Coda #1: Impaling high-fantasy tropes on the horns of a foul-mouthed pentacorn
I like a good Tolkien as much as the next guy, but The Lord of the Rings spawned generations of fantasy that aspire to all of Tolkien’s complexity and none of his skill: stories that feel wrought instead of told—stories that become unintentionally ridiculous, and fail to attain anything resembling the quality of the original.
And even The Lord of the Rings has its own problems. As imaginative and detailed as it is, Tolkien’s old-world storytelling style maintains a measure of emotional distance between readers and characters. There are moments where the dialogue is very stirring, and others still where the weight of circumstance tugs on our hearts; but an intimate story it is not.
It is against these observations that I’d like to consider Coda #1, the opening stroke in what writer Simon Spurrier describes as “the mercy killing of the entire exhausted High Fantasy genre”.
The dust bowel
The first page of Coda #1 is as apt an advertisement for a story as I’ve ever seen. This is the tale of a man bent on saving his captive bride—the most intimate of concerns. But it is also a tale that tears down the false dichotomy between intimacy and absurdity.
“My darling Serka”, writes the narrator—in his own hand—as he begins to reminisce on what the world was. As we take in the rest of the page—what the world is right now—we see the remains of some serpentine creature—let’s call it a dragon—sprawled across the terrain. We see lots of varied color. We have been transported somewhere else.
And then we see the dragon whine about the rats in his bowel.
There are those who criticize humor in story. They feel that jokes somehow undermine the gravity of a situation—ruin the moment. But laughter is for the heavy heart as well as the light, and our own lives are likewise a chaotic mess of emotions which we cannot control. At the risk of ascribing a level of sophistication to Spurrier which he did not intend; I would say that the absurdity of the dragon’s interruption creates a far more authentic picture of human life than the perpetual earnestness that marks so much of what is considered higher art.
It’s also pretty hilarious. Coda is undergirded by the touching story of two lovers separated by circumstance (and some ugly bandits), but it is mostly very much fun to read. “There are rats in my bowel!” is a first-page promise that Spurrier, Bergara, and letterer Colin Bell keep quite well throughout the issue.
And what would a fantasy be without mythical creatures? As our narrator—who we can rightly assume is the scavenger on the second page—completes his work inside the dragon and attempts to move along, we are introduced to his stalwart companion, Nag the Pentacorn, a violent, magically-enhanced beast that devours its master’s enemies and then cusses up a storm about it.
Don’t call it a quest
Coda may seek to land mortal blows in the bosoms of Tolkien and his bastard children, but it also offers a blueprint for a brighter future. It rejects the self-serious drivel that marks so-much fantasy literature, burying it in the bowel of a beached bone-dragon. But above, below, and around the hilarious rebuke is an emotional resonance far more authentic than anything those wannabe-lofty tales can hope to achieve. What those tales were really missing was humanity: we who laugh at the desperate bowel-song of the dragon, who long for the love that’s been taken from us, who lie and steal and help and hurt. Because, in the end, what good is a fantasy if we can’t see ourselves in it?