Vinland Saga vol. 1 (HC) – Makoto Yukimura

5 out of 5

This is the 2-in-1 edition of Vinland Saga, which publishes two volumes in a hardcover set.

Vikings seem to be one of those omnipresent fictional focuses, like lowkey zombies – there’s always some epic show, comic, or book series kicking around, building a following. And like zombies, the appeal (to me) has always seemed limited, and my sampling of the various iterations has proven that out. Not that viking history doesn’t offer as much storytelling potential as the many other historical subject matters constantly being recycled for our Western and war-time tales, but it feels like projects get stuck on minutiae and the whole “warrior spirit” aspect of things and then forget to tell a story in there, and yes, this is me brushing off huge chunks of media just based on reading an issue or watching an episode, so maybe I should start by saying that vikings hold no inherent interest for me. So I approached Vinland Saga with much the same mindset, expecting to be able to check it off as ‘given a chance’ and move on.

Except Makoto Yukimura gives me what I criticized other examples for lacking: a story. And impressively, he does that in an extended flashback format that essentially gives away how the flashback will conclude, and is still page-turningly gripping throughout… And so firmly are established the characters, right from the outset, that as invested as you are in the flashback, you’re equally eager to get back to its present day counterparts. This is 400+ pages of manga you want to read in one sitting, and that delivers on all fronts, from its blockbuster movie action opening, to more subtle emotional plays, to sticky character interweavings, while also providing that minutiae and historical context for flavor. (Not to mention doses of warrior spirit as well, though interestingly tempered by some varying points of view on the nature of battle.)

For now, we’re focused on Thorfinn, young warrior – though seemingly not by choice – in the brigand band of soldiers under Archelad’s rule, a smiling and scheming and damned smart and powerful warrior who knows of his ability to march his men into any given land and just take what he wants. After an insane intro set of chapters exampling just that, we get some more context on why Thorfinn seems to have such a chip on his shoulder about the whole business, then flashing back to Thorfinn’s life as a child, living with his family – including his father, Thors – in a small village. Mock battles and listening to tall tales of distant lands take up the day; Thorfinn thirsts for adventure and questions why his dad always plays off conversations about such things…

When a viking band lands at Thors’ village, demanding his presence as part of an army, we know the pieces of this already: that Thors was escaping a violent past; that somehow Thorfinn will end up accompanying his dad on the journey back. But while Vinland Saga doesn’t swerve from these typical tropes, Yukimura’s storytelling sensibilities, and representation of his characters, are so strong, that it makes it all feel fresh. As mentioned, we understand the gist of how this flashback will end (having seen the present day, plus those tropes), but not one moment of the journey feels like a waste to get there, as we absorb more and more of what’s made Thorfinn who he is, as well as just getting swept up in the spectacle and entertainment value of it all, Yukimura as equally adept at action as he is at comedy beats and conversation exchanges.

I suggested that this was the focus of the story “For now,” because the tone of Vinland seems ready to branch out as needed. This isn’t a bad thing – it’s more suggestive of how rich the world feels already, that we could pick up with another character and, just like the duality of the flashback / present day storylines, be fully invested in all the ongoing threads. It doesn’t have to be Thorfinn’s story; he’s an affect of the world, and we’re as ready to follow him as any other. At the same time, if this is to be solely his journey, it’s already proven wholly satisfactory.

The main difference I felt between Vinland Saga and other viking tales is that I’d probably forget to mention that it’s about vikings until blabbing on about its cast first, giving credence to its title – it’s a saga concerning the land where these people lived. It’s a story, that happens to involve vikings, and all of the things that come along with that, accessibly and gorgeously illustrated, and, as a bonus in this 2-1 in volume, even packed with some extra story notes and the first part of a separate short story from mangaka Makoto Yukimura.