Proud Stands ‘The Spire'; Here’s How Artist Jeff Stokely Built It [Interview]
It was clear during their time together working on Six Gun Gorilla for Boom Studios that artist Jeff Stokely and writer Si Spurrier immediately connected as a team. Their sensibilities merged into a captivating, personal whole, creating a wild comics that still felt as intimate as a comic about a gun-slinging gorilla possibly can.
This year the pair have returned with a new series at Boom, The Spire, an epic fantasy that thrives on the rich, beautiful artwork of Stokely and colorist Andre May. The series is at once grand, almighty and filled with character, roving from the top to the bottom of the eponymous tower to look at a large cast of characters living (and dying) within its walls. It's a giant undertaking, and one that Stokely has jumped on with breathtaking skill. We in turn jumped at the opportunity to speak to him about his work on the book.
ComicsAlliance: When The Spire was first pitched to you, what was it that made you think, “Yes, this is the story I want to tell next”?
Jeff Stokely: Si pitched the general story to me and it was very much in line with Six-Gun Gorilla in terms of it being a huge world but an intimate story. That's something I'm always drawn to because it lets me hopefully flex my design skills in trying to make a new, exciting, and believable world as well as my visual storytelling. The balance between the two is challenging, but really fun. The chance to draw and essentially create this world that is at the same time so radically different from 6GG or anything I've worked on this far, that was the immediate pull for me. It's very much the kind of book I've wanted to draw since I knew I wanted to draw comics.
Plus, with Si writing, I knew there would be no shortage of amazing things to draw.
CA: Where did you start once you came onboard the book? Do you start with character designs, or location, or somewhere else?
JS: I started with character designs and would bounce around a few environment sketches in between so I didn't get burned out. Plus, it helped balance the flow, each new design was a step in the right direction. The first round of Shå sketches was pretty bad and the various races were all a bit too alien, but the more I drew, the more I worked out the kinks, and designing environments helps that a lot.
Where a character lives and how that affects their social status is an integral part of The Spire, so it all helped and weighed heavily on my design decisions.
CA: Did you have a particular aesthetic you wanted to evoke within the series?
JS: Si and I discussed the look and feel of the world at great lengths, both inside and outside of The Spire. There is an array of influences we both have on the book and we certainly didn't want it to be pigeon-holed into one specific look, because the story after all isn't a simple fantasy or a simple cop drama, which the aesthetic hopefully reflects.
Changing up my style to be more sporadic and line based really fed that fuel, which helped curve the look into what I wanted and helped separate it from all my previous books, which rely heavily on brushwork. I think I've only used a brush once or twice in issue one. Because of this I get a lot of comments about the heavy Miyazaki or Moebius influence, which I am of course leaning into.
CA: What kind of tone did you want to bring to the series? There’s grand sense of the epic, but also fat grumpy pixie-blokes. How do you balance the seriously fantastical with the sillier parts?
JS: Honestly, it can be tough for me to do something entirely serious. I think by default I tend to draw less realistically and focus more on gesturing and emotion/motion than just drawing a page that looks cool. If you try to make the Gargs look cool, it defeats the whole purpose. They're like beautiful messenger cherubs spliced with goblins; their existence is meant to be perplexingly funny.
I also have a huge affinity for manga and anime which constantly flits — often quite drastically — between drama and comedy far more than any of our books do. An example of balancing that well would be any of Jim Henson's work, really; Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal not only balanced that, but also beauty and the grotesque, and because of that it really made those worlds real. Same goes for any of Terry Gilliam's work. All of them as filmmakers/writers/artists have had quite a big influence on me and my work.
CA: Do you take real-world references for world-building? Are there any particular styles of real-world architecture that The Spire draws from, for example?
JS: No real world reference. Not purposefully, anyway. If I find a great image of a cluster of rooftops or beautiful archways, I save it and look at it if I’m inspired for a specific location of The Spire, but it's mostly imagination. I try to think more about it than referencing, especially for environments because I don't want it to have one distinct look.
My inspiration for the actual architecture is pretty wide; ranges from European archways and Spanish rooftops to Moebius' beautiful eye for otherworldly stone-pillared columns and Akira Toriyama's dome-like "Capsule" homes. It's like all of those inspirations of mine got wasted together and puked into a pile. That's The Spire!
CA: Where did the image of the Spire itself come from? Did you try several different ways of representing it before choosing the one we see in the comic?
JS: I did one sketch of it and it got approved, then I did a few sketches of the apartments. It was quite different from the finished product you see on the spread in issue one. Though my vision of it was always very clear from the beginning, Si is also an insanely good writer so his descriptions almost speak to everything I love to draw.
I really wanted a world that seemed mashed together, huts built upon apartments built upon gigantic pillars, and tunnels and stairways carved into their sides, that all make up the structure of the Spire. As if once there was a beautiful structure, but now it's become a monolithic shanty-town of sorts. So it needed to feel ancient, new, and dilapidated in parts. I like the idea that its origins are hard to trace, but if you look close enough you can see bits here and bits there of different cultures.
CA: How closely do you work with colorist Andre May? Do you plan out a palette, or anything like that?
JS: Quite close actually. He and I planned out a very specific palette for both this and Six Gun Gorilla. This is supposed to look drastically different and he is absolutely crushing it. We still use a few incredibly important key colors that mean specific things to the story. He understands that color can tell a story just as well as any other imagery or words. I'd rather not spoil what the colors mean, but it's definitely something to pay attention to.
As for work load, I generally email him with color notes once I finish a batch of pages. I ask for him to stay literal on most stuff and let him run free with other stuff. It's most fun to work with our "story colors" though, because he just gets that and will use those even when I don't ask him to. I think he's definitely the shining star of the book. Plus, he not only puts up with my lateness, but also makes me look really good!
CA: What’s your character design process like? The lead, Shå, for example --- what did you want to emphasize about her through her clothing and look?
JS: Shå went through a couple tries before we locked down her look. At first she resembled Nausicaa too much. She is such an interesting character because she is an authoritative figure but also displays a blatant disregard for authority, she believes strongly in equality, and has quite the mysterious past, so all of those qualities had to be clear from the moment she was revealed.
The eyepatch was a huge factor in the latter bit and was something we came to a bit later in the design. She had to be able to move quickly but also remain tactical so I didn't want her to be bogged down by armor, and there was no way she was going to be wearing anything skimpy. She's incredibly no-nonsense. Almost to a fault.
CA: The costuming plays a huge role in general, even as subtext. What differentiates the people at the top and the bottom of The Spire? What are some of the smaller touches you most enjoyed penciling?
JS: It was of huge importance. In building the entire world — in any world — there is always fashion. It may sound silly, but it's one way a society or societies are most easily reflected. After all, what you choose to wear is often a reflection of yourself, as I mentioned above with Shå.
In the case of the Spire, we have our various tiers and levels, each of which is supposed to reflect the classes: the richest and most human are at the top, poorest and most sculpted/skews are at the bottom. In thinking about that, the symbol for the Spire itself needed to reflect, well, the Spire itself, so all of the fashion resembles a triangle or diamond to some extent. There's also a lot of importance in symmetry, too, both in character design and page/panel composition.
If I say anymore we could be jumping into some potential spoilery content, but most likely some laughably pretentious stuff on my part.
CA: What’s the collaborative process like with Si Spurrier? Does he script quite tightly to what he wants to see, or is there a lot of space for you to try what you like?
JS: We did a lot of what I’m going to call "pre-gaming" on this book. The concept stage took me months because I was also finishing up other work, but it really helped me get a firmer grasp on the story, world, and characters before diving in. This helped immensely so that Si doesn't have to write in every little detail in the script for me.
In general, Si writes a tight script, very succinct and to the point. It's not an Alan Moore novel on each page --- they're to the point and not overbearing with direction. Though, it does vary and sometimes he leaves me a ton of room and other times he'll send me thumbnails of some ideas he has. I encourage all of it because it feels much more like a collaboration to me. Instead of just saying "draw it just like this," things are much more suggestive.
CA: What have you enjoyed most about working on The Spire so far? What are you most excited for people to see over the next few issues?
JS: Honestly, my favorite part might be just drawing the book. It's incredibly fun and challenging. But I do love anything with the Killer, and also the Zoarim, which pop up a bit more in issue #2. I’m looking forward to doing some exciting stuff in those areas and for people to see more of Shå's character. Also, just more weird world stuff. It's so fun!
Check out some pages from The Spire #1, on sale now: