Title: Valhalla Mad
Publisher: Image Comics
Writer: Joe Casey
Artist: Paul Maybury
Letterer: Russ Wooton
Graphic Designer: Sonia Harris
Flats: Chuck Knigge & Yesflats
Spoiler Warning! This review talks about the plot of the graphic novel being reviewed. Read at your own risk!
Nobody goes insane in Valhalla Mad, and there are only scattered instances of characters getting angry, so the title may be something of a misnomer. Nevertheless, it’s a fun romp that takes Kirbian gods to New York’s bars. Paul Maybury and Joe Casey have in Valhalla Mad a charming, handsome little comic that pays homage to Kirby’s visual and conceptual spirit, even if the plot doesn’t quite capture his flair for the epic.
The Glorious Knox, Greghorn the Battlebjörn, and Jhago the Irritator are gods from a land beyond time, space, and imagination called Viken. They are mighty warriors, protectors of all realities, and after 40 years, they’ve returned to Earth for the Gluttonalia. The characters’ names and the concepts surrounding them would make Kirby proud. Their titles are suitably overblown, with their mythology just slightly off-kilter. Later, for example, the book introduces their enemy Akumo, “unholy bringer of eternal nihilism.” Though it pales in comparison to “the tiger-force at the core of all things,” the epithet clearly evokes Darkseid’s poetic self-description. Knox has a proclivity for giving speeches that take up whole full-page panels, aided by the exaggerated speech patterns lifted right from Marvel’s Asgardians. “Thou”s and “ere”s are sprinkled liberally throughout speech bubbles, and it gets funny when they use colloquialisms. An elderly man is referred to as both “aged mortal” and “wrinkled one,” and at one point Greghorn tells Jhago “Thou shalt back off, lest I pound thy–” Veins of comedy run through Valhalla Mad, and it plays the careful balancing act of taking itself seriously while giving readers a wink and a nod. Their “Gluttonalia” is nothing more than a bar crawl during which they drink god drinks from fancy steins in mortal bars. While Knox, Greghorn, and Jhago are very clearly meant to evoke Marvel Asgardians or New Gods, they aren’t just the established characters with a different coat of paint. The homage works here because even the comparison that comes closest to 1:1, between Knox and Thor, isn’t quite to that point, and Greghorn, Jhago, and Akumo are all more general.
Another reason the homage works is because of the character work Casey and Maybury do. They humanize their gods, all of them fallible in their ways, and they’re complex. Knox enchanted the unkillable Akumo into a human body without any memory of his true identity and kept it secret from his allies. While his intentions were good, guided by a desire to protect the universe, Greghorn feels lied to and sees it as a form of torture. Greghorn’s anger and sarcasm hide loss he feels from grieving for a mortal lover who has passed away. And while Jhago is bumbling comic relief, he’s also the peacemaker who wants Knox and Greghorn to get along. Unfortunately the plot leaves a bit to be desired. It takes a while to get to the wrinkle of the enchantment on Akumo, the main source of conflict, which should drive the story more than it does. The story seems to be leading to a final confrontation between Akumo and the gods, but instead, we get a somewhat anticlimactic scene of Knox fighting a demon-possessed gang alongside Arthur, Akumo’s human form. Greghorn and Jhago are absent until the demons have been exorcised and the gang beaten up, then they take Arthur home. The four reflect on how becoming human transformed Akumo from a celestial abstract into an actual person with feelings and nuance, and how facing mortality taught him that. Unfortunately, the stakes are never really felt, because when Knox goes to confront Arthur, Arthur tells him he has no plans to destroy the universe anymore, and it feels like there was a missed opportunity to play with this emotional conflict earlier.
As far as the art, though, Maybury presses all the right buttons. The gods’ aesthetic is undeniably Kirbian, but there’s personal flair. Knox’s long blond hair and his wielding a hammer invoke Thor, but his design is distinct, with a longer, larger hammer, tattooed arms, and a differently-styled Kirby helmet. When Greghorn first appears, he wears a golden, unmoving mask. Jhago puts me in mind of Kirby crossed with Masters of the Universe, as he inexplicably has lizard-like legs that might be armor or his actual legs. The golden mace Jhago has in place of a left hand has Kirby circuitry at its finest, and it’s interesting to see it next to the Cartoon Network-like linework that makes Maybury’s figures and expressions delightfully animated. His inks are curved, flowing, and of varying thicknesses, pleasing to the eye and contributing to the cartoon feel. The color work is varied, with Maybury knowing when a situation calls for a typical color job, Kirby psychedelics, or painterly distortion. It all meshes, and though there are only a few scenes with true bombastic Kirby combat, Maybury pulls it off with aplomb. While Russ Wooton doesn’t get too much of a chance to vary his letters, there is one page where some dialogue becomes wavy and multi-colored, and with this, Wooton helps sell the mystic aspect of the scene.
Valhalla Mad is a love letter to Kirby while also telling a silly, fun story about bar-crawling gods. It has layered characters and art full of wonder. Abstract concepts bounce off the page, paying tribute to the man who inspired the book. Though I found the conflict ultimately less than satisfying, Valhalla Mad is a fun little comic that’s worth a try if you’re looking for a Kirby-flavored comedy.