What is best in life? Is it the sensation of grass on your skin in Central Park? Or the warm splash of blood across your face as you slay through your enemies? The latest series from Dark Horse Comics, Berserker Unbound #1, asks us to imagine a world where you can have the best of both worlds. Written by Jeff Lemire, illustrated by Mike Deodato Jr., with colors by Frank Martin, and lettering by Steve Wands, Berserker Unbound #1 finds a barbarian stranded in the urban jungle.
For many months, the Great Berserker wandered the world. Wherever he roamed, violence and death followed. But Berserker has found his way home to the family he fights for. When he at last arrives, he finds his former home the scene of a massacre. With nothing left to lose, Berserker sets out once more into the world, seeking death and redemption. What he finds instead, is a strange portal that leads to a place that looks suspiciously like New York City.
Written in the first person, this story is told through the inner monologue of the Great Berserker. This approach has it upsides, but it does handicap Berserker Unbound #1‘s narrative flow. Berserker is wise in the ways of war, but his knowledge of sorcery is tenuous at best. While Deodato illustrates exactly how the warrior gets from his world to central park, neither Berserker nor the reading audience has the needed context to suss out what the heck just happened. Whether Berserker Unbound pursues this question in future issues remains to be seen. In his expansive body of work, Lemire has been shown to have a taste for prolonged mysteries. With comic darling Black Hammer, Lemire wove an entire super-powered universe from a similarly vague mystery. So whether the how is important, or simply an excuse to bring our barbarian to the modern world, the results are sure to satisfy.
But the first-person narration isn’t all bad. After all, we get to step right into the mind of the Great Berserker, the Mongrel King. Our first look at Berserker’s world is overwrought and melodramatic, while his brooding inner voice brings out the humor in every massacre. Within a few pages of meeting our barbarian, he’s already embroiled in a war of revenge for the massacre of his family. And yes, Berserker has curses, oaths, and catchphrases like any sword and sorcery hero. But his favorite insult seems to be calling people “Fuckers.” Every time that little curse popped up I found myself laughing in my seat.
Musclebound and bathed in the blood of his enemies, Berserker bears an unmistakable likeness to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Under some circumstances that would count as a detriment, but Berserker Unbound #1 threads the needle with its cultural shorthand. If this was any other character, Berserker Unbound #1’s insane level of high stakes escalation would be outrageous. But we already know the beats of Conan the Barbarian, what he values and what he’ll fight for.
What’s presented in this issue is not terribly original. Fish out of water narratives or Isekai stories are a dime a dozen, while 1987’s Masters of the Universe did the fantasy hero in the modern world decades ago. But ‘Originality’ has never quite been Jeff Lemire’s area of focus. Like Black Hammer, Berserker Unbound draws from the forgotten pool of retro pulp fiction, weaving strange and compelling stories with the toys and sandboxes of yesterday. Pretty much every time Lemire tries this recipe out, the result is outstanding. Combined with Deodato’s gorgeous illustrations, and you got a book that has the potential to be great. We just have to let it play out and see what happens next.
Berserker Unbound #1 is available in comic book stores everywhere August 7, 2019.
Beserker Unbound #1
Like Black Hammer, Berserker Unbound draws from the forgotten pool of retro pulp fiction, weaving strange and compelling stories with the toys and sandboxes of yesterday. Pretty much every time Lemire tries this recipe out, the result is outstanding.