Shut up. Just shut up, Dark Horse. You had me at Jeff Lemire and Mike Deodato. Yeah, I quoted Jerry Maguire in my opener; do something.
I grew up in the late ’80s early ’90s, and as with most nerds, I was big into sci-fi and fantasy. My love for sword-wielding men in loincloths was fostered at a young age thanks to Fire and Ice, Legend, anything that stank remotely of Frank Frazetta, and of course the legendary Cimmerian, Conan the Barbarian. So it goes without saying that the second I caught wind of Berserker Unbound, a new creator-owned fantasy series from Lemire and Deodato, I had to take a look.
Our tale begins in a harsh, arid land under a red desert sun named The Kingdoms of the Mist. Not the name you’d expect for such a barren landscape with rock formations and small scrubby trees reminiscent of Utah’s deserts, though from our hero’s inner monologue we can determine that the Kingdom of the Mist is quite large; with him having recently returned from the climbing the Cliffs of Fire, surviving the Valley of the Smoke Giants and slaying elder serpents.
So who is the man to accomplish all of these herculean labors? Why, he’s the Berserker of course, aka “The Mongrel King.” — a hulking, red-haired, red-eyed man with a Schwarzenegger-esque physique and Ugg boots that would make even Tom Brady jealous. Not only does he carry a sword that could go swing-for-swing with Conan’s Atlantean steel, but also a shield and a double-headed battle axe. Completing the ensemble is the standard barbarian kit: skulls, loincloth, fur braces and animal skin cloak.
It’s not long into our story before tragedy strikes The Mongrel King, and he’s swinging his fearsome weapons to create a whirlwind of blood, steel, bone and death. As it turns out, the legend and renown that surrounds the Berserker’s martial skill is well earned. This is perhaps my favorite point in the book, as Deodato takes an already impressive artistic display and kicks it into high gear.
Readers get to enjoy an incredible two-page spread showcasing a battle scene littered with severed heads and appendages, clashing swords and shields, and the bewildered expressions of foes that have just watched their own blood and innards spray several feet into the air. The Berserker’s rage and bloody revenge fueled killing spree is exceedingly violent and nothing short of fantastic.
Without the help of colorist Frank Martin, this scene wouldn’t have achieved the level of intensity that it did. You can feel the Berseker’s red-hot rage during a particularly brutal decapitation, and while the blood is certainly plentiful, Martin doesn’t unnecessarily shower the page in it. Throughout the story he adds this hazy, indistinct edge to the backgrounds, giving the landscapes an ethereal and mythical feel. The desert The Mongrel King walks in on nearly had me feeling hot due thanks to the bright yellow-white sun and the red sky and landscape.
If you’ve seen the cover, you know the basic gist of the story, so I don’t feel like I’m spoiling anything with my next critique of the creative team. But just in case, MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD! You were warned.
There was only one other scene in the art department that nearly topped the battle for me and that was the crazy-ass portal The Mongrel King found himself sucked into before it dropped his ass in a yet to be named modern city. The pencils and color here is so trippy and magical, everything about it feels like the fantasy genre at its purest. There’s gorgeous color work that enhances an incredible scene with skeletons, swirling bolts of magical energy, snakes, bloodshot leering eyeballs and an unknown woman that looks like a warrior sorcerer.
I don’t want to short change Lemire, but the fact is, the work of Deodato and Martin do the majority of the heavy lifting here. Again, Lemire crafted the story, all the credit in the world to him, he’s an amazing storyteller. But this issue could manage to get by without any dialogue if it had to. It would suffer for lack of it, but it would still get by. Deodato and Martin are that damn good.
I can’t forget Steve Wands. Letterers are one of the comic book world’s unsung heroes. Wands’ work here elevates an already fantastic story to even greater heights. His lettering feels like exactly what you would see inside an ancient scroll retrieved from a lost civilization in a booby trap-laden temple. It’s the perfect fit.
Lemire’s debut of the Berserker character is simple yet fantastically done, which is exactly what I’m looking for from a guy who swings a sword and axe in the face of mythical creatures in an age undreamed. It’s not complicated, folks: he likes to fight, love his lady and kill sh*t. So while the dialogue is limited, the inner monologue and measured focus on the three parts of the story — introduction, tragedy and quest — are perfectly paced.
People are going to look at this book’s cover and see Conan the Barbarian. I know I did. But that’s okay. That’s part of the appeal here. There’s a lot that will hearken back to the iconic trailblazing fantasy character, but this isn’t a Conan story, it’s a Berserker story. Lemire’s character will quickly surprise you; he isn’t the treasure and glory obsessed Cimmerian that we all know and love. He’s something different. The Mongrel King has doubts, fears and has experienced serious loss and despair. This will undoubtedly color his actions in the trials ahead.
I like to believe there’s a little bit of something for everyone here. There’s classic fantasy, mystery, magic, love, loss, incredible artwork and a world that feels like it has the potential for countless other stories. But there’s also something new. Something completely unexpected in the world of barbarians past. Lemire and Deodato have delivered an utterly fantastic first step into a brand new fantasy world that I can’t wait to explore. And if I’m being completely honest, I’m giddy with anticipation for the Berserker to have his first Crocodile Dundee moment with an unsuspecting street thug.
“That’s not a knife. That’s a knife,” he said with a smile and a laugh.