There’s something gloriously enlivening and bracing about come across a story that is a breathlessly good take on something reasonably hackneyed and overdone; in this case, the apocalypse.
No matter or what you slice it with – be it zombies, aliens, epidemics, sterility or any one of a thousand other daunting bogeyman lurking on the shadowy periphery -it’s enormously difficult to breathe fresh air (especially if there’s zombies) into the whole end of the world schtick.
But writer Simon Spurrier (Sandman, The Spire) and artist Matías Bergara (Cannibal, Supergirl) have managed a sparkling reinvention of the genre with aplomb, gifting us with a tale in Coda that is parts hilarious, sobering and revealing about what makes people, people, and as colourful and vibrant as a piñata bursting forth with lollies, glitter, starbursts and a thousand different shades of confetti.
From the very first page, it becomes refreshingly and gleefully obvious that this tale of a world where magic has been erased as the result of a titanic assault by some pretty nefarious forces, leaving everyone all the poorer and prone to being just a teensy-weeny selfish – OK, a lot selfish, a LOT – is not going to be your grandmother’s apocalyptic tale. (Unless she into stories replete with witty oneliners, dazzlingly three-dimensional characters and a sensibility that avoids cliche like vampires hate garlic, in which case she should totally read this.)
It is, in short, tongue-in-cheek, mischievously, wonderfully, colourfully clever, exploring the nature of humanity, greed, selfless/selfish love, hope, survival, motivations, accommodation with the most unpalatable of realities and so much.
In essence, why Spurrier and Bergara have a ton of creative fun – there is nothing about either the writing or the artistry that feels phoned in, with every panel feeling like the exuberance output of two people loving what they do – which spills forth in every word, panel and through a storyline that takes to worldbuilding with utter and complete abandon.
For the world that Coda takes you into is at once both startling new and different and yet accessibly real and knowable, with many of the issues and failings that plague us now in our world that is, technically at least, functioning, throw into sharp and deeply uncomfortable but nonetheless humourous relief.
Against a background of the worst and the best of humanity making the full extent of its feelings known, farmer bard Hum, who is basically a decent guy but not averse, with guilt in hand, to doing what it takes to get by, is on a qu— – yeah, no, don’t use that word (Pssst! It’s “quest”; and if you do, please for the sake of magic, use it ironically – to find enough akkar, the liquid that powers magic, to free the soul of his wife from a torment that sees her go all demonic every so often.
Hum, who rather happily has a mutant cantankerous unicorn at his steed, has assumed, without checking with his wife Serka, who comes and goes at whim, her presence given away by a ring that glows red when she’s close, that she is as tormented by this state of affairs as he is, channelling all his thoughts on the matter into a diary that goes everywhere with him.
As prevailing qu—- go, they don’t come much more personal, and so whether Hum is looking after the good citizens of Ridgetown, who are protected by a giant gun known as a Doomlauncher (evocative name, right?) and whose remnant magic comes from a mysterious housed down below in the city’s dungeon-y innards, or making deals with fabulously glamourous corpulent mermaid Murkrone, or spending time with a demented wizard who only comes alive when he’s fed akkar by his outlaw daughter, he really only cares about saving his wife from living damnation.
Or does he?
As the Ridgetown urchin girl implies, and Serka says outright, Hum is basically a good guy; if he wasn’t would he be troubled by “borrowing” the wizard’s akkar, even temporarily, or keep an Ylve’s (essentially, an elf, who are all but extinct, thank you magic apocalypse) head intact even when its usefulness has long faded into the narrative distance?
No, no he wouldn’t and Spurrier has a great deal of fun playing with the old crusty on the outside/soft as marshmallow on the inside trope, in the process creating a character who you like and end up rooting for, even if his flaws are as big and noticeable as the central tower of Ridgetown.
It’s a very personal exploration of how one man is affected by the apocalypse and driven by love (even if it is a trad misguided) set against an epic narrative and worldbuilding landscape that is breathtakingly, spectacularly epic in just about every regard.
Bergara’s brilliantly and vibrantly expansive artwork, which contains a ridiculously enchanting amount of detail, plays a role equal with Spurrier’s lushly broad and clever writing, serving up visual treat after visual treat, every page a luscious deep dive into dystopian hell or heaven, depending on how you look at it.
The artwork of Coda is so beautifully and richly detailed that you are doing yourselves a grave disservice by not not studying every last millimetre of every page or panel.
It jumps off the pages with candy-coloured profusion that it honestly feels like you have landed in the world yourself which is quite an accomplishment for a 2D graphic novel that you definitely know you aren’t in.
Or are you? It really does feel like you are, akin to the very best cartoon or movie, and this adds to an already lush storyline that doesn’t stint on its capacity for sharp-eyed observation, its willingness to parody everything that moves, and its capacity for movingly, deeply, heartfelt when the narrative calls for it.
Coda is a treat and a joy on every level possible – the art is astonishingly vivid and enrapturing, the characters are 3D beguiling, the dialogue sparkling, funny and deft, and the storyline just left enough of cliche to feel like the reinvented fantasy it most certainly aims to be and very much is.
This is the apocalypse reborn, and while that may sound like a contradiction in terms, it works brilliantly, a delight for the eyes, mind and thoughtfully contemplative soul (that also likes frequent and well-deserved laughs) that elevates you to a world which may have seen better days but which still has a great deal to offer.