How Step by Bloody Step comic creators built an entirely silent fantasy comic
Words and pictures: These are the two foundational elements that define comic books as a format. You're both reading words and looking at images, and the magic that results from that fusion is what comics are all about. So what happens when you subtract one of those elements from the equation? That's what writer Si Spurrier (The Dreaming, Way of X) and artist Matías Bergara set out to discover with their new four-issue fantasy series Step by Bloody Step — whose images of a great armored giant escorting a small child through dangerous wilderness are not accompanied by a single word, either in dialogue or narration.
"The analogy I like to use is that if you are listening to a choir singing, it can be beautiful and uplifting and move your soul, but if you tell the loudest singer in the choir to shut the f--k up, you start hearing other voices," Spurrier tells EW. "You hear the sweeter tones of the person in the back. You start remembering what it was that made you love music in the first place, rather than just listening to the noisy f---er. That's Step by Bloody Step."
When EW connected with Spurrier and Bergara over Zoom earlier this month, the artist noted that the two have still only met virtually like this. But even without ever meeting in person yet, Spurrier and Bergara have built an incredible creative partnership over the last few years. They credit Boom! Studios editor Eric Harburn with connecting them in the first place to work on Coda, a fascinating fantasy series about a washed-up adventurer wandering a magical realm that has lost all its magic (and trying to reconnect with his strong barbarian wife on top of that). After that 12-issue series wrapped, Bergara worked on a couple highlight issues from Spurrier's run on John Constantine, Hellblazer.
Step by Bloody Step is therefore their third fantasy comic together. A major difference this time is that the world-building (so integral to the fantasy genre) now has to be done entirely visually.
"We have a very complicated double game in that sense, like a juggling of intentions," Bergara says. "On one side we wanted to be super clear and super specific about everything that's happening in each panel and each page. But also, we wanted to create a very deep world with lots of layers, with each panel becoming a window to a new world. A silent comic is interesting, and it's a nice exercise in narrative innovation, but we cannot just depend on that. It's still a fantasy story, so we should create and decorate this world with complexity."
In Spurrier's view, the silence of Step by Bloody Step is a good bulwark against some of the worst instincts of the fantasy genre. Some writers, inspired by legends like J.R.R. Tolkien, front-load their fantasy writings with all kinds of maps and notes rather than rolling out key information through the story itself.
"I think that the reader's desire always gravitates towards detail," Spurrier says. "That's why you end up with endless maps and encyclopedias and taxonomies and ancient histories, all of which don't actually help you to tell the beating, throbbing, emotional heart of the story, which is what people are in for. They want glorious spectacle. They want to be transported."
Spurrier continues, "So if you liberate yourself from any need or indeed any possibility of filling every f---ing panel with purple prose that explains every little tedious bit of history, then you don't have to worry about this stuff. The reader is doing the lifting in their own minds. They are creating histories. They're explicating on your behalf. The real trick in comics is that the reader is the one telling the story. Put two static images next to each other, and the reader looks at the bit in the middle because that's where the story happens."
So who is this child at the center of the story, and why is this armored giant dedicated to protecting it? It will be up to the reader to piece together visual clues and information as Step by Bloody Step unfolds across its four issues. All we know at first is that, true to the book's title, the child and the giant have to keep moving. That mysterious journey helps make up for the lack of words; even in silence, there is a constant forward momentum driving the story.
"It's a borrowed structure of relentlessness that gives us our motivating force," Spurrier says. "If you have these characters who are compelled to walk in a straight line, but even they don't know why, their inability to ask perpetuates that mystery. So it's quite nice to have that, because one of the things that drives me mad in fiction is characters in a mysterious situation who don't ask the right question. Often if you are trying to tell a mystery story, the whole thing falls apart if a character actually says, 'excuse me, what the f--k is going on?' By making that impossible for these characters, we've removed that whole crisis from the story."
Spurrier and Bergara aren't the only creative forces behind Step by Bloody Step. Though there's obviously no need for a letterer on this comic, Matheus Lopes provides the colors — a bit of a change for Bergara, who colored his own lines on Coda.
"He can produce super rich, detailed, and powerful structures of color for giving richness and depth to a story like this. So it's been a pleasure working with him," Bergara says of Lopes. "He understands the sort of coloring that is necessary to accompany my line work, which is quite specific. It's not easy to color, I admit it; I'm used to doing it myself. Sometimes I have very specific ideas for color, and I will tell him directly, 'this should be like this, and this should be like that.' I'm trying not to impose myself too much on his work, because obviously he has his own ideas, but in the end, the idea is to create this beautiful story the right way. But he's great."
Step by Bloody Step #1 is in stores this week, and rewards rereads. The visual storytelling is intuitive, but still kind of unique, and EW can confirm that subsequent reads can shed light on key details or transitions that may have gone unnoticed the first time. According to Spurrier, this gives readers bang for their buck.
"The thing that I never hear talked about enough from creators is a comic should be good value for money," Spurrier says. "If you're spending $5 on a thing, and it takes you three minutes to read because nothing f---ing happens except some people hit each other, that's a waste of money. I want to read and write comics that take a long time, leave you thinking, and encourage you to revisit."