Setting counts for a lot, and the massive city that gives Simon Spurrier and Jeff Stokely’s recent BOOM! comic The Spire its title is a lesson in how to create something particularly beguiling. Think of China Miéville’s Bas-Lag, or Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris-phantasmagorical cities. Strange things abound in these worlds, and yet the fantastical aspects don’t mitigate the worst aspects of human nature. At the center of Stokely and Spurrier’s narrative is Shå, who sports an eyepatch, possesses odd power, and is tasked with investigating a bizarre murder. And while Shå is a compelling enough protagonist on her own, the supporting cast, including an embittered gargoyle named Pug, a petty criminal who speaks in verse and a host of aristocrats enmeshed in intrigue, provides a wider view of the world on display.
As evocative as the setting and characters are, though, The Spire’s small details make it even more compelling. There’s a creative use of lettering, for instance, which accentuates the already-memorable dialogue even more. And there’s a genuinely lived-in aspect to this world, as characters’ histories collide with one another, while the answers to other mysteries lay waiting to be revealed. Paste spoke with Spurrier to learn more about the process of creating The Spire.
Paste: There’s a lot happening in the first issue of The Spire, from horrific murders to palace intrigue to references to events that happened in years past. What was the first part of this world that came to you—the city? Shå?
Simon Spurrier: A good old coalescence of elements, I think. I started with some fairly nuts-and-boltsy type goals, then allowed things to evolve from there. For instance, I desperately wanted to work with Jeff, so it made sense to direct myself towards the areas where our inner fanboys overlap. I wanted to present an idea he literally couldn’t resist, so being able to say “it’s like Bladerunner meets Mad Max by way of The Dark Crystal” was entirely calculated.
Then there were more abstract ambitions. I’ve always wanted to create a fantastical world which feels functional, because I’m weary of genre stories that are contrived purely to enable the story taking place inside them. There’s this really tiresome conventional wisdom that “if you’re creating a new world, the stakes of the story should be world-shaking.” Tell that to Rick Deckard, Roy Batty and co, y’know? I wanted the world we built to feel like it continues to exist when you look away from it, even though the readers—much like its inhabitants—can’t possibly understand everything about it. Hence the world of The Spire is rich with history and strangeness, but rather than slavishly presenting maps and chronologies readers are left to speculate and surmise about a lot of it.
(After all, nobody ever gives those of us living in the real world explanatory notes on the mysteries we encounter every day. How can it possibly enhance the wonder of fiction, let alone the relatability of its characters, to constantly explain everything?)
Lastly, in a slightly perverse sort of way, I wanted us to create a world totally unlike anything our readers have ever seen before…but then to make it one of the least important parts of the story. I wanted our plot to feel intimate, affecting, moving, rather than the usual “THE WORLD IS IMPERILLED!!!” nonsense, which does nothing but widen the scope beyond the point that human concerns resonate. As a direct result of that decision, it made perfect sense to use a murder mystery as the mechanism to drive the story. It’s such an efficient narrative shape for establishing internal logic, getting to know a POV character and exploring the world.
We deviate pretty quickly from a standard Detective Mystery—there’s all sorts of glorious weirdness coming down the pipe—but it’s the familiar-feeling slot we’re asking readers to drop their first few coins into.
At a certain point all these rather prosaic desires and ambitions had spewed-out enough of a foundation that the real fun could begin: devising characters (Shå first of all), and letting the plot evolve alongside them.
In Shå’s case, I wanted a strong, smart, frequently grumpy, often funny, strangely tragic-seeming protagonist whose muddled life would give us access to all sorts of rich thematic marrow, and whose aesthetic look (and skills!) would have people itching to cos-play. Again, upon these unromantic ambitions layers of sedimentary invention settle. There are elements of Shå’s story which can only take place because of the world where she lives—and we’re a long way from seeing the full breadth of what she can do—but if we’ve done our job right she’s also a very sympathetic and human-seeming character, despite being a member of a different species.
The Spire Art by Jeff Stokely
Paste: How did you and artist Jeff Stokely first cross paths?
Spurrier: We worked together on a previous book from Boom! Studios called Six-Gun Gorilla. It did astonishingly well, in no small part because Jeff’s unique art kept the readers spellbound long enough for their natural bewilderment (Gorillas? Guns? Suicide as reality TV? Is this a sci-fi? What’s all this meta stuff? Is that a gigantic war-turtle? What the hell am I reading?!) to subside, so they could relax into the story.
As you will have gathered, I have something of a fractious relationship with simple genre-definitions in my work. There’s still an unfortunate tendency, I think, for people to avoid fictions which can’t easily be described as being “a bit like” something else they’ve already heard of, so for someone like me it really does help to have an artist capable of making literally everything look gorgeous.
People often ask who’s the more important element in a comicbook collaboration: the writer or the artist? It’s a completely ridiculous question, and if either partner starts to feel more indispensable than the other then the whole project’s in trouble. But if you had to draw a distinguishing generalization I’d very tentatively hazard that casual readers will often come for the art then stay for the story. The art frequently has to play the part of the very beautiful worm on a hook.
Jeff’s one of the first artists I’ve found where I know that no matter what we do, no matter what insanity I give him to draw, it’ll always be greater than the sum of our constituent parts. It’s worth hanging on to collaborations like that, once you’ve found them.
Paste: When did Pug’s dialogue—which contrasts so much with the rest of the characters in its informality—become a factor in the story?
Spurrier: Not until I sat down to write the dialogue, if I’m honest. I knew I wanted Pug to be this little bundle of swearing, grumbling attitude—like a cross between a crotchety old man and a stroppy little toddler—and the simple expedient of removing all punctuation from his text seemed to fit the bill.
It’s always quite difficult wrangling accents in completely invented worlds, but I didn’t want to go down the path of using that “neutral” Queen’s English you get in so many fantasy or historical movies. Partly that’s because it’s just as jarring as any other accent to Brits who don’t come from the one tiny corner of England where people still speak like they grew up in Hobbiton, and partly because the opportunities for expressive cursing in BBC English are so dismal. In The Spire I’ve ended up erring towards the sorts of language which don’t rely on this or that vernacular (so readers can bring their own voices to the table), but with Shå I couldn’t resist the occasional vituperative Britishism, and Pug is an unashamed drunken cockney mumbler through and through.
The Spire Art by Jeff Stokely
Paste: One of the most immediately striking things about this issue are some of the lettering choices made, including the range of fonts and colors. At what point did those variations come into play?
Spurrier: Many of them arose long after the dialogue was written, and all credit gets spread between the fabulous letterer—Steve Wands—and the editorial team.
I tend to use text and balloons a lot more graphically in my scripts than most writers. For instance, I use a lot of small-sized text to imply mumbling, whispering, distance, etc. Similarly I like to be able to control whether multiple balloons emanating from one speaker are connected to each other, or separated by ligaments, or indeed have separate assignation tails, because I believe you can imply the rhythm of speech and the emotion that come from lacunae by tweaking this stuff. There’s no right way or wrong way, honestly, and a lot of the trendiest comics at the moment seem to have reverted to a sort of minimalist formalism, often using lower- or mixed-case lettering rather than all-caps, without even emboldened words for emphasis. That’s fine. For my own tastes, I like letterers to be able to be expressive (check out the work of Lois Buhalis, especially in The Mask Strikes Back, to see how text can become a critical part of the mood).
In the case of The Spire, Steve and the editors have run with it in some really cool directions. The decision to slightly fade out all my small-sized-text, so it’s even more obviously sotto, was inspired. Likewise: the flowery script of the Anitki-talkers (street gangsters whose latest affectation is to speak in rhyming couplets) and the literally flowery symbols around Shå’s insincere greeting to the new Baroness. It’s great lettering.
The Spire Art by Jeff Stokely
Paste: The Spire itself is a very distinctive visual. What input did you give Jeff Stokely on its creation?
Spurrier: Just the big beats, honestly. It’s an ancient city, roughly conical, rising from a toxic wilderness. Inside it a million souls rub shoulders, many of them human in a way you or I would recognise, many others from different races. They might be the descendants of those who were genetically engineered centuries before, they might be the products of magic, they might be anything—the “why” and the “what” aren’t nearly as important as the how of people co-existing in the now.
Everything else? The details of the aesthetic… the dominant technologies… the look and shape of the inhuman races… the clothing… the geography of the wilderness… it all comes from Jeff’s brush.
I was talking earlier about the importance of finding artists with whom you’re keen to keep on collaborating, over and over. That’s a fairly recently-learned lesson for me. This is the first time I’ve deliberately forced myself to leave gaps in the world-building, to refrain from describing things too closely, even to deliberately blur plot-points, because I wanted Jeff to take the lead in designing these things. It’s no hardship for me to subsequently coil the words (and the story) around his depictions, because they’ll inevitably be better that the ones that were in my head.
Paste: This issue is listed as the first of eight. Is this the only story you’re planning to tell in this world, or can you foresee more using the same setting?
Spurrier: I can definitely foresee the chance for more, if stories jump up and want to be told. As I said above, Jeff and I are both keen that this world doesn’t feel as though it’s entirely contingent upon this one tale being spun inside it (and vice-versa).
I’m a firm believer in the power of endings—no such thing as a story without one—so this eight episode serial has a very carefully planned conclusion. There’s nothing to stop us telling other tales in the the same world afterwards, possibly even reusing some characters, but I’m obviously not going to spoil which ones will still be around at the end of this arc. :)
The Spire Art by Jeff Stokely
Paste: How would you describe The Spire’s genre? Are we looking at a fantasy world with a higher-than-expected level of technology, or are we more in “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” territory?
Spurrier: Ha… as you may have gathered from some of the above, I have a bee in my bonnet about the whole notion of genre, at least in terms of the way it’s presently used. For instance, let’s pick a random handful of genre terms: comedy, Western, thriller, period, crime, fantasy. Okay, so, right there in that little pack of words you’ve got an emotional response, a location, a mood, a time-frame, an inciting event and a meaningless fucking adjective. Just think about that. None of these word tells you anything about the shape of the story that you’re about to experience. They’re not even describing the same sorts of things, let alone describing the right thing.
The whole system is utterly unfit for purpose, and literally nobody benefits from it. All it does is ghettoize the more easily-definable genres and force us to cram things into restrictive boxes, hence robbing them of all freedom and innovation. The only alternative is to string together stupidly long phrases for maximum accuracy, which—we are told— is an elevator-pitch No No. My last book with Jeff, for instance, Six-Gun Gorilla, might legitimately be described as a sci-fi comedy metafictional western war conspiracy-thriller. Which doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.
When it comes to The Spire, jeez, I don’t even know. I’ve taken to calling it “an apocalyptic crime fantasy” story, just to prove I can talk the talk, but that rrreally doesn’t do it justice.
As I mentioned above, my sense is that the best fantasies (by which I fuzzily mean: stories set in made-up worlds, because otherwise all fictions are essential fantasy stories by default) requires the characters within them to be just as comfortably befuddled by their reality as we frequently are by our own. Hence when you’re telling a story from their perspective it really doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference which arbitrary genre-term you choose to apply.