Manga in Minutes: Vinland Saga, Vol. 1

Welcome to the latest installment of Manga in Minutes! Before I get into the standard weekly review I just wanted to give readers a quick heads up. I’ll be trying out a few new things with the column in the coming months, whether any of them will stick around or appear more than once depends on several factors, including my own fickle mood. With that in mind, this week I’ll be adding a small round up of manga related news, articles, and other links of interest. We'll see how it goes, enjoy!

And now, on with the review!

Vinland Saga, Vol. 1Created by Makoto YukimuraKodansha Comics, 470 ppRating: Older Teens (16+)

With the second volume having hit store shelves last week, I thought now would be a good time to take a look at Makoto Yukimura’s Vinland Saga, Vol. 1! For years this has been one of the most requested titles from manga fans and now, thanks to the fine folks of Kodansha Comics, the multiple award winning series has finally arrived in the US. Vinland Saga is a historical epic, set roughly during the middle of the Viking Age in the late 10th and early 11th century, following the life of young Thorrfin as he seeks to avenge his father’s death at the hands of the viking commander, Askeladd.

We’re thrown headfirst into the action, and are introduced to Thorfinn and the band of Vikings he’s partnered with as they essentially gate crash (no pun intended) a city siege involving two Frankish forces. Yukimura uses this opportunity to display Thorfinn’s lethality and set up his grudge with Askeladd. From there things shift into an extended flashback which dominates the volume. We’re given an in-depth look at Thorfinn’s childhood, his relationship with his parents and siblings, and the events that lead to the death of his father, Thors. Yukimura does a fantastic job at using the flashback to not only establish Thorfinn’s motivation, but also to give us a glimpse into the ins and outs of Viking society, with some interesting and tantalizing hints of the larger wars and conflicts abroad. He also does an absolutely amazing job with Thors. He’s not just a symbolic figure whose death drives the tale, but a wonderfully fleshed out character in his own right. In fact, the flashback spends so much time with Thors that it was easy to forget about Thorfinn’s quest for vengeance, the core plot of the series! That’s not a bad thing at all however, and the amazing job that Yukimura does with Thors can’t be overstated. It’s something that adds a lot to the emotional impact of his death, and I found myself wishing we could have spent more time with him and learned more of his own background and adventures. I can only hope that we’ll get to see more of his past as the series progresses.

One of the central hooks to the series is how the status quo at the beginning of the book came to be. Unlike many vengeance driven tales which often sees one character hunting another down, Yukimura throws readers a major curve ball. Thorfinn knows exactly where Askeladd is at all times, because he’s working for him. Not only that, but the grudge and his quest for vengeance is public knowledge. His desire to kill Askeladd in one-on-one combat keeps him taking up missions for Askeladd in exchange for a duel with each success. It’s a relationship I can’t help but feel parallels that of Rin and Anotsu in Blade of the Immortal. In that series Rin has also found herself allied with Anotsu, her father’s killer, from time to time and much like Thorfinn, she’s also passed up opportunities at vengeance for one reason or another. It’s an interesting dynamic there and I’m eager to see how a similar relationship came about within Vinland Saga and I imagine that the development Thorfinn’s and Askeladd’s weird relationship will probably be one the driving forces in the series as it continues.

The few color pages we get are lovely and had me wishing there was more color art within the volume. Makoto Yukimura’s artwork is top notch, with every character looking interesting and different enough so as to avoid any confusion as to who’s who. The amount of emotion he’s able to pack into their facial expressions and eyes are wonderful, with only a few lapses into more goofy looking expressions and comical reactions. The grim determination upon Thorfinn’s face is palpable from our first glimpse of him, and when Askeladd first appears there’s little doubt that this is a clever and wily figure. While it’s not the goriest or most violent manga I’ve come across, there were a few moments that are bound to jump out at readers. Yukimura doesn’t shy away from depicting things such as an eyeball impaled upon an arrow, limbs flying through the air, and decapitations. His backgrounds are wonderfully fleshed out and depict setting, background characters and more in such a way that it really helps ground the story in what feels like a real, lived in, populated and substantial world.

One of the things I’m curious to see with Vinland Saga is how it’s Japanese publishing history will affect the way the story and art develops. It started out as part of Kodansha’s Weekly Shonen Magazine, only to be moved to Afternoon about ten months into its run. Afternoon is a seinen magazine, aimed at older readers and has been home to series such as Blade of the Immortal, Parasyte and Mushishi. The move seems like it would allow for changes in the tone and approach to the material. Also, unlike Weekly Shonen Magazine which is released, well, weekly, Afternoon is on a monthly schedule. The slower pace and longer time between releases seems like it might result in more detailed artwork and possibly a shift in pacing as well. It’ll be interesting to see whether there’s any noticeable difference in the series once the Kodansha Comics release reaches the material published after this change.

With likable characters, a sympathetic lead, exciting action scenes and some lovely artwork, Vinland Saga is off to a very strong start, and one that leaves me eager to see where Thorfinn’s exploits take him and how he reached his current situation. The series feels like it has the potential to connect with both traditional anime/manga fans and American comics fans who enjoyed Northlanders and the few similar series out there. Regardless of whether it does, I’ll certainly be sticking around and look forward to getting a hold of volume two.

Vinland Saga, Vol. 1 is available now from Kodansha Comics.

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