Tony sets sail.
The story of Vikings as told in the comic-book series impressed us right out of the gate, Who writer and comic-guru Cavan Scott turning in an engagingly complex and textured rendering of the problems of legendary Viking leader Ragnar Lothbrok and his band of followers. Ragnar faces the perils of ninth century diplomacy as he tries to reach an accord with Ecbert, King of Wessex, to allow the Northmen a foothold in the Southlands, a place to establish a new legacy. As well as uppity Wessex lords, unhappy at the idea of these northern upstarts though, he has grumbling dissent in his own ranks, his close advisor Floki growing more and more aggrieved at the closeness between his king and the king of the Christ-men, the infection of their faith and what he sees as Ragnar’s growing abandonment of the true, Norse, gods.
Meanwhile, tensions are running high back home in Kattegat, Ragnar’s wife Aslaug trying to keep order as crops fail, villagers go hungry, and scapegoats are sought to explain their ill fortune and appease the gods.
In this issue, Scott maintains the complexity but gives the tension an extra – perhaps disturbingly apposite – twist. The clash of cultures between the Northmen and the Wessexmen has half its roots in religion, to be sure, Floki in particular feeling the bite of the ‘wrongness’ of the Christian philosophy he encounters. It offends him spiritually and almost hurts him physically to be in the presence of beliefs he feels run counter to the truth that beats in every proud Norse heart and soul. It’s tempting to see Floki as an avatar of the frustration of the different, the ignored, the overruled - a man driven almost mad by the ‘wrongness’ he sees everywhere around him, polluting everything he’s known to be true all his life. A man almost itching to pick up an axe and carve a pathway through the ‘wrongness’ in his world.
This issue gives him no help and no relief – not only do Ecbert and Ragnar make a deal that sees the Vikings sell their service as assassins, turning their blades and their skills against another band of rampaging Northmen who have been pillaging monasteries and taking slaves, but when Ragnar’s band encounter bad weather at sea and Floki’s invocations to Thor go unheard, he is rescued from the sea by the worst person in his world – Athelstan, King Ecbert’s priest. The arch-antichrist will now owe his life to the Christ-man, a state of affairs unlikely to mellow him towards the Southmen and their sacrificial lamb-god.
Aslaug, having ordained trial by ordeal for a woman deemed a thief and a witch, struggles to keep her villagers in check when the woman weathers the ordeal and is released. Meanwhile, Siggy, former wife of the Earl of Kattegat and potential schemer to regain a higher status than servant to Queen Aslaug, tends the wounds of the ‘witch’ – with alarming consequences for Aslaug’s peace.
But of the most immediate danger to the Vikings in this issue are the disconsolate Wessex lords, who fear not only that Ecbert is too friendly with Ragnar, but also that Ragnar’s former wife and now the earl and shield maiden Lagertha may have designs of her own upon their king. The idea of a friendship between their king and the Northmen may be bad enough, but the idea of his being ruled in the bedchamber and so on the throne by the northern witch is a lot more terrifying to them. What, after all, would a smitten king refuse his woman, be it land or the life of any who crossed her? So as Ragnar and his band sail to do Ecbert a service by eradicating the northern raiding party, the word goes out to meet them with an ambush of Wessex bowmen. We anticipate issue #3 is about to get bloody.
See? Complex and textured, the strands of ninth century politics, the conflicts, the superstitions, the clashing realities, religions and tensions, all rendered in a thirty-page issue of a comic-book.
It takes a damn good writer to do that. It takes Cavan Scott in this instance.
Scott’s rendering of Michael Hirst’s TV Vikings has a viscerality and freshness to it that make it easy to absorb the history, the interlaced issues – and even, as we say, to overlay the realities and mindsets of modern conflicts on this less technologically-advanced point in history, allowing us to bridge the gap between our worlds easily through that overlay. Clashes of politics and religion are still very much a factor in our world, mistrust and double-dealing still the common currency of international and intercultural relations, and the path of honourable leaders never straight or smooth, so Scott’s comic-book version of Vikings allows us in to Ragnar Lothbrok’s world in just a handful of heartbeats.
The art by Staz Johnson and colourwork by Rodrigo Fernandes strike a very effective balance too – Vikings always looks drawn, there’s no pretence towards photorealism here, but it looks drawn in a way that could easily be transposed to the screen, capturing the splendour, the potential, the squalor and the raggedness of ninth century life. When Johnson draws longships on the sea, there’s a majesty to the imagery that delivers what it’s supposed to – the sense of awe such ships would have inspired in people with less fire in their bellies for exploration. The sense of fear of what came with them.
Fernandes for the most part makes a very historically intelligent choice, keeping his colours muted, an almost watercolour palette of natural dyes, wood and thatch walls, simply coloured clothes. It’s only occasionally in Johnson’s depictions nature that he gets the chance to turn the colour index up, and does, to give a contrast between the lives that men and women made for themselves at the time and the splendour of nature all around them.
If issue #1 introduced us to the Viking world and the complex tensions and burdens on the shoulders of a visionary Viking leader and his band, issue #2 intensifies those tensions, emphasises the cultural dissonance between the Northmen and their southern ‘English’ neighbours, and gives us a modernistic key into their world and aspirations by allowing us to see that world and those aspirations as neither a million miles nor a million years away from our own.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk