Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

For Better or Norse

Posted by Don MacPherson on March 16th, 2013

Variant coverVariant coverHelheim #1
Writer: Cullen Bunn
Artist: Joelle Jones
Colors: Nick Filardi
Letters: Ed Brisson
Cover artists: Joëlle Jones (regular)/Jones & Chuck BB (variants)
Editor: Charlie Chu
Publisher: Oni Press
Price: $3.99 US

I couldn’t get into Brian Wood’s Northlanders. My wife watched the first couple of episodes of Vikings on the History Channel recently, and I was bored. Stories of Norse warriors have rarely held my attention in the past, but when Helheim was announced, I couldn’t help but take note of it. Sure, the genre may not have been my thing in the past, but I’m a fan of writer Cullen Bunn’s work on The Sixth Gun, and Joëlle Jones has never disappointed with her artwork. So I took the plunge into blood-soaked snows from centuries ago once again, and the result was… exactly the same. I just can’t connect with this subject matter, with these characters. I don’t know what it is, but it’s just not something that appeals to me, at least not in terms of plot. The art here, on the other hand, was thoroughly impressive, and not only in terms of design and mood. Helheim represents a significant departure for Jones. The style here is different, the detail more meticulous. She shows us something new, and that’s always interesting to see.

Centuries ago, a young, brave and noble Viking warrior named Rikard scrambles to defend his tribe from the horrific assaults on his home by the haunted men controlled by some sort of witch. After a particularly devastating battle, as he and his friends make their way home, he has a terrible vision of himself, a ghostly vision of his solemn form, bleeding and holding a sword. He takes it as a bad omen, but he’s determined to defend his home, not only because he cares for his people, but because there is one special person there, a woman he loves more than life itself. Unfortunately, his father views his son’s lover with suspicion and even disdain.

With The Sixth Gun, writer Cullen Bunn had as the foundation of the series a great hook: a sextet of supernatural and cursed weapons being sought by various factions, all with different agendas. Six guns of power in the Old West… it’s a simple but compelling concept, and that’s how Bunn grabbed us from the start. Helheim‘s premise isn’t as clearly presented. The notion of a Viking Frankenstein monster (as depicted on the cover) is kind of cool, but I didn’t feel I got any real hint of what the story is meant to be about. Furthermore, Bunn doesn’t really set the conflicts here before barrelling toward some turning points. Rikard’s father’s enmity toward Bera erupts completely without any real context for it. His hatred and bloodlust when it comes to the pivotal character lack credibility as a result. It feels like I’ve missed an opening chapter.

Despite those missteps, I think there’s an exciting drama unfolding here, but my own self-professed aversion to the Viking/barbarian genre keeps me from fully enjoying it and/or committing to it. I like these creators and I want to be wowed by the story, but I’ve got a block in place I can’t really explain. I know I’m capable of enjoying such fare; on rare occasions, I’ve been impressed with a Conan story and other similar pieces, but unfortunately, this isn’t one of those times.

That doesn’t mean the first issue of Helheim fell flat for altogether. I was wowed by one aspect of the book: Joëlle Jones’s artwork. I love the designs of the villainous invaders. Furthermore, Jones has clearly opted to challenge herself. Past instances of her visual storytelling featured slender figures, delicate elements. Here, she delves into more brutal characters, and she employs thick, harsh designs to convey the rough strength of the various players in the drama. I’ve always found her work focused on grace, youth and beauty in the past, but here, she adds ugliness and pain to the mix as the property requires. It’s as though she wants to avoid artistic “typecasting,” and if that’s the case, she succeeds. Nick Filardi’s colors are appropriately dark and muted throughout, so the deep, sparkling blue tones he uses to convey the Ghost Rikard’s form really pops as a result. 6/10

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