World Building: Character And Color in Stokely And Spurrier’s ‘The Spire’ [Pride Week]
With its eighth issue, Si Spurrier and Jeff Stokely's The Spire wrapped up last week, bringing the the series' whodunnit to a satisfying and surprisingly emotional conclusion. Given that it starred one of my favorite queer characters in recent comics, this seemed like a great time to look back over the Boom Studio series and to try to tell you, the lovely ComicsAlliance reader, why those eight issues are worth grabbing hold of as soon as you get the chance.
Let's start with that compelling queer character: Shå, the white-haired, eyepatch-wearing, cigarette-wielding hardass that The Spire revolves around, is the captain of the city watch in the titular pointy mound of humans and masonry, tasked with solving a series of murders that seem to be connected to the Spire's royal family. She is also a 'Sculpted' — or a 'Skew', if you're being rude — one of the many not-quite-human races who mostly live in the wasteland outside the Spire, but occasionally within the city too, in an uneasy balance with its human residents. She is also a gay woman in a secret relationship with one of the aforementioned royals.
The fact that the lead belongs to a group that's the series' equivalent of the mutant metaphor, but also a real-life marginalized community, isn't to be underestimated. The intersection of Shå's Sculpted and queer identity isn't explored too much at first — the focus is firmly on the tension between humans and Skews, whose role in society is similar to migrants in the UK, Spurrier's homeland — but the interplay between identities becomes vital as the series develops.
Even putting that aside, that's a lot of story hooks to throw at the reader. The overwhelming sense you get reading the comic is that Spurrier and Stokely are throwing absolutely everything they've got, every concept and everything they've learned from making comics, into The Spire. That's kind of the pair's modus operandi at this point — their previous comic together, Six-Gun Gorilla, was a fantastic meditation on the importance of stories and love, set on an alien world where soldiers psychically broadcast combat to the people back home, featuring a talking silverback gorilla who was basically Clint Eastwood in a Sergio Leone western.
The Spire isn't as outwardly bananas as that (yes, that's a gorilla joke) but there's at least as much going on in its setting.
The creators have clearly thought deeply about the inner workings of the world. They've developed a class system born out of the Spire's tiers — the pointed shape meaning each level is smaller and seemingly more well-off than the last, captured beautifully in the shifting palettes of André May's colors. They've created extraordinary creatures, from the police Sniffers, basically a huge snout on four furry legs, to the Llusc tribe, a race of fungus/crustacean people who see through pores in their shell, but wear glass eyes as a way of better integrating with humans. And they've developed a history behind it all — there's a suggestion that the Sculpted were artificially created, and dark references to the 'Shape-wars' that are never expanded upon, and even small hints that this seeming fantasy setting might actually be a post-apocalyptic future.
All of this is conveyed with stunning visuals. Look at Stokely's gorgeously inventive panelling throughout. Look at the example above, taken from one corner of a fairly standard page. The stark white silhouettes are the most immediately attention-grabbing effect, bleeding out into the panels' gutters. But look at the panel below it, which uses the bars of a cage as makeshift borders, splitting it up into three discrete moments.
Another panelling technique Stokely keeps coming back to is the double-page spread with inset panels. Often these insets are physical objects — like the telescope lenses below. It's a great way of capturing the grandeur of the world he and Spurrier have created, while always staying close to the characters.
Stokely designs the absolute heck out of this world in his deceptively loose and sketchy style. Probably the biggest feat is the balance he and Spurrier strike between silly and serious. This is a world, after all, where one of the leads is a grotesque wrinkled fairy who flies around by farting, and where 'antiki-punk' criminals break into rhyming couplets as they flee the police. These elements never break the sense that the world is a real place, though, instead creating an overall tone that feels — to borrow from another corner of nerdery — like Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, in particular the City Watch series, which is about the highest praise I can bestow.
The key to making it work is, I think, how firmly rooted The Spire is in its characters. Especially Shå. We started with her, so let's finish with her too. She's an immediately likeable lead who I'm left wishing could star in a book every month, but with a grumpy pragmatism that helps ground the strangeness around her. It's easy to forget that you're following a shapeshifter with magical tentacles that grow out of her back when she's tired at work, craving coffee and bacon.
There's one final thing I want to talk about, but it's a spoiler of the highest order, so if you haven't read The Spire and this review has convinced you to try it, we should part ways at this point.
Still here? Okay, let's talk. In the time-honored tradition of detective fiction, the solution to The Spire's central mystery is an unexpectedly personal one for the detective herself. Having hinted at amnesia throughout the series, the climax reveals Shå to be a trans woman. Her life before transitioning — if that's the right word for something that happens through magical shape-shifting — is part of a tangled web of events that motivate the murders in the present.
I'm not sure how I feel about using Shå's gender identity as the story's big twist. That's further complicated by how the reveal is interwoven with inter-generational romance, and by the fact that Shå herself doesn't originally know she's trans. With representation limited as it is, I don't know whether to be celebrating the fact that The Spire gives us a compelling trans protagonist or furrowing my brow over how her transition is complicated and tied up with the character's selfish decision to run away from a relationship and child.
Not every queer character has to be an angel, and not every experience has to be universal, but because she's one of very few examples, Shå unfairly ends up standing in for a much wider slice of human experience.
Maybe my thoughts on this issue will solidify with a re-read — The Spire is the kind of book that invites, if not outright demands, revisiting — but it would be great to hear the thoughts of other people, especially if you're trans yourself. Catch me in the comments.