Remember my fanboy-ish applause for Sunstone, the graphic novel I loved for its realistic and positive approach to the reality of BDSM? A couple of months ago I also met its evil twin: a perfect nemesis that negates everything that work represented. Nine Stones too is a webcomic that eventually reached the newsstands, but it substitutes the lesbian protagonists with a couple of (adolescent, not adult) boys; instead of portraying safe, sane & consensual games it goes for gory violence; it ignores the western style to flirt with manga, and while it is at that, it sets its story among crime, filth and insanity instead of fashionable digital economy. All in all, it should be the kind of product I really couldn’t care less for.
However, Nine Stones is also a pretty good work indeed – it is growing into a serious publishing success, and it has an absurdly large fanbase for such an anomalous comic. So I couldn’t resist studying what the audience was for such an odd thing… and while I was at it I discovered the definitely peculiar relationship it has with the creator, my fellow countryman Samuel Spano. Could I let the opportunity to interview him elude me either?
Hi, Samuel! Having read Nine Stones I am really curious to uncover what lives in the depths of your mind… but it is maybe better to begin with the basics. How do you prefer to introduce yourself?
Hello, and my heartfelt thanks for this cool interview! I am a 34 years old boy who was born as a girl, who always felt the drive to draw and to use that medium to express himself, since I wasn’t much good with words. What lies in my mind’s depths remains a big mystery: the more I dig down, the more I find there is no actual bottom nor end to it. The little I gathered through many years of therapy and self-analysis is that everything probably stems from the need to manage certain forces that possibly were stronger inside me than in other persons. Among them there were an excess of emotivity and my inability to verbally express everything I felt. Drawing really helped me to bring my emotional turmoil out, allowing me to study it from an outside perspective.
One of the things I clearly most sublimated was the anger I felt toward my female physical development during my early teens. In my primal imagination there always was a girl who wanted to fly, to free herself from a condition she didn’t belong to, who was tethered to “threads” and was half-robotic, always prisoner of something – and then a boy right out of my dream world, free and magnetic, whom I put onto paper as I dreamed him. But I mostly used to draw to secretly inhabit the kind of male body I didn’t have.
As a comics nerd I found your work very interesting for it innovative power, but also for its disorienting quality. The closest parallel I can find is with early Tarantino, when he upturned Hollywood using an impeccable style to methodically desecrate every standard that had been taken as dogma until then. Nine Stones is a western comic with manga contents; a love story based on violence; a mainstream work full with taboo themes; an erotic tale without anything sexual to it… So, what strange kind of beast are you breeding with it?
I love Tarantino: he’s my imaginary elder brother, the smart one who knows how to do things. From the gutter of my mental and structural limits (I have a mountain of technique to learn still, and who knows if I’ll ever manage to), I can only say that I feel an affinity with his view of what “violence” means in our collective mind, in his physical need to bring it onto paper or film. Nine Stones is about “power” on many levels: the material one of the mafia; the one of emotional dependency on whoever captures us, and the one our inner monsters have over us. Nine Stones is a product from the abyss, more a Lovecraftian creature than a beast, and it changes form depending on who reads it. In it, everyone sees themselves. This is why there are several interpretations, but most of all a big fear of what it is about – because it is nothing “revolutionary” in its content, but in the emotions it brings out of people.
For someone like me, born in the previous century, it is rather shocking to see the yaoi (Japanese gay teen comics) tropes so integrated within a European work, and even more an Italian one. Sure, over forty years of anime colonization had made this an expected phenomenon – and yet I am wondering whether this also means we have reached a moment of erotic globalization. What do you think of it?
Yaoi is actually a genre I am trying to leave behind. I discovered it when my imagination was already filled with homosexual teens, so I enthusiastically accepted it into my life. However, it fizzled within a couple of years: most stories replicated the same dynamics, and although I had found some very interesting yaoi they always ended up pushing the same stereotypes of the genre, born out of the specific needs of their Japanese female audience. I totally approve their purpose: mostly female pornography that is specially built around sentiments, but that also and primarily satisfies through its explicit sex scenes. There is nothing wrong with it, and praising them would be similarly pointless, because their primary purpose isn’t that high: this, even if some yaoi stories can be truly complex and far from banal, and yet still centered about emotionally involving the female audience besides getting it horny. It’s just that I find the genre somewhat limiting. In Nine Stones I aimed to mock the yaoi stereotypes just to have them subverted and totally destroyed as the story went elsewhere: toward power dependencies, in this case. I didn’t play with yaoi conventions only, though: I did the same with the shonen (teen comics) genre in general.
All right, so playing with the readers’ expectations is fun… But examining your continuing online conversation with your audience you explicitly open about a specific intent to traumatize it. You even describe yourself as a worse bastard than George Martin, who for narrative purpose kills his Game of Thrones characters without a care. In your case there is a joy in emotionally torturing your readership, so much so that your evilness has become your literal icon! Would you elaborate a bit on this aspect, which I guess is an integral part of your work?
As I see it, it is a funny game. It’s the same type of sadism of someone managing a spooky dark ride. From my point of view, killing a character is “too little”: I want something that goes beyond death, making it even superfluous in the face of the dynamics that make up the story. What I like to do is usually to trick the readers, especially in their instinctual attachment to freaky characters, and use literary stereotypes to create emotional traps. This is because I am fascinated by a human side we all share: we aren’t good nor bad, maybe only our choices are. Those choices are a consequence of the thousands before them, that brought us to that point where we can break out of the loop or fall back into the old patterns. The reader feels pulled in by his very obsessions and perversions, which lots of people cannot express in their real lives, and yet at the same time he experiences a strong emotional attachment to these dynamics. Many readers write that they don’t want to keep reading it because it is “too violent”, but something inside of them compels them to carry on with the story. They actually curse me for that.
Another unsettling thing in Nine Stones is how it associates a sorta “Disney Academy” trait style with contents so brutal they would shock even most underground authors. Which inevitably makes me wonder how is it possible that your comic is sold without any age restriction, considering the risk it could be mistaken for “children funnies”…
My intent was to create a mental short-circuit caused by the dissonance between the drawing style and the strong contents, especially because we grew up in a specific milieu where a given style is “necessarily” associated to safe themes. In Nine Stones I increased that feeling of disorientation and lack of narrative anchors, those that instantly tell you what genre something is and which is used in publishing to orientate the readers. Nine Stones is a tale for adults, and online I have always strived to keep the most extreme parts not easily – and especially not accidentally – accessible, using various warnings. For the paper edition, it is the publisher’s choice to put up an age warning or not: in my case they didn’t feel the need to, also considering their even more extreme rest of the stuff they publish.
The issue of mistaking something for kid-oriented when it is not is a pretty old subject: unfortunately, it is more about dysfunctional parenting than responsible publishing. They are the same who label any cartoon as “for kids”, thus bringing their children to a Devilman movie because «it’s just animation». Nine Stones has quite unmistakable covers, so if a parent has the brilliant idea to buy it «because it looks like Disney» even though the characters are covered in blood, they probably wouldn’t have noticed any warning label either.
Let’s take it from another angle, then. Imagine a possible scenario where the mistake has been already made, a kid has read your comic and he liked it. Just like any other crime fiction, Nine stones has no anti-violence label. Your work, however, portrays pathological sadomasochism as a love ideal, without particularly stress that healthy BDSM and ethical relationships in general are a whole different thing. So the minor in question, who probably doesn’t possess the skill to understand every implication, sees your characters as relational models. Of course we all know that only truly disturbed persons let themselves to be inspired by fiction – be it a comic, a game or a movie – into acting dangerous behaviors, and yet the psychological impact can be huge. How do you live this potential responsibility as an author?
Keeping in mind that it wasn’t my choice not to put up a warning, it could even become a greater motivator for an unsupervised kid to buy it, maybe sending an elder cousin to the store. Do you remember how we were at 11, surreptitiously reading Dylan Dog even if some newsstands refused to sell it to minors (and the parliament had launched an inquiry about violence in comics)? Our adult fantasy of being able to control everything teenagers do is but an illusion. Our duty is instead to provide them with the tools to understand contents, and to be with them as much as possible when they want to see strong imagery. News pieces above all comics and movies, by the way. I am afraid that this is mostly a problem for adults, who are ill at ease with themselves and never had any real tool for interpretation – therefore bein unable to pass them on to the youth.
Censorship helps to make adults feel good, hiding stuff under the carpet instead of “placating the kids” and making us believe we can control them. Our own story says very, very differently. Maybe it is this out of proportion form of “control” that makes teenager repressed and exacerbates their emotivity into serious behavioral issues. An adult has a hard time seeing himself reflected in a teenager, who is simply a person like him but in a much more delicate time in his life, where he hasn’t any proper understanding of the world and of himself – not to mention his explosive energy due to a huge hormonal load is peaking. Kids require less censorship and more direction, they need to use the media to unload but mostly they need to learn how to tell reality apart from fantasy. Putting them under a glass bell is pointless, since we adults cannot truly explain certain things.
The awful consequences of repression usually make people, young and adults alike, angry. The psychological impact of reading a story like Nine Stones is directly proportional to the repressed emotional charge of the individual: the less they are repressed, the less dangerous it will be. So why not to focus more on the emotional education than on censorship? When physical and emotional reactions explode inside a teenager, they are definitely stronger than in an adult. Usually we wrongly try to negate this, we say things like «to feel these feelings is wrong», when they would actually need someone to help them process these feelings, reassure them that they are “normal stuff” and they’d better learn how to manage them like they were observing these powerful emotions from the outside. We should explain that there is no evil in being like that, but that the power of healthy human beings is “to choose”, not repressing nor lying. The true problem is to help teens to develop a healthy empathy and mindfulness – terms that most adults have to google up – instead of shutting their eyes closed before “bad things”.
Everyone’s potential assassin and criminal: it’s the “choice” to make the difference, not the person’s nature, which cannot be contained but only directed. Psychotic people unfortunately don’t have that choice: they have a mental disease. They aren’t monsters either: their actions can be monstrous however, and they need lots of help above all. A psychotic person only needs a sacred text to make a massacre, not Nine Stones read by mistake.
By the way, how is it going with the protests of the ubiquitous moralists?
Funnily enough, there haven’t been many. The “religious” prigs never appeared, probably because this comic book isn’t mainstream enough yet. It remains a niche work, with a nice following but not large enough to cause protests. I did receive a few laughable critiques – like complaining that the protagonists didn’t use a condom in a sex scene… without noticing they were covered in the blood of a third person they had just killed! Killing is ok, forgetting the condom isn’t: they have some kinda skewed priorities.
You don’t have to be a great psychologist to imagine a connection between the body violence that characterizes your work and the physical transformation of your own gender reassignment, which surprised many people when you recently announced it. You must be very arrogant, however, to assume it is really so – so I prefer asking you as the most reliable source how the two things are related.
Like with any adolescent who wasn’t given half a tool to understand things, but only an infinite list of forbidden stuff unless I wanted to go to hell, I suffered lots of repression from a strongly Catholic family. When I was very young I became aware that repressing violence actually engenders violence itself, so much so that I chose to portray it on my drawing board instead of acting it upon others like they did to me without a care. So I vented through drawing and sports and I became a very quiet teenager. Of course my situation was heightened by gender dysphoria, which I immensely dreaded due to the above-mentioned hell. Drawing really helped me to sublimate that distress: conjuring up male characters in various, mostly sexual, scenarios I could let my aggression and my erotic drive out, and identify as a male, at least in fantasy.
So is Nine Stones a therapy too? Just for you, or would you recommend it to others as well?
Like I said, Nine Stones is like a mirror: everyone sees their reflection into it. They might not like their picture, though, so the reactions are very diverse but always pretty strong.