This Oni Press series about Vikings and the undead and demons and – most integrally – witches got off to a great start but lost a little momentum in the second issue. Happily, as Rikard the draugr continues on his bemused way, he has an unlikely encounter and learns about his situation, and this story picks up speed once again. But did we really think a story with this awesome a premise, and this strong a team behind it, would ever lead us astray?
Written by Cullen Bunn
Illustrated by Joelle Jones
Rikard was raised from the dead as a weapon against the witch Groa. But his thirst for blood has waned. Tormented by his very existence, the draugr wanders the land, pursued by demonic enemies he had no desire to fight. Only when he meets a young woman named Kadlin does he learn the true price of the war between the witches.
There aren’t very many stories out there with sentient, thinking zombies, and this element gives “Helheim” as a series a special edge. And while the last issue basically centered on Rikard not doing something – which created some pacing problems – here we see Rikard exercising some real agency, and the story becomes that more interesting for it. Injured in a battle he had no stake in, he gets to decide his next move – and it is quite a decision.
The appearance of a new character during the latter half of this issue, a rather tough specimen known as Kadlin, is the real catalyst here, and probably one of the most interesting sequences in the series so far. And if it gives you flashbacks to the scene where the little girl encounters the monster in the original film of Frankenstein, no one will blame you. There’s a certain mileage to the idea of the beast and the girl getting along just fine, and the trope is explored beautifully here. The fact that there’s an obvious partnership being formed, with one contributing knowledge and the other contributing brawn, just flat-out makes a lot of sense, and the fact that it’s a girl who explains to Rikard the mechanics of the whole witch-war situation adds a nice symmetry to the story. If rivalry between women who use fear and love to control others is causing all this carnage, a partnership between a girl and beast which contains neither would be just the thing to stop it, right?
It all culminates in a wonderful metamorphosis on the issue’s last page, and it’s one of those moments where story and art are so perfectly united in terms of purpose and excellence of execution that you just want to read it again and again. So far as the plot goes, this moment is a game-changer, and you couldn’t ask for a stronger sense of gravitas surrounding the vital shift in Rikard’s way of being.
Joelle Jones, of course, has her fair share of fans, and her work throughout the rest of the issue is gorgeous as always. That’s a pretty broad term, “gorgeous”, but the delicate balance between embellishment and simplicity that’s evident in pretty much every single one of her panels suits the adjective well. Jones even handles gore with a kind of elegance, alternating between drawing all the detail you could possibly ask for, and just blacking out areas of rotted flesh when they’re unimportant the scene. Similarly, the overall cleanness of the layouts and the landscapes keeps things feeling appropriately bleak and Norse, but when we get to the faces, they’re all weathered and interesting. The emphasis is quite clearly on the complexity of the characters despite the polarizing nature of their situation, and this tendency suits the murky politics behind Rikard’s predicament perfectly.
Nick Filardi’s colours are fairly straightforward, keeping to your blues and greys while livening up the battle scene with a bit of red. The concluding page, however, gets across the hues of firelight beautifully, and adds that much more drama to one iconic moment. Ed Brisson’s lettering, meanwhile, is eye-catching in the best of ways, if a little on the tiny side (and there goes my theory that the best lettering job is the one that goes unnoticed). There’s a good deal of words on each page in this book – at least, a lot more than you’d expect from a stark Norse story – but the speech bubbles never overwhelm the composition of the panel, preserving a nice sense of spaciousness.Continued below
Overall, this series is progressing along nicely, doing all kinds of interesting and surprising things with our idea of the zombie and, in so doing, crafting one unique story. At the same time, it looks gorgeous, and between Bunn’s careful writing and Jones’ expressive art it’s hard not to feel for these characters. It’ll be exciting to find out what’s next for our (significantly changed) draugr friend, and see just where this new alliance takes him.
Final Verdict: 8.5 – Buy