Back in the 1980s when Marvel had a little more… shall we say… restraint about their Conan license they published a couple of issues of “imaginary” series What If…? that saw the Barbarian tossed through time to the current day. That’s essentially the premise of Jeff Lemire and Mike Deodato, Jr.’s Berserker Unbound which depicts its titular hero mystically transported from his sword and sorcery-style dimension to modern day America shortly after the massacre of his family and village.
There he finds himself in a world where the mundanities of contemporary existence take on an alien sense of wonder and awe to his otherworldly eyes. But while the Berserker slowly acclimatises himself to his new surroundings, and begins a friendship with homeless man Joe Cobb, the realities of his past are just waiting to catch up with him…
At the heart of this book is the odd couple relationship between the Berserker – desperate to get back to his own time through the mysterious portal that brought him here – and Joe who must tutor him in how to survive in this alien environment. Much of the humour of their interaction lies in their inability to communicate linguistically, with all the misunderstandings, clumsiness and cutting observations on each other that evokes.
But as the story continues the very human parallels between the pair come to the fore as monarch of a fantasy realm and homeless semi-hermit are revealed to have a true commonality of experiences linking them…
Deodato’s visual storytelling is a key component of the book’s narrative character. In the early battle sequences on the Berserker’s world it has a flowing dynamism; one that constantly toys with and reformats the structure of the page to bring us fully into the fury of the conflict. Smaller sequential panels can sit on larger images of events giving us a concurrent wider picture and a personal intimacy with environment and protagonist. Frequent use of double-page spreads bring us the violent majesty of this world while multi-panel pages break down the action but still give us a sense of its fury and frenzy.
It’s a technique Deodato uses frequently within these pages, sometimes to emphasise action, sometimes to build a more passive atmospheric sense of mood, place or emotion as in those quieter moments between the barbarian and Joe. Frank Martin’s colours cleverly contrast the mystical realms of the Berserker’s dry and arid world with an everyday realism for his time with Joe, with frequent Lemire collaborator Steve Wands’ lettering intuitively navigating Deodato’s complex page layouts to guide our eye around the characters’ interactions.
In terms of Lemire’s wider body of work, Berserker Unbound sits at the escapist end of his practice but it’s notable for the way in which he plays to Deodato’s strengths and that unlikely central buddy storyline. Dynamic and brutal but very human, Berserker Unbound sets up enticing mysteries and new adventures by first arc’s end that readers will want to see through to their conclusion.
Jeff Lemire (W), Mike Deodato, Jr. (A), Frank Marin (C), Steve Wands (L) • Dark Horse Comics, $24.99
Review by Andy Oliver