December 3, 2020

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Engage In The Bliss Of Oblivion With Coffin Bound: Dear God by Watters, Dani, Simpson, and Bidikar


Following the first arc of Coffin Bound, the team has returned to tell a different story set in the same world, continuing to muse on the existential premise Watters mined in the first volume - that we are all inevitably coffin bound. But with volume two, we receive a different entry point. Our previous protagonist, Izzy, was headstrong against death, fighting the inevitable as a deliberate act of defiance. She embodies one side of the punk rock nihilist coin. If you tell me nothing matters, then clearly everything matters as much as I make it. In act two, Taqa’s coin flip ended on the other side. She deliberately and emphatically courts death. What results is an experiment in existentialism that, paired with the first volume, combines to offer a fully realized portrait of how to cope with our own existence. If living is dying, how do we proceed?



Before I sat down to write this, and after two separate reads of Coffin Bound - one in the serialized increments and in one Guinness-aided Friday night binge - I read over my review of the first volume and thought specifically about the differences between each arc and what the creative team attempted to conjure in each. In a funny way - and I say this because the word "funny" wouldn’t usually be associated with something as definitively dark as Coffin Bound - the first arc is so much more hopeful than the second. There is an optimistic tone to it underneath all the decay. There is at least a hint that you can persevere in the face of the abyss, or at least manipulate the world enough that you can get your own way for long enough. No one ever beats death, not the skin-shedding strippers or the dope priests, but Izzy proved one can set their own rules if they’re strong-willed enough. I think about that concept often, that the (post-)post-modern landscape of late-capitalism has but one major enemy -- will. Sure, the idea is that will can triumph, that all people can create their own destiny. But it’s all fantasy. The will is to survive, to not let yourself be crushed by society’s regime. It’s the ethos of punk rock. You likely won’t transcend, but you can make it a little less miserable. But the second arc turns that notion on its head, embracing something more along the lines of “live fast, die young, leave a pretty corpse.” Taqa steers into the spiral, convinced that she can take control of it. 

There is not enough.
Enough?
God. Time. Belief.

The events of the second arc pick up some nebulous time after the conclusion of the first. Watters only alludes to the events Izzy and Taqa experienced in the first volume. Taqa never directly comments on it; she offers no specific insight, but it clearly weighs upon her and provides the impetus for her quest. She finds herself in mourning, comforted by her newfound religion, something between a parish and cult that puts new meaning to the term “opiate of the masses,” and amidst a crackdown from city officials that promises to outlaw said religious devotees’ God-junk. Watters handles this metaphor well, and it speaks to his strength as a writer. When delving into existentialism, it is almost impossible to avoid cliches. It’s easy to get repetitive, and introducing drugs into the equation could easily become a hackneyed ploy. But Watters plays on the euphoria aspect and avoids tropes of self-flagellation. Taqa isn’t dooming herself, at least not in her eyes. She isn’t just a junkie chasing death. No, Taqa is looking for some sort of transcendence. It may look the same in the end, but the end isn’t what Watters is concerned with. It’s the road there.

Taqa finds herself charged with a quest by her priest, to hunt down the harbinger of death himself, the Vulture. You remember him? The breakout character from the first arc. Caged skeleton of a vulture for a head? Yeah, you know that guy.

 At first, Taqa doesn’t quite understand the rationale. Chasing down the Vulture seems both foolish and dangerous, but her priest’s explanation gives us insight into the nature of the religion. It isn’t death they chase; it’s the proximity to death. Thus the euphoria of God in their veins is the near death experience, proving life by pushing it to its limits. Taqa believes she and Doll can find the Vulture through the Eartheater, but they realize the Vulture’s connection is to death itself, not necessarily to the Eartheater. So what does Taqa do? She courts death. She puts a price on her own head. 

She had so little, and she fought so hard to have even less.

And that’s just the first issue. What follows over the next three issues is as important for the philosophical implications Wattters raises as much as for the visual experimentation Dani, Simpson, and Bidikar create. Following Taqa’s decision to deliberately court death, Watters shifts the narrative to consider the implications of intervention. He never distinctly makes the book about addition, and I think if he tried to hammer that idea home, it would undermine the overall concept that ties together all eight issues of Coffin Bound, and it would also be a little boring. But those elements are there, of course. How could they not be? Our protagonist and her fellow congregation members think heroin is God. It doesn’t take a genius to understand the metaphor there. But that’s precisely why I enjoy Coffin Bound - Watters lays it out without spelling it out. Drawing out that metaphor would be banal and more than a little predictable. Instead, Watters nibbles at the edges. 

In the first volume of Coffin Bound, Watters opened each issue with a quotes from writers like Beckett and Camus, writers known for their similar thematic notions of the meaningless (Camus) or absurdity (Beckett) of human existence. The first volume of Coffin Bound is about Izzy’s confrontation with death, with her own expiration. She embodies the advice of Dylan Thomas and rages against the dying of the light, not going gently and all that. And the logic follows if you consider the quotes Watters chooses. Choosing to open an issue with a Joey Ramone line speaks to the nature of the type of existentialism he is mining in the first volume. There is a punk rock ethos at play. I’ve always thought the beauty of punk rock is its ability to embrace the nihilism of the late 20th century and to turn it on its head. Well, if nothing means anything, then I get to make the rules, and there isn’t anything you can do to stop me. Such a mantra defines Izzy’s ambitions in the first volume. 

But in this volume, Watters opens each chapter with quotes from Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. On face, the distinction is apparent. Beckett and Camus are fiction writers and not necessarily philosophers in the truest sense. And though that isn’t the most important distinction, it does serve to highlight the different direction of volume one versus volume two. Kiekegaard’s status as a Christian existentialist - inarguably the most well known Christian existentialist depending on where you place Dostoevsky - is almost paradoxical, at least in traditional reception. We’re used to atheism and agnosticism flowing hand in hand with existentialism and nihilism. We're familiar with the concept that a Godless world leads to an existential dilemma. We generally don’t associate despair and absurdity with the religious faithful. 

Watters exclusively quotes from Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard’s attempt to reconcile the feelings Abraham must have felt when called by Yahweh to sacrifice his son, Issac. In his exploration, Kierkegaard considers the implications of ethics, namely in the ability to apply some sort of universal ethic. He centers on duty, namely the absolute duty to God, a duty that transcends any type of ethical system man could create. The only universal, for Kiekegaard, is God. Therefore, the angst and absurdity of human existence make perfect sense. For Kiekegaard, they are the result of the paradox of existence. Abraham embraces this paradox in his duty to God, one that would violate all conventional ethics and behaviors, but that would serve the true absolute and therefore demonstrates the will of the true objective. Faith is the pinnacle for Kierkegaard, and that concept helps us understand Taqa’s obligations.

"Taqa, you know I am no devotee. If I believe in a higher power, it is with reluctance. If I do not, that is reluctant, too."

But that is also the nefarious component. Taqa’s God, after all, enters her consciousness not via divine revelation, but through a syringe. As Taqa seems to seal her own fate, we meet a new character, Madame Entropy, another force of nature assassin who hunts potential victims as does the Eartheater. Her arrival signals another shift in the narrative. In fact, she seems more powerful than the narrative, able to interfere with the text itself. Her chase reaches its apex in issue seven, the penultimate issue of the series, and one that defines the experimental nature of Coffin Bound as a whole. It’s as beautiful a depiction of dichotomy as one could find. The series as a whole probes ideas of dualism, and specifically the notion of binary choice inherent to the existential dilemma. Thus, flickers of doubt invade Taqa’s consciousness. Does she need God? Perhaps all she needs is a kindred spirit.



Issue seven reaches the climax by tackling the binary choice dilemma. I’ve always found Coffin Bound to be a richly layered series, and issue seven exemplifies that statement. Dan Watters’ ideas were enough to get me in the door, but the artistic experience is what glued me to my seat. I’m sure Watters could write an excellent Coffin Bound novel, and I’d certainly buy it. But there is something about the way the art conveys his ideas that make it essential as a graphic novel, and no more so than in issue seven. Taqa finds herself doubting ever so slightly, and there seems to be a chance at another type of salvation. Dani and Simpson execute a striking issue. Throughout the series, Dani has experimented with her art, namely with the disintegration of form. Much of the book feels like an exercise for how far she can pull apart structure without completely abandoning it altogether. Here, though, as Taqa finds herself filling her veins with a different kind of salvation, Dani brings in more geometry. For most of the book, Dani’s art reminds me of post-cubism, with intentionally disproportionate figures and lines that might not end anywhere. But in the sequence that makes up the majority of this issue, she dials back to a not-quite-cubist, but still highly angular vision. 

She and Brad Simpson combine for parallel sequences with reversing monochromatic coloring - deep blacks and start whites with absolutely no bleed, punctuated by splashes of red. Dani’s inking is thicker, marker-like compared to her normally thinner approach. She dramatically reduces the depth, aided by Simpson, who himself pulls back from the earth-tone blended palette he uses most of the series. Throughout the sequence, we’re not quite sure what is happening, and it often seems like two events might be occurring simultaneously, as if we’re given a glimpse of the two paths Taqa could take. Dream sequences and the like are not uncommon in comics, but this one manages to connote a different kind of feeling, one of apprehension and morbid curiosity. Instead of feeling psychedelic and ethereal, it’s disaffected and stark. At points it appears unfinished, as if reality itself is evaporating. 

It’s hard to overestimate Aditya Bidikar’s contribution to the aesthetics of this arc and the series as a whole. While re-reading volume two, I found myself jumping back into the first set of issues to consider the differences between the two portions, and one element I consistently returned to is the way Bidikar holds the narrative together, not just within individual issues, but between the contrasting elements of each volume. As with his other work this year on Blue in Green and Department of Truth, his lettering is far more than a vehicle for dialogue and narration; it’s integral to the foundation of the series as a whole. 



In volume one of Coffin Bound, the reader examines what it means to confront death. In volume two, we consider what would happen if we court it. Watters calls into questions both metaphysical and existential and his characters ponder their reaction to the inevitable. He asks, through Taqa, “What if it is true? What if when we erase ourselves from the world - when we vanish into the void of God - it is not we who are annihilated, but the whole world instead?” Therein lies the multi-pronged analysis. It’s easy, and likely warranted, to read Coffin Bound for it’s analysis of existentialism; but it’s only after considering the whole that we can begin to wrestle with the metaphysical implications. Is Taqa confronting the law of the natural world, or has she created the whole world around her? And what would that say about the creative process as a whole? In the end, are we just left with a radical solipsism? It’s a fun little series of afterthoughts, one that might lend itself to another re-read. 



Coffin Bound Volume 2: Dear God
Writer - Dan Watters
Line Artist - Dani
Color Artist - Brad Simpson
Letterer - Aditya Bidikar
Design - Emma Price
Published by Image Comics