Are you looking forward to a new comic book but it’s impossible for you to wait for its release before you know what we thought about it? That’s why there’s DoomRocket’s Advanced Reviews—now we assess books you can’t even buy yet. This week: ‘Berserker Unbound’ #1, out August 7 from Dark Horse Comics.

THIS ADVANCE REVIEW OF ‘BERSERKER UNBOUND’ #1 CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.

by Clyde Hall. Jeff Lemire crafts exceptional analogs of established characters, and Berserker Unbound #1 maintains that trend. The writer steeps us in the interpretive genius he’s used to great effect in the Black Hammer books, this time crafting a sword and sorcery hero who isn’t Conan. The Mongrel King of Berserker Unbound and the famous Cimmerian do, however, have similitude.   

Lemire baits his barbarian protagonist into entirely modern pitfalls of family versus duty before the series takes up residence in our contemporary world. The Mongrel King, like many working parents today, treasures home and hearth. It’s where he keeps his stuff along with his heart, those he labors to provide for and protect. There isn’t a Fomorian horror he won’t track down and smite, not a steppe fortress he won’t conquer single-handedly to ensure the well-being of those left behind. 

But, as with many modern families, those left behind are often lost in the heat of corporate battle or in long hours of travel to the next shining accomplishment. The barbarian hero is faced with the humbling reality that, while he’s traveled far and wide seeking security for them, the beloved would have been better served if he’d stayed closer to the ancestral abode. When does duty become glory-chasing, or ambition turn to obsession, in one’s own personal adventure? 

The question is put to the Mongrel King, brutally, and his concern is too late to prevent the consequences. In his response, we begin to see a divergent path from the one usually trod beneath sandaled feet. There’s revenge to be taken, yes—but there’s also regret and remorse and even retreat on the menu. 

Soon, the murky dawn of civilization lies behind our hero, and our world takes shape about him. Recent entries to the barbarian-out-of-bearskins concept include Bronze Age Boogie from AHOY Comics and, to a lesser extent, Marvel’s Savage Avengers. It’s been the focus of memorable What If… ? books. “Do we really need more?”, the devoted comics reader may ask. Maybe not, but it’s Jeff Lemire; his rep precedes him and assures us his imaginings of the situation will be quite divergent from anyone else’s. 

Lemire’s pace introducing the elements is a marinating, unrushed affair. The reader is granted ample opportunity to breathe the smoky air of an age hitherto undreamed, witness bloody, violent clashes of steel and sinew, before being led to the smog and urban decay of modern times. Lemire allows artist Mike Deodato, Jr. abundant panels and pages to make the first issue exceedingly visual. It’s a wise use of talent. 

Artwork doesn’t always require words, would become lessened by them. Deodato is given the luxury of space to do his brand of storytelling, unmarred by dialogue.  The reader feels compelled to wipe sweat from eyes and stamp dust from feet after witnessing his panoramic presentation of the ancient fantasy realm. Deodato applies equally loving labor to detailing a quiet forest splash later in the book, and it all folds together smoothly.

Colorist Frank Martin applies a uniform, semi-haziness to the issue as it travels across time and dimension. His work gives the narrative a mythic edge. This tale becomes one told in whispers around open fires, those stoked by kindling of camped spearmen or confined to sooty barrels ringed by the homeless. Steve Wands’ lettering style fits the tale Lemire and crew have brought forth. Each narrative block has a papyrus quality with font to match, the words seldom crowded. In his sounds, you feel the vibration of hewn arrows burying themselves in metal-bound wooden shields. 

In one landmark tale of Conan transplanted to the 1970s courtesy of the What If… ? series, the barbarian takes over a street gang, evades the blue-uniformed city watchmen, manages a felonious living with help from his loyal rogues, and still winds up with an invitation to join the Avengers. Lemire’s plans for the Mongrel King likely won’t echo all that, but comparisons—and the prospects of noting the differences in his fresh approach—are stoked by the end of the book. We’re ready for the shaggy protagonist’s reaction to paper tender that burns like tinder. His dealings with citizens brought up on the weak milk of civilization rather than the rampant lash of evil despots and the whim of impersonal nature. How his arrival in our treacherous, tepid, techno-blitzed reality alters him. 

How the Mongrel King collides with the present-day. 

Dark Horse Comics / $3.99

Written by Jeff Lemire. 

Art by Mike Deodato Jr.

Colors by Frank Martin.

Letters by Steve Wands.

8 out of 10

‘Berserker Unbound’ #1 hits stores on August 7.

Check out this 6-page preview of ‘Berserker Unbound’ #1, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics!

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