“If the world will not have me, it cannot have me at all.”
There’s a haunting spirit to Coffin Bound. Built together by Dan Watters, Dani, Brad Simpson and Aditya Bidikar, with designer Emma Price, it’s an all new offering published by Image, which launches the readers into a world of unreality, unliving and nihilism. Right from the very first visual, with a pale woman smoking, leaning against a car painted in almost a warning-sign yellow, as crimson covers the background and wreckage surrounds her, you get a sense of what this is. This is a book where a vulture-in-a-cage is somehow humanoid enough to be dressed up enough in a coat, as a passenger of the car. The book screams danger and dread, but also absurdism. That’s what the image beams out into any onlooker’s head. This is what this is. This is what you can expect. This absurd, bleak and wild ride. And combined with the big blurb, that’s the essential promise the series makes. You’re in for a strange, dystopic ride with this woman.
And one of the strengths of this #1 is how it jumps right to that and wastes not a second. Sometimes, works effectively sell their premise, but hold off on getting to them until the very last page, effectively delivering only what you expected and you knew from glancing at a cover or reading a blurb. There’s none of that here. The book is aware of the promise it’s making and the premise it’s selling and understands it needs to offer more than those basics the reader is aware of. And thus, while most coming in might be expecting a pure action ride, the book subverts the expectation by using that as a vehicle to get to its actual point. It utilizes that framework to accomplish something else entirely. And that will, that intent, is, again expressed perfectly right on its credits page, where the book sets up the story to come with a quote from Franz Kafka. If there’s one thing Watters really understands, it’s the economy of storytelling, because he very quickly gets across all he needs to, in a way that feels adequate and walks the tightrope of expectations carefully.
The quote, of course, is from Kafka’s famous writings to Max Brod, where in he asks that after his passing, his work be burnt unread, turned to ash. If he was to go, so was his work. And that’s effectively the perspective of Coffin Bound‘s protagonist, Izzy. A wanted woman in a wild world, she’s someone who readily accepts death, but only wishes that all her marks on this world go with her. And thus she sets off on a trip that’ll take her through her past. But how is she dying? Well, she’s got a hit on her head. One that she can’t quite outrun, not forever, as she’s hunted across the plains of her world by the mysterious mercenary dubbed “The Eartheater.” Death is inevitable and no one escapes this legendary foe.
The above might all sound relatively simple and normal, but it’s, again, framed through this prism of the strange. Izzy awakens to hear the news of her upcoming demise by meeting a talking vulture, all dressed up, with mechanical legs and a bird cage for a neck of sorts. She’s not too shocked by this and accepts it quickly, treating it as nothing too special. She’s aware this means her doom is coming. But past that, The Eartheater is no regular man. It’s not just some title. A grotesque entity that’s masked and is “spoken to” by the Earth, which believes the Earth is alive and holds absolute power over it, the creature in the form of man is something truly odd. Later on, we learn that the person who put the hit on her did it while possessed by some divine entity as well, whilst references to “cosmic poetry” are made. That’s the world these characters inhabit. That’s the extra dose that blows past the basic impressions and expectations any might have of the work to establish a story that exists in a bit of a unique space.
All of this is accomplished, of course, by Dani’s artwork. Utilizing impossible shots and angles, a mastery of form, shadows and powerful layouts, Dani immediately makes all of the above possible. The reason the book can make the promises it does and then deliver is because of Dani’s storytelling prowess. The style is simple, but packed with all these little bits and pieces that add to the image without distracting. There’s a sort of crudeness to the work, a sort of rough beauty, that really pops due to the reliance and skill with the blacks and shadows here. Even the simple shape of smoke is given a distinct shape and pattern here, as it zig-zags into hard lines and triangular shapes rather than just blow away in smooth shapes. This is a reality that’s just a bit off and that sense permeates every choice made here. It’s why the book excels when it leans into the intrinsic horror it has to offer. Dani’s artwork can really navigate the reader and their eye carefully through the expected, the familiar, into the bizarrely scary, which can somehow loop back around to being absurd, if depressing.
There’s a bleak humor to the work here and no scene perhaps encapsulates that better than one set in the most literal “strip” club you’ll likely ever come across. Up until that moment, the book asserts its perspective and philosophy fairly clearly, opening on Kafka, having Izzy espouse essentially the same belief, wanting to strip away everything, if you will, but it all really comes alive in this dread-inducing sequence. This is the truest, most raw and naked statement of intent, in every sense. A woman literally strips off her skin and showcases her insides, for which a man pays her. It’s horrific — he even sobs, but it’s the release he wanted. He wanted to see the mortality of his desire and feel the impact of that. The dread of that. There’s obviously commentary here on objectification here, but even past that, it plays into the core ethos of the book. Desire and all it entails and one’s own response to the nature of mortality are key elements of the narrative here. If this mortality makes the man tear up in horror, it makes Izzy sigh. She’s not afraid, she’s okay with this.
There’s a sense of apathy to her end in sight with Izzy here, a sort of cold acceptance and that’s worth addressing. The general coldness that is present in the work. It’s a work loaded with a clear perspective and a philosophy and it’s cold in an intentional way. You’re not really given an emotional hook yet; Izzy’s character and the setup works off mystery more than a clear hook. A lot of the language is formal and so there’s a bit of distance in play here. But part of that is also that this is very much a #1 and its intent is to establish the board and the players on it, above all. And its final splash, its promise for the next issue, is ostensibly the emotional hook, the character relationships and dynamics that delve into and give us more of a sense of Izzy when she’s not speaking to a sort of manifestation of her impending death or shooting the hell out of gunmen.
While Watters’ writing balances the horror thrills, the action parts and the philosophical segments (not to say they’re mutually exclusive, they’re very much not) and Dani proves to be stunning, the real stars of the project may just be colorist Brad Simpson and letterer Aditya Bidikar. Simpson pulls off the dreadful dystopia of decadence as well as any straight-out-of-noir segment, while bringing his own colorful spin on every element, to balance the real with the unreal. The browns and blacks of reality come crashing with the synthetic greens, purples and reds, presenting a world of horror, intrigue and desert destruction that feels like it could exist, vulture-men and all. Seeing how Simpson lands each and every beat, from the reds of violence to the purples of silence, is a load of fun. And then there’s Bidikar’s letterwork, which shines here. It brings out the crude sense of this reality and matches Dani and Simpson’s work so well, it’s bound to put a smile on one’s face. Balloons which only boast a partial, uneven border on one side, while the rest open, tails that aren’t normal thick ones but are mere simple lines, all of these nail the spirit of the book. It’s not quite right or normal — it almost is, but there’s something different happening here. You immediately notice. But he takes all this further with the lettering choices for the vulture, with scratchy tails and even “messier” balloons, which have no regular shape and shift very roughly, being seemingly hand drawn. It’s the approach taken to the extreme and the book’s haunting spirit brought to life, truly.
There are some even more standout lettering moments via The Earther captions, which roar with a horrific but operatic quality, bringing immediate attention and changing the vibe entirely. For a moment you wonder if you’re reading a different comic, since the captions give you an entirely different sensibility when you jump to them. And it totally works. The Eartheater is almost the stand-in for the inevitable death that comes of the Earth, which returns us to the Earth, much like the vulture represents impending death of a being. And in this world of entities, Izzy chooses to go out not on the terms of this oncoming death and certainly not with fear or dread. No. She’s accepted the end, as we all must in our due time, she understands her mortality, but will ride for as long as she’s got to raze her marks on this world. She controls her end, her true end and no one else.
Coffin Bound #1 is a solid statement of intent that really establishes the board and the pieces the team’s gonna be playing with here. If you’re interested in Kafka-influence, existentialism and horror in a reality where lines blur and nothing seems quite ordinary, then you should give it a shot. It’s a book about death, mortality, saying goodbyes and choosing one’s own legacy. The cover is screaming danger with its yellow and red, so dare to take a peek and experience said danger.