Comic Picks By The Glick

Vinland Saga vol. 4

August 12, 2014

How do you follow up one of the most thrilling volumes of comics I’ve read all year?  If you’re mangaka Makoto Yukimura, you dig right into your new status quo of the united factions from the previous volume taking on the King of Denmark for all he controls.  It’s a setup that doesn’t offer as many visceral combat thrills as the previous volume, but it does make for an utterly absorbing and compelling read as our protagonists try to out-maneuver a man whose mind has not grown dull with age.  All of that is so good here that you may be left a little worried once you get to the end and witness the title’s latest change in direction.

When we first met Prince Canute back in vol. 2, he was presented as an effeminate bishounen who could barely utter a word in his defence.  Now, he’s a changed man after being thrust into a band of viking rogues, living through the death of the only real father figure he has known, and coming to a new understanding about the nature of God.  It’s due to all of these things that has led Canute to seek the throne from his father, King Sweyn, and create a paradise on Earth for all men.  The problem is that the prince can’t just march up to his dad and demand that he hand over his throne.  Not if he wants to live through the encounter.  Fortunately Canute has Askeladd, the craftiest bastard in the series, on his side and planning his strategy.  So the throne is basically as good as his.  Right?

Crafty thought he may be, Askeladd is still human and fallible as such.  We see this in the very first meeting Canute has with Sweyn upon his return to the King’s camp as the monarch makes some particularly keen observations into Askeladd’s character.  Observations keen enough to cause the viking leader to experience rage that Thorfinn has never seen in him until now.  It’s a great scene which lets the reader know that even if Sweyn looks old and worn down, he’s going to be the most formidable foe our protagonists have faced so far.

I found the battle of wits involving Canute, his father and Askeladd during that scene to be utterly fascinating to watch.  Everyone knew what they wanted to do, but had to find the right way to pull it off.  Brutal as the time may be, the people here are still bound by the rule of civilization and that means no sons killing fathers or fathers killing sons outright.  At least, not without a good reason.

This leads to an ongoing social conflict between Canute and his father as the latter tries to take out the former before he can solidify his power base and become a real threat.  Though the Prince now has the presence to make a real claim to the throne, it’s Askeladd who provides the means.  Seeing him utilize his gift for reading people and combining it with his strategic mind is utterly compelling to watch unfold.  It’s rare that we see this level of effective strategic planning coming from the protagonists in any story.  Rarer still that the planning from the antagonists feels believable within the context of the story and not some cheap ploy by the author to amp up the drama.  So when Askeladd still manages to get blindsided by Sweyn at one point, it feels like the  genuine shock that it is.

As the cover implies, this volume is really the “Ashen Lad’s” show more than anyone else’s.  Not only does he have the skill set most critical to the events at hand, but we also get to find out more about him than in previous volumes.  I mentioned earlier that he becomes genuinely angry for the first time in the series.  We learn exactly why Sweyn was able to push that button with him, and it comes in the form of an illuminating flashback where he spells out the difference between himself and Thorfinn.  Where the young lad brandishes his bloodlust at every turn in his quest for revenge against the man, Askeladd knew the value in hiding it to get the man he wanted dead to drop his guard.  Even if his duel with Bjorn does devolve into sentimentality at the end, Askeladd really affirms his status as the most compelling character in this series.

Which is why I was stunned to see Yukimura decide to leave him, and the whole setup he spent the volume establishing behind towards the end of the volume.  You see, there’s a big feast held by Sweyn where he doles out the spoils of the war in England, some words get exchanged, and then people start getting butchered.  After all that’s over, the narrative shifts its focus onto a new character named Einar.  He’s a slave who is sold to a wealthy farmer in Denmark for a price slightly higher than two cows.  It’s at this farm that he begins his new lot in life, clearing the forest for his master, along with one of our former protagonists who has fallen on some rather hard times.

Einar’s situation is certainly interesting to watch unfold, as we get some insight into the era from a new perspective and class.  There’s also the matter of seeing that former protagonist in his new state and wondering just exactly how he wound up there and if he’ll ever get back to his old self.  It’s not that I’m averse to seeing how this will all play out, as Yukimura has shown that he’s an incredibly skilled storyteller who can create memorable characters from scratch.

The unease I feel towards this new setup is that the old one was firing on all cylinders from the start of this volume.  I was looking forward to seeing the conflict between Canute and Sweyn, with Askeladd pulling strings in the background, playing out over multiple volumes and becoming the defining narrative of this series.  It felt like there was enough depth to that conflict for such a thing to be possible, but Yukimura chose to burn through it in order to get to this new story.  If nothing else, the results of that make for some truly shocking moments in the latter half of this volume.  Yet I can’t help but worry that if in charging through his current status quo to tell us Einar’s story, he has deprived us of some even better stories involving the Prince and the King.

So I guess what I’m really saying here is that I hope “Vinland Saga” hasn’t peaked here and that I won’t be writing in future reviews how future volumes come close to, but can’t quite recapture the spark of vol. 4.  It’s my hope that Yukimura didn’t have events here play out in the way they did simply for shock value, but that he had a story involving the characters and setting that he wanted to tell even more than the one that opens this volume.  That’s what I’d like to see and after three volumes I know he has the ability to pull something like that off.  Regardless of whether or not he does, that doesn’t change the fact that this current volume is a brilliant read and something I’d recommend to anyone who reads this.

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