A strong debut from Adam Smith and Matthew Fox, this tender story of loyalty and loss boasts strong characterization, a bold visual style, and just a touch of magic.
Matthew Fox and Adam Smith are the creative brain-trust behind Wet Black Ghost, an artistic partnership whose profile is about to get a lot bigger thanks to their debut graphic novel from Archaia. Billed as a “Southern fable”, Long Walk to Valhalla fuses Norse mythology with rural Arkansas redneck-ery for a surprisingly tender tale of repressed familial tragedy.
Over the past few months I’ve had the extreme good fortune of reviewing some fantastic OGNs by some of the most respected creators in the industry. Smith and Fox show a level of accomplished craft far beyond their practical experience, and while Long Walk to Valhalla has been a few years in the making, it stands up with previously reviewed books such as Lulu Anew by Étienne Davodeau and Russian Olive to Red King by the Immonens.
Set in small-town Arkanas, the book chronicles the childhood of two brothers, Rory and Joe. Abandoned by their mother because of Joe’s demanding mental condition and raised by a hillbilly meth-cooking loser of a father, it falls to young Rory to take care of his older brother. This usually means defending him from the ignorance of their father and the locals.
Joe is described as “mentally challenged”, but Smith doesn’t explicitly detail what his condition is. Ambiguity plays a large part in the book’s success, and refusing to name Joe’s affliction – whether it’s psychological or physiological in origin – lends his bizarre visions of deceptively innocuous creatures a mysterious, otherworldly air that forces the reader to question their validity.
Through the effective use of flashbacks, Smith and Fox immerse their audience in Rory and Joe’s less-than-ideal upbringing. As Arkansas natives themselves, the landscape and colorful locals ring true in their representation, infusing the book with heart and charm, both of which it wears proudly on its sleeve.
It is in the present though, that we meet young Sylvia, the self-proclaimed Valkyrie of Arkansas, who appears to take the adult Rory to Valhalla. Something of a wild child blessed with wisdom far beyond her years, Sylvie is an intriguing character, who serves as a catalyst for Rory’s journey into his tragic past. As with Joe’s visions, it’s left to the reader to decide if they buy into Sylvia’s purpose, but she does appear to have a few tricks up her sleeve.
For an emerging writer, Smith displays incredible restraint, allowing his artistic collaborator to handle much of the book’s exposition with impeccable visual storytelling. Background settings live and breathe just as naturally as the characters inhabiting them, packed with detail and oozing atmosphere thanks to the liberal use of textured brushwork.
Smith’s dialogue provides insight and context to each character, while Fox adds nuance and expression. The creative synergy evident in this stunning debut is about as magical as the story itself. This is a work radiating confidence and passion, and bodes well for the future of both writer and artist.
Tender, quirky, and endearing, Long Walk to Valhalla is a stellar debut OGN from two creators who will definitely bear watching.
Adam Smith (W), Matt Fox (A) • BOOM! Studios (Archaia), $24.99.