Step By Bloody Step is a challenge.
The new series is a wordless adventure in an original fantasy world, viewed through the eyes of a young Girl and her protector: a Giant in a suit of armor. The Girl grows as they make their way through increasingly treacherous terrain, and by the end of the oversized first issue, new questions arise around the Giant’s identity and the strange blue men following them.
So, Step By Bloody Step is a challenge to readers, to take a chance on a silent book without any of the characters that engender familiarity and success in the American comics market. It’s a challenge to the industry to carve out a space for art-driven comic books to thrive. And most importantly, it’s a challenge for its creators.
Simon “Si” Spurrier is known for his evocative prose and distinctive dialogue, but not for restraint in his scripting. Can he step back and let his art team carry the narrative? Artist Matías Bergara has proven that he can draw basically any idea, but can he tell a silent story with the clarity and depth that keeps an audience engaged?
The answer is yes. Spurrier and Bergara, joined by colorist Matheus Lopes and graphic designer Emma Price, push themselves to do something different with their latest project, and the experiment is a complete success.
Spurrier and Bergara’s partnership began at a level most creative teams only dream of reaching. Coda, their 12-issue miniseries for Boom! Studios, is one of the best fantasy comics of the last decade, a remix of Tolkienesque mythology centered on the crumbling relationship between a bard and his orc warrior wife. It represented a massive level-up for Bergara, who had previously worked on gritty crime and horror comics like Cannibal and Sons of Anarchy, and he found an ideal collaborator in Spurrier, whose wild ideas gave him plenty of cool stuff to draw while pushing the limits of his emotional storytelling. Simply put: Coda rocks. But it is a very different book than Step by Bloody Step, with dense narration and dialogue that carve out the world and characters with remarkable specificity.
The new series is a figurative work, asking readers to fill in the story details within a framework provided by a plethora of visual information. Coda was an international hit, and one of the benefits of having a book with no text is that you don’t have to translate it. Silence is universal, and while there are technically some word balloons with dialogue in Step by Bloody Step, it’s a made-up language of symbols and shapes. It’s not meant to be understood, but to indicate that the Girl and the Giant don’t speak. They communicate nonverbally; affection comes from touch, not words, whether it’s the Giant holding the Girl when she’s a toddler, or the Girl grabbing the Giant’s finger as she gets older and they start to walk side-by-side.
Lopes previously worked with Spurrier as the colorist on The Dreaming, a series that required even more visual variety than Coda. There, he enhanced the exquisite detail of Bilquis Evely’s linework while heightening the surreality of the book’s limitless dreamscape. His colors mesh just as beautifully with Bergara’s art on Step by Bloody Step, and he has even more responsibility to set an emotional atmosphere with his palettes.
The color story of this first issue reflects the Girl’s growing consciousness, beginning with a primarily blue palette, then gradually incorporating warmer colors as the Girl emerges from the Giant’s palm. There’s no green until an important scene that connects the color to the Girl in a very significant way, and once that happens, the palette explodes. Late in the issue there’s a montage page that cycles through pink, purple, teal, green, and blue panels as the pair travels across different lands, and the drastic color shifts accentuate both the passage of time and the distances crossed.
Step by Bloody Step is full of grandiose environmental spectacle and giant-vs.-monster action, but there’s just as much magic in the smaller moments, which show off a different side of Bergara’s ingenuity. The first time the Giant lets the Girl out of its hands, she sees a flower hanging above her and reaches for it. This three-panel sequence does brilliant things with spacing and perspective to highlight the Girl’s ignorance of the danger around her as well as her infantile mindset. The first panel shows the Girl sitting naked in the snow, staring up at the flower that isn’t in the same panel, but in the gray gutter between panels. The way the flower breaks the panel borders here is very subtle, but it highlights the innovative way Bergara considers the relationship between two-dimensional images and three-dimensional space.
The flower effectively functions as its own panel — despite starting in the first and landing in the gutter — but it is also planted in a physical space outside of the images that surround it. This is where Bergara whips out a very clever visual trick. The third panel changes the angle, but he frames it so that the Girl is reaching for the same flower that is in the gutter. This intensifies the depth of the final image, which shows the Giant clobbering a massive wolf-bat creature behind the Girl. The positioning of the flower actively pulls the reader’s eye away from the action, much like it does the Girl’s attention.
Is this a tiny moment that I’m potentially too fixated on? Maybe, but that’s a big part of the joy of a purely visual comic experience. There are no words to distract from the art, so those choices become more pronounced. And the opposition that Bergara establishes in this short sequence pays off in big ways by setting up the issue’s first two-page splash, an image that hammers home the conflicting natures of the series’ two leads.
Presented from a zoomed out view with a large pond in the foreground, the splash page contrasts the Girl’s innocence and serenity with the Giant’s violent aggression, putting them on opposite pages facing opposite directions. Viewed as its own isolated piece of art, the splash page communicates a message of rebirth and hope as a lone flower takes bloom in a frozen landscape, its glowing warmth connecting it to the golden roots seen under the water’s surface.
But it’s a delicate hope. The Girl might be able to ignore the violence around her right now, what happens as she becomes older and more aware? Can that hope stay pure or will it be corrupted? The book is called Step By Bloody Step, so it’s very likely that innocence will be tested as the Girl and the Giant face bigger and bigger threats.