Believe it or not, there was a time that Marvel printed adult-oriented comics centered around well-established characters like Shang-Chi, the Eternals, and War Machine. These titles were published under MAX Comics, an imprint that launched in 2001. MAX Comics was Marvel’s second attempt at an adult lineup after Epic Comics in the 1980s which focused almost entirely on creator-owned work (with notable exceptions such as Stan Lee and Moebius’ Silver Surfer: Parable). Meanwhile, MAX made use of Marvel’s existing characters and oftentimes took place in the established Marvel universe. As a result, the line was inherently controversial. More so than today, the idea of comic book characters “corrupting” young readers was a hot topic, with one major example being the queer overtones and (perhaps unintentional) homophobia present in Rawhide Kid, a relaunch of a series that first debuted in 1955, when Marvel was still known as Atlas. After it’s launch in 2018, DC’s Black Label would go through similar growing pains. Albeit this time it was because of Batman’s penis appearing in a comic, not homophobes being upset about a homophobic comic.
Which brings us to the purpose of this article; this is the first in a series chronicling the titles released by MAX Comics. I hope to create a better understanding of what the imprint truly had to offer beyond its controversial reputation. Unlike MAX Comics, Black Label is still going strong, releasing books such as Garth Ennis and Liam Sharp’s Batman: Reptilian. However, true to form, Reptilian wasn’t Garth Ennis’ first time working on a mature rated series for one of the Big Two.
Historically, I have not been a fan of Garth Ennis.
It isn’t for lack of effort on my part – I’ve read Punisher MAX. I’ve read more of The Boys than I wanted to. I even tried Preacher, the one Ennis book that seems to be universally praised. I cannot say these are bad comics. It’s possible Ennis’ sensibilities, gratuitously mean-spirited and cynical as they are, just aren’t for me. Those sensibilities however mean that he was a perfect fit for the Marvel MAX line. Ultra-violence and liberal cursing (and usage of racial and homophobic slurs, as befit the early-2000s ethos of “mature comics”) were the imprint’s bread and butter. Unfortunately, the bread was usually moldy and the butter closer to congealed milk.
All of this is to say I’m utterly shocked that I enjoyed Thor: Vikings, Ennis’ 2003 take on the God of Thunder with artist Glenn Fabry. It isn’t without its faults, but Vikings’ major boon is that Ennis shows a remarkable amount of restraint. Yes, there is gore a-plenty, and both sexual assault and child murder are alluded to. But it’s in the use of allusion, not in-your-face crudeness that these aspects show Ennis is holding back. Were it not for a single f-bomb in the final issue and the almost cartoonish violence, this perhaps could have acted as a mainline Thor miniseries.
The story begins in the year 1003 A.D., on the coast of Norway. Lord Harald Jaekelsson and his band of ruthless Vikings pillage and massacre a village before setting sail for the New World. Unfortunately for them, the village’s wise man survives and places a blood curse on the Lord and his crew – dooming them to sail for a thousand years before reaching the land they seek to find.
Jaekelsson responds, of course, with an arrow to the chest.
Cut to one thousand years later, the very current year of 2003. The Vikings arrive on the shores of New York ready to conquer, and thanks to the increased strength and durability the “curse” has granted them, manage to defeat the military, Thor, and even the entirety of the Avengers, bringing the city under their control with ease. Thor ends up crawling out of the bay broken and defeated.
“Strange…” Thor says, looking up and off-panel.
“Downright bizarre, I’d say,” replies Doctor Strange, as I bite my lip to stop grinning at how simple-yet-clever that line was.
The plot is simple. Thor is defeated, Strange helps him recover and gather allies to defeat the Vikings, and then they do so. It’s in the little pieces of writing like the line I highlighted above that Thor: Vikings really shines. And even beyond that, Vikings avoids one of the most well-documented things about Ennis – the man hates superheroes. Thor and Doctor Strange are treated shockingly well here by Ennis, whose depiction could reasonably be seen in any other Marvel book (though Strange may be a bit too comical).
The strangest (no pun intended) part of the plot, really, is that one of the allies Thor and Strange recruit is a literal Nazi fighter pilot, Erik Lonnroth. The book goes out of its way to justify this decision by having Lonnroth explain that actually, he hates Hitler and the Nazis and simply wants to help end the war to prevent further civilian deaths. In theory, Ennis could be trying to highlight the hypocrisy of the character. Another warrior recruited for the fight is a crusader, Sir Magnus, who comically shouts about “the love of our lord and savior Jesus Christ” while brutally smashing a man’s head with a flail. It isn’t subtle. Lonnroth is, unfortunately, not cut from the same cloth. It’s a decision that muddies what should be a fairly mindless but fun story.
Glenn Fabry’s art, meanwhile, is perfect for depicting the carnage on display. It isn’t my favorite, but it’s hard to deny that it works here. Fabry reminds me of Steve Dillon, another frequent Ennis collaborator, though his linework isn’t quite as clean as Dillon. There’s an especially gruesomely good-looking double page spread at the beginning of issue 4, depicting the heads of Marines on spikes.
It’s not hard to go into these Marvel MAX titles expecting them to be terrible; after all, many of them are. However, Thor: Vikings convinced me that I should have a more open mind. Despite its pitfalls, Garth Ennis and Glenn Fabry put in solid work, and I recommend giving it a shot – maybe it’ll work it’s blood magic on you.