They took you to the Blister in the acclaimed Six-Gun Gorilla, but now Si Spurrier and Jeff Stokely are back again at Boom! with the genre-defying The Spire.
Mixing elements of dystopian fantasy and intense sci-fi, The Spire is looking to remains its own entity with a unique look unlike we’ve seen in a long while. Given what little we actually know about the main character Shå and the world at large, Spurrier and Stokely opened to Newsarama about the working together again, and the mysterious and intriguing world of The Spire. BOOM! also gave Newsarama an exclusive first look at some of Stokely’s interiors, as well as two of the variant covers Aaron Conley and David LaFuente.
Newsarama: Si, Jeff, I'm going to be as blunt as I can be here right out of the box: what is The Spire?
Si Spurrier: Oof. Okay. Splendid shillbagging opportunity. Jeff, double-down with me on this from your own perspective in case I miss anything.
The Spire is a creator-owned book mixing weird-fi crime mystery with apocalyptic fantasy, inter-species non-cis romance and wall-to-wall visual strangeness. It's the tale of an extraordinary city and an even more extraordinary woman who works there: a cop who's either the least human or the most human person you've ever met, depending on your perspective. Surrounded by non-human races and dark agendas, she sets out to solve a sleazy little murder and winds-up tangled in a far wider and far stranger web.
Cheap-ass elevator pitch time: it's Blade Runner meets Dark Crystal by way of Mad Max. In other words, it's a combination like nothing else on the planet. It's the sort of gig that couldn't happen unless Jeff and I, and our team at BOOM!, were genuinely frenzied in our love for the idea, and I think that shows very clearly in the output.
Jeff Stokely: I’m not sure I could add any better descriptors. As cheap an elevator pitch as it is, it is a damned good one. Sold me on it! 'S why you do the “werds," Spurrier, and I do the “pitchurs”.
As to what it's about, to me (Si, stop me if I'm giving too much away), like what it's really about... I think it's an exploration of what it means to be human in any society and dealing with the unfortunate echelons of class division. Humanity as a concept. Something that Shå will grapple with on a personal scale while trying to solve the mysteries of these grizzly murders in the beautifully disgusting world inside and outside of the Spire.
Spurrier: Of course “the Spire” is also the name of the city where all the action goes down.
It's a colossal, grinding metrostructure jutting from the wilderness like an inconceivably vast fang, crammed with people from a dozen bizarre races. It's a place of absurd and powerful contrasts, doing its best to maintain a line through equality, idealism and integration. But not always succeeding. There's a unique class system based on verticality: the higher-up you go inside the city, towards its central Steeple, the more affluent and socially-buoyant people around you will be. The aristocrats and oligarchs live at the tip, the dispossessed fester at the bottom. S--- sinks.
Nobody really knows how or when the Spire was built, or how humanity came to be divided into these fabulous hybrid tribes (known as “the sculpted”). This isn't the sort of comic book which sets out to solve those mysteries, or spend hours of tedious exposition on back story and world history. We're bored of that high-fantasy guff. Instead we're dropped into this exotic, deadly, unique, but above-all functioning world, and are invited to explore it through the eyes of “story” rather than “info-dump”.
Nrama: You have sort of post-apocalyptic visuals with this world and mentioned the likes of Dark Crystal and Mad Max, but what were some of the other influences going in?
Spurrier: For me it's actually more about consciously trying to not evoke influences. I wanted to deliberately make a world that couldn't be easily dismissed as “sci-fi” or “fantasy”. I wanted to break a lot of really stupid – but conventionally accepted – genre rules, like the idea that if you're going to build a new world you're obligated to tell stories which threaten to change or destroy it. The Spire does not feature dreary evil warlords seeking to smash the universe, the oozing threat of primordial continent-burning darkness, nor ancient magical macguffins which can save or lose the day. I'm not sure you'd call it a creative influence per se, but I definitely took a leaf out of Blade Runner's book, in the sense that I spent an awfully long time envisaging an utterly amazing new world...then deliberately ignored it in favour of the stories going on inside it. A good bit of world-building shouldn't need to be propped-up with contrivances and bullshit and huge events. It should feel as though it keeps on existing, flaws and all, after the story's ended.
But, let's be honest, you can't entirely escape the internalised influences that have left lasting impressions on your brain. So yeah, if I had to name a few random odds and sods – things which I can see have found their way into the mix, in hindsight, without me even being aware of it during the act of creation – then I'd mention the rulebook-burning punk stylings of 2000AD, the tsunami of idea-stew one gets from China Mieville, the attention to detail you'd find in Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaa, the splendid dualism of ordinary and extraordinary that oozes from Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, and Dune's dusty sense of a future so beaten and battered it feels more like the past.
Frankly, citing influences like this ends up looking like a fairly bald faced exercise in advertising – if you liked that then you'll love this – which I'm weirdly keen to sidestep. For me The Spire is unique, period. I prefer to think of it not in terms of the things it's a little bit like, but as a twisty, grim, hilarious, bloody thriller led by quite possibly the snarkiest and kickassiest she-cop in comics.
Stokely: There are quite a few influences for me on this book. Classic Heavy Metal, Jim Henson's darker works, various anime and manga. Namely Arzach, Dark Crystal, Vampire Hunter D: Blood Lust, and of course Nausicaa. However, I'd be lying if I said those weren't some of my biggest influences in general. This book just appeals to me in an all the ways it can, I think.
One of the goals with this was to create a unique world to the post-apocalyptic “genre.” Something that isn't instantly recognizable as either fantasy or sci-fi, without lumping it into the exact middle ground. I’m not sure if that's something we've accomplished but it's certainly a goal of ours, to be unique in an over-saturated market.
I think The Spire so far, is much closer to my own style, that being what I find in my personal sketchbooks. Veering away from heavy brush work toward line driven rendering, while trying to aim for the realm of weird-fi future fantasy that Miyazaki and Moebius did so well. Can't say I’m upset at all about being compared to them in any way or form, but the real reward will be people reading the book, realizing how much deeper the story is than just some sci-fi thing. So many stories exist solely as an homage or love letter to something else and they are quickly forgotten because of that. I don't think many people expected Six-Gun Gorilla to be the mind-melding meta fictional journey inward that it was, people thought it was just some pulpy sci-fi book and were pleasantly surprised. The Spire is certainly much more than the sum of it's influences.
Nrama: Speaking of Six-Gun Gorilla, how long after that was finished did you both go, "okay, let's do this again. What ya got?" and decided to team up again?
Spurrier: Ha! Pretty much straight away, for me. It's a rare and special thing – in a medium as reliant on collaboration as comics – that you find someone who intuitively gets, and then always improves upon, your own contribution. I've described it before now as a sort of faith. When I write a script I'm obliged by nature to envisage it using my own imagination, and I wouldn't sign-off on it unless I felt my imagined product was awesome. Nonetheless, every writer's had occasion – turning a script over to an unknown artist – to recall that old idiom “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” But when you luck onto just the right collaborator you're invested with the miraculous certainty – the faith – that what comes back from the artist will eclipse your own vision so perfectly that you can't even remember how you imagined it before. It's something to do with symbiosis, friendship, respect. All the good stuff.
Anecdote time. Years ago, I launched an Image comic with an artist-friend which caused a genuine splash. One of the highest high-concepts ever, glorious art, instant movie interest, yadda yadda.The big one, we both thought. We were close pals, very young, both on the same creative wavelength, both feeling true faith that we'd only ever maximise and improve upon each other's work. Alas, it all fizzled out. No acrimony – this isn't a s---fling, we're still pals and the guy (Frazer Irving, to save you rummaging through google) continues to be one of the most talented guys in the field – but for one reason or another the artwork stopped coming through, promises fell by the wayside, and the project just faded away. So it goes.
I mention all this here because I thought, at the time, I'd found a life-long collaborator. This was all happening at a pretty liminal point in my career – it really did feel like the Thing That Would Launch Us Both. When it went awry I confess I became quite bitter, and probably rather draconian as a collaborator. I felt I was obliged to claw myself out a niche on my own, imposing myself rather than sharing with others. It felt – and whether this is true or not I wouldn't like to say – a lot harder doing it alone than as part of a team. Most of my work since then has involved artists who've either been assigned by editors (and usually for periods too short to engender much of a relationship), or artists where communication is restricted purely to the script (as a result of language barriers, time-constraints, editorial mandate, whatever-it-may-be). Wherever a great relationship has sprung up circumstances get in the way of repeat collaboration. It's a weird truism of today's industry that it's often really hard to get to know the guys and girls you're supposedly working with incredibly closely. Which is tragic.
Actually, it's amazing how many lasting partnerships did indeed establish themselves in the earliest days of their respective creators' careers, as they rose up together. I've had this precise conversation with Kieron Gillen several times, for instance. I'm dichotomously delighted for, and extremely jealous of, his note-perfect symbiosis with Jamie McKelvie. I think they'd be the first to acknowledge that neither of them would be where they are (and fully deserve to be, by my estimation, as individuals and as a team) if not for the partnership they built as young men.
Anyway, to bring this all back on topic: it's only now, years later, that I've found in Jeff someone who I know I will fight to work with as frequently and as closely as I can for the rest of my career. I'm aware this is all sounding like an overly-earnest love note – I should really say something mean about the perfumed little beard-monkey before people get the wrong idea – but there you are. Such is the nature of collaboration. It's definitely a cousin, if not a direct sibling, of romance.
When BOOM! asked me for more work, off the back of Six-Gun Gorilla, my first and instant stipulations were that Jeff be my artist, and that this time we both share creator rights. Seems to've gone well so far.
Stokely: Dawwww, all of the hearts and emojis. Si is well aware of my desire to continue working with him, as I have told him many a time over many a pint in many a pub. I think the first time we met at New York Comicon one year we both sort of went "Yeah, we have to keep doing this because it's working." Whether or not it works for the reader we both clearly enjoy working together, I certainly hope that comes across on the page.
I think our mutual love of Terry Gilliam and westerns really pulled Six-Gun Gorilla together and helped lay the foundation for our awesome collaboration/friendship/passionately platonic work romance. And now our love of Jim Henson-esque creatures, oddities, and beautiful decaying worlds is what strengthens The Spire. It is really a rarity to find someone you just click with, as mushy and romantic it sounds it's one hundred percent applicable to any collaboration, be that writer & artist or artist & colorist, same goes for great bands, directors, actors. It's all about mutual interests and respect.
Back when I read Si's initial pitch for Six-Gun Gorilla, it immediately resonated with me and all I could think was "I’m the only person who's going to draw this book, I wont let anyone else." It was like I knew exactly what was supposed to be on the page, and I’m not sure if that's just because Si is such a good writer, or if because we share such similar interests, probably both, but either way it worked and I genuinely feel the same way, if not better about The Spire. Even if we didn't know it at the time I think Six-Gun Gorilla was certainly a trial run and as a result we've both earned an equal parts creator/collaborator in one another.
Nrama: Can you tell us about our protagonist Shå and the Medusi? Is she the main character or is this more of ensemble book?
Spurrier: Shå is very much the main protagonist. She's not quite the sole point of view in the book – in odd moments we borrow the perspective of other critical characters, most notably Pug, the foul-mouthed gargoyle who flies using a sort of bio engineered beetle-winged fart-patch – but yeah, she's broadly the heart and soul of our tale.
She's... pretty amazing. She's the captain of the city watch: an overstretched and frankly ineffectual civilian force attempting to keep the peace. She's gay. And she's not entirely human. It tells you something about the social state of the Spire that nobody gives a crap about her gender or her sexuality, but as a “skew” – a member of the dozen-or-so hybrid tribes whose refugee populations live and work in the city – she faces prejudice at every step. Not least from the bureaucratic classes who are supposedly her bosses.
Not that we're selling some caricature of a xenophobic society here, by the way. It's built into the culture of Spire folk to be egalitarian, welcoming and progressive, but cities have always had a way of bringing out fear and suspicion in people (in this case it's the age-old immigration issue), and there are always those lurking on the sidelines who see prejudice as a fulcrum. With The Spire we want to raise some familiar subtextual scenarios – the hypocrisies of civilised societies, in particular – but never cram them down our readers' throats. It's a spectacular crime story first, second, third and fourth, and a parable fifth.
Anyway, as a member of the Medusi tribe Shå represents an extremely rare and little-known race, held in even more suspicion than most because she can pass as human. I won't go into too much detail about what distinguishes her from the “normal” people around her, but it's visually very cool. To make matters more complicated she's somewhat confused about her own past too, knowing only that the rest of her tribe hates her guts.
In other words: she's the sort of the character you can really get to know, without knowing anything about at all.
Stokely: Shå is quite singular. She's self aware and confident in her abilities but still finding things out about herself (aren't we all?) which I think gives her very human qualities. Though she is still very Medusi.
She's a bad ass. Ovaries to bones.
Nrama: Aside from characters like Shå, what are you excited about for readers to see?
Spurrier: Think that's probably more of a question for Jeff than me, since so much of the visual direction has emerged from his brain. Actually, since he's still actively drawing this thing, there are some really big beats which I'm crazy excited about me seeing, let alone the readers.
Story wise: there's a run of especially vicious twists and turns to be deployed down the line, at least one of which is going to have me spending a week hitting “refresh” on the comics news sites.
Stokely: The world, I suppose. Inside and outside of the Spire, the different races, the Zoarim. Pretty hard question to answer. I just want people to read the comic and feel like they're experiencing something new without having one element of the book be bogged down by another or have one thing outshine the rest. I really just hope we make a good book. As for visuals in the story, there's a ton of stuff I’m excited to draw and all of that stuff I’m excited for people to see... and telling you what all of that stuff is would be spoilers and sort of defeat the purpose of people buying the book. I’m excited for the book in general! Seems cheesy but there really isn't one aspect of it that I’m not looking forward to.
Nrama: When getting to sci-fi and fantasy stories, what as a creator do you try to incorporate? What notes are you really wanting to hit?
Spurrier: As I think I intimated above, I'm doing my best to dodge any overt genre lip-service. In fact I tend to think the whole idea of genre is pretty laughable. Just think about some of the words we use to define stories: “comedy,” “western," “horror,” “period,” “fantasy,” “crime”. Right there you've got a tone, a location, an emotion, a time-setting, a meaningless descriptor of non-reality (hence true of all fiction) and a f------ legal term. They're not even all describing the same sort of stuff, let alone telling you a single useful thing about the story itself. So: piss on genre. The only people who remotely benefit from using genre terminology are administrators – those who are so fundamentally impatient and unimaginative that they'd rather an unsatisfactory but swift label than a longer but more rewarding one – while the rest of us, creators, audience and retailers alike, are forced to think in terms of these idiotic reductive little boxes.
Rant over. Sorry. It's a bit of a truism of my work that if you try and assign honest genre descriptions you'll end with a list a mile long. The Spire's no different. It's an apocalyptic fantasy sci-fi crime noir comedy romance LGBT psychological thriller, mm'kay?
Look, all stories have fantasy in them. Almost all stories are science-fiction tales, to one degree or another. With The Spire we set out simply to create a world which was by turns familiar and exotic. It's a world which functions – just. We wanted to give our readers a parade of elements they've never seen before, and then transform them into relatable and sympathetic story-notes through the simple magic of character. That's the beauty of story, in the end. A good story with humanity at its heart will redeem literally any amount of strangeness that surrounds it. Hence: why bother playing with clichés – elves and dwarfs and dragons and aliens and f------ world-shaking nonsense – when, by simply including the ingredient “people acting like people,” you can chuck literally anything into your recipe and be certain it'll taste divine.
Stokely: I just hope my art hits the same notes the story does hah! I think that's more important than anything. From a visual standpoint I don't think there's the slightest bit of an agenda regarding what we want to incorporate per say as apposed to what we'd rather avoid. I think Si and I both get relatively tired of the same shit being spewed out onto shelves and screens and we just want to make the books we want to read. It's that simple. It always has been, always will be. If the book we want to read just happens to be a crime noir murder mystery set in a massive ancient structure that houses over a million people set to the backdrop of a sprawling post apocalyptic landscape then we're going to do it.
Bare with me for a second.
The most important thing to hit is story. If the story works then it really doesn't matter what kind of world it takes place in, as long as you can empathize or sympathize with the characters and hopefully not quite know where the story is going to take you, then we've done our jobs. Of course, it's easier to project yourself onto a character if it exists in an intriguing world that actually seems to function. If I can make it seem like that world functions, make the characters emote, and in turn make you emote from reading it then my job is done.
Nrama: Finally, going back to your comment about the Image pitch, do you think that The Spire is "the one"?
Spurrier: For me? I've stopped thinking in those terms. Whether it's true of all writers or simply because of the way my career's taking shape, I think it's actually really unhealthy to think along “breakout” lines. Every time I do a gig somebody somewhere will describe it as such, but it carries its own dangers. You find yourself picking-up adjectives like unrequested brand-markers. For me it's this list of words which are arguably very flattering – “cerebral,” “layered,” “thoughtful,” “strange,” “out there” – and I'm not about to complain about those. But, y'know… A clearly-labelled box is both a very strong and a very brittle position from which to be striking out. If a writer's known for doing A Certain Thing, especially at an early stage, it's really difficult to subsequently demonstrate range.
There are plenty of creators out there who really lean into that bend, by the way. People who become so intrinsically associated with a single tone or a recurring motif that they wind up putting themselves at the heart of the reading experience. It's branding, inadvertent or otherwise. These are people (usually writers) who stand in front of their stories rather than behind them. I think that's a perfectly reasonable course to take, especially in a world so sodden with opportunities for creator/audience engagement, but for my tastes it feels a little like a gilded cage. After having a great many long, hard discussions with myself I've realised the only thing I feel so strongly about that I can imagine it saturating every single piece of work I ever do – the only thing I'd ever risk becoming my brand, in other words – is my conviction that story is an existential technology. About which I won't say too much here because I'd sound like a proper mental at best and a pretentious arserag at worst, but it's something I've lectured about both professionally and pub-ishly. The upshot of it is that I'm determined to focus on writing awesome fucking stories first and foremost, across a horizon-wide spectrum, and consciously avoid repetition. The brand can sort itself out.
(That's a hard-learned lesson, by the way. With hindsight I could draw a simple tone influence line between early Vertigo and a decent chunk of the first stage of my writing career. From Swamp Thing to Preacher, that stuff is what got me into comics, and it's saturated my tastes so deeply there's a little flavor of it in almost everything I wrote over the past five or so years. My run on X-Men Legacy, spandex notwithstanding, positively oozes that vibe.)
Anyway, over the past year I've made a conscience decision that it's time to put away comfortable things and start showing people what I can do. The Progressive Second LP, if you like. Six-Gun Gorilla was perhaps the first step on that path, which over the next year or so will swell to include books at Marvel, BOOM!, Avatar, Image, and elsewhere. All of them very different from each other, but cohesive enough to form a fierce demon-ride of an album.
Sticking with that analogy, The Spire is the epic foot-stamper somewhere round track 4 or 5, re-upping the adrenaline and murdering the conversation. Dance, fuckers, dance.
Having said all of that, I do think these things work slightly differently for artists – especially finely-scented young beardy ones – so from Jeff's perspective: yes, I'm almost certain that The Spireis indeed The Breakout Track.