Si Spurrier is a comics writer I’ve been following for a few years now; in my year-end roundup for 2014, I praised his web comic, Crossed: Wish You Were Here (illustrated by Javier Barreno) and he’s done excellent work on various titles both super-hero-y and otherwise. (He also writes novels, but I alas haven’t read them.)
One of his recent American comic titles is The Spire, an eight-issue story illustrated by Jeff Stokely, published this year by Boom! Studios. This is a mystery story set in a towering vertical city somewhere on the Vancean borderland between fantasy and decaying sf. It’s clear from small clues that we are in some sort of post-collapse future; most of the technology is late Renaissance or, at its most advanced, Edwardian and the government is headed by hereditary aristocrats. But the poisonous lands outside the Spire are home to the “sculpted” (or, as they are vulgarly and insultingly known, “skews”), nations of genetically modified new human subspecies. There are also ancient artifacts, which are of course immensely destructive in the way ancient artifacts always are.
Our protagonist, Shå, is a skew who has been living among the humans of the Spire for several decades. One of the Medusae, she has thin prehensile tendrils along her back that can serve as extra arms for holding, climbing, or catching herself when she falls from level to level on the Spire; also, she can for short periods change her shape. These abilities serve her well in her position as Captain of the town watch. In the manner of all good mystery stories, bodies start piling up, and in the manner of all good noir, the resolution reveals to Shå interlocking truths she would rather have never known about the Spire, about the woman she loves, and about herself.
The story and the world are brought to vivid life by Stokely. His vistas of the Spire are vertiginous and packed with detail. The characters, both human and grotesque, are expressive, and he does an excellent job of depicting the key characters consistently and recognizably across the range of decades.
The mystery itself is complex--as noted, key events in it span several decades and a variety of milieus—and that brings me to a key liability in the story: that it was published in 20-page chunks over the course of eight months. The creators make mild efforts to have each issue stand as a discrete narrative chunk, but the complexity of the story and the mysteries waiting to be unraveled within it strongly argue for reading it as a whole. Small details in early chapters loom large as the plot circles back on itself, and even simple things like a word scrawled on a piece of cardboard can build to emotional climaxes. But that emotional impact must necessarily be diminished when the setup and payoff are stretched out over eight months.
The creators of a modern comic book serial are pulled between writing a monthly publication and telling a substantial story. (There’s about as much story in this series as in a solid short novel; comics, like film, can and should convey a great deal through visual creativity, and as noted, Stokely’s art is dense and communicative.) This is a topic I intent to return to at some greater length in a future editorial, but for now let me just say that the over the last 30 years, that tension has been steadily growing and sometimes it simply breaks things apart.
Fortunately, a collected edition is due in December. Recommended for a good long afternoon’s read.
—Kevin J. Maroney and the editors