Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #23 by Drew Barth
There is always going to be a group of writers from the UK that screw with genre conventions and groove their own niches in such a way as to become invaluable members of the comics community.
Alan Moore did it.
Neil Gaiman did it.
Grant Morrison did it.
Warren Ellis physically can’t stop doing it.
Kieron Gillen is doing it now.
Simon Spurrier is one such writer that is currently in the process of doing it. Spurrier’s work takes fantasy comics and twists them on their own neck multiple times until the head pops clean off and we can take a deeper look into the corpse of what’s left behind. And at the root of his work, that idea of what has been left behind, is a theme that plays throughout much of his best comics. From Six-Gun Gorilla to The Spire, his work with Boom! Studios has been illuminating for how far fantasy comics as a genre can be pushed. And with his most recent work, with artist and co-creator Matías Bergara, finishing this month in Coda, we are absolutely diving deeper into the corpse of what remains.
As a series, Coda is a fantasy comic that seems tired of fantasy comics. The word quest is basically a sin and all the old fantasy classes—your knights, paladins, fighters—cling to a former status quo that hasn’t just left, but has been decimated by a cataclysm known only as The Quench. Magic exists, but only in the scarcest of the supplies as the world attempts to contend with not just an uncertain future, but one that might not exist at all.
There are still a god or two hanging around as well and they’re barely clinging to existence, same as everyone else. It is in this intersection of how horrible the world has devolved into that we meet Hum, a bard. As with all bards, he has a magical way with words that allows him to lie, cheat, and steal his way through what remains of this world on a…let’s call it an expedition to gain enough of the old magic, akker as its known, to concoct a cure for his wife who has been taken away by demons. As a story, it’s all well and kind of normal for a fantasy series.
And yet. This is only the story as it is revealed to us in the first issue by Hum. Everything flows through him and the series of letters he’s writing to his wife, Serka, as our main narrative device. Hum’s a liar. We get that fairly early on and having an unreliable narrator in a story is always fun. But how unreliable is the narrator when they’re lying to themselves as well?
If Coda is a work that looks at what remains after something as physically cataclysmic as magic being ripped from the world, then it is also a work that looks at what remains after trust is ripped from a person. And that idea of trust, of having someone believe in a complete lie, is foundational for this series. The main reason we have a character like Hum, a bard, telling us this story is due to the natural proclivities of bards: to be huge liars. In traditional fantasy series, bards are the storytellers. They are yarn spinners whose very words have real, physical presence and power to alter the world around them. That is, so long as those words are pointed in the right direction.
Coda is a series about the lies we tell others, the lies we tell ourselves, and the lies everyone else tells us.
Between all those lies and examining what remains of a nearly dead world? Some of the best and most expansive world building I’ve ever seen in a twelve issue series. Walled cities that cling to old traditions, from their league of paladins to the giant cannon that defends the city’s walls? Spurrier and Bergara have that for you. Or maybe a wheeled city inhabited by bandits and rogues that is being pulled by a giant whom the city residents appease by feeding pilfered akker? Of course. Perhaps a continuous storm in the desert that allows for barbarians to let off their berserker rage in peace? Absolutely. Because what Spurrier and Bergara do throughout Coda is continuously examine what makes fantasy fantasy. What are the tropes, who are the major players, how do they come to power? They have built a new world from the ground up after burning down an old world that adhered to what past fantasy should be.
It is always a marvel to read a series that wants to push comic storytelling further. Spurrier has done it in the past with Six-Gun Gorilla and its deconstructing of what fiction even means and he does it here on a character level with Hum. Coda is a twelve issue character study with its camera trained so tight on the leading character that we as readers don’t even notice when the world is setting up to kill them. To see the examination of Hum done so well with the world building in tow only cements Coda further as a wonderful triumph of a series.
Get excited. More worlds are coming.
Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.