Culture & Criticism Since 2003
This already monumental series starts with deceptive simplicity – two ill-suited companions on a journey. The dynamic is Calvin and Hobbes, times ten. She is a willful and undisciplined child, amoral and gleefully criminal. He is an exasperated yet determined bodyguard, coerced into accompanying this little bucket of trouble to shake down a Frummagem family member who hasn’t been paying “jukrum” (interest/points).
Sette Frummagem, the girl, hails from the nation of Shartasane. Shartasane is a kind of Ayn Randian dystopia minus even the feeble admonitions against theft, murder and coercion that Rand professed. Meanwhile, Duane Adelier was a rector in a religion that claimed to have killed all the Gods of the other religions in their world.
If these factors weren’t enough to insure a bumpy journey, both characters are unnatural monsters. Sette has a tail with a tuft at the end, razor-sharp teeth, and a preternaturally keen sense of smell. This makes her unique, and since her father is a run-of-the mill don of a criminal enterprise, this leads to speculation about her mother, who is missing and presumed dead.
Duane’s monstrosity is more complex and more inexplicable. The world in which they inhabit is full of zombies – animated corpses used for menial grunt work (“recycled labor”). These zombies are quite dangerous entities, incapable of reasoning or speech, cruelly masked and chained for public safety.
Duane, through a series of unfortunate events, is a zombie. By day, he is a theologian and scrivener, one that happily orates poetry, reflects on the human condition, and is capable of parliamentarian levels of snark. At night, however, he becomes insensate and a public health hazard. His very existence sparks intellectual and religious outrage in his world, and delight in ours.
Cope, in a display of utterly marvelous writing, uses these elements, and the highly contentious nature of their relationship, as a means for each character to humanize the other. In a stunning sequence, Sette learns the story of how Rector Adelier became her companion “attack zombie,” and in what is perhaps the first time in her life, begins to question her own humanity. Sette has sustained wounds from the same sequence in which she learned that her companion is a real person; pointing to her own strange aspects, she wonders if she is truly human. Duane, who is using “spellery” to heal the wounds, points out that his incantations work only on humans—and they are working on her. Ergo, she is human. Ultimately, this leads her to question her callous and often vicious treatment of her companion.
“Spellery.” That’s the backbone of Cope’s world. Powers and abilities that we would call “magic” are a physical force of nature called “Pymary.” Pymary is the physics of this world. Some humans have various abilities to manipulate this force in various ways. This all emanates from the “Khert,” a mysterious Otherplace in which the memory fragments of every human that ever lived are stored. Fragments, not actual memories. The difference is crucial. But the one exception outside of the Khert appears to be Duane.
As we move through the story, we discover that there are various countries on the continent of Kasslyne, each of which have their own interests, economies, factions, sects, and castes. Moreover, each have political rivalries with fleeing alliances and lengthy wars. Cope juggles these with aplomb, creating a rich and believable mosaic that informs the storyline.
There are other lifeforms that display sapience in this world. The “Two Toes” are bipedal lizards, about a meter tall, who are used for menial labor (cleaning, cart maintenance, other semiskilled work). They are seen as being a bit dim, and lacking in abilities to manipulate the Khert. In turn, they contemptuously refer to humans as “spiderpaws.”
Fantasy often likes complex and convoluted plots, and sometimes it can result in masterful tales, such as The Ring Trilogy. If the writing is poor, you can end up with something like Game of Thrones as performed by Gumby Theater.
In Unsounded, Cope weaves a massive tapestry that involves all the disparate elements of her complex, fully-formed, private world. The writing here is both sophisticated and profound, and while it requires complete attention from the reader, it pays off beautifully. It is a lavish and variegated world in which villains believe they are heroes, and heroes fret that they are villains.
In my criticism, I will often compare a deserving contemporary book to great works of a similar nature. In this instance, the standard would be Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. But you see, Unsounded doesn’t just remind me of Sandman. I actually think it’s better. Cope has a long way to go on this particular journey, and there is always the risk that she could lose her way, but I’m happy to say there’s no indication here that it’s likely.
Also, the art here is better than Sandman, which was sometimes poorly served by some of the pantheon of house artists who worked on it. The only fair comparison of Cope’s sketches is with Dave McKean, who did all the Sandman covers. And Cope’s artwork is consistently on that level – sublime and richly beautiful.
Aficionados of the genre know Gaiman is praised for the richness of his characters, the sophistication of his plots, and his brilliant use of an array of literary devices and call outs. In Unsounded, Cope matches him step for step.
Unsounded in it’s entirety is available to read here.
I did, actually. Duane and Sette had spent years in development before the comic started, but I had a writing hack that helped me out – cooperative fiction, or role-playing. For almost ten years I ran a BBS-based role-playing campaign with a group of friends. During that time, I developed the personalities of many of Unsounded’s characters – Duane, Sette, Bastion Winalils, Murkoph – and came to understand their chemistry with each other very well. Duane and Sette do have fantastic chemistry and I think their relationship is the heart of the story, but it’s not an entirely novel one. They’re the quintessential odd couple – the straight-man and the goofball; the exuberant daughter and exasperated father. I think what makes them a bit fresher is just how much responsibility and ability is demanded of Sette in the story and how well she rises to it. Sette does need Duane, but that need is almost entirely an emotional one. When it comes to the exigences of her violent life she largely manages to survive just fine without him. I feel it’s very important that this is the case, as I don’t think her life before Duane, as a streetwise sneak-thief, would be believable otherwise. Sette’s capability demands respect. You’re not just waiting around for Duane to show up and save her every time tensions rise. Duane and Sette are equals in this story. They are friends and partners who have much to take from and give to each other.
Unsounded is fastidiously planned. I’ve split it into three Books, each with a separate feel and each with its own conclusions and hooks [into the next. We’re still in the first Book of Unsounded, which is 18 chapters long. We’ve just started chapter 13, so we’re well over the halfway mark. By the end of the Book we’ll have wrapped up many of the characters’ arcs – and some of their lives – and left the path open for the story to move forward in a different direction. Of course I can’t say more than that. I want you to be surprised!
Oh, they are all a part of me, or they are my aspirations. Duane is the faith I wish I had, Sette is the bravery I keenly lack. I’m afraid I’m more of a Mathis Quigley – a chin-kicking Nihilist pissing about until death catches up with me. On my better days I’m Lieutenant Elka – fiercely protective of my friends, a little bit of a bully, a lover of dogs, decent at what I do, but never satisfied with it.
There are certainly a great many things to dislike about the cast! They’re all deeply flawed in their own ways. Of course, Sette’s unshakeable faith in her father is a weakness and everyone sees it but her. Duane has the same unshakeable faith in his homeland, his family, and his religion. This faith is the crucial bedrock upon which both of these characters’ lives are built, but it only takes one good shake to crack open the foundations and send it all tumbling down. Sanity requires flexibility, adaptability. Time will tell if Duane and Sette survive their rigid worldviews. Then you got nutters like Murkoph and Starfish and, ya know, they’re biters. No one likes a biter.
My favorite responses are simple single sentence comments from people letting me know I’ve made their day a little better. Winning a chuckle or a tear from a reader is all I’ve ever wanted, and I’ve been that way all my life. I’m an entertainer. I want to connect with people and let them know some of these things they’ve been thinking or feeling. These characters think and feel them too. And so do I.
I want to create a thing that some like-minded people can share; a world we can step into when our own world is overwhelming. Kasslyne’s borders are always open.
Of course I’d consider it! That’s every comic artist’s dream, eh? The only stipulation I’d have would be not to change the genders or races of the characters, but otherwise I’d let them do what they thought was best. Anyone who wanted to invest that kind of money in some nobody’s comic must have a lot of passion for it, and probably ideas of their own. As long as no one wanted to interfere with the comic version, I’d give them my blessing.
That’s an interesting question. I don’t consider the spiritual and ethical dilemmas of Unsounded to be too far removed from the spiritual and ethical dilemmas of our own world. It has always seemed to me – and this is a core theme of Unsounded – that we each live in our own reality. The philosophical worlds of the Nihilist and of the Theologian can’t be measured against each other until their occupants begin reaching outside of their respective spheres and trying to influence the realities of others, either through legislation, violent action, or simple proselytizing diatribe. And then the debate begins, and that is the story of the comic. Duane’s faith drives him towards acts of great compassion, but it also drives him towards acts of great harm, both against himself and others. Quigley also performs acts of harm and acts of compassion – the latter generally motivated by his son. The question is: would these men act the same if they had opposite philosophies? Does faith change the nature of a man, or does it merely rationalize it? Is the cost of faith worth the comfort it can bring? It is better to let Sette continue living in her Best World if the world outside of it is a painful misery of rejection and ugliness? Same with Duane. If he is happy in his beliefs, wouldn’t it be immeasurably cruel to steal them away? Perhaps the goal of it all – for our Unsounded cast and for ourselves – is to bring others into our Best World, whatever the shape of that world may be. Bring others into it and spread the comfort of it outwards, without judgment or selfishness. This won’t be easy – maybe it will even be bloody – but we can’t even start to do it until we find the motivation.
Well, I’d say “Welcome and thank you!” first of all. Unsounded isn’t the easiest story in the world. It demands your attention. It’s a train in motion that you have to hop onto, and you won’t be getting to the station for a while. But there’s a lot of fun and silliness in-between the political machinations, the character death, and the lecturing zombie. Because that’s life. In this sanitized world of corporate media, web-comics are a big, beautiful, messy oasis of independent expression. Unsounded is among them: a story written and drawn by a single person. I am, sadly, imperfect. But I’m never dishonest and you’re always going to be getting the story the way I want to tell it. So climb aboard. We’ve saved you a seat.
Zepp Jamieson was born in Ottawa, Ontario, and spent his formative years living in various parts of Canada, the UK, South Africa and Australia before finally moving to the United States, where he has lived for over 40 years. Aside from writing, his interests include hiking, raising dogs and cats, and making computers jump through hoops. His wife of 25 years edits his copy, and bravely attempts to make him sound coherent. Reach him through The Electric Review.