Monday, March 1, 2010

Viking 1-5

"Viking" is the ongoing commitment by writer Ivan Brandon and artist Nic Klein, published by Image comics, that has just completed it's first "season". In the world of creator owned comics, such a term always promises a hopeful return of the series, following a new marketing approach. In any event, the bi-monthly offering has certainly come to some sort of conclusion of it's first tale, although one that is much more episodic than the TV-inspired language would seem to imply.

As a writer, Ivan Brandon has been the type of the creative who is very patient in breaking through in the American comics industry. His career path has so far included a wide birth of mini-series, and even the occasional superhero tie-in project at DC and Marvel. When developing "Viking", he was coming up with the idea of a somewhat more complex work. Yet, finding an artist willing to expose his work to the audience for no up-front pay is always a tricky proposition. Still, Brandon was insistent to leave his mark on the industry that is notoriously hard for the writers to get regular work in.

Thankfully, Nic Klein agreed to develop his concepts, and in the long process of publishing the first issue of the series the artist's involvement has considerably increased. By the time Image was ready to solicit the series, Klein was already listed as a co-creator, indicative of the creative team's labor of love being a rare collaboration in the true sense of the word.

Image's marketing on the other hand, was a different matter altogether. "Viking" was presented as a publication coming on the heels of Vertigo's "Northlanders", but with a noir twist to it. This is consistent with the creator's initial pitch of the series to DC's imprint, and indeed, if one is to approximate the line as "HBO of comics", "Viking" could have been seen as a potential addition. It's just that selling a period piece with such a strong emphasis on the modern approximations seemed to sell the project short. The final product is obviously a detailed and much labored upon piece, and Image has continued to push the property, with the black and white reprint in the back of a "Walking dead" issue, the publisher's strongest current title. It's just that the complete experience is one that differs greatly from the presentation.

Brandon and Klein have worked hard to make their debut impressionable, and it's certainly a very handsome package. For a start, the over sized pages exploit the artist's endless talent at emotion, and the writer behind him keeps constantly alert at delivering a tense and accessible story. It's character-oriented focus helps ease the reader into experiencing events taking place a thousand years ago without any kind of distance and pandering specifically to the history enthusiasts. In effect, focusing on the illiterate robbers helps shield the book from getting lost in the obscure references and mythology, and presenting a stereotypical take on the era in the best possible way.

The reader is invited right away to get to know the book's central characters, brothers Finn and Egil through their humble beginnings as thrill-seeking bloodthirsty plunderers. Following the action, these no-nonsense hardy men are shown with the rest of their family, leading to another tragedy that gets them to change their modus operandi.

The harsh world they operate in doesn't shy away from the violent confrontations as regular answers for any and all dispute, but soon enough, the brothers start getting to know the British locale. Getting an unlikely ally, they are lead to a confrontation with a "king", following which the first "season" of the book ends, with all of the leads acquainted with each other, and a series of conflicts is set to boil, some sooner rather than later.

Overall, "Viking" leaves a very competent impression, from start to finish. First and foremost, Brandon's stout characters are definitely portrayed as men hailing from a more brutal time, but they stop short of ravaging maniacs. In fact, the most interesting subplot hails from one of the brothers facing that very same dilemma, without a sudden complete change of the heart that is common in some of the faster paced comics. Which still leaves the story's first "season" as a piece that does a lot of work at introducing the cast in a way that puts them through quite an ordeal.

Individually, each of these characters is instantly recognizable, playing a distinctive archetype for great effect. When it comes to the supporting cast, the reader is quickly introduced to some of the more level headed players, like the brother's grandfather Ozur, or king Bram the Quiet who has an equally stern daughter in Annikki. Even then, each of these differs in their wisdom and education, with a personal flair all their own, albeit still remaining with some of the vikings' natural ferocity underneath. It goes without saying that Klein's strong designs further enforce their standing out as more then the writer's mouthpieces, which is readily apparent when it comes to Gylfi and Aki, king Bram's servants introduced as bit players. These similarly designed characters could easily have become indistinguishable in lesser creators' hands, but creators once again manage to devote enough care and effort into it that it ends up almost mirroring the duality established in their lead protagonists.

It's interesting to see how Brandon approaches the plot in such a heavily character-oriented book. The key to "Viking"'s story seems to be in misdirection - the reader is regularly treated with a lot of savage dynamics cutting a swath through a mass of characters that serves a double role. As mentioned, it serves as a continuous reminder of the ferocity of these men of dark ages, and certainly helps keep the pacing brisk and dynamic. But, when a better look is paid to these blood baths, it's clear that only one person of importance actually dies in them, which forms the heart of the book. Unfortunately, by getting to the end of the fifth issue, this becomes much more apparent and it actually serves to undermine the story's subjective reality.

It is as if the creators have attached themselves too much to these characters that make up a bleak and savage world of one thousand years ago, and have already started to look at their fates in terms of adjoining story arcs. There is no other excuse for seeing love burst out on fast-forward in the middle of a very tense situation where a more animal sexuality would have been much more believable. Unfortunately, the "season finale" really hurts the book in that it tries to set up and foreshadow the title's eventual direction, but does it in a way that feels very hurried and actively challenges the suspension of disbelief. It's unlikely that a prospective reader will see such familiar plot devices as the mercy shown in a very dangerous situation as an act of wisdom on the part of the character, after being regularly shown that these are the people who behead each other on a whim, for even the smallest of insults. Nor is there any real fear for the fate of a protagonist left to his wounds, which serves as the cliffhanger. Having seen the man doing much more than simply standing up for a large part of the issue surely makes his predicament a temporary one.

Yet, these are all very small hindrances that have resulted from nothing less than the creators' love for the setting they've established and put dozens of working hours into. For instance, Brandon's subtlety with characterization and the completely accessible world of yesterday he presents the readers with are surely the result a detailed layout that was revised during the long time leading up to "Viking"'s eventual publication. Still, the enthusiasm and sheer effort that makes the book stand out are clear even to the untrained eye as soon as they see Nic Klein's work.

It cannot be overstated how misleading the comic book covers can be, as the publishers are aware that even the most rushed and amateurish work is more likely to be sampled by the readers if it's hidden under a striking composition. These commissions have been part and parcel of comics for such a long time, that hardly anyone expects any more to see interior art that matches the skill and detail synonymous with classical craftsmen like Hal ("Prince Valiant") Foster and Alex ("Flash Gordon") Raymond, especially on an up and coming book. This is why seeing that Nic Klein applying the same approach used for illustrating his covers to all his interior art makes "Viking" stand out across the entire Image line.

The artist's style can best be described as layered, seeing as how he is in charge with both pencils, inks and colors of the story. Yet, for all the control his training brings him, he still opts for a very fluid, emotive work, where a lot of his peers would simply opt to render the whole setting with a strong unifying technique.

Klein builds up to the full effect starting with the colors, that set up an atmosphere of earthly browns and bright reds that give the medieval ages a primal, almost primitive quality. From there, he lets the emotional quality of the scene to decide on the amount of details employed, which is a very interesting technique. He usually starts with a fully painted establishing shot, then proceeds to spotlight different panels in the style he feels benefits them the most. This usually leads to most of the conversations being composed of regular pencil drawings, that still betray an expressive hand over the realistic layouts. Even then, the backgrounds serve to depict the artist's energy constantly building up, changing from fully realized surroundings to dots, as he prepares to single out a panel. Thus, amid the emotive, almost scratchy artwork, an emotive highpoint changes the color and often the texture of the whole image, leading to a fully painted detail, that is often as quickly abandoned as it was singled out.

This all contributes to a uniquely fluid and interesting experience that is "Viking". It is as if the artist is purposefully exploiting the relatively more traditional scripting of his writer to break out the formalistic experimentation. The cumulative effect is striking, as the book actively fights for the reader's attention and rewards it every step of the way. It's rare that such a sense of identity and unifying vision is experienced in a book so early in it's run, as even the most ambitious titles seldom fare so adequate with lesser known creators. The amount of care and professionalism that comes from every page is telling, as Brandon and Klein really value their collaboration and the reader that is paying for it.

Their comic is never treated as a half-hearted attempt to try and string some ideas together, but a fully formed brand that is as important as TV show with high production values. Seeing as how their comic is currently "in between seasons", it would be a real shame if the creators decided on leaving the project because of the lack of financial rewards. This is a very real concern, as clearly both Ivan Brandon and Nic Klein are more than ready to produce the kind of work that would make them invaluable to superhero publishers.

Perhaps the real problem that still faces the eventual "Viking" trade paperback is the marketing that introduced the book to the readers in the first place. It would seem that Image have found it important to stress out how the book is a "noir" piece dressed up in the medieval imagery, which is a very problematic decision. It gambles on the reader-friendly feeling of the book, but in turn undersells it as so much gimmick comics. In turn, the cumulative effect may well be that the basic concept appeals to the fans of "Samurai detective", and not the HBO shows that inspired it, such as "Rome" and "Deadwood".

In the best possible outcome, a broader audience would eventually discover "Viking" in it's collected form and enable it's continued existence as an ongoing series that it's clearly set up to be. Realistically, this is very much in doubt, as new genre comics face an uphill battle in a biased marketplace that is traditionally resistant to new properties. It's clear that the creators have no part in this strategy, as they have already debuted with high quality work for no upfront pay, which is only to be commendable. Perhaps a stronger previous presence in the superhero medium would have help them attract more eyes on their creator-owned work, but this has rarely proven to be deciding factor in the continuing success of an independent ongoing series. In today's market, it might well be that marketing is the deciding factor when it comes to enticing retailers to order a new title. And unfortunately, unless Image finds a way to attract a broader mainstream audience, it's highly unlikely that a new series will return for another "season" of bi-monthly comic books that have awarded their creators with little besides a strong portfolio to take to Marvel and DC.

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