A Tour of the 2016 Eisner Nominees, Part 5 – The Spire

The Spire is a comic that’s overflowing with creative ideas, determined to build its own rich fantasy world and completely heedless of any limits or restrictions in terms of genre. Some comics blend genres, but usually only two (or sometimes three), and do so with great care. The Spire just does a cannonball into the genre pool and splashes everything it can find. Fantasy, science fiction, gender-bending, political satire, cop drama, mystery, the grotesque: it’s all here, and it’s all stirred together like an improbable curry.

Released by Boom! Studios and created by Simon Spurrier and Jeff Stokley, The Spire ultimately works because of its relentless confidence in its own storytelling abilities and its fantastic central character, Sha. Sha is the last of a dying subspecies of human known as the medusi, and she also happens to be head of the City Watch (basically the chief of police/resident detective) for “The Spire”, a giant city built vertically in the middle of the desert, whose society is arranged with similar rigidity. On the lower floors of the Spire (the creators take great pains to remind us of what level we’re on at any given time), things resemble a medieval fantasy world, but as one ascends, the Spire becomes much more like a dystopian science fiction society: a fallen ultra-modern world. The repeated flashes to long ago battles and strange vehicles crossing the desert add to the Mad Max-type environment, which gives the creators more than ample literal and figurative room to explore. But it’s Sha that provides the through-line: a sarcastic, back-talking lesbian (who happens to be sleeping with the Queen’s daughter), Sha brings the whole story down to earth (in a manner of speaking) whenever she’s around. It’s all too easy for books with visions such as these to get mired in high-minded allegories and create needlessly complex worlds, just to see what they would look like on the page (this was my problem with East of West), but Sha’s character and the narrative momentum she provides really cuts through all the shenanigans here, and gives The Spire the energy it needs.

Sha is destined to become one of comics’ iconic heroes

The first striking thing about this comic is the sheer boldness of the design. Every page, and sometimes every panel, is stuffed full of ideas, such as the gang of small-time criminals, one of whom insists on speaking in archaic Shakespearean english. (Much credit here goes to letterer Steve Wands, who also outdoes himself with some sotto voce asides in the conventional dialogue passages.) The costume design alone would make Sir Ridley Scott jealous, with a blend of fantasy, sci-fi and comic archetypes that is, like everything else in this book, completely unbound by tradition or rules. The Spire itself is a wonderful notion for a comics-based story, as it allows much of the action to take place in a vertical environment rather than a horizontal. That slight difference in the axis of most of the motion makes the few scenes in which strange little winged sprites take horizontal flight over the city and its desert surroundings all the more dramatic and remarkable. The distinctly PG-13 sex scenes (other characters see Sha’s apparently lovely breasts, but we don’t) are just enough to ensure that we are aware that she loves sex, isn’t ashamed of it, and is as no-nonsense about it as everything else in her life. The violence is mostly in the gutters, in keeping with comics tradition, but the results of violence are seen very plainly, as the murders Sha is called to investigate are as brutal as they are political.

The breadth and scope of the storytelling is matched by the clever use of the medium

The plot, at least as it develops through the first few issues, revolves around a murder at the highest levels of power in The Spire, and Sha is tasked with unraveling the mystery. As the story progresses, we see that Sha is aptly suited to that sort of work, but the scope of the investigation is larger than she initially realizes. Several nations are gathering on the outskirts of the Spire by issue #5, and their role in the shifting sands of power within the city is not clear, but obviously significant. At the same time, Sha is struggling to keep her relationship together (she’s too busy with “work” to really put in the necessary quality time) and kick some serious butt when necessary. The creators take great pleasure in giving Sha some action hero moments that should please many comics fans, but like everything else in this book, it works better in the context of the whole. (And there are wonderful genre-bending cop-movie moments such as when Sha demands a coffee and a bacon and egg sandwich for breakfast from a servant, in precisely the same way a 300-pound grizzled police veteran would.)

The Spire is nominated for an Eisner for Best Limited Series, and thus will only fill eight issues before departing. Seven of the eight have already been released, and no doubt the inevitable collection will be part of every discerning comics collectors library before long. For fans of genre-bending storytelling that takes full advantage of the possibilities of the comics medium, it’s unmissable.

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Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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Also by Ian Dawe:

The Cyberpunk Nexus: Exploring the Blade Runner Universe


A More Civilized Age: Exploring the Star Wars Expanded Universe


A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Exploring Star Wars Comics


A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe


New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


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