ThorgalA column article by: Penny Kenny
Continuing our discussion of graphic novels that might appeal to readers who enjoy the combination of art and text, but who are uninterested in either superhero or alternative comics.
Why must my life be constantly crossed with suffering and death, when all I want is peace and love with those who are dear to me?...Why?...Why?
The answer the eponymous hero of Jean Van Hamme and Grzegorz Rosinski's Thorgalreceives to his question might not comfort him, but it certainly promises readers a thumping good read:
You don't belong to this world's destiny, Child of the Stars!...And the gods are irritated…But the gods love you too, for your heart is full of all the generous force this world needs. And so your destiny will lead you into the many crossroads of good and evil without respite.
Thorgal is an "everything but the kitchen sink" concept in that it combines elements of science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction. Van Hamme builds on the "Chariots of the Gods" idea to create a story that spans the globe and time. Marauders, time travel, crazed space farers, flirtatious goddesses, and pirates. It's all fair game. Yet this is also the very intimate story of a man and his family.
Raised from infancy in a Viking community, Thorgal is actually the off-spring of stranded space farers. Though intelligent, skilled, and compassionate, Thorgal's birthright doesn't make him a god among men. He is too unassuming for that. His heritage and destiny do, however, ensure that he'll forever be encountering strange mysteries and adventures. Seemingly set sometime between the 8th and 11th centuries, Thorgal travels through Europe and even makes his way to Central America. He meets thieves, cut-throats, tyrants, wizards, gods, lost souls, madmen, and beautiful women.
The only woman Thorgal's interested in, however, is his beloved wife Aaricia.
I'll admit it took me several volumes to warm up to this woman. Though Aaricia's high-spirited, head-strong nature makes a good contrast to the more contemplative Thorgal, I found her quick temper and almost fool-hardy determination (see: Volume 3: Beyond the Shadows when she thwarts her own rescue and fails to trust her husband) off-putting. It wasn't until Volume 8: Wolf Cub that she finally won me over.
In this chapter, the very pregnant Aaricia is attacked by her husband's enemies. While escaping, she falls into a gully, which triggers premature labor. To save herself and her unborn child, she crawls into a wolf den to hide and gives birth to a daughter next to a wolf that is also in labor. That's a heroine for you.
Their daughter is not Thorgal and Aaricia's only child. They have an older son, Jolan.
Unlike his father, Jolan possesses the mental abilities of his star traveling ancestors. The gift of telekinesis and the ability to shape matter don't turn Jolan into a medieval superhero, however. Rather, they cause more trouble than not. In Volume 4:The Archers Jolan brings a very creepy, very dangerous, imaginary friend to life.
In Volume 6:City of the Lost God, he becomes a pawn in not one, but two power plays. This volume really showcases Van Hamme's ability to portray a multi-faceted character. Jolan is an unlikable, spoiled brat here. He's being treated like a king and likes it. He nearly gets his parents killed as they're trying to rescue him. Fortunately Thorgal knows how to apply a hand to a backside to get his point across. At other moments, Jolan is a frightened little boy, confused by what's happening to him and wanting his parents. A page later, he's confidently using his gifts to shift the tide of power. It's a fascinating portrait of a unique, yet believable, child.
Thorgal, Aaricia, and Jolan form the core cast of the series. (Well, they did until a rather significant event in Volume 9:The Guardian of the Keys. After that, things change.) But there are other characters that weave their way in and out of the series. One of the most forceful is Kriss of Valnor,
a beautiful, deadly woman who is just as willing to kill Thorgal as use him for her own purposes. She first appears in Volume 4:The Archers, then returns in Volumes 5:The Land of Qa and 6:City of the Lost God before disappearing. In Volume 10:The Sun Sword, Cinebook's latest Thorgal release, she once again reappears to make trouble for Thorgal.
Despite Thorgal's fantastic adventures, there's plausibility to the stories. There's a two-fold reason for this. The first has to do with the writing, the second, the art. On the writing front, Van Hamme is in full control of his material. He doesn't let his ideas run away with the story. Each chapter has a conflict and satisfying resolution that illuminates some aspect of the characters' mental and/or emotional lives. Whether Thorgal is caught in the midst of a love triangle complicated by time travel (Volume 7:The Master of the Mountains), crossing the land of the dead in a version of the Orpheus legend (Volume 3:Beyond the Shadows), or just dealing with garden variety usurpers (Volume 10:The Sun Sword), the characters are believably human, driven by human desires.
Rosinski's art is the series' other anchor. It's beautiful. There doesn't seem to be anything he can't draw. The snowscapes of The Master of the Mountainsare just as stunning as the desert city found in "The Eyes of Tanatloc" chapter of Volume 5. While fantastic, the flying ships of The Land of Qa are rendered in a way as to be believable. They look little different from the sea-faring vessels of the same period, which increases the suspension of disbelief. The characters come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and ages. They look realistic without being drawn in a photo-realistic way.
Like N.C. Wyeth, Hal Foster, and Mark Schultz, Rosinski excels at capturing a moment out of time. He keeps his distance from the material, eschewing tight close-ups on violent acts and their results. His panels are filled with detail, without being cluttered.
Thorgal has been a publishing phenomena in Europe since its first appearance in 1977. Though a couple volumes had appeared in English translation before Cinebook obtained the rights, the series didn't seem to make much of an impression on American comic book readers. However, this fantastic mesh of genres with its solid plots, engaging cast, and beautiful art is something that shouldn't be missed by fans of fantasy, historical fiction, and science fiction.