Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance. This week, it’s Cry Havoc #3. Written by Simon Spurrier (X-Men: Legacy, The Spire) with art by Ryan Kelly (Local, Survivors’ Club) and colorists Nick Filardi (Powers, Howling Commandos Of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Matthew Wilson (The Mighty Thor, The Wicked + The Divine) and Lee Loughridge (Black Canary, Doctor Fate), this issue showcases the bold structural and design choices that characterize the title. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
Simon Spurrier is a writer who thinks outside the box. Breaking into the industry with strange, experimental stories for 2000 AD, he made a name for himself in the United States with his books at Marvel Comics, specifically his remarkable runs on X-Men: Legacy and X-Force, which did fascinating work exploring the inner workings of some of the publisher’s most complicated characters. His first major work for a U.S. publisher was with the Image Comics series Gutsville, a never-completed collaboration with artist Frazer Irving about a group of people living inside the belly of a whale, and almost a decade later, Spurrier returns to Image with Cry Havoc, a fascinating horror/war story rooted in monster mythology.
“This is not the tale of a lesbian werewolf who goes to war. Except it kind of is.” This description of Cry Havoc used in the promotional material for the first issue simplifies the book to one attention-grabbing hook, but it also hints that the story goes much deeper than that reductive title. Yes, Louise Canton is a lesbian, but that’s hardly the defining aspect of her character, and Spurrier approaches Louise’s sexuality with total nonchalance. Louise also transforms into a hound-like monster, but she’s not technically a werewolf; she’s a barghest, a creature from English folklore that typically takes the form of a large shaggy dog. And yes, Louise goes to war, but that’s just one aspect of a narrative that devotes equal time to her experience before and after her time as a private security contractor in Afghanistan.
The content of Cry Havoc is much more layered and specific than that broad initial description suggests, and readers pulled in by that hook may be surprised to discover the ambition and sophistication in these pages. The most intriguing aspect of the series is its structure, with Spurrier and artist Ryan Kelly breaking the story up into three separate periods of Louise’s life that are presented concurrently. Each thread has a different colorist and a different governing page layout, giving each its own distinct tone and pace that fits the shifts in the narrative.
Nick Filardi colors the earliest time period with a palette dominated by blue, giving those pages a chillier atmosphere while emphasizing how Louise’s monstrous side is taking over by coloring her world with the hue that characterizes the barghest. For the first scene set during this period in Cry Havoc #3, Filardi highlights the tension between Louise and her frustrated girlfriend, Sam, by incorporating more warm shades for contrast, and once Sam walks out of Louise’s life, the blue takes over once again.
For this time period, Spurrier and Kelly use an eight-panel grid of two columns and four rows, allowing them to condense more information on the page at the start of Louise’s story. While the creators don’t strictly adhere to these set layouts at all times, they constantly return to each period’s underlying structure to reinforce the pacing as well as other subliminal visual elements. In the case of the eight-panel grid for the earliest period, the basic layout creates the impression of the bars of a cage, which is fitting when the narrative deals so heavily with Louise feeling like a prisoner within herself.
Cages are an important theme in this book, particularly in the latest time period where a pregnant Louise is in the custody of the woman she’s tracking down earlier in Afghanistan, which is laid out with four widescreen panels that create a much more open feel despite Louise’s captivity. There’s a sense of freedom in the structure that is appropriate for Lynn Odell’s mission of creating a “sanctuary for stories,” a home for all people who have found themselves living as beings rooted in myth.
Red is the dominant color of Lee Loughridge’s palette for this thread, but he incorporates a severe yellow in this week’s issue to heighten the intensity as Lynn explains her goals to Louise. His work is the harshest of all the colorists, with a severe contrast created by his minimally rendered application of specific colors for the foreground and background. It’s a very aggressive palette that reflects the attitude of the book’s primary antagonist, who is in control at this point in the narrative.
The middle time period, laid out on a six-panel grid, is the most compelling, primarily because it’s more ensemble-driven than the other two, but also because Matthew Wilson’s coloring is so textured and evocative. While the first issue established a sandy amber as the dominant color for Louise’s time in Afghanistan, the palette in this week’s issue is far more varied, a fitting change as the story explores the nuances of the conflict unfolding in the Middle Eastern country. This is highlighted during the conversation between Louise and her colleague, Adze, who clarifies some of Louise’s misconceptions about the Taliban and the sacrifices the Afghani people have to make to survive.
As Louise and Adze watch Taliban members abuse an opium poppy farmer and his daughter, Wilson uses gentle pinks and purples to subtly reinforce Adze’s ultimate claim that the Taliban doesn’t represent the chaos Louise believes it does. The coloring creates a calm environment for this conversation, and when something truly primal and chaotic does occur, Wilson’s coloring adjusts to heighten the impact. That moment arrives when Adze reveals the monstrous curse of his name, which is also the name of a vampiric spirit from Ewe folklore that takes the shape of a swarm of fireflies (see: this issue’s cover). The image of Adze attacking the aforementioned Taliban members punctures the blue night with the sharp neon green of the swarm and the streaks of red blood that surge from the men as they’re eviscerated by fireflies, showing Louise a much better representation of chaos.
Kelly does exceptional work with these money shots, and the dramatic moments hit even harder because he has such a strong handle on the quieter moments of Spurrier’s script. His character, environment, and prop designs are all richly detailed (he’s clearly done loads of research for the military weaponry and vehicles), and he pays considerable attention to the facial expressions and body language of the cast, which help ground the fantastic story in believable human behavior. Louise and Sam’s conversation is a great example of this, and Kelly’s dedication to fully realizing their feelings in this tense moment provides a strong emotional context for the full-page splash that interrupts the chat, showing barghest-Louise crashing through a pet store window with a dead rabbit in her mouth.
Every creator involved with Cry Havoc gets cover credit, and while Spurrier and Kelly’s names are the most prominent, having everyone involved on the cover emphasizes how much of a team effort this book is. With so much happening in the story and visuals, Simon Bowland wisely goes with a clean, plain lettering style that provides consistency across the three time periods. The only times he changes the lettering is for the monster dialogue, which lands with considerably more force by having scratchy white text on a black background, surrounded by a jagged red border.
Designer Emma Price rounds out the creative team, and she does phenomenal work giving the book a distinct aesthetic, starting with the sleek trade dress for the title’s wraparound covers, which include a link to the comic’s Tumblr page as well as a bold, militaristic logo of a fist clenched around a pair of wings. The imagery from the cover is carried over to the striking credit and title pages that immediately follow, as well as the annotations in the back of each issue, giving each chapter a cohesive look from the cover to the very last page, which is used in this issue to show off Kelly’s design work. Every person on this creative team is working hard to make the book stand out, and that commitment has made Cry Havoc one of the most captivating new series of 2016.