“Sometimes I think this whole bloody world’s hung over.”
The very first image of Coda conveys all that it is perfectly. Here lies a dragon, enormous, impossible, surrounded by flamboyant hues, bathed in light. And yet, the dragon is a bony corpse with naught left, and beyond the hues, what surrounds him is a land of dirt, broken bones, uncontrollable foliage and general decay. Even the light isn’t necessarily warm, the kind that makes you feel good; it feels smoldering, like the heat of a desert. And right there on that first image, this mighty dragon, this unbelievable creature, cries out over simple rats. That’s Coda. Here’s a look at the breathtaking and fantastical and look what’s happened to it all now; look where it’s gotten. Coda is the terror of fantasy morphed into dystopia, it’s the dilapidation of those dreams, those impossible hopes we dared to believe in. It’s possibility being crumbled, with nothing but dust remaining to hint at what once was. It’s the idea of living in a world where dreams have died, only to be replaced with horrors. It’s fantasy curdling to become something more ugly.
While it can be, in Mark Millarian fashion, pitched as “Lord of the Rings meets Mad Max,” which does get across a point, it’s also a whole lot more. This is a world that remembers what it was like to believe in the impossible, to witness it every moment, to have it be the absolute norm. And now it no longer has the luxury of that. So where does that take us, really? Dystopian fiction operates under the conceit of the loss of all we have and is often written about in regards to our world. But what of a dystopia that’s a product of the kind of idealized fantasy worlds we hold higher than our own? The ones where so much is so much better that the loss of all that is even higher, where the price and pain is even more steep. How does one, or how do many, really, deal with that, reconcile that and move forward? All of these ideas are at the root of Coda, which brings a fresh perspective to both fantasy and dystopian fiction with a clever merge of the two.
Dragons are immortal, it’s a simply understood conceit. But what if they just cannot die, even when their flesh has gone, their magic has dissipated and only endless suffering remains? It’s a harrowing notion. It feels desolate and that’s the point of Coda. It wants us to think about our fantasies, our hopes, our dreams and then it paints a horrific mirror where in the wonder of all of those has become our greatest horror. It’s deconstructionist work done with precision, which is why it strikes with the utter rawness it has.
At every turn, the creative of Si Spurrier, Matías Bergara, Michael Doig, Jim Campbell and Colin Bell, build a rich universe that keeps building efficiently on its core promise. Here’s the magical unicorns we hold so dear in fiction (especially talking ones), but as a brutal, carnivorous monsters of terror (who curses, a lot). We have wild creatures to ride on, but at the same time they’re pumped full of drugs and injected with substance to make them work. Suicide bombers and terrorists are a thing, bringing all the worst fears of a people into one roiling, screaming pot. And from all of that? A human tale of desperation. These are all people in a world where there were better things and that having been the case, they desperately crave more of it. For the possibility of it, the very idea of it, doing all in their power to even get a whiff of that thing they desperately desire.
All of this is made manifest in the lead character, a nomadic ex-bard who searches the lands for a way to get back his wife, Serka, who was supposedly taken by a band of demons. The dream of love and a relationship, the desperation of that which once was but no longer is and can be, framed through various ways, but most clearly through this relationship conceit at the heart of the protagonist and the book is part of what makes it such a compelling book.
Spurrier’s writing is somber, human, self-aware and reflective, packed with dose of cynicism you’d expect given the premise. He writes a very ‘real’ character contrasted against setups of archetypal fantasy figures and even in dialogue displays the distinction and complexity of his new age of protagonists vs the old, all the while unveiling both sides’ hypocrisies to examine the desperation that drives our humanity. Bergara’s work here is gorgeous and stirring, full of fluid, kinetic pages packed with information, delivered with stunning simplicity. His crude look and minimalist approach, with dynamic and over-the-top visuals and aesthetics, as well as framing, give the book its unique tone and visual language. His color-work, with Doig’s aid, bathes the book in an interesting muted palette that never sacrifices or loses the bright poppy power of the fantasy it has. It leans towards horror and the coloring reflects that, but always keeps in mind the other pillar of appeal, the colorful fantasy. All in all, the book has a distinct look that’s instantly recognize and nothing like anything else on the stands.
Bergara’s keen storytelling, which really comes alive when the book uses splashes or double-page-spreads, is a huge asset, as he plunges the book in crimson and black to fit a moment or fluorescent colors or even glorious golds when the scene demands it. There’s a wonderful elasticity here, all the while in keeping with the book’s core identity. The book’s tone really lands because of Bergara here, who can pull off the epic moments, but also cleverly transition from there to almost farcical or parodic moments, without things feeling out of place. This is a book that can go anywhere and Bergara embodies that sensibility perfectly.
The lettering work by Jim Campbell and Colin Bell is also most definitely worth discussing here, as they do tremendous work. Consistently managing readability and guiding the reader is one job, but carefully shifting the font color and size consistently, even mid-dialogue, to indicate volume change, tonal shifts or vocal inflection is a great choice that really adds to the book. Spurrier’s wit, the dry humor and sarcasm really click because of Campbell and Bell’s efforts, which really enhance the entire work and tell the story to the reader concisely.
Coda is brilliant. It’s a remarkable work of dystopic fantasy that has a lot to say and does it with great efficiency. Spurrier and Bergara, alongside Doig, Campbell and Bell do work brimming with purpose here and it’s ridiculously thrilling to see. This is a world you’ll want to jump into, for it’s full of subversions, secrets and turns you’re not expecting. It’s worth joining this 12-issue post-Tolkien apocalypse ride, for the end is near. The book’s coda is almost here.
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