The Spire plays big, you know, in that Blade–Runner-by-way-of-Jim-Henson-low-budget-Aussie-action-movie-way with sexy-times, fantasy and sci-fi overtures centered on a whodunit … also farts. On paper (i.e. solicits) The Spire rises out of the minds co-creators, writer Si Spurrier and cartoonist Jeff Stokely — whose Six-Gun Gorilla brought acclaim and (it’s assumed) the finest meats and cheese from throughout the land — and hails from BOOM! Studios this July.
This eight issue series focuses on Shå, the commander of the City Watch. Shå is charged with keeping the peace while she herself sidesteps prejudice, injustice and hatred for being more human than human while also more non-human than non-human. Shå is an outsider’s outsider. The Spire pivots around Shå’s investigation of a grisly murder that has taken place in the Spire’s lower levels, among the dregs, while higher up the socio-political ladder, a new power, the Baroness Tavi, ascends the throne.
How Shå and the lower caste of characters (who include poor put-upon Pug, he (?) of the farting) navigate the Spire’s secret centers and secret (warring and converging) factions and societies is sure to be the event the summer. Spurrier and Stokely spin the details of their new collaboration, how to think like Stokely and how to properly let out one’s inner Spurrier.
Keith Silva for Comics Bulletin: What made the two of you decide The Spire would be the next Spurrier-Stokely joint?
Si Spurrier: For me – and I hate to admit this while the beardy upstart is listening (it never pays to let an artist learn his or her importance, it bungs-up their creative circuitry) – but yes, it arose from the powerful desire to work with Jeff again.
Six-Gun Gorilla was one of those projects I sat down to build before I even knew who’d be drawing it, so the writing process was a very personal thing. I think that’s reflected in some of the more contemplative and metafictional elements which bubbled out of the mix from that particular comic. When Jeff started turning in pages I had the privilege of witnessing an alchemy unique to our medium, in which something I’d considered solely mine suddenly manifested a whole new creative spirit, and became greater than the sum of its parts. All, somehow, without lessening my sense of an authorial connection to the work. Magical stuff.
So, yes, I wanted more. And I wanted to do it more organically this time round: bringing in Jeff at the very top, insisting that he and I share all creator rights, and letting things develop symbiotically rather than retrospectively.
Generally speaking I detest elevator pitches, loglines and similar reductive story short selling, but I’m also a horribly manipulative bastard, so to get Jeff’s attention I started with something I knew he could never possibly refuse. “It’s Bladerunner meets Dark Crystal by way of Mad Max.” To an artist of the genus Stokely that’s like sex made of chocolate.
Jeff Stokely: It’s a rare and truly awesome thing for a publisher to put together a creative team and have something like Six-Gun Gorilla come out of that. I don’t think BOOM! or any of us could tell how much that book would mean to us all by the time it was done. It was like a magical comic making blind date. Since then I’ve told Si on several slovenly drunken occasions that I’d work with him again in a heartbeat. And it’s true. So when he told me he wanted to make Dark-Crystaly-Bladerunner sex chocolate with Mad Max sprinkles I was quite helpless to resist. Those are literally all of the things I cherish most in the world lumped into one steaming pile, a pile I intend to play in for eight glorious issues.
CB: How is the world-building in The Spire similar to Six-Gun Gorilla and where does it leave S-GG in the dust?
Spurrier: Very different approach this time round. A lot of the chatter around Six-Gun Gorilla was about the unexpected forays into dreams, memories, metafiction and similar dear-to-my-heartery, but if you peel it right back it broadly follows a classic Conspiracy Thriller arc: the stakes endlessly escalate from lowly beginnings to a world-changing climax. Despite seeming like an entirely non-traditional story, 6GG actually ended up reflecting a pretty traditional approach to world-building. The fundamental philosophy is this: “you’ve created a world so the stories you tell should be world-sized.”
Which, y’know… is fine, but really doesn’t need to be the only rule. I mentioned Bladerunner before? That’s an exquisite example of an exception. That movie presents a huge, grinding, exotic, depressing, extraordinary new world… and then proceeds to tell us a fairly small story within it. The outcome doesn’t particularly change the fictional world or the way it runs; the protagonist doesn’t Win or Lose the day (in fact he arguably has no direct agency with the ending at all); and yet it’s rightly regarded as a masterpiece. It’s intriguing, it’s classy. It seems to say: yeah, we’ve built this world, but fuck you if you think that’s all we’ve got. That’s not even the Main Event, kids. Behold: story!
That’s our angle-of-attack on The Spire.
Stokely: Definitely much different this time. This is, for the most part, a new world and society to us, and hopefully to the reader, so a lot of it came from scratch. With 6GG I always felt a certain familiarity with aspects of both its worlds, being the disgusting futuristic Bladerunner/Brazil-esque reality versus the sprawling and deadly mind-desert of the Blister. Each serves an important narrative purpose, they’re mirrors of one another to an extent.
The Spire is very much one world, with various settings that are just as real as one another, so in doing this I knew this world would have to feel relatable but in different ways. From a purely visual standpoint it’s much more challenging to craft from scratch, especially when trying to make it look and feel like an entirely different world than Six-Gun Gorilla, or any other book out there for that matter. It was one of the reasons I wanted to try and tackle a different art style, it had to feel new, intriguing, but immersive, as if the world has been there for centuries. The world of The Spire has been through a lot, a lot more than our world.
CB: How do each of you leave the world-building so as not to make it cumbersome let alone stall the process of telling the story?
Spurrier: My sense is readers put far more emotional investment into a world which feels like it’s functional and continuous, rather than one which defines itself according to big events or big plot-points. People respond to worlds dotted with relatable stories and characters; worlds of which they’re given small glimpses, rather than onerous descriptions and backstories, or genealogies and maps.
Why should I give a toss about a reality whose only interesting feature is that Doomlord Graglathox (or who-the-bollocks-ever) wants to burn it to cinders in the unpronounceable name of his shitty Cthonic hell-god? Or a galaxy which sits On! The! Cusp! Of! Annihilation! Or a world so shamefully ill-conceived that it needs bucketloads of magic macguffins, secret wizard-passwords or motherfucking dragons to make actual stories occur within it. In other words, with The Spire we wanted to create a world which doesn’t feel as though it disappears the moment the story’s over. The key, very simply, is to give way more of a damn about the characters.
[Aside: I tend to take the same approach towards world-building as I’d advocate towards continuity in big-two spandex comics. To whit: it’s rich, it’s entertaining and it’s something you should intuitively consider while crafting a narrative. But if your story only has emotional impact because of it, you’re focusing on the wrong thing.]
With The Spire I wanted to work with Jeff to create a huge, mysterious, strange, unforgettable world – and then to somewhat ignore that in favour of the tight, razor-sharp story unfolding in the midst of it. I wanted the world of the Spire to be extraordinary… but to feel ordinary to the people who live there. I wanted the world to impinge upon the narrative only in as much as events become more fascinating or more bizarre than if our story were set in the real world, but then to maintain an internal logic which doesn’t rely on contrivance or macguffin. I wanted our characters’ reactions to be human and sympathetic, no matter how strange or inhuman they themselves may seem.
In practical terms what this meant was setting out the rough edges of the world and deliberately leaving gaping holes for Jeff to work his magic. Technologies, inhuman races, even the architecture of the city itself: they all play very prominent roles in the story or its subtext, and they’ve all been built by Jeff from scratch, rather than described be me. That was a scary relinquishment of responsibility, at first, but for one thing I never doubted Jeff could deliver, and for another it’s a weirdly honest application of fantasy thought. Real people don’t live in worlds which have been perfectly designed to accommodate them and their stories, after all. People don’t spend their time walking around, blurting exposition about how their TVs or cellphones work, what their moral code is based upon, why they’ve chosen to wear that hat instead of that one, etc. Genre stories – especially sci-fi and fantasy – are frequently guilty of all the above, when in fact I suspect readers get a lot more involved in stories where things aren’t laboriously explained. Hence it felt right to be inventing a world where half of it – the stuff coming out of Jeff’s brain – was a mystery to me.
Stokely: This is a great question because it took me months to get the look of this world how I wanted it, and it still evolves from page to page. To peg back to what Si said, part of the creative process on my end is very much me thinking to myself “How can I convey exactly what Si wants out of this character? But also, how can I push that idea’s design on the page and add in my own spice?” And then sometimes I’ll do something that I just think is dumb and fun and Si will end up loving it. Not to simplify Si’s taste, but we share a lot of common interests and I know that chances are if it’s off the wall and makes me laugh, it’ll make him laugh.
I’ve done plenty of concept sketches, just getting the right feel for the various inhabitants and cultures. Most of which are great and bizarre, but oddly enough a lot of choices have boiled down to fashion for me. The Spire is a singular structure with dozens of cultures and races but they all fall at the whim of its societal hierarchy. This was important from day one, the design had to reflect these undertones that run throughout the story. Which brings us back to inhabiting a believable world with believable problems. It’s world building 101.
Interestingly enough, for the look of the world I haven’t used any photo reference regarding settings or structures, I’ve tried to pull all of that from my own imagination and logic it out. Doing that, I hope, will breathe sense of mystery into The Spire and its subset societies. It also keeps me on my toes.
The trick so far has been to make The Spire itself seem bloated and old, while not bogging myself down in all the details. Something I haven’t quite worked out yet, heh, but I’m getting the hang of it.
CB: Readers are going to see references to Heavy Metal and Manga (specifically Miyazaki). Was this a conscious choice as creators or do you see The Spire as a chance to write a chapter in that tradition?
Spurrier: Not an act of conscious homage, I think, but those are certainly some of the texts we’ve each internalized over the years, which quite conspicuously influenced The Spire. For me it’s a ragged pulp-up of 2000AD‘s “fuck-you” to the Rules Of Genre, China Mieville’s elaborately febrile imagination and Nausicaä-era-Miyazaki’s attention to detail, with a dusting of Gormenghast and Dune over the top. But comics are at their best when neither artist not writer has a controlling interest in the outcome, and the work winds-up being greater than the sum of its collective schizophrenic influences.
Ultimately, I see The Spire as a twisty, funny, blood-drenched thriller led by an extraordinary woman – quite possibly the snarkiest and kickass-iest she-cop in comics – which just happens to take place in one of the most fascinating worlds ever created. The latter part is possibly the feature people will talk about most, but it’s the former parts which do the heavy lifting.
Stokely: I like to think there’s a bit of Heavy Metal and Manga in everything I do. At least I hope so, it’s what I read the most during my impressionable years. I can definitely see some Dune in here too, I admittedly loved the look of Lynch’s Dune and I think that’s been stuck in my subconscious since I saw it as a child. Miyazaki and Moebius are certainly huge influences to me and just about every living artist I know, and they’re quite shamelessly present here. They’ll most definitely be the ones people reference most with this book.
I’ve been wanting to steer away from my brush work for awhile now (not permanently) because I always find the sketches in my sketchbook to be closer to that loose scratchy line art style that Miyazaki uses in Nausicaä, or even the look of his overall design. So this has been the perfect chance for me to try and hone that style, which is oddly both natural and foreign for me on the finished page. So to put it more simply, while they are influences they aren’t controlling influences.
I do think once people see the book in full color, it will really live on its own merit. One of the beautiful things about André’s colors is he’s incredibly versatile and has changed his style a bit to match mine. It’s like we’re all stepping out of our comfort zones while not trying to hide our influences. After all, there’s really no point in this day and age to hiding them
CB: Si, As you were imagining this world, were you envisioning it with your own imagination or your imagination as art-directed by Jeff Stokely?
Spurrier: Ha – a very good question, but sadly not one with a satisfying answer. Obviously when I’m putting things together I’ll be imagining it in a particular way, but that’s instantly muddied by having been exposed to a lot of Jeff’s work, hence the temptation to guess how he’ll respond. That’s a no-win quest – you can’t channel someone else’s creativity – so there’s a hefty dollop of blind faith involved. I try to restrict myself to imagining details in my own way, safe in the knowledge that Jeff will do it differently and it will be better.
One of the reasons writer/artist collaborations are so special, and why the good ones keep coming back to each other, is because it’s an extremely rare and extremely privileged phenomenon to find someone in whom you can put that level of faith.
The investment I choose to make, in order to get the most out of that phenomenon, is cheerfully tailoring the raw creation so it gives Jeff a metaphorical stiffy. It comes down to a sort of seduction, like pretty much any creative interaction. Bladerunner meets Dark Crystal by way of Mad Max, remember? That’s like vintage German erotica for beardy artists. Likewise, I’ve deliberately turned-over a lot of the defining stuff – the aesthetic of the world, the way the different races look (and hence the different functions they might have) and so on – to Jeff. I want him to feel like he owns this story, literally and creatively, so the talented little monster does his best work on it. Which, huzzah, looks like being an extremely productive strategy.
In practical terms it becomes this really exciting back-and-forth. The world-bible and the scripts are full of little gaps. Jeff goes off and creates something bizarre to fit the hole, which I then revisit and deploy in the best – or sometimes, because I’m perverse, the most jarring – way.
CB: Who’s Shå and why the ring diacritic over the ‘a,’ got a thing for Swedes?
Spurrier: Shå is… incredible. Funny, warm, sharper than a lightsaber lobotomy. For those who’ve enjoyed my take on Doctor Nemesis, she’s cut from a similarly snarky cloth. But she’s also riddled with secrets and doesn’t understand herself nearly as well as she’d like. This is the sort of comic where the mystery of the external always mirrors the mystery of the internal.
She’s the Captain of the city watch, which is the dysfunctional civilian organisation – dreadfully overstretched – which polices the majority of the titular “Spire”: a megastructural city which juts from the desert like an inconceivably vast termite hill. In the Spire status and social class are indelibly linked to altitude: the higher one lives in the city the more affluent and cultured one probably is. Hence the aristocrats, oligarchs and media-wankers live in the uppermost portions, while the dregs sink to the bottom. That is: Shå’s beat.
The Spire is a very weird – but also weirdly recognisable – melting pot of social pressures. Its people pride themselves on being inclusive, progressive and non-prejudiced, but of cause ideals are never quite as shiny as they seem when you look at them in dim light. In the Spire’s case it’s the immigrant classes which get the shittiest deal: members of strange hybrid-races whose origins are unrecorded, who come to the city for work and sanctuary. They’re called “skews”, or “the sculpted” if you’re feeling polite. In public the city’s ideological culture calls for their integration and equality; in private people mutter and resent.
It has been fascinating to play with a very specific breed of social commentary here. In a lot of ways the Spire represents a society we’d all like to see – Shå doesn’t get any shit for being a gay woman in a powerful position, for instance – but like a worm that has to wriggle out somewhere, people always find someone to blame. In the Spire’s case that’s the Skews. And, like a bird waiting for the worms, there’s always someone looking to exploit that blame.
Like I say, Shå gets no shit for being a gay woman. For being a skew? Oh-ho-yes.
Regarding that diacritic ring over the “a”, that’s one of those daft little details which has gathered some unexpected significance as the boulder rolls downhill. For reasons I can’t adequately explain, presumably to do with some second-level abstract onomatopoeia, the syllable “Shah” was one of the first bits of flotsam which tangled itself around the seed of this idea. I couldn’t write the word just-so – too many real-world connotations – and the obvious umlaut (Shä) made my beloved protagonist look like a shitty reject from a Tolkien-inspired metal band. The diacritic ring feels more right – there’s enough ambiguity and regional variance in its meaning that people can cheerfully call her “Shaugh” or “Shau” or “Shae” if they prefer – and in a (frankly invisible) sort of way it’s informed some of my thoughts and decisions about Shå’s own people.
CB: Jeff, who’s the character you most wanted to draw as you and Si were developing the story?
Stokely: There are so many! Hard to pin just one down. Developing all of the Skews and non-humans were so much fun. Probably too much fun, as it cut into my actual page drawing time. They’re challenging though, Si and I both knew they couldn’t be “too alien” or “too fantasy” yet had to still be something people didn’t look at and go “Oh, a mutant”. So, trying to hit a look that makes people question its origin rather than jump to the conclusion.
I really love drawing Shå, it’s been incredibly fun but also challenging just trying to get her to emote with one eye and I think it’s actually working better than I’d hoped. Her expressions become really unique in that regard and I think it only helps serve her singularity in the story. I did about 2 or 3 sheets of various designs of her before settling on the current one which came more naturally as a doodle in my sketchbook. Which oddly enough brings me back to the point of trying to hone my finished art to be closer to my sketches (I know, it sounds quite backwards). There’s another character who I think Si and I love, who’s started as a background character with this huge brain tank thing on the top of his head. I love that guy. Brain-tank guy.
Though the character I really, truly, wholly enjoy drawing the most is probably the killer.
CB: The Spire itself, seriously, you know you’re going to have to draw that thing like … a lot, right?
Stokely: Gods, I know. I KNOW, OK. I doomed myself with that. It started as one big structure, and while it still is, the more I draw it, the more tiny buildings and apartments it seems to grow inside and outside. It’s one monolithic shanty-town. And it’s an absolute blast to draw! I just zone out and detail only to have it covered up with Spurrier’s atrocious words.
But seriously, it’s pretty fun to draw when I’m not pressed on a deadline. The spread in issue 1 took me 2 or 3 days to finish, I think. The interior of the Spire is a bit more difficult, it seemingly goes upward or downward endlessly depending on where you are and its class tiers are all different visually. Monolithic shanty-town.
CB: Comics have been experiencing a science fiction and fantasy Renaissance of late, why and what’s going to make The Spire stand out?
Spurrier: Urgh. Horribly unfair question.
Okay, well… I’ll gloss over the “why” part – if only because I have some deeply entrenched and frankly rather ranty views about the whole concept of genre classification, specifically the fact that it’s a pitiful, unhealthy and totally-unfit-for-purpose system designed to accommodate administrators while forcing everyone else into reductive cliché-defined little holes which actively punish originality and fusion – yes indeed, I’ll gloss over that and instead pirouette gracefully into the part about what will make The Spire stand out.
Firstly and most obviously, the art is scintillatingly good and totally unique. In Jeff I’ve found a collaborator who eschews conventional design and intuits storytelling solutions like an artist twice his age. He’s destined for the bigtime, but not in some dismal bloody House Style sort of way. He’s already a favourite of a lot of the biggest names out there – though that’s possibly just because of his delicious beard – and The Spire is his first major creator-owned project. Very worth a look.
For those of you whose interest isn’t adequately piqued by beautiful art or attractively hirsute artists, The Spire is a totally unique tale from a world unlike any other, full of the intimate and the epic in equal measure, coiled around layers of mystery and led by the world’s grumpiest inhuman detective.
If you absolutely must use genre terminologies then it’s an apocalyptic fantasy murder-mystery comedy sci-fi conspiracy thriller, but we’d far rather you kept things sibilant and went for “strange, singular, startling, sinister, sexy, secretive.”
Stokely: Plus how many sci-fi fantasy-whatevers out there have beetle winged, fart-patch propulsion? cherub goblins? JUST ONE!
Keith Silva earns a living asking questions and making sure to listen while the camera rolls. He writes about comics and pop culture. Such endeavors have made him an inveterate caffeine addict with an increasing taste for stronger vices like Kentucky bourbon and single malt scotch. He does not need his hand held unless it’s by his wife or daughters. @keithpmsilva