This is the title where Amazon failed me. After years of delivering all of my comics at fairly generous discounts with varying degrees of timeliness, they cancelled my order for this title and have yet to offer a physical copy of it for sale on their site. Kodansha, its publisher, is currently pointing its finger at the company for not fixing this issue and has recommended that people pick up the graphic novel elsewhere. That’s just what I did, because there is nothing that will keep me from the latest work by Makoto Yukimura. He’s the mangaka who gave us “Planetes” -- the best manga Tokyopop ever published -- and I’ve heard lots of good things about this title for quite some time. It even won Japan’s prestigious Media Arts Award for manga, which puts it in the same rarefied company as “Blade of the Immortal.” After all of this hype, you’d think that I’d be setting myself up for another instance where my expectations prevented me from fully enjoying the title. That’s not quite true here.
You see, vol. 1 of “Vinland Saga” starts off with 129 of the most thrilling and involving pages you’ll see in any graphic novel this year. We begin in the year 1012 A.D. with a battle between two Frankish (read: French) tribes. One is secure in their coastal village while the other tries to bash their way in through the front gate to no avail. Enter a group of Norsemen led by the cunning Askeladd who sees a way to wring great profit from this conflict. Sending the incredibly surly yet capable Thorfinn to negotiate with the attacking tribe, a deal is struck that will allow the Norse to claim half of the spoils from the village. However, as the attacking tribe is led by a general who is as fat as he is lazy, a double-cross is all but certain in this scenario.
The tension in Thorfinn’s negotiations, the surprise reveal of Askeladd’s scheme, and the actual battle for the village -- all of it is magnificently realized on the page. As a 90-page opening chapter, this initial assault does an excellent job of establishing the setting, the key characters in this story, and telling us a complete tale with some nice twists throughout. There’s also plenty of action where we get to see how capable the Norsemen are as fighters, and Thorfinn in particular. His shining moment is breaking through the attacking lines to climb the village walls and take the head of their commander. Even if that last part doesn’t come off as smoothly as he would’ve liked, there’s enough here to show us that he is a certified badass.
That being said, the second chapter shows us that he still has a lot to learn as he engages in a duel to the death-or-defeat with Askeladd. Theirs is a bitterly contentious relationship as we quickly find out that the viking commander killed Thorfinn’s father years ago. Even if this second chapter doesn’t have as much action as the first, it still does a very good job of adding further depth to the characters and the cast as well as their lot in life. Askeladd makes the astute observation that “everyone is slave to something,” and that proves to be true of a lot of things here.
Had the rest of the book been as good as these opening chapters, I’d have no qualms about putting it on my “Best of 2013” list. That it isn’t is due to the fact that Yukimura changes things up immediately afterward and has the narrative embarking on an extended flashback to show Thorfinn’s life from ten years ago when he was living with his family on the coast of Iceland. The young boy was living happily with his father Thors, mother Helga, and sister Ylva, while thrilling to the tales of none other than Leif Ericson and his stories about a strange land across the sea called Vinland. Though there’s the occasional inter-village dispute, theirs is generally a quiet life. That is, until one day a warrior named Floki comes to the village on a boat with soldiers looking for the legendary Thors the Troll to return to battle.
You can probably guess where things are going to go from here, and that’s the biggest weakness of the rest of the volume. Yukimura builds this flashback narrative out of some very familiar parts, and it’s that familiarity along with the fact that we know how this is going to end up which winds up taking a good portion of the excitement from the proceedings. Even so, the mangaka is a skilled enough storyteller that he knows how to spice up the proceedings with humor and action in equal parts and make sure that the characters are interesting enough to hold our attention through their adventures. There are even a few nice twists to be found here as the confrontation between Askeladd and Thors wasn’t as one-sided as I was expecting, and Thorfinn’s present-day situation is more of his own doing than anything else.
Also working in this book’s favor is the art, which does an excellent job of capturing the wilderness of medieval France and the snow-covered coasts of Iceland. Yukimura has a very good sense of visual style and he gives us a convincing depiction of a time period that you don’t see a whole lot in graphic fiction. Unless you’re like me and you’ve read Brian Wood’s “Northlanders.” The mangaka can go toe-to-toe with any of the artists on setting and environmental detail, though his character work may prove a bit more divisive.
As much as the characters look like hard-bitten warriors or survivors of the frozen wastes, Yukimura can also push them into caricature if the scene demands it. I think that approach works fine here, though he does push it a bit far with his depiction of the general of the attacking hordes. The man comes off as a slug with arms and legs, which isn’t too surprising since his name is “Jabbathe.” (No, really.) At least he doesn’t cross that line again in the rest of the book and to those of you who think that big eyes don’t belong in viking fiction, I think that Thorfinn’s look when he’s raging at the men who killed his father on the last few pages provides a very compelling argument for it.
So if you’re looking for a good story about vikings, or thought that “Northlanders” would’ve been better if it had told one continuous story then “Vinland Saga” will likely be right up your alley. Even if the rest of the first volume isn’t as good as the opening chapters, that’s still a decline from “excellent” to “good.” The story of Thorfinn and those around him is an engrossing read and it also looks to become even more involving now that we’re past the things we already knew in the flashback. Let me put it to you another way: Even though I had to pay full price for this volume, I still feel that I got my money’s worth after reading everything inside.