The zeitgeist can be a strange beast. Like buses and celebrity deaths, ideas seem to come in clusters; whether it's gory Jane Austen reduxes (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Elton John's upcoming Pride and Predator) or sexy vampires (True Blood, Twilight, and on and on), count on the pop-culture troposphere to take a bizarre theme and run with it.
So when comic-book scribe Ivan Brandon pitched his Viking noir crime saga to DC Comics, he probably wasn't surprised to learn that a similar project was already on the table. Several years later, DC's Vertigo imprint has Brian Wood's Northlanders, and Brandon's Viking has found a loving home at Image Comics.
Viking's road to comic-book shops was a long one, and not without its trials, some involving false starts with early artists. That changed when Marvel editor Axel Alonso suggested that Brandon contact a German painter named Nic Klein. Though Klein had never tackled an ongoing sequential comic story, Brandon was extremely impressed with the young illustrator's work. Klein's initial "no" soon became a "yes," and Viking was finally on its way.
Launching a new title is always a risky venture, but creator-owned series like Viking are notoriously tough to sell. To make sure the book would stand out, Brandon and Image's production team opted to "incentivize" it with eye-catching, high-end production values. When the book's oversized format—reminiscent of the Golden Age comics of the 1940s—and handsome spot-gloss cardstock covers threatened to boost the cover price upwards of $4, the book's producers turned to international printing options to keep the price at a more recession-friendly $2.99.
"The format's a major part in trying to win over people who are skeptical about picking up a new series," Brandon says. "To produce them, we have to work months ahead to get the books in as early as it takes to print them in Korea." (Apparently, it's been effective; Image is utilizing the same large trim size for its upcoming Cowboy Ninja Viking.)
To grease the skids for the book's April 2009 debut, Image took a step that is usually considered prohibitively expensive: They printed sample copies of the premiere issue to show retailers. It worked; by the time the book finally made it to shelves, buzz was strong enough to prompt a distributor sell-out that would send it almost immediately into a second printing.
So, does Viking live up to the hype and its striking packaging? It's getting there.
The first story arc follows the violent and sometimes tragic misadventures of brothers Finn and Egil as they attempt to ascend the ranks of a criminal empire headed by a ninth-century godfather known as King Bram the Quiet. Finn is the more cool-headed of the two, but his plans are often undermined by Egil's stab-first-ask-questions-later attitude.
Klein's frenetic, full-color artwork is terrific, and unlike anything on shelves now. It's a mash-up of disparate styles and techniques—paint, ink, and even Lichtenstein-esque Ben-day dots—that convey a sense of movement and atmosphere. Klein has also become an active participant in Brandon's evolving storyline.
"Nic is the weapon Viking uses to enact our plans to stay unique," Brandon says. "He's got an exceptional range and is constantly pushing himself to experiment and tell the story in an exciting and dynamic way. He defines the characters to such an amazing degree that I try not to work too far ahead of him, so that, as he turns in pages, the characters in my script can grow from what he's physically putting them through in his art. It's like a weird tennis match where we're volleying the characters' personalities back and forth." (You can see more of Klein's work at www.nic-klein.com. It's worth a look.)
Brandon is no stranger to unconventional crime stories. His sci-fi noir title, NYC Mech, and its sister anthology, 24Seven, imagined a New York City populated by eight million robots, while The Cross Bronx pitted a police detective against a vengeful ghost. So it's not surprising that Brandon would finds shades of The Sopranos and The Godfather while brushing up on Viking history.
"The crime thing came more organically through the process of brainstorming," he says. "So much of what I'd read and what I wanted to do fit perfectly into the parameters of modern organized crime."
The story is unfolding slowly, but that's mainly because the book is bimonthly; it's a long wait between installments, and each installment's cliffhanger ending exaggerates the gaps. The pace picks up a little more with each new issue. Character development got off to a rocky start, but is falling into place as the story's groundwork is laid. Viking is shaping up to be a formidable series.
Brandon couldn't be persuaded to reveal details about the title's future, but he did allude to kidnappings, mortal wounds, and a tragic ending. He was equally tight-lipped about his upcoming projects, which include what he describes as his take on superhero book. If he can do for superheroes what he's currently doing for Vikings, it'll be something to look forward to.
Viking #3 is in stores now; if you missed the first issue, you can catch it as a free black-and-white flip with The Walking Dead #64. Barring calamity, Viking's fourth issue should drop in October.