How can a debut issue be nearly flawless in its execution and yet remain largely nonessential? Keep reading to find out, but be warned: the following review contains the same exact minor spoilers contained in all the previews you’ve already seen, as well as the promo copy.
Written by Jeff Lemire
Illustrated by Mike Deodato Jr.
Colored by Frank Martin
Lettered by Steve Wands
From the creator of “Black Hammer!” A merciless sword and sorcery warrior finds himself blasted through a wormhole to a modern-day metropolis where he must protect those around him from an evil wizard determined to send him to hell. From the Eisner Award-winning team of Jeff Lemire, Mike Deodato Jr., and Frank Martin comes this urban warrior fantasy series!
I suppose there are some ways you could reach the final pages of “Berserker Unbound” #1 and think, wow, that was unexpected. Maybe you live in some kind of alternate timeline where comic books are sold with only generic blank covers. Maybe you’re a Luddite who never came across even the slightest hint of what this book is about anywhere on the internet. Maybe by the time you finally went your to your local comic shop to get it, the only copies left featured Mike Mignola’s and Dave Stewart’s much more abstract variant cover.
For everybody else in the Multiverse, however, the entire narrative arc of the debut issue is basically captured in the gobsmackingly gorgeous main cover by illustrator Mike Deodato Jr. and colorist Frank Martin. And you know what? That’s not even a bad thing.
Yes, the Mongrel King – the titular berserker – is pretty much as close to Conan the Barbarian as a character can possibly be. Yes, the story is trope-filled and barely tells us anything we don’t already know. Yes, the story gets started on the final page and the rest could have been told in a tidy 3-page flashback, but then we couldn’t savor every page and panel of Deodato Jr. and Martin’s gorgeous illustrations. I mean, let’s be honest, the script isn’t bad, but in the end it could have been written by an anonymous low-level intern because the artwork steals the show.
First off, Deodato Jr.’s pencils feel like both an homage to Frank Frazetta, whom the artist cites as a major influence on his work, and an evolution in the sword and sorcery aesthetic. The protagonist’s character design features all the familiar touchstones – thick, tree-trunk legs; muscular bare chest; shaggy fur cape and loincloth; knee-high furry boots; unruly mane of long hair; battle axe, sword and shield – but Deodata Jr.’s fine lines and delicate crosshatching also give a more delicate, refined, contemporary look. Of course, there’s a lot of bloodshed and hulking, heroic poses, but it’s not just all in your face. With subtle, expert shading and phenomenal interplay between light and shadow, there’s also a literal well-rounded quality to the characters’ faces and bodies. They look and feel realistic, lifelike and grounded, a fairly rare quality swords and sorcery artwork.
Deodato Jr.’s paneling and page compositions are also best in class. In fact, the first third of the book is so well composed it could be wordless and barely suffer for it. The opening sequence sees the Mongrel King emerging from a hazy yellow mist with a classic full-page reveal hitting on page two. A few short pages later, the Berserker discovers the death and ruination that’s been delivered on his home village while he was away. The pain and desperation are immediately palpable. Sword drawn, he frantically runs toward one of the deceased, artfully framed with the stiff fingers of a cold, gray hand. The variety and use of panels – from soft, graduated edges to formal grids to downward cascading panels to off-kilter panels with thick, hastily rendered edges – is nothing short of perfection, dictating the pace and visual rhythm with flawless efficiency.
Not to be outdone, Frank Martin’s use of colors is equally close to perfect. The first part of the book is thoroughly dominated by a harsh, burnt out white-yellow, punctuated by darker browns and cold gray steel. Of course there’s also plenty of crimson blood: thick, coagulated webs that cover the ground; fine misty sprays that jet from severed limbs and heads; and countless spatters and streaks on the hero’s face, arms and hands – and yet somehow it doesn’t feel gratuitous or overblown. It’s gruesome, no doubt about it, but not at all arbitrary or done for the simple shock factor. Later, in the last two sections, Martin introduces a trippy, otherworldly neon green and pink, before he finally brings everything back down to earth with a subtle, organic palette of leafy green, arboreal brown and a softer version of the original sun-drenched yellow. It’s an actual master class.Continued below
Ultimately, you’d be very hard pressed to find a book in the sword and sorcery genre – or any other, for that matter – that surpasses “Berserker Unbound” #1 on a visual level. Truly, the stunning cover image alone is worth the price of admission. If you’re looking for a deeper, more engaging, unique story, however, this simply isn’t it. The narrative is in the pictures and so far that narrative doesn’t give us anything we don’t already know. Hopefully, once writer Jeff Lemire’s story finally kicks into gear, this miniseries will be something special, but for now, it kind of feels like an ashcan or free promo. Issue #2 is where the story will really begin.
Final Verdict: 8.0 The technical execution of “Berserker Unbound” #1 is as good as it gets, but unless you’re a completist who really digs buying floppies, you don’t need to feel compelled to rush out and get it. The best is yet to come.