House of 1000 Manga
by Shaenon K. Garrity,
The Internet loves pirates as kitsch, but real pirates are noting to LOL about. A while back, my House compatriot Jason invited a friend to play a pirate-themed RPG, only to be told, “I hate pirates! Pirates boarded my family's boat to America! They killed people in front of us!” Historically, the most successful, and therefore nastiest, pirates were the Vikings, brutal ice pirates whose entire society was built on robbing other societies. This parasite culture reigned as a major power in Europe for 300 years, sailing up and down the coast to pillage, then high-tailing it home to the far north where few dared follow.
As vicious as the Vikings were, they had a lot of style. Those dragon ships! Those gorgeous knotwork designs! Those cool runes! The pantheon of hard-drinking gods with their flying goats and rainbow bridge! They were more constructive than they're sometimes given credit for, founding cities as well as destroying them. The Viking settlement Dubhlind (“Blackpool”), for example, became the Irish capital Dublin. Makoto Yukimura's Vinland Saga, a true manga epic, captures the contradictory aspects of ancient Norse culture: they were thieves with honor, warriors with a sense of humor, macho dudes who loved rainbows and elves and pretty designs. As depicted in the manga, they're exemplars of medieval European society yet never really part of it, uncomfortable in a world that's growing too complex for people who just want to fight and steal and party.
Vinland Saga owes an obvious debt to Kentarou Miura's gory classic Berserk, the seminal manga about tough guys hacking and slashing their way across medieval Europe. There's no magic in Vinland Saga, but the characters are so superhumanly strong there almost might as well be. In the early chapters, the detailed art, D&D-style character designs, and cartoonishly caricatured bad guys give the impression that this is just going to be Berserk with Vikings—which, frankly, would be perfectly cool.
The opening action sequence introduces us to Thorfinn, a scowling teenage warrior who takes down chieftains twice his size without breaking a sweat. Thorfinn works for Askeladd, a wily Viking captain—but only because he wants to kill Askeladd, and for each job he completes Askeladd grants Thorfinn another duel, beating him every time. Why does Thorfinn want Askeladd dead? Cue a lengthy flashback—another element borrowed from Berserk—revealing the events that led Askeladd to kill Thorfinn's father, the even more amazing warrior “Thors the Troll.” Thors was the most feared Viking of all before he quit to live peacefully with his wife and children, to the bafflement of his fellow Vikings. Drafted by a local warlord, Thors and his old buddy Leif Ericson returned to the seas for one last pillage, and we know how those always end.
Got all that? There's plenty of time to absorb the details, since the flashback takes up almost all of Book One of Kodansha's giant-size English edition. When we return to the present, the various Viking bands have gotten entangled in international politics, taking sides in the Danish invasion of England and the question of who will succeed King Sweyn Forkbeard to the throne of Denmark. Diplomacy not being the Vikings’ strong suit, soon they're engaging in timber-smashing battles on London Bridge and fighting among themselves to kidnap the king's younger son, the timid Prince Canute, while King Sweyn probably sits at home wondering why the hell he thought it was a good idea to invite a bunch of violent, drunken meatheads down south. Students of medieval history will know better than to underestimate Prince Canute, but the plot takes plenty of twists and turns as the political struggle shakes out.
At the center of the conflict, at least for a while, is a sort of love triangle of rival super-badasses. In one corner is our hero, Thorfinn, small but deadly, with the legendary blood of Thors running through his veins. In the opposite corner is Askeladd, with his deceptively laid-back manner and Loki-like cleverness (and, it turns out, even more amazing ancestry). And there's the wild card, Thorkell, an enormous guy so strong he swings logs like baseball bats, who fights for the sheer love of killing. In a way Thorkell is just a thug, not playing a long game like the other characters, but his psychotic enthusiasm is both charming and terrifying. Looming behind them all is the shadow of Thors, a greater warrior than any of them—but then why did he give up fighting?
This is where the story starts to veer off the expected course and into more complex and challenging territory. It turns out the central conflict of Vinland Saga isn't Vikings vs. Vikings, or even Vikings vs. civilization, but the medieval warrior code vs. a new morality based on peace and equality, a change heralded by the slow, quiet spread of Christianity. The characters live in the Dark Ages and know it; everyone thinks they're witnessing the end of days, whether it's Ragnarok for the Vikings, the Second Coming for the Christians, or the return of King Arthur for the Saxons in England. It's around the year 1000; the Vikings are nearing the end of their three-century reign of terror, but Europe still has the Black Death, the Little Ice Age, and the Hundred Years’ War to look forward to. (Yikes, the 14th century was just the worst.)
The seedy Christian priests wandering around the battlefields offer not just an appealing afterlife, but the promise of a better way of living on Earth. As odd as it seems, Vinland Saga is one of the best Christian comics I've encountered, dealing head-on with the punishing level of sacrifice and unconditional love the faith demands but seldom receives from those who claim to follow it. Perhaps unsurprisingly coming from a Japanese artist, it's a sort of Buddhist take on Christianity, emphasizing the values—charity, detachment from the material world, nonviolence—both traditions share.
The Christians aren't the only ones searching for a better way of life. In the flashbacks, Leif Ericson tells stories of an earthly paradise to the west, a place he calls Vinland. Thors believes in the promise of Vinland, and his son Thorfinn literally dreams about it. In the later volumes, as Thorfinn falls from his warrior status and experiences even harsher levels of medieval life, the idea of a land of milk and honey, sweet cakes and wine, where war and slavery are unknown, becomes achingly beautiful.
After a few pages at a time exploring these highfalutin’ themes, though, it's time for another battle. Vinland Saga delivers on the action, with lengthy, elaborate, almost nonstop fight scenes. The opening battles are so intense and bloody, the characters so outlandishly powerful from the start, you think Yukimura can't possibly keep topping himself, but he does. Book Three, for example, features a man getting vertically bisected by a single sword-stroke, a man punching out a horse, and a man paralyzed just by gazing at his opponent's battle aura. (That sounds like a manga thing, but an intimidating “battle face” was part of a warrior's arsenal in ancient Europe.) In addition to the central trinity of Thorfinn, Thorkell, and Askeladd, we get second-tier badasses like Askeladd's right-hand man, Bjorn, who eats hallucinogenic mushrooms to Hulk out into a killing rage. Did I really say a couple of paragraphs ago that this was a comic about peace and love? Well, Vikings are complicated.
All of this is painstakingly researched; the characters’ strength levels may be exaggerated, but otherwise they're plausible medieval Europeans. As the manga continues, it gets increasingly detailed in its renderings not just of battlefields, but of villages, kitchens, stables, and the natural world. In the notes to Book Two, Yukimura wonders how the Vikings clipped their toenails; a brutal later scene indicates that he found the answer. My only disappointment is that the women's roles tend to be pretty crappy, though Yukimura writes interesting female characters when he gets the chance, given recent archeological discoveries of Norse women warriors. (Even before then, historians knew Viking women had to be tough, since they defended the villages while the able-bodied men were off raiding nine months out of the year.)
It's hard to believe this bloody battle saga came from the creator of the restrained, character-focused science-fiction manga Planetes. Not only that, but Planetes and Vinland Saga are Yukimura's only two works of length. In Japan, Vinland Saga has earned both popular and critical acclaim, accumulating awards and still running after ten years of monthly serialization. It's been less successful in the U.S., despite a first-rate translation packaged in handsome (and surprisingly affordable) hardcovers. At the start of 2015, Kodansha announced it was suspending the English edition of Vinland Saga after Book Five. I would hear the name of the executive who made this decision, for he strikes me as no warrior. On the field of manga battle, in a fair duel, we will soon see which manga is Kodansha's most worthy title.
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