March 26, 2020

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Did You Know the Train Tracks End? - A Look at Coffin Bound Volume 1: Happy Ashes




For no particular reason, I didn’t get the chance to read Coffin Bound when it debuted in single issue format, so I came into the reading of the trade released on Wednesday without any preconceived notions outside of an admiration for what writer Dan Watters produced in Vault’s Deep Roots and DC/Vertigo’s Lucifer. The cover of the Coffin Bound trade boasts a blurb from none other than Neil Gaiman, spiritual godfather to Watters and his White Noise counterparts. The former Sandman scribe proclaims, “If you like Dan Watters’ work on Lucifer, this is even weirder.”


And Gaiman is right. Coffin Bound certainly is weird, not only because of Watter’s imagination but because of the tonally perfect artwork of line artist Dani and colorist Brad Simpson. Tying the whole beautiful mess together is letterer Aditya Bidikar, himself no stranger to working around expressive, expansive pages. The end result is what amounts to a visually stunning philosophical treatise on the nature of existence.

Watters and company begin the book as our protagonist, Izzy, is informed by some sort of anthropomorphic cryptozoological sentient harbinger with a caged vulture skeleton for a head that she has been marked for death by the Eartheater, an equally gnarly leather-clad creature who is some cross between a gimp and, I don’t know, Sabretooth or something like him. 

Ok, I’ll pause here, because I’m sure that you need a minute or two to purchase the book after reading that description.

Coffin Bound #1
We’re back? Good.

The sudden declaration of impending doom sets up the essential narrative of the series. Izzy has a choice to make. Does she wait patiently for death to arrive, or charge wildly into the face of sure oblivion? Izzy chooses a bit of a marriage between the two, deciding to somehow both embrace and battle the inevitable, hell-bent on not expiring without fully erasing all marks of existence, taking some sort of control in a chaotic situation. The result is a sort of inverted picaresque as Izzy plunges headfirst into her own existential dilemma, self-aware and deliberate.

A book like Coffin Bound doesn’t necessarily defy genre, but it is particularly difficult to pin down. It certainly doesn’t pay service to any one specific style, neither in visuals nor narrative. Watters’ ability to work in unison with Dani, Simpson, and Bidikar is what makes this book spectacular. Dani truly brings Watters' bizarre concept to life, and it is evocative, visually stunning and at times deliberately challenging. I would hesitate to call Dani’s art wholly avant-garde, but she experiments with forms and structures, embracing both the cubist and the abstract. She’s most adept at contrast, and not necessarily in only shading and texture. More than providing contrast within the panel, she beautifully juxtaposes panels and pages with one another, blending waves with sharp angles, and alternating between hyper-detailed scenes and ones that appear almost like formless doodles jotted onto the page after the thought. And then there are panels that just aren’t there.

Such an aesthetic lends itself to the amalgamation of genres that build this book. I often start out reviews of horror comics that I like with some caveat that I'm not normally into horror but this book blah blah blah, and really I just spend that time trying to convince myself it's not actually a horror book or something like that. That's all well and good, and it's remarkably self-serving, yes. And I guess I could offer the same line here, but I'm not entirely sure what to make of Coffin Bound as a horror comic. Of course, there are huge overtones of horror here, and Dani's art captures a sort of deliberately less refined take on pulp, which perfectly accentuates the macabre atmosphere of the story itself.

Ok, so maybe this is a horror comic through and through but maybe the horror, the big bad of this thing isn't necessarily some specific threat - corporeal, spiritual, magical, or other - but instead is the abstract notion of existential dread that permeates human consciousness.

Watters opens each issue with a quote from famous existentialists Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and Joey Ramone. He certainly is pushing us towards our own confrontation with the abyss. The notion of a degree of control amidst the chaos of reality permeates the narrative of Coffin Bound. Watters gives us some unforgettable lines that further this theme, like when Izzy proclaims, "Rather than die, I shall unlive" as she endeavors to "shed oneself."


Watters peppers this book with some fantastic lines. Above, one of my favorites, "It lessens the tragedy, I suppose."

So we've established it. Existentialism informs the theme, but horror is the defining motif of the book. Spiritually, Coffin Bound is connected most to works like Mad Max: Fury Road both in style and substance. Yes, there's a certain science-fiction element present. It's a post-apocalyptic wasteland where people are able to do all kinds of things we cannot. But the hands that guide this book are firmly placed in body horror and bio-punk. An undercurrent of the book is the value of certain parts - better eyes, pure flesh - and characters upgrade themselves using superior parts the way a cyborg would in a cyberpunk novel. But there's also mutilation, intentionally jarring and seemingly committed for its own sake.

Watters also steeps the narrative in the antecedents of modern horror, Gothic and Romanticist fiction.  What we can only assume to be a chief antagonist, the Dread Poet Paulie Starlight, is a delightfully deranged Byronic exaggeration. I'm not sure if it's possible for a character in a graphic novel to chew the scenery, but if so, Paulie does so in the most satisfying ways. He's nothing short of a madman with delusions of poetic grandeur, an (occasionally unwitting) agent of chaos. Paulie Starlight owns and manages a strip club, because of course he does. But in his gentlemen's club, the dancers remove more than their clothes. Pulling layers of skin from their body (and somewhat magically regenerating later using a special concoction of bandages and solutions), these dancers evoke a visceral catharsis from their patrons. It's over the top and insane. The idea of escaping one's flesh as a matter of sexual ritual is almost debilitating in its construction. Is this the endgame? Is this where we go?

Often times, I find myself complimenting writers who step back and allow the artist to provide the primary movement of a plot. I'm not particularly fond of plot advancement by way of extensive dialogue. But I would say the reverse is true here. If Watters stepped back, we'd still have a horrifically weird book that would be beautiful and engaging, but the element that takes this book over the top for me is the superb use of dialogue.  Occasionally anachronistic and sometimes intentionally stilted for effect, Watters dialogue is poetic and surreal. Make no mistake, by no means is Coffin Bound an overly wordy book, and there are plenty of pure art panels, but the dialogue floats in and out incredibly well thanks to Aditya Bidikar. It's his lettering, his placement of balloons and narrative boxes, that ties this insanity together. As a result of Watters's incredibly poetic lines, there is a discernible musical quality to the book, no more so than in the repeated "Eartheater!" narration that, for whatever reason, sounded in my head something like Shirley Bassey belting out "Goldfinger!"
Coffin Bound #3
Tell me you don't hear Shirley Bassey.

Between his words and Dani's panels, there is a definitive sense of other worldliness to the book, and that is where Brad Simpson's colors come in to add another does of surrealism to the story. Simpson works in concert with Dani's shading, allow her heavy inks to rise to the surface while highlighting particular shades to aide the contrast. His color palette reminds me most of FCO Plasencia's work on Batman - muted and interwoven, with strange pastels that catch you off guard - or of Jason Wordie's in Wasted Space, with its similar mixture of natural and outlandish colors, complementing Dani's lines that are not far afield from Wasted Space's own Hayden Sherman.

Coffin Bound is a magnificent book. Shocking and gut-wrenching at times, it uses body horror and bio-punk imagery to dredge up questions as old as thought itself. Watters is at his peak with the use of dialogue and character interaction, and the visual team of Dani, Simpson, and Bidikar produce grotesquely beautiful pages. It is a prime example of thoughtful genre fiction.

And for God's sake, will someone just give Dan Watters a Swamp Thing book already?

Coffin Bound Vol. 1: Happy Ashes

Coffin Bound Volume 1: Happy Ashes
Written by Dan Watters
Illustrated by Dani
Colored by Brad Simpson
Lettered by Aditya Bidikar
Published by Image Comics
Available March 25