For today’s Big Idea, writer Cavan Scott looks at his own past favorites in pop culture and how they inform the stories he is telling, none more so than the new collection of his indie comic, Shadow Service.
“A man is the sum of his memories, you know. A Time Lord more so.”
So says Peter Davison’s Doctor in the 20th Anniversary Doctor Who story, first broadcast in 1983.
Why quote the good Doctor at a piece exploring the origins of Shadow Service, my creator-owned comic which is being collected for the first time this month? Well, because this book proves that, just as men and women are the sum of their memories, a creator is the sum of their influences too.
Growing up in Britain of the late seventies and early eighties, I was obsessed with two things: James Bond, then played by the redoubtable Roger Moore, and scary stuff. The former was natural. Bond was everywhere, in the cinema and on ITV every bank holiday. As for the scary stuff? Well, the seventies especially seemed designed to scare kids. Horror was a staple of the stories we consumed on television as the nights drew in. Children of the Stones stands out as a particular favourite that downright terrified me, a tale of children fighting a strange, otherworldly cult in the British countryside where people are brainwashed, and victims turn into Neolithic standing stones.
Then there was Dramarama, a kind of junior version of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected that fuelled a good many of nightmares of my youth. Even Doctor Who, for all its dodgy special effects, absolutely terrified this nervous ten-year-old who, at the time, was far too worried about the monsters to care if a set wobbled or a laser beam didn’t quite hit its target.
Even the public service information films of the period were deeply unsettling, literally attempting to scare kids into keeping safe. The most traumatising of all was The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water where the Grim Reaper stands immobile and unseen by children playing near streams, just waiting for them to drown. “This branch is weak…rotten” actor Donald Pleasence breathes as a teenager climbs an ancient tree bough hanging over a lake. “It will never take his weight…”
Over and over again, the most ordinary aspects of our childhood were weaponised into the instruments of our premature doom, and we lapped it up, soon graduating to late night Hammer Horror double-bills and James Herbert novels. Even our comics were drenched in horror. Science Fiction weekly 2000AD gave us shocking thrills in post-apocalyptic futures, while the short-lived Scream channels Hammer’s House of Horror, my favourite strip focusing on a rugged KGB officer who defects to England to destroy no less than Dracula himself, who had been unleashed on our Green and Pleasant Land by murderous Soviets.
All of which handily takes us back to Bond. I loved 007. Absolutely idolised him. Most boys my age did, but even at an early age something seemed off with his glamorous, globe-trotting world. Wherever he went, every single person seemed to know who he was, mostly because he gleefully announced his name whenever possible. Was that how spies really worked? Just as my burgeoning love of horror led me to the classics of Stoker and Shelley, I started to read about real spies and one thing struck me: we, as everyday folk, should never know if a spy succeeds in their work, not just because they work in the shadows, but because they, quietly and invisibly, keep those shadows from overtaking the world. They foil terrorist plots before they happen and uncover traitors before they have the chance to become infamous. It’s just what they do.
It was little wonder that these two obsessions began to merge. The worlds of espionage and the occult have so much in common, after all. Spies have their tradecraft, practitioners of the dark arts, their witchcraft. What if our secret service fought, not just enemies from foreign lands, but the powers and principalities of the spiritual world, demonic forces that threaten our normal way of life.
In horror stories, folk hardly ever believe that the supernatural is real, even when they see evidence with their own eyes. Could that be because a national agency is working hard to cover up the truth, forbidding the press from telling the real stories through government D-Notices and convincing us all that the occult is nothing but fairy tales. We would never know the truth, because they would stop Armageddon before it happened, leaving us in blissful ignorance. Yes, it’s the stuff of conspiracy theorists, but aren’t conspiracies at the heart of every great spy novel or film as well?
And so MI666 was born, the shadowy service of the book’s title, full of tragically damaged agents doing the best they can in the face of unsurmountable odds. The agency made its way into many of my short stories and fiction over the last few years, never quite finding its feet, until I started working on this particular story, creating the central character of Gina Meyer, a young witch who is recruited into MI666’s number and a woman who has convinced herself that she is a freak, because magic shouldn’t exist in a normal world…right?
Like James Bond, I’m a true believer of saying who I am. I wear my influences on my sleeve and am happy to acknowledge the lineage of my ideas. Without the likes of Ian Fleming, the makers of Doctor Who, actors like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and comics like Scream, MI666 probably wouldn’t exist. But of course, a creative work isn’t just the sum of its influences either. Our influences provide the foundation, and the springboard to tell new stories. In Shadow Service that story is about the lies we tell ourselves to justify our actions, all told against a background of monsters and high-speed chases… because that’s just what I do…