Songs for the Dead #1 – #2
Andrea Fort (Writer), Michael Christopher Heron (Writer), Sam Beck (Illustrator), Deron Bennett (Letterer)
January 31, 2018 and February 28, 2018
Songs for the Dead is like Pushing Daisies by way of Tamora Pierce. Like the protagonists of both Pierce’s novels and Pushing Daisies, the comic’s characters exist in this world that, like ours, is both light and dark; the cheerfulness of this medieval fantasy world doesn’t cover up the darkness, but nor does its darkness drag it down. Written by Andrea Fort and Michael Christopher Heron and illustrated by Sam Beck, the miniseries, scheduled for four issues, is about as charming as they come.
Bethany is a necromancer. Not the evil, creepy kind; from her first introduction, she’s cute and funny, the kind of protagonist it’s hard not to fall in love with. Like a twisted Disney princess, she’s perpetually followed by a collection of dead animals in various states of decomposition. Soon enough, she meets Elissar, a hard-drinking mercenary with a secret, and the two set off in search of adventure, or at least for somewhere to belong.
It’s hard not to grow attached to Bethany from first meeting; she has the wide-eyed innocence of someone new to adventuring, but the spunkiness to do it anyway. And by the next scene, she’s reviving the dead; it’s clear right away that, despite her plucky attitude, she’s no stranger to death.
In the age of Game of Thrones, it’s a relief to have a fresh fantasy world that isn’t mired in darkness. Sure, there are half-decayed corpses everywhere and the body count, courtesy of Elissar, continues to pile up, but it’s not reveling in the gory details. Death, in the world of the comic, is a fact of life. Because neither of our heroines are afraid of it, we aren’t either. Aided by Sam Beck’s bright color palette and cheerful illustrations, even the scenes of gore—one character gets chopped neatly in half, another gets beheaded, and several more are stabbed in just issue one—have a sense of playfulness about them, especially because, thanks to necromancy, death isn’t necessarily permanent.
Medieval fantasy, as a genre, tends to follow the trends of whatever world is popular in that moment. After years of Tolkienesque fantasy thanks to the Lord of the Rings films, we were faced with elves and epic quests at every turn. With Game of Thrones’ popularity, it’s all politics and messy, violent deaths. Songs for the Dead manages to avoid these trappings through its delicate balance of tone. One moment it’s fun—Elissar’s carelessness causes a barfight, or Bethany feeds dead animals around a campfire—and the next you have a half-decomposed boy drawing the pair into some kind of political intrigue. The world, by nature of this balance, feels fresh, not like something we already know with the serial numbers filed off.
The world is vibrant and lovely to look at, with Beck’s detailed illustrations and warm colors enriching the sense that this world, though dangerous and sometimes filled with the living dead, is a pleasant place to escape to. Though characters sometimes look a little wooden against the stunning backgrounds, the designs are excellent. The facial features and outfits are all unique and reflective of personalities—Bethany’s scarf and fur-lined outfit demonstrate her softer nature, where Elissar’s sharp-lined armor and angular, asymmetrical pauldron reflect her tendency to lash out as well as her guarded secrets.
It’s worth getting lost in the details; though the story does some of the work, Songs for the Dead’s sense of place is all about the world as it’s drawn. The little touches make each space feel unique, whether it’s the bandit hideout or the abandoned home of a necromancer. Every scene feels lived in, even when the heroes are just passing through. It’s those details that make the comic feel like a real space rather than a derivative one; unique as the story is, it’d be easy for it to echo settings we’ve seen before. And while this is certainly medieval fantasy, it feels like a world all its own.
By issue #2, we have only a sense of the real plot. We can’t see the trajectory quite yet; we know that Bethany, a minstrel in addition to her necromantic powers, is searching for others like her. And Elissar is on the run—whether to something or from something, it’s unclear. While keeping character motives in the dark could make this a difficult read, there are enough short-term goals to keep things moving. Bolstered by worldbuilding, each issue has a decent small arc within the larger, still unrevealed story that’s fleshed out by little details: namedrops of various gods, mentions of cities, and the encroaching threat of The Will.
At this point, four issues doesn’t feel like quite enough. In theory, we should be midway through the story, but it feels like things are just beginning. The creators have said there are plans for an ongoing series, and I hope it’s true; there’s a lot of meat on the bones here, and it’d be a shame for it to come to an untimely end.