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MAX Crashers – Thor: Vikings is Suprisingly Enjoyable

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.

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We Don’t Kill Spiders #1 Review

It’s a viking murder mystery. That’s it, that’s the hook.

Credit: Joseph Schmalke/DC Hopkins (Scout Comics)

Look, there were a few ways I thought to start this review. At first, I was going to discuss how the Detective as a character is the perfect audience surrogate; how their penchant for discovery and their traditional role as outsider allows for natural explanation of plot and setting. If the audience needs to know something, so does the Detective. In a good mystery, all the information is shared – only the Detective’s insights are kept from the audience. Then, I decided to invoke Umberto Eco’s seminal novel The Name of the Rose, perhaps the most famous example of nontraditional detective fiction. I don’t think that you get We Don’t Kill Spiders without Eco’s story of friar-turned-investigator and its popularization of the detective outside of the modern and Victorian trappings the genre traditionally traffics in. After all, there’s no reason a detective couldn’t exist in the Middle Ages, or Viking-era Scandinavia. Neither of those really sat right with me, though – because the truth is both simpler and infinitely more interesting.

We Don’t Kill Spiders #1 is a damn good-looking viking murder mystery, and sometimes that’s all you need.

Joseph Schmalke (whose work I previously adored on Count Draco Knuckleduster #1) handles both the writing and the entirety of the art duties on We Don’t Kill Spiders, while DC Hopkins letters. This gives the book a very singular feel, and despite some occasionally clunky dialogue, I appreciated the unified vision.

The colors in particular are simply extraordinary. The Scandinavian environment gives Schmalke the opportunity to play with tone and temperature in truly beautiful ways, blending the book’s naturalism and mysticism incredibly well. The pink colors used to denote the book’s magic feels truly otherworldly next to the traditionally warm orange and cold blue environments the characters dwell in. 

Credit: Joseph Schmalke/DC Hopkins (Scout Comics)

Of course, none of this matters if the mystery is not interesting – in this case, however, it absolutely is. As We Don’t Kill Spiders begins, a serial killer is haunting a Viking community, slaughtering entire families, taking their heads, and covering their homes in runes. The local Jarl (the term for the chieftain of a territory in Viking history), Ulf, calls upon a well-known Viking detective of sorts named Bjorn to track down the killer and bring them to justice. Ulf has his own idea of who the murderer is – a witch named Revna, seeking revenge for her mother and grandmother’s deaths at the hands of the Jarl years prior, after their magic was blamed for the deaths of a number of livestock. Revna herself was a young girl, and banished from the community.

While Ulf insists she must be the killer, Bjorn decides to conduct a proper investigation. And when he meets Revna, it becomes clear that not everything is as it seems in this small community. Since this is only the first issue, there’s no way to truly tell if We Don’t Kill Spiders will stick the landing, but it does an excellent job at setting up a compelling mystery. While it may use the setup of a fairly standard detective story, the Viking setting and mysterious magic gives We Don’t Kill Spiders a great hook. I can’t recommend the book enough. 

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Count Draco Knuckleduster: Is It Accessible?

When you first watched Star Wars, did it matter to you how a lightsaber worked? Did you need to know what the “Clone Wars” were when Ben Kenobi mentioned them?

I doubt it.

The beauty of the original Star Wars trilogy is that it recontextualized familiar tropes in the setting of a space opera. As long as the viewer understood the basics of the world, a sword made of light didn’t need to be explained. It simply was.

And now, almost half a century later, those Star Wars inventions have become tropes themselves, and Count Draco Knuckleduster revels in them.

Credit: Peter Goral/Joseph Schmalke/DC Hopkins/Rich Woodall (Scout Comics)

Well, to say that it simply utilizes the tropes is perhaps disingenuous. Peter Goral (of Killer Bootlegs, as the credits page and copyright information proudly proclaim) and Joseph Schmalke are less wearing their influences on their sleeve and more screaming them from the rooftops.

What this means is that while I haven’t read Phantom Starkiller #1, the first in the “Curse of the Cryptocrystalline Stone” series, I understand what I need to in order to enjoy the book. It really doesn’t matter what a cryptocrystalline stone is – I know that the titular Knuckleduster is Darth Vader, who is fighting a former apprentice named Starkiller who looks like Skeletor and is protecting a child with exceptional power and a mysterious destiny. The rest falls into place around it.

Credit: Peter Goral/Joseph Schmalke/DC Hopkins/Rich Woodall (Scout Comics)

Count Draco Knuckleduster #1 presumably picks up where Phantom Starkiller left off. As Starkiller approaches Knuckleduster’s ship with the aforementioned child, Acele, and the cryptocrystalline stone in tow, Knuckleduster comes to a sudden realization, and orders an underling to bring the Codex of Cadavere to the Altar of Algal. There, Knuckleduster draws on the lifeforce of two beings in order to read the Codex – and here we see how the magic of Knuckleduster and the Force of Star Wars differ.

Magic in Knuckleduster is occult, runic, and dark. It feeds on life and grants boons to those willing to speak the ancient tongue. Knuckleduster keeps people around essentially as blood bags to draw his magic from. And in using this magic to read the Codex, he realizes a connection between Acele and the cryptocrystalline stone – one that ties into his own history, which I’ll leave you to discover on your own. 

Credit: Peter Goral/Joseph Schmalke/DC Hopkins/Rich Woodall (Scout Comics)

And discover it you should, as even if the story sounds derivative, Schmalke and Goral’s art and coloring respectively is worth the experience. They draw on the stylings of retro comics with a modern sensibility – Ben Day dots are used liberally for shading and emphasis. The dull, newsprint quality of the colors is used to excellently highlight certain scenes, causing the runes of Knuckleduster’s magic and the pastel colors of the main characters to standout from the background. It’s a fantastic looking book. From a certain angle, it could almost be the licensed Star Wars book that Marvel published in the wake of A New Hope’s release.

I will definitely be going back to read Phantom Starkiller #1 now. If you haven’t read it, you could easily just jump in with Knuckleduster, but based on the quality of the creative team’s work here, why would you when you can also start from the beginning? At worst, you might just get the itch to watch Star Wars – and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.