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    Pick of the Week: Helheim #1

    By | March 7th, 2013
    Posted in Reviews | % Comments

    I don’t know about you, but giant Norse undead sound like my kind of fun.

    Written by Cullen Bunn
    Illustrated by Joëlle Jones


    ‘Once the threshold of Helheim is crossed, not even gods can escape.’

    During the age of the Vikings, savage wild men and dark creatures beset a small settlement. A brave war party stands as guardians of the helpless villagers, but they are no match for the horrors rising up around them. One of the warriors, a young hero named Rikard, will pay the ultimate price in battle. . . but his fight is far from over.

    A gothic horror story of witchcraft, night creatures, and the undead.

    By writing a book that includes zombies in it in this day and age, you’re opening your doors for a lot of instant criticism. Storytelling mediums of every kind are oversaturated zombie comics after the boom that started in the mid 2000s; if you want to do something including zombies, you have to do something different. “Helheim” is something different. At the beginning of the issue, it seems like Bunn is playing this comic by the book — we have bloodthirsty, zombie-like creatures who come as an endless tide, and a small hamlet caught in a losing battle of survival. This is the zombie idiom, a gradual wearing away due to scattered moments of slaughter as opposed to a coup that is over in a heartbeat. By the end of the issue, though Bunn has turned the genre on its head. The zombie story is generally all about the shambling horde, but Bunn has given us a zombie who is an individual (only in the most literal sense). Not only that, but this mindless individual is specifically pitted against the equally mindless horde. Within an issue Bunn has set himself up to subvert a whole genre, and all without coming off as superficial. Sure, at its simplest form, you can describe it as “zombies… but with vikings!” but by doing so you are missing the very clever twist on classic genre themes that Bunn has set the book up for.

    Beyond an analytical look, it’s a very well composed issue, technically. Frequent readers are probably well aware of my hesitance when it comes to first issues, but Bunn does a solid job of starting things off with just enough information. As is typical for a lot of first issues, we start off in the thick of the action, swords swinging and limbs flying, and the situation is made more clear as the characters converse about their situation. Never does the dialogue get overtly expositionary. In fact, the one slight flaw about this comic would be that a little is underexplained. Kirk’s distrust of Bera is never given any real reason — besides, you know, the final page — and almost makes it feel like we readers are missing out on something. Is this a first issue or a second one? This is really the only time where this problem rears its head, though; otherwise, the issue does what needs to be done, introducing (and removing) characters, establishing the setting, and highlighting the conflict. Not much of the issue is dedicated to bringing out the details of the major characters involved, but Bunn does enough to show that much lies underneath the surface of these fantastic norsemen and women.

    Joëlle Jones is a very adaptable artist who can find a fit in nearly any genre, and the blend of fantasy and horror that is “Helheim” is no exception. One of the tricky things about blending horror with other genres is that the other genre — even a frequent partner such as fantasy — can sometimes dull the edge of the horror elements. In this regard, visual mediums such as film and, well, comics can have an advantage over prose. While the vikings in this comic may, at the beginning, be cleaving through their tainted assailants, the use of heavy shading and interspersed closeup panels help keep an anxiety-inducing sense of danger present until things take a decidedly more classic horrific bent (in which case they enhance it). Besides her general sense of tonal awareness, Jones is an immenseley talented artist overall. Her work is heavily stylized, but never to the point where standard rules of figure drawing and composition are thrown out the window — unless, of course, the situation calls for that. You have to know the rules before you’re allowed to break them, and all that. This stylization causes her art to be full of motion and expression, and never goes so far that it sacrifices readability. If you’ll pardon the expression, Jones knows precisely where to draw the line, and constantly churns out page after page of well-illustrated sequential art. She’s a perfect fit for “Helheim,” and for pretty much any comic out there.

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    Sometimes you want your vikings to be realistic, like in Brian Wood’s “Northlanders,” and sometimes you want them to be out of this world. If the latter, you can bank on Cullen Bunn and Joëlle Jones. Whether you are looking for something that is in a good position to twist and turn the tropes of zombie fiction or you just think the idea of a hulking viking zombie sounds like a blast, “Helheim” has a lot to offer. I recommend listening to Led Zeppelin II while reading it. Something heavier, like Leviathan can work, too, but you have to respect the classics.

    Final Verdict: 8.5 – It’s pick of the week, isn’t it?

    Walt Richardson

    Walt is a former editor for Multiversity Comics and current podcaster/ne'er-do-well. Follow him on Twitter @goodbyetoashoe... if you dare!