Written by Josh Tierney
Art by Afu Chan, Kyla Vanderklugt, Hwei, Emily Carroll, Oliver Pichard, Jordyn F. Bochon, Cecile Brun, Luke Pearson, Leela Wagner, Matt Marblo
Here is a story of two kingdoms and nary a prince between.
Lono is a princess, pampered and demure, but never haughty. She’s whiled her fourteen years in the castle library, eager to mine it of its every escapist treasure. A pretty thing. A delicate thing. She loves her father, the good and noble king, with all that she has.
Pira is a princess, though she’ll suffer no gowns or balance books atop her head. Daughter to a cruel and warring queen, she finds sanctuary not in the high towers of her birthright, but upon the open road. She has, since birth, held close a strange sword of meager enchantment. Her hair is cropped short, befitting a paige boy or perhaps a girl warrior desperate to flee entanglement.
Then, an awful day. Pira must watch as her mother slays the goodly monarch of the neighboring kingdom, a public execution to trigger the coming of war. Lono’s father is dead. One princess must whisk another away, lest she be taken into hiding by her keepers. Pira must usher her dear friend into the wide world, where the horrors of the unknown cannot be quieted by simply clasping shut their pages. Bound for the land of Spera–a magic realm made legendary by cherished lore–the two princesses take to a life of adventure, seeking lost treasure and great feats of valor. Their guide, a fire spirit called Yonder, transforms at will from a red-bearded diplomat to a massive dog cloaked in flame. Along the way they encounter friend and foe, including hill-sized daemons and chilling ghost boys.
Like Old City Blues, Spera originated as a serialized webcomic and was then printed by Archaia. You can browse these chapters online, but the publisher’s done yet another fine job of packaging the work in an especially handsome hardcover volume offered at a very reasonable price. Such is its visual splendor, you’ll probably want to add it to your library. Especially if you’d like a sampler of work from some wildly talented artists just starting to make their mark.
Spera’s true strength lies in its adaptability. Though this book represents the first entry in one ongoing story, it’s broken into chapters and then smaller episodes, each drawn by a different artist. The diversity of visual styles is immense without disrupting the overall tone of the narrative. Lono and Pira are instantly recognizable chapter to chapter, though Pira fluctuates from androgyny to simple boyishness. Besides one notable exception, Yonder always appears as a russet colored chow dog in his spirit form. Each artist has fun with that concept, so his size and the majesty of his flame aura change throughout. And it totally works.
Ontario’s Josh Tierney has assembled a battle party to rival the best comic anthologies on the shelves. This first volume of Spera showcases art from North America, the UK, France and Malaysia. Though some sections of the book are stronger than others, each and every one is beautifully rendered. There’s a subjective margin of error to be sure, but objectively speaking it’s one of the most consistently exquisite jam sessions to be found.
I’d liken the all-ages fantasy to the Legends of Zelda franchise, with some sequences wrought in the elegant style of a Twilight Princess and others in the more exaggerated mode of something like Wind Waker. I’m particularly taken with the chapters at either extreme, starting with the lovely opening drawn by Kyla Vanderklugt, evocative of Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. While other chapters offer similar approaches influenced by animation, my other favorites are more reminiscent of the styles on display in Oni Press or First Second projects. Luke Pearson’s short is particularly divergent and refreshing with a two-tone palette and character designs closer to the style of Seth. The structure of the series ensures that sharp artistic turns aren’t all that jarring, with the most acute visual departures nestled in the latter half. This is where the story transitions from a somewhat ambling quest to a succession of short, exciting adventure episodes. It’s a very successful formula, establishing the world and main plot at a relaxed tempo, then swooping in for some side quests once the relationships are nice and solid.
Tierney’s ongoing story is entirely charming, a welcome pairing of two very different heroines with no need of a prince. Lono is a familiar princess in the Disney mode, and while Pira’s a polar opposite, their friendship is hardly fraught with the kind of Parent Trap bickering you might expect. They’re two girls who love and respect each other as sisters, all the better for their bond. If you’re worried that Lono is an eternal damsel, keep reading. She exhibits the first of what is hopefully many heroic initiatives towards the end (it comes right after the scene depicted up and to the right).
For fans open to a wide range of visual styles and anyone looking for that rare fairy tale where princes need not apply and girls thrive in many incarnations, this is an easy and triumphant recommendation.
Story: 4 / Art: 5 / Overall: 4.5
(Out of 5 Stars)
Pick up Spera vol. 1 on Amazon.