Thursday, May 7, 2020

Spera: An Art Experiment

I first discovered a print copy of the first volume of this strange little fantasy comic from a discount book store back in 2015. After giving it a read I wrapped it up and gave it to a friend as a gift - never thinking about it again. Five years and five volumes later, it's time we talked about Spera.

Spera is an ongoing fantasy comic detailing the adventures of two princesses – Pira and Lono – and a fire spirit in the form of a dog named Yonder. Fleeing their homelands after a cataclysmic event, the trio turn their escapist fantasies into a stranger reality, venturing into a land of which they had only ever heard the tallest tales.

I know everyone loves superheroes, but I am a sucker for fantasy comic full of dungeon crawling and adventuring and fighting monsters and treasure hunting. Spera is a lot like RuinWorld or Letters from Midia, but creator Josh Tierney's imagination goes beyond creative worldbuilding.

I could talk for ages about the story of the two princesses and the cast of characters they meet on their journey. I could go into the evolution of Princess Lono from a girly girl to a competent fighter by the end. I could list all of my favorite little fantasy worldbuilding gags. But for once, I want to focus more on a comics artists more than anything.

Spera is more than a comic series. It's something of an art experiment. Each volume contains four or five full-length stories that cover the main plot followed by a handful of short  and mostly inconsequential stories. For the most part, every story was written by Tierney - but they're all drawn by a different artist.

Character designs were provided by Afu Chan and Sarah Ferrick, but neither of them ever drew an actual story. Instead, a revolving door of guests artists from around the world provided the interior artwork for Spera.

This project wasn't just experimental, it was also indie as hell. Many of the collaborators list a deviantART gallery as their official website and out of the dozens of artists I only recognized a handful of names from more established work - such as Luke Pearson, the creator of Hilda.

So not only did Tierney seek out a collective or independent artists, they were all allowed to interpret his scripts as they saw fit. This creates an almost dream-like experience as characters and settings look very different from page to page.

Artwork in the main chapters do seem to stay somewhat in the realm of similarity while still feeling distinctly different. On the other hand, it's the bonus short chapters at the end of each volume where artists with more unique styles were let loose.

Let's look at the character of Yonder. A guardian spirit, Yonder spends much of the series in the form of a large, fiery dog. For the most part Yonder is drawn simply as a wolf. Sometimes he's drawn as a constantly burning wolf, other times as a skeleton surrounded by flaming fur, or perhaps entirely made of nothing but fire, and on one occasion he was just a big orange wolf. Even stranger, several of the short stories depict Yonder as a more common house dog and aren't even consistent with what breed he's supposed to be.

But these "inconsistencies" work together to create a unique reading experience. It almost feels like a comic version of the oral tradition - stories passed down by different voices that get a little different each time.

Everything is basically the same, but sometimes the stories are more comedic than dark, sometimes Yonder is more pug than wolf.

None of this is to say Tierney created a weak or uninteresting story. As I said above I could talk about the story for days. Hell, I could probably do a full review of each volume. My hope here is that by highlighting the system of ever-changing artists, you'll be left to uncover the world of Spera on your own.

Each story is beautifully drawn and even if each volume features at least one style I am personally not a fan of, it is impossible to deny the level of heart that each artist put into this project.

Tierney didn't just tell a great story. He gathered dozens of great artists and gave them an opportunity to enter his world and let their own imaginations grow.

Spera is told over the course of six volumes, the second half of which are subtitled Ascension of the Starless. They can be found on Amazon as well as Hoopla and probably a few other places. The final volume in the series was self-published digitally and is available on Gumroad and comiXology.