Last Wednesday, the first issue of the new book by Si Spurrier and Jeff Stokely came out from Boom Studios. It’s called “The Spire”, and this isn’t a review f it.
I did review the comic, on episode 35 of We Have Issues. Quite unusually, there are actually two reviews of it on that episode – it was one of the comics the singular David Wynne chose to talk about in his contribution. You can listen to either or both reviews, and a bunch of other sordid nonsense – only some of it comic related – on the episode, which you can listen to here. (Or anywhere else where podcasts are.)
You probably don’t need to listen to the reviews. Loads of people have been talking this book, and everything I’ve heard or read about it so far has been – deservedly – enthusiastically glowy with adoration. It’s pretty brilliant.
Anyway, during that episode, I had stuff to say about the comic, but I also had stuff to say about Si Spurrier, which I don’t think I exactly nailed in my inexact way of podcasting.
That’s what this post is for.
I’ve got this working thesis about Si Spurrier, and it’s one that I’ve mentioned in relation to some of his work on the show before, and got snarled up on, because there are ways of putting it that sound a bit… obnoxious.
And the day before recording that episode, in the morning, in the shower, I was thinking about a comic by Ales Kot, Matt Taylor and Lee Loughridge called “Wolf”, the first issue of which I was lucky enough to see a preview copy of.
(I’m not a hundred percent sure what I’m allowed to say about “Wolf”. Kot has left it very much to the judgement of the previewers, saying there’s an embargo on full review but that it’s okay to get vocally excited. That sort of ambiguity is where the monsters live for me, so maybe I should just say “if you like supernatural investigators, or LA noir, or fucking ace comics, you should put an order in for it at your comic store”. Kot has written some excellent comics, and I can’t say sincerely that this is my favourite thing by him. But it is incredibly accessible, really sticky, and has “breakout book” written all over it.)
And while in the shower, all soapy, I realised that what I’d been saying about Ales Kot over the last few weeks is what I’ve been saying about Si Spurrier for ages.
Ales Kot and Si Spurrier are really, really different writers, and also really similar. Both young and fetching, both (I think?) coming to comics having worked making things in other media. They’re both fiercely idealistic, which isn’t unusual among comic creators, but Spurrier and Kot have both stuck their necks out on principle, in ways that aren’t always conducive to one’s career.
But more than that, both are almost wilfully intellectual, in ways that they apply directly to their work.
In Kot it comes out in an academic bent – nowhere more visible than in the very dense and well-referenced Material (with Will Tempest). Capable of intense surreality, Kot still maintains a certain tonal distance from the text, even when inserting himself in it; it’s like watching David Cronenberg building an early career, using each new project as a way to develop a new tool.
In Spurrier, there’s a more mischievous and frenetic energy to his academic curiosity. I don’t know whether it’s innate, or it comes out of his early work being in the very peculiar milieu of 2000AD serials, which force a certain tempo and pace on a creator. But that intellectual curiosity is definitely there in his work as well, and fuck it, let’s lean into the analogy by invoking John Carpenter.
Like Carpenter, a lot of Spurrier’s work is defined by coming up with a really smart idea – not always brand new, but maybe not well-explored – and saying “let’s test this idea out, using all the creative tools and tricks we have at our disposal”.
I should clarify that I don’t mean that other creators aren’t as intelligent, or intellectual, or academic. There are so many people working in the medium today who understand and can speak eloquently and academically about their work that it’s almost possible to forget that the medium wasn’t built with it being an artform in mind.
What sets Kot and Spurrier apart from other writers in the medium, though, is that even when working firmly in the mainstream, their work always has that experimental feel to it first and foremost.
It makes for an interesting portfolio of work, for each writer. For example, it takes a lot longer to identify either writer’s “voice” than it does many of their contemporaries.
It’s often quite common for writers to instinctively nail down their voice over time, so that after a certain point, each new project is a new setting, character or stories, with that voice applied. If the voice is distinctive enough, or resonates enough with a particular reader, it’s possible to follow the writer from project to project and be reasonably assured that you’re going to love what you get.
(This is a simplification, of course, and in some more craft-oriented writers, their voice becomes a matter of approach – for example, Brian Wood and Antony Johnston are each great examples of writers whose characters speak in very naturalistic ways, but it is possible to infer writer voice from their approach to story and structure. At some point in the future I’d like to write about Warren Ellis in this context – his is one of the most distinct voices in comics when it comes to dialogue, which has worked for and against various comics he’s written, and he’s been arguably one of the most influential modern creators in this area, too.)
In Spurrier’s case, he did have a distinct way of writing dialogue in his early career – his influences worn very much on his sleeve and giving his work a populist flavour – but to my mind that changed with “Crossed: Wish You Were Here”. Notably, the confessional nature of the early chapters of that comic found an immediacy and naturalism informing the way his characters spoke, and that has been present to a greater and lesser extent in his work ever since.
Maybe I love this new analogy too much, but that seam of populism is reflected in Carpenter’s work too, and has meant that despite he and Cronenberg being contemporaries, his movies had a higher visibility, especially early on. Kot and Cronenberg both lean more heavily toward a colder, crisper avant garde aesthetic.
Because many comic writers can be defined by their voice, whereas these two can be defined by that intellectual curiosity, I find that their work can be less consistent in terms of how well it works for me; when running experiments, some may have more beneficial or stable results than others.
But we can argue that even an experiment that disproves the theory that prompted it is successful, and that’s how I feel about Simon Spurrier’s work. There’s a joy to seeing a smart, talented creator work through an idea, even if ultimately that idea doesn’t quite land. That a writer cares enough about a medium to throw themselves into these ideas is infectious.
Other creators might find their own magic formula to consistently hit “awesome!”, and there’s definitely value and art in that, but when a Spurrier collaboration (or a Kot one) sings, it really fucking sings, and there’s a huge amount of satisfaction for a reader in having taken a gamble on another experiment that worked out. The results can be sublime, which isn’t as easy to achieve when you’re sticking to the toolkit that you know works.
And that’s what The Spire is. Both Spurrier and Stokely, who worked together on another really odd and wonderful book, opted to write and draw like two completely different writers and drawrers. They could have done what they knew worked, but they chose to try something else. And the result, at least in the first issue, is divine; an approximately traditional milieu, but with a look and tone to it that is at once like nothing else on the shelves, and accessible and familiar like a great pop song.
I love it, and can see myself re-reading it a little, which never happens any more.
It’s worth noting that even when Spurrier or Kot don’t quite nail it, their comics are still intensely readable. Like Prince Of Darkness, or A Dangerous Method.
I’d be interested to know what people think of this understanding of the work of Kot and Spurrier. If I’m onto something, can you think of anyone else in comics who is making a career of experimentation?
Kelly Sue Deconnick’s creator owned work definitely leans away from her perfectly executed and incredibly precise Captain Marvel work, and more toward “let’s see how this goes”.
Sam Kieth, maybe. Bill Sienkiewicz. Dave McKean? All creators who are capable of very commercial art, but who instead lean into experimentation and developing their own creative languages, with varying degrees of success. Interestingly, most of those creators are artists.