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Graphic Depictions: The Coffin

Robert returns this week with another look at a book you probably missed, but for the record, Hollywood hasn't. Plans are afoot for a film version of The Coffin, and once you read Robert's review, you'll understand why.

Is there an afterlife? Does the human soul exist? Do our bastards go to Hell and our saints to Heaven? Thanks to Oni Press, we now have the answers to these questions in the form of The Coffin, written by Phil Hester and drawn by Mike Huddleston.

This graphic novel is the tale of Ashar Ahmad: genius scientist, apparent atheist, and cold-blooded jerk. Along with his assistant Liv (who just happens to be the mother of his young daughter Billie, a familial responsibility he chooses to ignore), Ahmad has designed and created an impermeable, strong membrane that he claims can trap a soul after the death of the human body. Along with a CPU attached to the membrane's shell that sends electrical impulses along the membrane causing it to constrict and retract, these suits, or "coffins," can simulate human movement. Effectively, Ahmad has created a way to become immortal. Now enters the scary-bad-guy.

The man who has been providing Ahmad with his generous funding is Oliver Heller, C.E.O. of HellerTech, and the world's oldest man at one hundred and forty years old. How did he get this old, you ask? Why yes, it is the most disgusting way possible: he kills people and takes their organs, then has them transplanted into his body.

Heller has been looking for a way to cheat death and may have found it in Ahmad's research. Fearing Ahmad would take the research and sell it to someone else, Heller sends two of his most loyal employees (and by "loyal" I mean "sociopathic") to kill Ahmad and Liv and steal the research.

They succeed, putting two bullets in Ahmad and leaving him for dead while they set explosives and finish off Liv. While the two employees escape, Ahmad drags himself to a vat of his soul-trapping polymer, where a prototype coffin waits for him. He dives in and it all goes black.

Now come the theological upheavals. Ahmad expected to die and see nothing. Imagine his surprise when he finds himself in a Dante-like version of Hell, complete with tortured souls and probably the most interesting rendition of Satan to ever appear in comic books. The Devil (who is never actually saddled with a name or moniker; neither is "Hell" for that matter) takes Ahmad on a small tour of the inferno, all the while assuring Ahmad that it doesn't matter what he believed in: Hell is the reality.

But Ahmad isn't dead yet, as his former lover/assistant Liv tells him when she appears to him in this afterlife. He has a chance to go back and do it better, to live a better life than before. "Come on, didn't you ever read A Christmas Carol?" she asks. And he goes back.

Ahmad emerges from the tank, clad in his polymer "coffin," physically dead, spiritually burdened, and wanting nothing more than to find his daughter. But when Heller discovers that Ahmad is alive and needed to accurately reproduce the soul-stopping polymer, Ahmad becomes a target, and so does Billie. Ahmad has to get his daughter back and stop Heller, and through all this, maybe find his path to redemption.

The theological questions Hester raise in this book are ones that have plagued the modern cynic for a long time. We can call ourselves "atheist" and "agnostic" and claim to have no great fear of the afterlife, because to us there isn't one, but there is still that lingering question of "What if…"

Ahmad is the prime example of a character that has the belief-structure-rug pulled out from under him. A scientist, a man of thought and reason, he couldn't be expected to waste time being "good," and worrying about some intangible higher power when there was work to be done. But then he dies and finds that all his reason and rational analysis of the world means nothing.

We are all pieces on a chessboard, pawns to be moved by divine powers, of which we have little understanding and never truly will understand, perhaps, until our own deaths. Hester perpetuates this theme of fate and divine power throughout the book by making Ahmad question if what he saw in his "near-death experience" was an oxygen-deprived hallucination or actual divine warning, though he does give Ahmad the choice to determine his own fate at one juncture in the book, perhaps proving that spiritual freedom still exists, even in the face of destiny.

But besides all this theology, Hester writes a fantastic horror story. Parts of this book are utterly disturbing in their grotesque depictions and startling twists. Almost all the characters are immoral in some capacity, save the daughter and one other, and they all act the part. To kill, in this book, is common, and one scene will teach everyone who reads it a new word: "pithing." You may have nightmares about this word.

The images of Hell Hester creates with Huddleston are frightening, picturing writhing skeletons, crucifixions, and a stark white background that makes Hell appear infinitely large. Huddleston is perfect for this dark story. His pencils and inking are expertly done and very detailed. He plays with shadows and negative space better than most modern-day inkers, creating a macabre, almost cinematic look for the book that adds volumes of sub-meaning to every panel.

This book is exceptionally good, though it flew under the radar of many comic book readers due to it being in black and white. That and Oni Press doesn't get a lot of shelf space compared to DC or Marvel comics. They missed a great read then, but they now have to option of reading the trade-paperback edition, priced affordably at $11.95. So, pick this book up, take it to the man with the register, and exchange little, green pieces of paper for it. And then give the change to a charity or something. You never know when some good karma will save your soul from eternal damnation.

Or order it on-line, providing for some Fanboy Karma: The Coffin

Robert Sparling

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