Pullbox Reviews: The River of Blood – Vikings & Monsters, now on Kickstarter

996 A.D. Dark and mysterious forces plague the Volga River, the lifeline of medieval Russia. Countless ships vanish in the dead of night. Many others drift aimlessly down river, their decks stained with blood. Their crews…nowhere to be found. Some believe the river cursed, haunted by spirits of the damned. Powerless against this scourge, a small village enlists the aid of a band of warriors from the North. But as the Northmen sail down the river in search of the shadowy source of the terror, the cruelty and depravity they discover force them to question their values, their faith and the very nature of good and evil.

If you’re supposed to dress for the job you want, what career path is there for Wulfgar and his band of Viking mercenaries? If you happen to be really good at the killing & maiming, you could eventually wind up in Constantinople, serving as the personal guard for the Emperor himself. The drawback is that if you’re too good at your job, a crew of “heathen northmen” among the growing Christian population is eventually going to make enemies. In this case, when it all falls apart Wulfgar and company wind up on the run and boarding the first boat they can find that’s heading anywhere not in the frying pan. They eventually find themselves traveling the Volga River, where this group of adventurers, warriors all, will find their bloodiest challenge yet.

If The River of Blood had been a story of Vikings on the road to Valhalla, it could have been an absolute winner. Sean Fahey, editor & publisher of indie imprint Black Jack Press, has taken up the writing duties & isn’t messing around as he establishes Wulfgar’s band of merry men. Heavily in Fahey’s favor is his character building, letting this ragtag group show their personalities through actions & dialogue. They fight, they drink, and they give each other no end of grief over any misstep… cuz that’s what you do among a group that’s as much family as any blood relation. Right there, if nothing else in this comic worked, would have made it a solid story and an entertaining read. But this isn’t just an action story. For the horror aspect, Fahey has taken inspiration from everything he loves, from Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft to Supernatural and a very little known book by Michael Crichton, Eaters of the Dead (a great book and the basis for the movie The 13th Warrior starring Antonio Banderas). The approach may seem like a slow lead in before we get to the turn, but if you look at the very best the horror genre has to offer, a character driven “slow burn” is kind of the way to go. I mean, before Fahey starts slaughtering his characters, he’s kinda got to make sure that the reader cares one way or the other.

As Fahey starts his story by doling out some quality violence and bloodshed, it’s left to Carlos Trigo to handle the execution (pun absolutely intended). I first twigged to Trigo’s talents in the action-heavy sci fi Vyvy & QWERTY and they haven’t suffered in the move to this swords & sandals tale of horror. Unconventional, sure, Trigo’s style stands out in his handling of the action sequences and takes nothing away from the characters he’s representing. Everyone has a distinct look and an attitude that shows through on the page, even in those rare quiet moments. Sure, some may gripe that the action was so densely packed into the panels that it got a little confusing, but for me that worked well in the context of the frenzied battles. Backed up by Jok’s work on the colors, highlighting the changes in scenery as we move from the civilized streets of Constantinople to the murky banks of the Volga River, flowing through Russia on its way to the Caspian Sea. The combination of dynamic illustrations & moody color palettes push this book another step up, especially as the lurking supernatural aspects start to creep in later in the book.

That shift in story story, from good but fairly standard actioner to creeping horror & ancient beings, bumps the book from good to just damn awesome. The combination of character driven story and themes of relentless dread are a magic brew, and if you’re looking for a supernatural menace that stays away from overused monsters like vampires & werewolves, look no further than the Rusalka of Russian folklore. They’re relentless, merciless, and these ladies are a great contrast to the all-male crew of Vikings as they demonstrate just what happens when the world of men crosses their path.

I’ve read a couple different versions of Beowulf. I’m a huge fan of the book Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton, and actually like it’s maligned motion picture counterpart, so it could be said that I’m a pretty easy mark for a comic like The River of Blood. My own personal preferences aside, this is just a great read. If anything I’ve said sounds the least bit interesting to you, hop over to the Kickstarter page and give it a deeper look. They’ve reached their funding goal and are only halfway through their campaign, so you’re guaranteed a winning piece of work if you sign on.

Final Score: 12/13

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