1. As a fan and a GateCrasher, we pride ourselves on asking thoughtful questions, so here’s a question that we ask everyone as we consider it to be a crucial one in understanding the people we interview: what is your favorite sandwich?
Believe it or not, I live a few miles along the coast from the Sandwich. The town. As in, the Earl Of Sandwich. As in, the 16th-century aristocrat with a penchant for beef and bread, after whom all our modern filled baps, burgers, buns, and bagels are supposedly named.
See how effortlessly I crush your kooky question with the firm, thrusting jackhammer of HISTORY? I’m here to upsell my elaborately researched period horror comic, damn you, and I will not be diverted.
(Sandwich is a lovely little coastal town, for what it’s worth, with barely any monsters or ghosts or undead cowboys at all. Quintessentially Olde English, its charms are marred only slightly by a solid wall of golf courses enclosing it like an over-privileged castle wall, and an uncomfortably high quotient of refugee-hating gammony Brexiteers. Ironically, in Sandwich there are very few good places that sell, y’know, sandwiches.)
I am fond of a Reuben.
2. Was there anything about the Gold Rush that made you think that it felt uniquely American?
I mean… I should probably point out that the Yukon rush — this mind-shattering stampede of several hundred thousand people at the ass-end of the 19th century, who endured the most extraordinary horror and hardship on their way to disappointment and despair among the frozen placer-claims along the Klondike, around which The Rush is based — happened almost entirely within the borders of Canada.
So… there’s that.
Mind you, the profound distinctions between life and law on either side of the border in that period play a major role in our story. The majority of stampeders flowed up from the US West Coast, after all, stirred by rumors of easy wealth, deliberately inflated by travel agencies and outfit suppliers in Seattle. And were then preyed upon mercilessly by the conmen, gangsters, and murderers who flocked to the lawless Alaskan port cities on the US side of the border.
I hesitate to say that the instinct to just drop everything – to turn your back on life, love and legacy and go racing off in pursuit of a dream of gold – is an exclusively American phenomenon. Prospectors came to the Yukon from all over the world, after all. But I suspect there is something fundamentally frontier-y about it. Like a continent-sized version of the notion that fortune favors those who reach out and take what they want. Which, rightly or wrongly, feels like a very 21st Century American point of view.
This, needless to say, is fertile ground for introducing supernatural stuff. I think “one man versus the untamed wild” is a dyed-in part of the American national character, be it mythical or otherwise. It’s just that — in our story? The untamed wild bites back.
The tragedy, or maybe the point, is that pretty much none of those hundreds of thousands of people who went racing off to the Yukon came home better off than they were before. Plenty were broken by it. Many never came home at all.
The Rush explores all these things through a slightly distorted lens. Obsession, avarice, ambition, want… they’re all interrogated then subordinated behind the far simpler, purer motives of our central character. Her son has gone missing among the frozen goldfields. She will stop at nothing to find him.
3. Out of your bibliography, was there any comic that served as a learning curve to you where you learned something new about yourself that you wanted to try with The Rush?
Oh god, all of them! The best work I’ve ever done is always “the next gig”, and the worst work I’ve ever done is always “the most recent gig”. Nothing helps the autodidact grow quite like a festeringly toxic sense of self-criticism. Every project is a stepping stone to the next.
There are bits and bobs of obvious breadcrumbing if you’re looking. I developed a lot of meta-crit about Westerns and the inadequacy of genre theory when I wrote Six-Gun Gorilla… I learned to love the idea of an elaborately developed world which one then ignores in favor of a small human story in The Spire and Coda. I boned-up on the nature of mythology and the pacing of good horror for Hellblazer and The Dreaming, etc etc etc.
Ultimately I’m not sure it’s helpful – or even possible – to see creative projects like steps on a ladder or destinations on a traintrack. It’s simply not that linear. In this case, I happened upon a book of old photos from the Yukon Rush in a charity store and my curiosity was piqued.
Storytellers just go where the best story leads, I think, and hope their skills are up to doing it justice. (Having a world-class team of artists, colorists and letterers is also extremely handy.)
4. With a historical event like the Gold Rush, was there any research that you did that stick with you even when you weren’t writing the story?
As I mentioned just now, the impetus of my obsession with this time and place came from the chance discovery of a dusty old book in a charity shop — a portfolio edition of the photographs of E.A.Hegg. It’s thanks in no small part to him that so many of the astonishing, grueling but utterly human episodes from the Klondike rush are so beautifully preserved and documented. That’s what makes the last great stampede of the modern era such a fertile place to tell stories: it’s unfathomably different from our own lives, but also extensively documented. We’re dealing with a world of 120 years ago, in the grip of moral codes and material manias which make it feel quite alien to us today. And yet the committed researcher – or interested geek – can delve into a treasure trove of first-hand testimonies and amazing photographs. That’s a seductive mix. The unfamiliar and the detailed; the relevant and the exotic.
Many of the episodes I encountered in my research could easily build epic stories of their own (I’ve used them as context and color around which to build my supernatural tale.) Off the top of my head…? Hundreds of dead horses beneath the snow of the white horse pass… thousands of men inching up the sheer slope of the Chilkoot Pass, so tightly packed that if they stepped off the path for a rest it would be hours before they could get back underway… the gangster Soapy Smith being gunned down on the pier in Skaguay… the mounties setting up Maxim Guns at the top of the mountain passes to dissuade ill-equipped prospectors from trying to reach the Klondike… those first bedraggled miners arriving in Dawson expecting to find gold littering the ground, only to discover instead they’d have to melt every shovelful of permafrozen dirt one inch at a time just to reach bedrock, and the almost-certain lack of gold that awaited… I could go on.
Ultimately I’ve spun my story around the margins of this extraordinary real-life human drama.
The biggest takeaway one finds when one researches stampedes and boomtown rhythms form part of the central thematic thrust of The Rush: gold never sleeps in the hand that dug it.
Of all the men who made it, who became insanely wealthy at the turn of a pickaxe? Almost all of them died in penury, poverty, or disgrace. They may have come for gold. What they found was emptiness.
This, as I said above, is very fertile ground for horror.
5. When it comes to writing stories like The Rush, what aspect of the writing process is the most intimidating? Conversely, what aspect of the writing process is the easiest for you?
Historical accuracy is very important with a book like this. Readers don’t have to be authorities to be able to smell a faker. For me, language is especially important. I’ve gone to quite extraordinary lengths to give our characters a sense of verisimilitude whenever they speak, including a real division in the vocabulary of classes and backgrounds.
It’s really just an expression of the same thing I’ve said about past projects when people ask about world-building. The real trick is not to create a world that feels real. The trick is to depict a world that feels functional then ignore it in favor of the shit that really matters: character, theme, drama. Giant spiders. Etc.
6. With a comic like The Rush, what “aesthetic” were you and your collaborators going for with the storytelling?
I think that’s probably a question for Nate and Duke more than for me. (A lesson it’s taken me a long time to learn: a surprising amount of being a halfway-decent comics writer is knowing when to voice an aesthetic opinion and when to STFU because, by definition, your artists are better at this shit than you are).
The photos I mentioned before by E.A.Hegg will necessarily be a major part of the book’s look, and to be sure I spent many many hours collating contemporary photographs as reference for Nate. But as soon as we drift away from the closely referential locations in our tale – Skaguay, Dawson, etc – towards the town at the center of our tale, Brokehoof, and the eerie wilderness around it, that’s when Nate and Duke come into their ingenious own.
Beautiful grubbiness is the overly reductive term I would use for what they’ve come up with.
7. When it comes to determining the “aesthetic” of a comic book, what aspect of the collaborative process do you love the most?
Receiving those first tentative sketches from the artist is an eternally golden moment. Getting your first glimpse at a character you’ve come to know on an entirely mental level. Immediately forgetting how you thought they’d look because it’s been instantly eclipsed by this, their true skin, in pencil or pen or pixel. It’s wild alchemy.
8. For you, what is it about the horror genre that you find enticing?
Oh, too many things to mention in brief. I could waffle endlessly about the purity of using comics for horror because both the genre and the medium are ultimately defined by manipulation of pace and timing. (In comics we don’t have the lazy luxury of jumpscares and “boo” moments, so we have to be very confident in how we build up suspense and mystery. We’re far more in the business of Unsettling than we are in the business of Scaring, if you want to get precise about it.)
I think somewhere in the muddle of natural inclinations and formalist pomposity there’s probably a simpler answer: I grew up reading 1990’s Vertigo comics, and “horror” was usually just a misnomer that meant “thoughtful and weird”. Which, y’know. Is very much my vibe.
Is The Rush more precisely a horror, or a Western, or a period drama, or a conspiracy thriller…? Who the fuck knows? Who the fuck cares? Genre labels are unfit for purpose – none of them tell us anything useful about the story. It’s a story about a time and a place and a woman with purpose.
I’m interested in legends and folklore and stories, and the darkness in the hearts of humans, and the purity and beauty that can emerge – suddenly and unexpectedly – against that backdrop.
I also like scary motherfuckers with supernatural guns who ride on giant spiders. In this, I am not nearly as complicated as I affect to be.
9. What is it about the Western that you feel would make a good horror story?
It’s just a perfectly intense fusion of reality and mythology, isn’t it? It’s like an elegant crystallization of the idea that there is no such thing as objective history; just stories that exaggerate or downplay whichever parts they choose. Westerns are an entire genre of tall tales, masquerading as period pieces. One senses the historical accuracy lurking behind it — one even cautiously permits oneself to nod at the illusion of verisimilitude — but deep down we all know this was far more a breeding ground for legends and lies than it ever was a long-lasting and functioning place or time. Monsters, myths, superstitions, and folklore sit extremely comfortably within such shifting syncretic sands.
What makes the West so compelling – to me – is that one can lean heavily into the thematic mainstays that make the genre so delicious (if I had to distill it… It’s the tragedy of a world whose primary industry involves replacing itself with something newer, more lawful and less fantastical)… and then juxtapose them with intricate stories of human emotion.
Monsters, gold, wealth, epochs endings, cultures clashing, the land itself rebelling against exploitative forces… these are all huge, heavy, epic notions that lie behind the toilet-door of The Rush. And yet we deliberately shine our spotlight on the one character in our drama who does not give a single loose shit for any of it, because she is utterly and completely dedicated to finding her lost son.
10. On your website, you mentioned the protagonist’s love for her child and how for you, a recent father, it was a story that you couldn’t resist not telling. Did you feel a sense of responsibility in wanting to write this story?
Yeah, definitely. Or, more accurately, a sense of responsibility in wanting to write it well.
That’s something else that writers have to learn over the course of their inevitably topsy-turvy careers, I think. The notion that, ultimately, when you’re alone and unable to sleep in the middle of the night, and you find yourself trying to measure your worth – I’m sure it’s not just me, right? – well, it doesn’t matter how much you got paid or which iconic characters you got to play with, it doesn’t matter if you topped the sales charts or won awards, it doesn’t matter if your peers talk down to you or simper at every word you say. What matters is whether you believed what you wrote, and whether you changed anyone’s life along the way. Including your own.
Success and meaning are the same thing, in a particular light.
11. With regards to the previous question, was there anything else about the Gold Rush that felt intensely personal to you?
Not to labor the above point, there’s a painful but important message wrapped up in the common experience of the prospectors who hit paydirt. All these guys who became unthinkably rich overnight – the Bonanza Kings. And yet they all, almost to a man, spent their riches just as quickly as they made them. A lot of them made and lost fortunes several times over.
It’s as if we’re hardwired to Want — to pursue the accumulation of stuff — but we’re actually really fucking bad at having. We expect wealth to make us happy, but of course it doesn’t. We expect the achievement of goals to satisfy us, but of course we simply become aware of new goals. The problem with running towards the horizon is that the fucking thing just keeps moving.
And yet — and yet — and yet — ALL those men (it’s always men, of course), who’d briefly tasted princely wealth then lost it, when asked about it later in life, remembered their time in the Yukon with fondness. “I wouldn’t have changed a thing.” As if they’d survived a war. As if they’d struggled and fought side-by-side against some unspeakable demon. As if – and here’s the point – the experience, and how it changed them, was far more important than the goal that led them to it in the first place.
Storytellers have a plotty shorthand when they’re working on characters. Characters should have A Thing They Think They Want, in whose pursuit they discover The Thing They Didn’t Know They Needed. That’s reductive and formulaic, but you’d be amazed how often it’s true.
And… it’s the story of the goldrush. And – to come back to your question – as I sit here being all maudlin and staring at my baby daughter while she sleeps – I suppose it’s the story of my past few years of life too.
12. And before we conclude this interview, I have one pressing question that I think is important to ask as a GateCrasher as we seek answers from the creators who are pushing the boundaries of storytelling: if you had a Rube Goldberg machine, what would you do?
Dirty martini maker.
The RUSH by Si Spurrier, Nathan Gooden, Addison Duke, Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou and Tim Daniel, from Vault Comics releases October 27th.