truths. The controlling idea of the series, Crossed, (to treat it with slightly unfair reductionism) is this: “imagine a world where sadism is highly contagious.”
That’s either an excuse to cover pages in red ink or an exquisitely clever staining-agent to make visible a huge amount of evolutionary, cultural and social darkness. Or both.
Crossed is the sort of franchise which will simply never appeal to everyone. I’ve heard Garth speaking about it with his characteristic articulacy when challenged about its extreme nature. He’ll often make the point that if you really think the scenes depicted in Crossed are “sick” then you’re not watching the news, because there’s worse going on in the real world every single day. At its core the substrate of Crossed is, simply “there’s nothing worse than what people do to people.”
On other occasions I’ve seen Garth simply shrug and say, “not everyone has to like it.”
So yeah, four years ago they asked me to write a webcomic set in this world. I was, you’ll appreciate, iffy. I was relatively new to American comics, fighting to divine my own path towards – well… I hadn’t worked out towards what just yet – and receiving conflicting advice about it.
(One early takeaway from this: if someone tries to tell you the only valid route to the top is the one they took, they’re a) wrong, b) self-aggrandizing and c) not at the top).
Undertaking a project that would last at least three years, which (I knew before I’d begun) would instantly turn-off whole sections of the readership before a word was even written, ticked an awful lot of ohshit boxes.
But I’m sure of it: Garth’s series had value. Yes, it also had genuine brutality, sexual violence and even flourishes of his signature black humour. But the verisimilitude with which Garth always endows his characters – for my money – rendered moot any accusation of gratuitousness. It was about them, not their world.
Here, for the first time I could remember, was a comic whose depictions of The Truly Awful were not motivated solely by a desire to shock or offend, nor as some perverse attempt to make – yes – the sickest thing in comics. (Which, to be fair, I think some subsequent Crossed arcs, by other creative teams, have been.)
Garth’s serial taught me that there can be value in using fictional conceits – like the wretched, post-apoclyptic world that Crossed quickly engendered – to highlight the horrificness of those things which exist in our own lives. Things which we should be aware of, afraid of, and diligent about despising. Rape, intimidation, abuse, torture: a million and one forms of sadistic tribal powertrip which bubbles below the surface of our collective DNA.
Like he said: switch on the news.
In the end I said okay for those reasons alone. It felt like a make-or-break challenge. And since I could distil-down my aims in a fairly simple way – find some value in speculative violent horror – a series of trickledown decisions were basically made without thought.
For instance, I could only treat this abhorrent reality with any sense of truth (which, I hope, is another shield against gratuitousness) by imagining how it would feel to exist within it. I took that conclusion quite literally, and at the start of the story the central character is – unapologetically and manifestly – a version of myself. He’s sitting in a coffee-shop and writing comics when the world changes so radically. The same coffee-shop, in fact, where I was sitting to write that scene.
Other solutions automatically arose – or were at least suggested – by the form and function of the piece. It was to run for 2 years in 6-page chunks, for instance, free online, so I knew I’d struggle to maintain the readers’ interest without some form of episodic, elegiac conceit. Hence: a diary. Another window onto truth (or at least one version of it).
Equally, those moments of grotesque brutality in Garth’s serial – which he carefully deployed just once near the start, then with diminishing regularity and viscerality throughout the remainder – would have to be differently organised in a longform series. I decided I’d start with a spectacle both transgressive and perversely funny, to seize attention and broadcast the intent: here is a story where the way you respond is as important as what you see. That’s why there’s a man doing something unpleasant to a dolphin on Page 2.
But then acts of violence would need to be strung out with great care afterwards. A rare reminder, now and then, of how vicious this world could be. And the rest of the time? Tension. Suspense. The ticking clock on the mantel. Things which, I think, have come to typify the resultant series, and which I find far more interesting than those awful – necessary – reminders of chaotic violence.
Lastly, I wanted to write about a society. About ambition and usefulness, and what it feels like to be someone supposedly “creative” when there’s nobody left to validate you. I wanted to be cruel to this useless, lucky, venal little cipher of myself who I’d let loose into the story (and who, after all, brought it all on himself by agreeing to write the gig in the first place. Wheels within meta-wheels). It fit with the languid pace and the Lord of the Flies mentality to make the whole thing about community – a doomed group of survivors trying to get by; pretending to have hope. An island in a sea of horror. Hence: literally.
An island off the coast of Scotland because – a pub conversation staple – where would you go in a zombie apocalypse?
There. That’s where I’d go.
So I did.
And four years later Crossed: Wish You Were Here ends today. 1152 pages. It’s been online – for free – the whole time, and will stay there after it’s done. It’s gone in some fairly extraordinary directions, though it’s ended how it was always meant to and the only way it could. I like to think the central character has grown less and less like me as time has passed (or at least, as we’ve found out more about him). In the end his scheming transgressions – in my opinion – far outweigh the simpler, redder, more childlike deviancy of the bogeymen inhabiting his world, and I like to think that in these closing chapters his revelations and reactions about all that have dialled-up whatever value (that difficult word again) the series has held. In the penultimate episode (no spoilers) something happened to him which I’ve planned – in exactly this form – since the beginning. It seems like a little thing, perhaps, when surrounded by such big moments of violence and drama, but it’s also the most exquisitely apposite beat I could apply to the end of his story. The punishment fits the crime, as they say.
I’m proud of the work, at the end of it all. Complicatedly so. As predicted there are plenty of readers for whom that ineffable “value” will never outweigh the grotesquery and discomfort of the journey. Many can’t get past the first few episodes, some of my loved ones among them (mercifully, I sometimes think). Accusations of gratuitousness have arisen. I like to think I can articulate my counterargument in every case, though I’ve aborted more attempts to do so than I’ve published. “Not everyone has to like it” - thanks Garth. And yes, there are still those who’ll slap me on the back and proudly accuse me, at conventions, of writing the sickest thing in comics. I’ve become better at just saying thanks.
But there have also been awards. And letters. And long conversations. And reluctant advocates. And people who say I normally hate horror, but—
“But.” That’s always good.
I’m proud of the work, but.
I’m ashamed of the work, but.
It has value, but.
In the end it’s a story. It is what it is. I don’t get to editorialise or re-contextualise once it’s done. I wish I hadn’t opened with dolphin-violation. I wish I’d foreshadowed some things a bit better. I wish I’d been more stringent about avoiding anything with a whiff of titillation. I wish I’d researched the phonetics Scottish language sooner.
I wish I could keep writing it. I’m glad it’s done.
The first chapter is Here.
The last chapter is Here.
It’s all in book form too. Go talk to your LCS.