Spera by Josh Tierney

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsSpera (Vol 1) by Josh Tierney and various artists

SPERA VOL ONESpera by Josh Tierney is a YA fantasy work that I raved about in a Sunday Status Update about a month ago. The story is of two young girls, fleeing princesses, on the run from murderous relatives and accompanied by an Aslan-like creature made of fire. One of the princesses, Lono, is a hesitant-young lady in a dress; the other, her protector, is a bold tomboy named Pira who wields a magic sword. The graphic novel is comprised of episodic tales overall, but as the table of contents indicates, it’s organized as a four-chapter novel plus an additional section of five short stories. I enjoyed this episodic approach, which seemed an appropriate way to introduce me to these two young girls and Yonder, the fire spirit.

The various tales reveal character, as well as allow us to see how these young girls mature since some stories focus more on conflicts faced by Pira and others show us Lono’s conflicts. Given that they have different personalities, their conflicts are not always the same. In other words, we all come of age via a wide variety of trials, and that truth is reflected in these tales.

The first chapter involves the girls’ escape with Yonder; in chapter two, they encounter their first monster, we find out where Pira was hiding her sword, and we follow the girls into a cave. Chapter three offers a change of pace as the three travelers come to a town, and we see another side of Pira and Lono as they interact with others. In the fourth and final chapter, they encounter their most physically dangerous opponent, and though they survive, we now understand more about the fantastical realm of Spera than we did before and how magic works there.

spera 1These four chapters comprise the two-thirds of the book; the final third is comprised of five short tales, which are just as good as the novel itself. In the first story, Pira undergoes a private trial. But most of the stories are about the trio’s adventures together: They go into a very dangerous haunted house, seek out demons to kills, and meet another traveler, Chobo the warrior cat. One of my favorite stories is the one in which Pira finally gets in over her head, and Lono is forced to either try to save her or let her die.

I love the artwork in this book, but I need to anticipate a possible problem that might be an issue for some readers: One of the complaints I often hear about certain comics, and one I’ve made myself, is that a great comic book series switched artists in the middle of a story arc. This lack of consistency is disruptive to the reading experience, and I usually don’t like it, even if I like both artists. However, usually the complaint is made because the person making the complaint thinks the art has gotten worse after the switch. Given that this shift in art is generally a problem, I need to acknowledge that the first volume of Spera is written by a single author and illustrated by nine different artists, one for each chapter and for each of the short stories.

This lack of artistic consistency in Spera, however, is a rare case in which it is one of the strengths of the graphic novel. The guiding voice behind all the stories of Spera is the single author Josh Tierney, and I find that his consistency is enough for me. Having different artists heightens the sense of fantasy for me: The various visual depictions of Spera make that world seem more real rather than less real because I recognize Lono, Pira, and Yonder in each version. There is something about each of their characters that transcends a mere single visual perspective. I think Tierney, for whatever reason he had in using multiple artists — practical or artistic — made the right choice in having a new artist for EVERY different chapter and story and not just for some chapters and stories. Otherwise, we might begin to associate one artist with the “correct” or “true” world of Spera. And that’s just not the case here.

spera 5Tierney sets up the upcoming shifts from artist to artist at the end of the first chapter, right before we realize that the art is going to change. As she goes to sleep outside under the stars, Lono makes an observation that seems to be Tierney’s way of telling the reader how to view the story of Spera in light of these artistic variations. Lono turns to Pira and comments, “When I wake up, everything will look different. Dark things will be bright and bright things will be dim.” She follows up this observation with a question for Pira, “What are the things that won’t change?” In the next panel, the last panel on the right-hand page, Pira looks back at Lono without saying anything. We turn to the final page of the chapter and get Pira’s response after this pregnant pause, and the chapter ends with her one-word answer: “Ideas.” And the “ideas,” or themes, of this graphic novel do not change either, even though the art changes nine times.

Spera can be found on Comixology, but if you can track down physical copies of the books, they’ll find a treasured place on your bookshelf. However, I’m torn between whether to recommend the physical copy or the digital copy as your first reading experience. The physical book is absolutely beautiful, but if you read it too quickly, you’ll miss much of what I loved about Spera when I first read it digitally. For example, pages fourteen through nineteen absolutely knocked me out when I read them on Comixology, particularly as I moved from one panel to the next as the perspective shifts back and forth from Lono and Pira to what they are seeing and then back again multiple times. However, when I picked up the beautiful, somewhat aged-looking hardback copy in the comic shop, I immediately flipped to these same pages and was somewhat disappointed. I realized that if I had read Spera first in physical format, my eyes would have glided from one panel to the next too quickly, missing the major effect and the full impact intended by the artist.

spera 2Obviously, I’m making a plea for you to “read” the art of Spera carefully to get its full impact, but I’d like to take a moment and explain one of the difficulties inherent in sequential art: Artists, obviously, work on one little masterpiece of a panel at a time, and sometimes, like in an action scene, they want our eyes to move rapidly across the page, zipping quickly from one panel to the next. However, unlike film, which can prevent us from looking ahead at what is to come, physical comics with pages of a certain size must make use of a full page with multiple panels. And though they can make the most of the punctuation in time between the last panel on a right-hand page and the first panel on the left-hand page, they can slow our eyes only so much when we are looking at a page full of panels. At moments such as this one in Spera, digital comics with a good guided viewer — Comixology and NOT Kindle at this point — allow comics to be read more in line with the purpose of the visual narrative, a point I make against those who so often insist that digital comics, other than preserving art from deterioration, are mainly a disservice to comics. That belief seems incorrect to me, particularly if you use the proper settings on Comixology: Make sure the setting will show the full page upon enter and exit so that you don’t lose a sense of the page as a whole, also an essential part of the comic book artistic experience, and at times, more important than the panel-to-panel moments. However, certain comics, like Spera and 100 Bullets, often read better on Comixology than on the physical page.

I guess my suggestion is this: If it’s possible, read Spera on Comixology. If you love it as much as I do, you just might end up buying a physical copy anyway, if not for you, then as a present for that young reader you’ve been hoping to get into comics, fantasy, or both. Spera just might be the graphic novel series that starts a young person on a life-long journey of fantasy and/or comic book reading. We can always hope, can’t we?


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BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Read Brad's series on HOW TO READ COMICS.

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