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Sara B Elfgren, writer
Karl Johnsson, artist
Insight Comics

Recently I had the opportunity to look at several samples of Karl Johnsson’s artwork from the graphic novel Vei which he collaborated with author Sara B Elgren and my interest was immediately piqued. Johnsson’s dynamic layout of a two page spread showing a Viking ship tossed about in a storm was the first piece that stood out to me and the other samples only increased my curiosity. With book in hand I started to flip its pages and became very eager to dive into reading. The story did not disappoint!

Published first in 2017 by Sweden’s Kartago, Vei is the story of a young woman who has trained all her life to be the greatest ran, or warrior, of her tribe and perhaps all of Jotunheim, the land of giants. Vei must claim her right to represent her people in the Meistarileikir, a Battle Royale pitting thirteen Jotunheim warriors against Aesir champions. To the victors goes Midgard! Or so the legend goes. After all, history is written by those who win, isn’t it?

Elfgren crafted Vei to be independent, resourceful, disciplined, and proud – a veritable strong female protagonist. At the same time Elgren strongly embraces the authorial practice of “kill your darlings”. Throughout this exploration of trust and shifting alliances, Vei receives the brunt of this treatment by having her faith and purpose in life shaken to the core after seemingly being rejected by her patron deity Veidar. Unconscious and floating adrift on the sea, Vei is discovered by young and arrogant Prince Eidyr and his seasoned crew. Almost immediately after rescuing her they begin to distrust her out of their own ignorance. They believe her to be a witch sent from Jotunheim to prevent the prince from realizing his dream to conquer the mysterious land. Understandably, Vei fears for her life and reluctantly strikes a bargain which she hopes will spare her life. The only trouble is she’s agreed to lead the Vikings to her homeland. Prince Eidyr contemptibly views her as a tool to be discarded once his objective is obtained. Dal, a strapping young man with thick, blond braids and a scar covered body, is the prince’s sworn protector. A man of honor, Dal soon finds himself questioning his actions and even loyalty once his survival becomes dependent on Vei’s guile and strength in her homeland. Then there is gender fluid Loki looking rather grand as the trickster deity and sower of chaos sneaking onto the stage to offer information to the young warrior! As is always the case with Loki, it comes down to whether or not to chance trusting Loki’s scheming will favor you or cost you dearly.

A small part of me had hoped that Dal might be attracted to men. It seemed something might have been being alluded to early on in his dialog and posture or maybe his interaction with the younger Prince Eidyr. It isn’t as though male male sex acts were unknown in pre Christian Viking culture. Alas, this was simply me trying to manufacture subtext and it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the either the character or the story. However, I believe Dal can be viewed as a commentary on contemporary expectations of masculinity. A flashback sequence shows Dal’s transition from a gentle natured orphan to a trained killer fighting in the arena for the entertainment of his captors until rescued by Prince Eidyr. Compare the patriarchal Vikings with their violent and imperialistic values and pantheon dominated by Odin to the isolated and peaceful albeit combat prepared matriarchy oriented inhabitants of Jotunheim whose deities are led by Queen Gillingur.

Not to worry if you’re unfamiliar with the relevant myths. Elfgren and Johnsson devised a smart six page sequence at the beginning of chapter four that relates the Norse creation story and mythology relevant to the plot. To set this section off from the main story Johnsson adopted a style beautifully reminiscint of old Scandinavian imagery and artifacts that also conveys a sense of time’s passage within the narrative.

Speaking of which, Johnsson’s art is expressive and energetic and compositions often feel barely restrained on the page. Oversized by American standards at 8 1/2 by 11 1/2 at that though common for European collections! Turning pages one by one shows Johnsson had a masterful grasp on a wide range of scale and focus whether from a close up of Vei and Dal to the full page illustrating the Hall of Giants soaring atop Thunder Mountain. His expressive and lively figures feel grounded to believable locations however wild and fantastical they may be. A standard panel layout serves as foundation for a lot of interesting page variation without overwhelming the art or confusing the reader’s eye. Johnsson’s color sense is truly beautiful with his selection of palettes tailored to enhance the emotional impact of Elgren’s script. All of it comes together to create a sense of epic wonder.

A note. Two of the images shown here have text and dialog printed in Swedish. They were taken from sample images provided by Insight Comics. Let me assure you this edition is printed in English.

A few words about the book’s production design is warranted. I’ve already spoken about this but preserving the book’s original format (approximately 8 1/2 x 11 1/2) which makes the art truly pop is well worth mentioning again. Beautiful end papers in a subdued, monochromatic green palette picture an idyllic fjord. The interior pages are printed on matte, heavy weight paper making for an easy, glare free reading experience. Perhaps least noticeable but no less important is the fact that the publisher used sewn binding on the pages to ensure a strong and durable book to last for years. The most obvious benefit of this binding method for readers is demonstrated when the book is laid on a table and opened up – the book won’t try to close by itself. As you might imagine, this method is also more expensive to use and it’s a sign of quality when used by a publisher. Rounding out the book is a small gallery section highlighting some of Johnsson’s sketch book art. Kudos to Amy DeGrote (design support), Elaine Ou (senior production editor), and Sadie Crofts (production manager) for their roles.

A bit of a tangent about the publisher. Insight Comics works with the Roots of Peace, an organization whose goal is to eradicate land mines worldwide and convert war torn areas into productive farm lands and wildlife habitats. Roots of Peace will plant two fruit or nut trees in Afghanistan for every tree used in making this book. It will also provide Afghan farmers with necessary skills and support for sustainable land use. An impressive commitment like this deserves applause!

Elgren and Johnsson are both well known in their native Sweden. Vei provided me an exciting introduction to their work and I look forward to the prospect of more of their work being made available to the US market.

Vei will be released on March 19th. Please consider supporting your local comic shop or bookstore by asking for Vei or purchase Vei from Amazon.

March 8, 2019
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