Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance.
This week, it is Coda #4. Written by Simon Spurrier (Angelic, Sandman Universe) with art by Matías Bergara (Supergirl, Cannibal) and color assists by Michael Doig, this issue uses high-fantasy story elements to build a multifaceted relationship between a woman created for war and the man who wants to change her. Note: This review reveals major plot points.
What are the challenges of being married to a Berserker Orc? Hum, the central protagonist of Boom! Studios’ Coda, is a former bard married to a woman created for the sole purpose of wreaking havoc on the world in the name of a dark lord, and he’s desperate to find a cure for the fury that instinctually overtakes her otherwise gentle spirit. Owing a lot to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, Coda examines a complicated romance in a ravaged fantasy world where magic has completely dried up after a cataclysmic war between the forces of good and evil. The latter triumphed, but life still goes on, and those who fought for darkness have to build new lives amongst people who despise them for their unwilling participation in annihilation.
There’s no shortage of fantasy stories that regurgitate Tolkien’s ideas, but like any other genre icon, Tolkien provided future creators with concepts that are complex and deep enough to fuel different kinds of stories with the same basic parts. It’s a major aspect of Tolkien’s legacy, and even though Spurrier is taking a lot from Middle-earth mythology, his story moves in a very different direction than the work that inspires it. The extraordinary circumstances of Hum and Serka’s marriage are a metaphor for a relationship dynamic where one partner tries to change the other as a way to sidestep their own necessary growth, a connection that only becomes clear when the two are reunited in this month’s Coda #4.
The first three issues of Coda feature extensive narration in the form of letters Hum writes to his wife in his journal, but the narration disappears once he’s reunited with Serka. Those letters break down Hum’s personal anxieties about postapocalyptic life, but the most interesting thing about them is how they set up Hum and Serka’s relationship through misdirection. The reader is led to believe that Serka is being held captive by the monstrous Urken, positioning Hum as a more traditional hero who needs to save his damsel in distress. Readers don’t know anything about Serka’s Berserker nature for the first two chapters, but once it is revealed, the entire nature of their relationship changes. Hum is obsessed with saving a wife who has no problems taking care of herself, and behind his valiant facade is an insecure, uncertain man who relies on his spousal mission to keep himself from getting his own life in order.
As dire as Coda’s concept is, there’s a steady supply of comedy that lets readers relax and settle into this world. Coda #4 begins with an exposition dump, but even this tale of slavery, war, and prejudice is lightened by its rhyming text. Hum is a bard, and this is the first time where we actually see him tapping into this talent as he shares the story of the Urken. But he’s not the best, and the inconsistent meter of his lines of poetry becomes a source of humor when he’s called out for his dodgy performance by his young female companion. Her interactions with Hum are full of banter, and Bergara puts the focus on the language and the acting by simplifying his panel layout for their conversations. He uses the same panel configuration each time these characters are together, creating a specific rhythm that reflects the familiarity they develop as they spend more time together.
Coda is a dense book, and both the script and artwork give the reader a lot of information to process in every issue. Because there’s so much going on, I read every issue twice, starting with an art-only read where I ignore the text and focus entirely on Bergara and Diog’s storytelling. Spurrier builds a compelling narrative, but Bergara is essential to this title’s success, immersing the reader in intricately detailed, lively environments populated by characters with full, distinct personalities. An art-only first read isn’t something I do often, but the work that goes into Coda’s layouts, compositions, designs, linework, and coloring invites extra attention that is rewarded with artistic revelations.
Bergara has exceptionally tight control of the pacing. The opening pages of Coda #4 are a prime example, beginning with widescreen panels of epic fantasy imagery and a full-page spread of the explosive Last War. That spread has an inset panel of Hum talking to his friend, a simple shot that emphasizes the contrast between the content of Hum’s story and the context of its telling. The scale of this mythological imagery is huge, but it’s also an interpretation of events that lacks nuance, which is reflected in the absence of color and the severity of the light and dark contrast. The visuals become much more subdued when the story ends and the action shifts to Hum getting psychoanalyzed by a child, but the panels expand and incorporate more background activity once Hum and Serka make their way through the city.
Coda #4 doesn’t offer too much in the way of action, serving as a cool-down after the spectacular issue-length showdown in the last chapter. The series reaches a new level of excellence with the explosive battle between the soldiers of Ridgetown, a lumbering giant, and a horde of bandits trying to storm the city, delivering page after page of thrilling carnage. There are some great action sequences in those first two issues, but nothing on par with what Bergara does in this third issue, going beyond chase scenes and smaller brawls for a full-on war scene. The two-page splash revealing the chaos on the battlefield is a jaw-dropping landscape of destruction, with multiple tiers of action that force the reader to pause and soak in the details. But the intricacy doesn’t come at the expense of motion: Bergara carries the action from the background to the foreground as the reader’s eyes move across the spread.
Hum’s loyal steed is a pentacorn, a unicorn that has been mutated by dark magic to become a raging force of devastation when it gets riled up. Bergara has a clear affinity for this majestic, terrifying creature, and some of the most striking imagery in this series involves the pentacorn unleashing its power. The battle in Coda #3 features the pentacorn at its most forceful, with one specific panel that hits like a wrecking ball as it shows the pentacorn eviscerating everything in its path during a charge across the battlefield. Body parts fly toward the reader, soaring over other panels to establish a three-dimensional space cleaved by the pentacorn rushing through in a straight horizontal line. This interaction between panels is a subtle visual technique that Bergara uses at different points, including a moment later where a bandit puts his hand directly on the panel beneath him to propel himself into the action.
Serka debuts in Coda #3 as a one-woman cavalry who single-handedly saves an entire city from a bandit invasion, riding in on her ogre and chopping opponents into a bloody storm of dismembered parts. This violent introduction gives a very different impression than the calm, considerate Serka revealed in Coda #4. She’s a good person who is biologically prone to intense periods of anger and aggression, but she’s careful to take herself out of any environment where she can cause undue harm when she goes into Berserker mode. Hum wants to cure her so that they don’t have to spend time apart, but there’s no indication that Serka wants this for herself. She’s content with her life; eager to use her power to help when she can, accepting of the fact that sometimes she needs to cut herself off from other people. Hum doesn’t want that, though, and in his attempts to attain a cure, he makes increasingly foolish decisions that put his wife and him in danger.