Book Retort: The Spider King

Guestwriter: John Enfield

Writer: Josh Vann
Art: Simone D’Armini
Colors: Adrian Bloch

Regin the Smith re-forging the broken sword Gram for Sigurd, famed slayer of the dragon Fafnir

Regin the Smith re-forging the broken sword Gram for Sigurd, famed slayer of the dragon Fafnir- Norse Woodcut

Ever since people in Iceland began setting the Old Norse epic songs and poems down in writing in the 1200’s, these stories, and ones inspired by them, have been re-told and re-imagined in a myriad of ways.  “The Spider King” comic books by Josh Vann, Simone D’Armini, Nic Shaw and Adrian Bloch are among the latest to spin a tale inspired by these epics.  Their approach is rather different, however in that rather than recounting the stories about the Volsungs, it centers on another Norse dynasty: the Winnili of Southern Scandinavia, who later wind up in Italy and become known as the Lombards who eventually control the northern and central parts of the peninsula.  They are referred to here as the Lombards, likely because it is more familiar to us now than Winnili.  Intertwined, is a story of the Laxardalur, here called the Laxdales, of whom a lesser known saga was also written down in Iceland in the 1200’s.  While the story in this comic book series may not strictly follow what’s written in the versions of the sagas that we have available to us today, the influences are clear and it’s quite interesting to see actual Norse clans used in the story.

The book also makes reference to bits of Norse mythology that only someone who has studied it would know, such as Niflheim, a term found only in a couple of the lesser known sagas, for the place for those who do not die heroically; and Nott, the personification of the night and the grandmother of Thor, who is seldom mentioned in retellings of Norse mythology today.

Cover of The Spider King

Cover of The Spider King © IDW

Even the art style of ‘The Spider King’ is reminiscent of Nordic artwork, particularly of the woodcuts such as that of Regin the Smith re-forging the broken sword Gram for Sigurd the famed slayer of the dragon Fafnir.  The features of these characters are exaggerated, especially the eyes, noses and chins in a fashion that is almost grotesque, perhaps conveying the fierce determination of the two characters.  As with this woodcut, most of the characters in this comic book are not what one would call ‘lovely’ with their features exaggerated in rather unflattering ways.  The style can be a bit jarring, especially since the book is in color and many of these features are even colored differently than the rest of the face, not unlike those of certain Muppets.  However, since the book contains quite a bit of graphic violence complete with gory wounds, squeamish readers may find themselves thankful that the style isn’t more photo-realistic.  This stylized approach is consistent throughout the book and enhances the mood of vengeful gloom that pervades the story from the outset.

While most aspects of the book gel well together to create a sort of heightened, emotionally charged reality for the story, the dialog is less successful.  It has its moments when it fits the rest well, but those are marred to some degree by modern contractions and uneven sentence structure: sometimes, it seems as archaic as the rest of the elements of the story, other times, it is quite modern.  It’s as jarring as watching the movie ‘Timeline’ where some of the Medieval French have accents and some don’t.  It is also important to note that the violence isn’t the only thing that is graphic in this book as the dialog has some cursing in it that is quite strong and that makes this even less appropriate for kids to read.

The story itself is perfectly predictable with its tales of the struggle to fill a power vacuum upon the death of the leader, the reluctant heir who may not be equal to the task of taking his father’s place, the villain who sees himself as the one who should be the leader, and the increasingly common story of the young lady who thinks she has more sense than everyone else and feels forced to take matters into her own hands when her ideas are dismissed.  Strange as it may seem to say ‘perfectly predictable’, it is true as this familiar story brilliantly sets us up for the big surprise when the stars begin to fall (an event that is the highlight of the book and is very well done with great impact that is enhanced compared to what has happened so far).

What happens after the stars fall?  That surprise is too well set up to spoil here.  Suffice to say that it will not be what you are expecting at all.  The cliffhanger ending will make you look forward to the next issue for sure.

The afterword is also quite interesting with concept sketches and discussions by Josh and Simone about their approaches to the book.  Be sure to check those out after you read the story.

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