Image Comics, 21 pages, $ 2.99
One of the big challenges in storytelling is to find the right balance between the familiar and the new—veer too much to the familiar, and the audience will be bored; veer too much to the new, and the audience won't find anything to be invested in.
Particularly (though not exclusively) in historical fiction, this balancing act comes down to confronting people with characters whose actions are significantly different from what the audience knows and expects, but remain recognizable as genuine, plausibly motivated human behavior when measured against their context.
Take the beginning of the first episode of Deadwood, for instance: Sheriff Seth Bullock, whom we are meant to accept as the "hero" of the show, is introduced as someone who regards the proper execution of a prisoner as something worth risking his life for when a lynch mob comes a-knocking. Bullock and his deputy hold the mob in check with shotguns while hastily yet orderly enforcing the death sentence by hanging the perpetrator themselves.
What's more, the prisoner's last words are a sincere and heartfelt expression of gratitude to the two lawmen for sticking out their own necks on his behalf, if you forgive the pun.
It's a brilliant bit of storytelling that tells the audience right away: Pay attention, we're not in Kansas anymore.
The brilliant part: Bullock, whose actions are treated like those of your average western hero by the show, obviously has very different ideas on the concept of "justice" than most other sheriffs in most other westerns do; and yet Bullock's idea of justice suddenly makes a helluva lot more sense than your typical sanitized good-guy sheriff's idea does.
Or: Bullock's ethics are very different from those we previously knew from this type of character, yet somehow much more plausible in context than the previously accepted convention.
Why go into all this? Because finding this balance between the new and the familiar is a major part of what Viking, a new historical-fiction series about—you guessed it—Vikings, does right: Throughout the story, writer Ivan Brandon demonstrates that he's given a lot of thought to the ways his characters think and behave, and why they think and behave the way they do.
The scenes that result from this aren't entirely as poignant as the one from Deadwood, but nonetheless authentic and compelling. Almost all of the characters have their share of rough edges that deviate quite a bit from the hero formula that a lot of American fiction tends to follow; and at least some of the situations staged in those scenes are refreshingly off the beaten path. Likewise, Mr. Brandon has an ear for dialogue that's not just crisp and well-paced, but also reads like something that might conceivably have been said by Vikings—in terms of what is said, but also in terms of how it's said.
German artist Nic Klein varies his style throughout the story, rendering some panels in more detail than others, while others yet look painted rather than penciled. Mr. Klein also experiments a lot with colors, often opting for a surreal, expressive palette. While all this gives Viking a distinctive look, the stylistic shifts don't always serve the overall story—quite often, the style changes back and forth multiple times on a given page for no discernible reason.
Sometimes, the panel-to-panel storytelling could be clearer. I'm still not entirely sure who ultimately does the killing in the two fight scenes early on in the book, for instance. It's moot to the plot in both cases, fortunately, but it's still not something I should be left scratching my head about.
On the plus side, Mr. Klein's work displays a fair range and a solid grasp of natural facial expressions and body language. The characters in Viking communicate in ways that don't involve the dialogue, which is always a plus.
Viking is still a little rough around the edges, and there's room for improvement in the execution, certainly. Still, it's a unique comic. It reads and looks unlike anything else out there—also thanks, in part, to the wider page format, great paper stock and striking logo and cover design by Tom Muller—and the creators get a couple of intense, captivating moments under their belts.