Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Viking began out of Image Comics in April of 2009, written by Ivan Brandon and illustrated by Nic Klein. It's a Viking and crime infused tale that heaps out gore as well as interesting character moments. Its fifth issue, out February 2010, marked the end of the ‘first season’ of the comic. It hasn’t been exactly regular but it has consistently been very enjoyable. And extremely pretty. But has it been a worthwhile comic? With the Hardcover collection solicited for release in this month I thought it would be good to let people know what they might want to purchase.
Ivan Brandon began his Viking epic in 2005, or so he states in a mini-essay at the back of the first issue. He hunted around for artists and while many said yes their schedules and logistics said a continual no. He eventually found Nic Klein who told him no and yet they still made it work. And work it does.
The First Issue
The first issue of Viking absolutely floored me when I took home its Golden Age size glory. For those unaware, Viking is fashioned in the Image style of Golden Age sized books, those slightly wider than the average book, and with thick card stock covers. The only other title I know of doing this is Cowboy Ninja Viking. It’s a spectacle to behold and suits more with the Viking style of art and layout.
The fact that the issue was only $2.99 did help me take the plunge on this new title. It was a safe option and it was simply too gorgeous to pass over. Once I had the first issue I was in, for many reasons. It's a great set up for the characters we will be playing with and the world in which they inhabit. Much happens but it feels self-contained on the most part.
The Players and Their Stage
The title concerns, mainly, Egil and Finn, two brothers who spend their time viking and generally making with the old timey crime. They’re likable enough, in a well delivered rogue manner, and they are also quite different. Egil is relatively level headed and sure whereas Finn can completely fall off his rocker at times either playing things too cool or too menacing. Either way, I like them both, and they play off each other well. This is how brothers work, whatever deficiency one has the other picks up for them.
The two men happen upon a band of Vikings and relieve them of their treasure. It’s a brutal scene, with spears in stomachs and thumbs in eyes, and we get the message very clearly: Egil and Finn are out to take what they want and they want the world. They are also not adverse to making a slight name of themselves and so a messenger is left alive to spread the myth. It’s an effective introduction to the brothers and the grimy world which they inhabit.
The rest of the issue sets up King Bram the Quiet as the sort of monarch who can still rule with his might, his daughter Annikki who would prefer to rule with reason, and the extended family of our Viking lads, their grandfather, Ozur, and their little brother, Ketil. The issue ends with a confrontation of all three brothers and another man, a brother of one of the men they killed in the initial raiding party from the opening pages. I won’t spoil the final page of issue one but it leaves the story in such a jaw droppingly unexpected manner that I knew I was in for the next issue.
The Tale To Be Told
The next four issues follow our brothers as they search for redemption or, as was often synonymous in those days, death. They mourn losses and grieve violence with more violence and then hatch a further plan. Life is only one plan after another and for the next one they aim to shoot for the moon; they aim to capture King Bram’s daughter. This plan happens to coincide with a series of events spiraling out of dissent within the ranks of King Bram and so each plot move is made much more uneven by the other.
The brothers raid the castle and we get to see into the soul of each character. The hate that they carry with them as scars, and the scars that only cause them more hatred. No character is a blind cardboard cut out of stereotypical proportions. Each person is affected by others, and the actions of others, and so events play out of control but still in an organic manner. The story isn’t more or less important than the characters on the stage, they occupy equal space and neither would exist without the other.
After events, each character seems like they will have changed, physically, and emotionally. There is depth to their actions and equal and opposite reactions. There is no status quo for Viking and so, like many good independent comics, there is no fear of shaking up the hornet's nest and seeing what pours out. Anything can happen, and in a world of Vikings anything should be able to happen. This was a time of violence and not only should the characters reflect this but their outlook on the world and the world's reaction to them should also play up to this.
The Scribe of Blood
Ivan Brandon has completed a lot of research for this series (and I can’t help but think that he’s read Egil’s Saga, especially as two names of characters appear on the first page). He’s looked into the way the world operated back then and infused a slightly modern sense of speaking. This series copped some flack for being Northlanders-lite upon arrival, even though you can see how far back the roots for this series are, and I find that the only similarity is Vikings appearances. Northlanders is more like Brubaker’s Criminal whereas Brandon’s dark beast is something more akin to Scalped. It’s a different take on a genre and surprisingly, to some, it is a wide genre. It’s like saying all superhero comics are the same, or all spy comics, or all space comics. In the end all art must be judged on its own merits and Viking, for me, comes up a winner; even if only because it appealed to the logophile in me by applying the word viking in its initial verb usage.
The writing style of Viking is interesting because Brandon allows the men to talk in patterns that seem fitting for a crime story yet he never seems to make it feel anachronistic. The dialogue flows freely and often represents exactly the time in which the story is set, but then in other scenes may seem more timeless. Who's to say that certain Viking gentlemen weren't smooth talking bad asses instead of the usual bearded brutes we get grunting from beneath their tri-horned helmets? Brandon wants to deliver a real journey of the Viking world, not just the stereotype we are used to seeing. He dispels myths but never in a didactic way. The story and the fun come first at all times. His characters need to be interesting before he's going to bog down the entire title as one big translation just to keep the original Viking tongue used pure. He's the sort of writer that can allow a planet explode with noise, so long as the actual explosion looks wicked and somehow authentic.
The Bard of Art
The pretty pictures are offered up from the German mind of Nic Klein, a dear friend of Marko Djurdjevic’s. Klein brings a multitude of flavours and styles to the Viking world. Layouts often include a mixture of pure comic book, Ben-Day dotted, art and painted brilliance. His men are clear and their violent intentions even more so. The effects of their acts are brutally presented to the viewer, bulging eyes being a favourite weapon in his arsenal. It’s a pulpy style that perfectly matches the era and the tale being told.
Intermittently, Klein will slip in a panel or a page of pure painted beauty. A portrait of a character or scene that doesn’t seem too static but seems like that one part of the movie that gets the freeze frame. It takes a slight moment to align the two different views of reality into the one cohesive narrative. It’s not enough to throw you completely off the scent, and mostly I found it only slowed me down to appreciate the art more, but it is something that people will notice as different. Whether they like it or not is always going to be a matter of personal preference. Me? I like the painted work because it seems like Klein has an eye for the smoke and flavour of a scene much like Frank Frazetta and Boris Valejo before him did. He renders each character with emotion and this is effectively used to express only certain select moments in the story. Throughout the run, Klein attempts to fracture the page into different arrays to better express the flow of a scene. It’s fun to read and a beauty to see.
Klein’s keen acrylic eye is especially apparent in the absolutely stunning covers that he creates based on the design work of Tom Muller. Each cover is laid out for a specific purpose or feeling and it helps that they are presented on thick card stock and the central figure, with text, is given an extra sheen to that around him, her or it. The covers jump off the shelf unlike much else that is being offered us by the big companies currently. I can only hope the covers are collected in the HC to some degree as they are true works of art worthy of frames and a wall. Also, and this is where the floppy issues become a treat to wait for, each back cover gives us a pin up from Klein, as well as extra pieces of art on the inside of the front and back cover. There are also pin ups by Chris Samnee, Rafael Albuquerque, Frank Teran, to name but a few. These extras make the comic feel like it’s a labour of love and heart. It gives it all a personal feel and all of the art is of the quality that you can get lost in it pouring over each artistic brush and choice.
That the comic is only $2.99 is a testament to how much Ivan Brandon loves us all. He could have easily made it a four buck ride each month yet instead chose to lose out money just to have a comic that wasn’t riding the new pricing wave coming out of the industry. This was a conscious decision that he made, and fought for. I admire that and it is one of the main reasons I stuck with this book. The real main reason being the intriguing story and the knock out artwork.
The HC collection from Image this month will be $24.99 and Ivan Brandon has confirmed it is 152 pages, (as well as shown us scale for its size) so you’re paying a lot more than you would have for the floppies but you’re also getting a lot more extra pages for your money, not to mention a gorgeous HC frame and pages larger than the original issues on which to see all of the art and soak it in like a fire in the middle of an icy cold storm. It probably sounds like I’ve said it looks better than it reads, and possibly it does, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t read well. The story is entertaining and well developed, however the art is easily the showcase of this title, and not in a 90’s way but more in a real gallery sense.
If you haven’t already sampled the comic then I certainly vouch for the collection. It’s a dream for lovers of great art and it’s one damn fine hard-ass Viking tale. Have you read the issues? What did you think? Or are you trade waiting for this, and so what are you expecting?