COMIC REVIEW: Thorgal Vol 11: The Invisible Fortress (Cinebook Review #8)

We’re back exploring the alternative comics scene early, rolling a critical eye over the French and Belgian trades translated for us by Cinebook. I couldn’t wait until the New Year; I mean, there was this pile of trades just sitting there so I devoured Thorgal on Christmas Day between opening presents, shoving food down my throat and teetering on the edge of family arguments.  You should always, always have a book you can bury your face in when things get tense.  If it happens to contain a bit of nudity and violence then even better – just don’t let your gran see it.

Now Thorgal is not a series that I was familiar with at all, so I’ll give you a quick rundown of backstory and style before getting in to the meat of the book.  Thorgal himself was a ‘Child of the Stars’, found by Vikings in the wreckage of a spaceship and raised by foster-parents in the ways of their tribe.  Don’t worry, this isn’t some kind of alternate take on Superman.  The closest in style I can come to in describing this to you is Conan.  Anyone who has a fondness for the mysticism, pulpy adventure and myth-making of Robert E Howard’s most celebrated Barbarian is going to find something to enjoy here.

The creators are Jean Van Hamme and Grzegorz Rosinski, whom I last saw collaborating on the excellent Western, and once again they unfurl a story with powerful themes and strong character moments.  It’s always tricky picking up something part way into a series: I would usually only ever start with a Volume 1, or at the very least the beginning of a story arc.  This volume seems to fall right at the end of a major section in Thorgal’s life, yet to the writers credit I discovered everything I needed to know about his history (for this tale at least) within the first two pages, and the dream quest sequences later on sketches out more of his past tribulations.  There is tragedy here, and honour; lust and villainy; and an overarching quest to be reunited with his beloved.

This particular story sees Thorgal teamed up with some-time-enemy Kriss of Valnor.  Amidst a chase/capture/escape scenario a meeting with a mystic sets him on the trail of the titular Fortress in a bid to change his destiny and save him from the toying attentions of the Gods.  It’s good old fashioned fantasy fare and in lesser hands it would feel frankly a little derivative.  Between them though, the creative team manage to raise their hero from barbaric stereotype to a subtler being, full of self doubt and higher aspirations.

The character designs are realistic without the urge to depict perfection.  Rosinski takes an artists delight in portaying homely and unusual faces with a good mixture of body shapes and expressions throughout.  Backdrops are relatively simple but give a strong sense of geography, be it grassland, forest, village or ravine, and there is certainly no visual disparity that takes you out of the world – except on one occassion where it is specifically supposed to.

There are some great moments captured, cinematic fights and some fun twists of perspective, but I must confess I did find myself wanting to see a bit more of the scope of the world.  A splash page here or there would have given is a much more epic feel.  As it is some of the pages felt a little confining, like watching Lord of the Rings on a mobile phone.

The depiction and treatment of women in this far off time is a little problematic.  I find it difficult to work through the morass of historical roles vs portrayal from a modern perspective; truth and titilation.  On the one hand women are shown in a variety of roles.  Kriss herself is shown to be humerous, dangerous, an expert fighter with a strong sense of self reliance and self confidence.  On the other hand she is contrasted with Thorgal in terms of morality, and as he represents us in many ways, Kriss is villified.  The choice to depict her initial combat in the nude serves to sexualise her for sweaty palmed readers whilst simultaneously demonstrating her prowess and refusal to be taken unwillingly.  As I say, problematic, but at least the subject feels like it is raised and examined from several sides, rather than simply dismissed or ignored.

The emotional beats and character development – particularly for Kriss – are affecting and show a sensitivity to human nature.  Thorgal himself is more of a broad strokes character (blandly handsome, morally upright) but he is innately alien to this world and it’s people.  He seems to serve as both protagonist and an avatar of our modern sensibilities in that world, and that is an unfortunately double edged sword.  It makes him more identifiable and comfortable for us but leaves him slightly unbelievable – at least in this adventure – for a first-time reader.

Nevertheless, the threat of the earthly villains are credible and scary, the dream quest is revealing and the denoument is both chilling and thrilling in what it means for the characters and how it changes the game for their future.

All in all it was a pretty good episode in an ongoing drama that has left me eager to see what happens next and also wanting to look back at how it all began.

3.5/5

GS Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak
You can hear me blather about books on Scrolls, the podcast for literary geekdom here on the Geek Syndicate Network.
Follow me on Twitter @Dion_Scrolls too if you like.

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