Written & Drawn by Matt Smith
I have always been fascinated by the Vikings, their history, and their myths.
When I was young, it was Leif Ericsson, not Christopher Columbus, that I admired. When I learned that Tolkien had taken the names of the characters in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings from the Poetic Edda I had to read it for myself. When I had two new kittens a few years ago, I wanted to name them Fafnir and Sigurd. (They were Percival and Galahad instead.) When the Lewis Chessmen were in New York a few years ago, I had to go see them.
I have a LEGO Vikings chess set. I have several books on Viking history, both general histories and more specific histories on the Viking exploration of North America. I have copies of the Volsung Saga, the Icelandic Sagas, the Greenland sagas, and the Poetic Edda. I read and enjoyed greatly Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun. Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung has long been a favorite. I watched and greatly enjoyed Michael Hirst’s Vikings.
Suffice it to say, me and Vikings are simpatico.
So, when I read about an original graphic novel that was inspired by — but not adapted from — the Norse myths, with a little bit of a Hellboy flavor, I was more than a little intrigued. The book was called Barbarian Lord, the writer/artist was Matt Smith (but not the Matt Smith who starred on Doctor Who or the Matthew Dow Smith who drew Doctor Who for IDW Publishing), and this was the article that piqued my interest so.
I hadn’t heard of it, but I knew I needed it.
And I’m glad I bought it.
Barbarian Lord is not, strictly speaking, a unchronicled Viking legend. It draws on a number of different sources, of which the Norse sagas are but one. Influences in this run to Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Mike Mignola, Jack Kirby, Thundarr the Barbarian (which, frankly, was my favorite Saturday morning cartoon the year it was on), Beowulf, and many others. Nothing in Barbarian Lord lines up exactly with its sources, yet when Barbarian Lord talks of his god Hrokk, I knew exactly who he was speaking of and I was not surprised at all by Hrokk’s appearance in Barbarian Lord’s quest.
Ah, yes, the quest. Barbarian Lord is, much like the Volsung Saga, a quest. A great wrong has been perpetrated against Barbarian Lord for reasons that exist outside the saga as it is given to us (which is how these things work in the Viking myths), and upon his banishment from Garmrland Barbarian Lord will cross the sea-road, find allies, and wreak a bloody vengeance upon those who wronged him. He will engage in riddle games and feats of strength. He will fight trolls and wolves. He will talk with the gods and behead a skeleton. And he will slay a ghost. The beasts of the wood and the birds of the air will watch him as he goes and they will comment on his deeds. And they recognize that what they are witnessing is extraordinary even by the very extraordinary standards of their own lives.
If Bruce Timm of Batman: The Animated Series wrote and illustrated a comic adaptation of Beowulf or the Volsung Saga, it would probably be very much like Barbarian Lord. Occasionally Smith’s artwork reminds me of Mignola (specifically, his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser work for Epic Comics circa 1990), but I generally got a Timm vibe from the book. The artwork, by the way, is in black and white, and it’s evocative and quite eye-catching.
The dialogue is, by 21st-century standards, stilted. It lacks a modern rhythm. Yet, it’s true to the source material. Read Henry Adams Bellows’ translation of the Poetic Edda and you’ll see similarly tortured syntax. Also, like in the Poetic Edda, there are scenes where a character is clearly dead yet continues to speak, much as when Sigurd slayed the worm Fafnir yet the dragon continued to speak. This is how Norse stories were told around the campfires and in the mead halls. The Norse did not expect modern realism. They lived in a simpler time, true, but also a more magical time. And that’s the feeling that Barbarian Lord evokes.
Barbarian Lord is in hardcover and has a very nice presentation. It doesn’t look like your typical graphic novel.
Age appropriateness? Ten and up, definitely. There is death, and much of it, but there’s no blood. There’s no sexuality. It’s Vikings doing Viking stuff, with magic and swordplay. I probably would have liked Barbarian Lord when I was eight or nine, and I’m sure it would be appropriate for those ages as well. Of course, I’d also read Narnia and The Lord of the Rings by that point. If a kid can handle a Disney animated movie (like The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast), I think they would do perfectly well by Barbarian Lord.
Will there be more Barbarian Lord? I certainly hope so. The final pages suggest that there will be more adventures for the Barbarian Lord, and I would definitely want to read them. I’ll keep my eyes posted on the Barbarian Lord website.
If you’ve any interest in Norse mythology or sword and sorcery fiction, Barbarian Lord is definitively recommended.