Ep. 40: Vinland Saga, by Makoto Yukimura

VIKINGS! Renowned for their pillaging, conquest, and… really great art? Deb leads the team through the one-and-only Viking manga being published today, and it’s not quite what anyone expected… in a good way! This week on Mangasplaining, we start the Vinland Saga… come along for the journey!

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This Episode:
00:00 Vinland Saga vol. 1, by Makoto Yukimura
59:33 The Break!
59:45 Shout-outs!

Vinland Saga Volume 1
By Makoto Yukimura

Translated by Stephen Pauls
Lettered by Scott O. Brown
Edited by Ben Applegate
Published by Kodansha (Print/Digital)

Show notes by Christopher Butcher and Deb Aoki. Audio editing by David Brothers.

Before we get started: A big part of the discussion of this episode centers on the massive, 90-page first chapter of the series. We’re happy to announced that the WHOLE FIRST CHAPTER, 90 pages in total, is free to read on the Kodansha website. It’s a good indicator of the quality of this series (and it’ll give you some insight into what we’re talking about!), but as Christopher (hello!) says a little later in the episode, it’s not everything that this volume is about either.

[Deb:] Also, one thing I mentioned only in passing in this episode is that there is an anime version of Vinland Saga, now airing on Amazon Prime. A second season was announced recently, but I’m not sure when that will air. Here’s a dubbed version of the trailer for the first season from Sentai Filmworks:

01:20 Okay, so we remembered to read the series description this time, good for us! Here it is for you folks:

As a child, Thorfinn sat at the feet of the great Leif Ericson and thrilled to wild tales of a land far to the west. But his youthful fantasies were shattered by a mercenary raid. Raised by the Vikings who murdered his family, Thorfinn became a terrifying warrior, forever seeking to kill the band’s leader, Askeladd, and avenge his father. Sustaining Throfinn through his ordeal are his pride in his family and his dreams of a fertile westward land, a land without war or slavery… the land Leif called Vinland


02:25 Shout-out to Brigid Alverson, manga reviewer and writer extraordinaire. Go follow her on Twitter, if you imbibe in that particular vice.

[Deb:] Brigid writes about comics for several publications, including ICv2, School Library Journal and SmashPages. Go check out her many fine, fine articles!

5:00 Here we mention White Trees, the Image ComicS series by Chip Zdarsky, Kris Anka, and Matt Wilson. A swords-and-sorcery epic about revenge, killing, and not killing. It’s very good! Two very big issues have been released that comprise the first arc. No trade paperback, so track down the issues or grab it digitally.

5:40 Chip mentions A History of Violence, the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, published by… DC Comics? Of all people? It was actually published by one of their (many) defunct imprints, Paradox Press, the first time they decided that they should try to publish comics for people that don’t already read comics. It was well-regarded at the time, released as a very rare original graphic novel. This is despite the book being comprised of three 80-ish page chapters that were pretty clearly supposed to be prestige-format single issues to be collected into a book after the fact. This was back in 1997, before there were really ‘graphic novels’ in the market as such, and Paradox was pushing for original book-format comics.

An aside: Maybe that’s not entirely accurate. Vertigo, another imprint of DC Comics, had a pretty robust trade paperback program in 1997, and DC (and Marvel) were pumping out trade paperback collections of their single issues as well. Art and alternative comics also had quite a few collected editions, and the occasional original graphic novel here and there too. Manga is interesting, because by this point manga single-issues had become less and less viable, and several series had their single issues ‘stopped’ even though their collections kept coming out, I guess making them “original” graphic novels…? But yeah, in 1997, the primary format for comics in North America (not counting newspapers) was single-issue comics, regardless of genre or artistic intention. It was the founding of manga publisher Tokyopop, also in 1997, and the insane success of their manga trade paperbacks (particularly of shojo manga) that would radically redefine the industry over the following decade.

Then in 2005, A History of Violence actually got a film adaptation directed by David Cronenberg(!) and starred Viggo Mortensen! The film is very well regarded, and did pretty well too. It’s funny, I think there was a period where A History of Violence actually wasn’t in print, in between its publication in 1997 and the film release in 2005 (and the pre-press in 2004). Original graphic novel, in black and white, so it’s cheap as chips to print, plus you’ve got a movie coming out… and you don’t keep it in print. That was comics in the 1990s. Lol.

7:30 Chip’s thinking of Kaoru Mori’s A Bride’s Story, an exceptionally well-drawn piece of historical fiction that we covered during season one of the podcast. We really loved that book, go give it a read if you haven’t already!

8:15 We’ve mentioned the Japanese boxing manga Hajime no Ippo, by George Morikawa on the podcast previously. It’s such a touch-point for Chip because we got to see those originals in Tokyo. It’s a shockingly well-drawn action/sports manga. Here’s Chip enjoying some art from the series:

And here’s some of that speed-line heavy art that explains what Chip is talking about. Clicking should open up a bigger version!

[Deb:] While the Hajime no Ippo manga remains a bit of an impossible dream for an official English adaptation for now (prove me wrong, N. American manga publishers!), you can buy the Japanese version as ebooks on the BookWalker ebook site. Also, the anime version of Hajime no Ippo is available on DVD/Blu-Ray from Discotek and streaming on Crunchyroll.

10:17 Makoto Yukimura’s first work released into English is the sci-fi slice-of-life story PLANETES. It focuses on the crew of ship tasked with removing debris from earth’s orbit, basically space garbage workers, and their lives. There are some larger action adventure plots, about separatists and what-not, but the real joy of the series is the character interactions. As I mentioned, the art is considerably stiffer, and in many ways more… seinen manga (think Urasawa or Otomo) than what we see in Vinland Saga. The series was originally published as 5 volumes by Tokyopop, but was most currently available as 2 omnibus editions from Dark Horse… I think one of those might be out of print though? Anyway, it’s good stuff, especially if you like sci-fi stories, I recommend trying to track it down.

 11:09 So yeah, this French (‘Frank’) noble’s open mouth is pure Studio-Ghibli-drawing-Totoro styles here.

Deb brings up the fact a little later that this series started off serialization in Kodansha’s Weekly Shonen Magazine, primarily aimed at boys probably aged like 10-15 or so, before moving to Monthly Afternoon, a seinen manga magazine aimed at older readers (from age 15 to early-mid 20s, primarily) at around chapter 8. You can see a pretty dramatic tonal shift from these early pages, with an oafish, cartoonish character like this, how Thorfinn is drawn as a little boy, and in the shonen manga-style ‘bodily functions are hilarious’ gags that rounds out the first volume (keep reading). The shonen manga signals are definitely here, despite the crazy violence, and when it switches over to an older readership, you can tell that the tone of this series has shifted by the end of this volume.

18:30: So we’ve mentioned Takehiko Inoue’s samurai manga series Vagabond quite a few times on the podcast. It’s a samurai manga, based on a fictionalized retelling of the life of famous Japanese swordsman and philosopher Musashi Miyamoto, the author of the famous book of strategy / swordsmanship, The Book of Five Rings.

Vagabond is a great book, and one of the most stunningly beautiful manga ever illustrated, but it’s also very, very hard to cover on a podcast like this. Weighing in at 27 volumes, and to date uncompleted, the story is pretty solid from the beginning but has a massive leap forward in terms of quality and impact a few books in. Is it really fair to review just one volume of a deeply serialized, extended story? Well, yes and no, but it’s not something we’ve decided to do with this series. Yet. Maybe David will come up with a single volume of Vagabond that’s perfect for us to read, one day. Until then, if you like yourself some samurai philosophy about killing–and not killing–the series is available in 12 omnibi volumes from VIZ. (Print only for now)

19:25 [Deb:] Here’s that scene from Vinland Saga volume 1, where the young men of the village are thrilled at the prospect of going into battle, while Thors, the veteran of many bloody and senseless fights, seems to be the only one who understands that this turn of events is nothing to cheer about.

22:20 Meanwhile, also in manly-man manga about battlefield philosophy, there’s the groundbreaking and incredibly influential Fist of the North Star, by Buronson and Tetsuo Hara. I like that David sort of compared the fights and happenings of this manga in the same breath as that of the folklore hero-monk Benkei, who may or may not have been actually-real-real, but is absolutely a legend in the same way that FotNS‘ Ken has become one, too. This is a series we could absolutely read at some point–I’m kind of shocked that David picked Devilman instead of this for his Classic Manga pick in an upcoming episode, but I know he tries not to pick titles that he or his friends have directly worked on, which makes it tough. Maybe for the end of the season? 🙂 Fist of the North Star has returned to print from VIZ Media in some lovely looking omnibus editions.

But the REASON he brought that up, is the death of Thors in Vinland Saga, one of Chip’s favourite moments in the book…

…is preceded by a similar scene in FotNS, which was itself preceded by the legendary dying-on-your-feet fate that met our hero-monk Benkei, but we won’t spoil that for you here.

Deb does mention that this has become a trope in Japanese popular culture, appearing not only in FotNS and Vinland Saga, but also in Eichiro Oda’s One Piece. Specifically, when the pirate White Beard dies standing up in chapters 576-577 of that series.

27:25 It’s interesting that David mentions that Askeladd benefits from Thorfinn being in his crew and being a total killing machine. If you re-read that first chapter, it’s super-clear that while Askeladd might still have beaten the group holding the fort, he would’ve taken many more casualties. It’s Thorfinn taking out their commander and distracting their crossbowmen that saves Viking lives, and allows them a much easier victory. Askeladd has no idea how much of an asset Thorfinn is either. I have to believe, given the care and attention that Yukimura-sensei lavishes on this series, that this is a very intentional set of circumstances.

Also here’s a page with Thorfinn attacking their commander, because it’s such a badass action sequence.

27:45 The end of the Prologue is chapter 54, and it contains an insane spoiler and I’m not going to include it here. Haha, can’t believe I googled it to see the title page and BAM, pure spoiler. Lol.

29:22 [Deb:] Makoto Yukimura’s extremely relatable Iceland travelogue comics, at the end of Vinland Saga Vol. 1.

[Deb]: I went to Iceland in March 2017, and had a similar experience with chasing the Aurora Borealis. I saw some, but it was mostly underwhelming faint white streaks in the sky. Sigh. Still, there was lots to great stuff to see, do and eat. Almost everything there is expensive, but oh man, it was worth it.

[Deb:] Also, Leif Erikson was a real person and the statue in Reykjavik makes him look MUCH more heroic than he does in Vinland Saga. Just sayin’.

[Deb:] Anyway, Iceland is awesome. Highly recommend a visit, once that’s easier to do, if you know what I mean. I spent a night in a clear bubble tent in a forest because YOLO, y’know? Worth every penny.

29:45 We talk a lot about how good the art and action is in this story, but this sequence is fantastic. Also shows what an actual badass Askeladd is.

30:15: Deb mentions how fun the bit with the arrow and eyeball is, and it’s absolutely a perfectly told little sequence. So much good environmental storytelling in this series.

“Aaah!” indeed.

30:25 Deb also mentions the… Horse-punching scene. And even though this is quite a few pages forward from this volume, it isn’t too spoiler-ly and is completely hilarious, so let’s do it. 😉

Whoof. From Vinland Saga, Volume 3

30:45 Chip picks a quiet scene as his favourite, the reveal that the young Thorfinn has snuck onto his father’s boat, has been holding in his need to relieve himself for a long time, and needs to let go. This is, as mentioned, a great bit of shonen manga humour for the kiddos, a funny gag for all readers, AND a chance for Yukimura-sensei give a nice sense of the open desolation of the sea. Thumbs-up.

When you just snuck on board a boat where everyone is probably gonna die.

31:23 This sequence, which actually takes place almost immediately after the one above, does a great job of showing the level of cunning on which the ‘bad guys’ are operating. What looks like a bit of buffoonery with an errant spear, is revealed to show it was a very clear message, they ‘missed’ on purpose, but did kill an assassin hidden behind the flag. It’s a great point in the story.

35:38 Yeah, for all of the ‘fighting isn’t okay’ stuff, it’s still an action manga, and you gotta move copies by making the action look really, really good. Like cutting off a bunch of fingers.

Still a little weird to think that this was in a Shonen manga…?

38:15 Here Christopher is referencing the children’s television series The Transformers, a Japanese/American co-production that has a really interesting history. It wasn’t really related to the conversation at hand, per se, but Christopher thought it was funny. Hopefully you also laughed.

40:24 Oh, Chip.

42:20: David here is referring to a backup story included in this volume, ‘For Our Farewell is Near’, of which we only get about half, and the rest appears in Vinland Saga volume 2. It seems to be about the end of the samurai era in Japan, and was probably included as a bonus feature or back-up in one of the Japanese Vinland Saga editions. Weird to split a short-story in half like this, but I guess you’ve gotta print books with page counts in multiples of 8, right? I didn’t really get much out of this either, art’s not bad, but I assumed it came together in the end. David doesn’t seem to think it does, though.

46:15 So while I did say that the Frank nobleman gave me ‘Totoro’ vibes, later in the episode, here in fact, I mentioned he reminded me of the frog from Hayao Mizaki’s Spirited Away film.

While that’s not a bad likeness actually, I think maybe I meant he looked like some of the nominally human characters from that film, like the foreman of the bathouse, Chichiyaku.

Oh yeah, dead ringer. Lol.

[Deb:] Jabbathe = a nod to Jabba the Hutt from Star Wars? You decide:

But yeah, this kind of art set against a realistic/sad Viking story was a bit discordant, and it seems to have disappeared completely from the series by the end of volume 1… while Yukimura still does maintain some great caricature and exaggeration throughout.

46:40 So here’s the bad colour pages we’re talking about. The lack of line work, colour holds, it just looks a bit flat, as Chip says. I like the palette though.

49:30 Makoto Yukimura Assassin’s Creed comics? So apparently this appeared in Japan, a 6 page short that shows an encounter between Thorfinn and the protagonist of Assassin’s Creed. It’s legally unavailable in English right now, but easily googled. It’s just a cute, short little thing (with gorgeous artwork). Maybe it’ll make it into a future translated volume at some point? Fingers crossed.

52:25 Here’s that essay that I was talking about, from the late Kim Thompson. I mention this at one point being written 10 years ago; it wasn’t. It was written in 1999. Yikes, time flies. https://www.tcj.com/a-modest-proposal-more-crap-is-what-we-need/ 

I wanna expand on this thought a little: We have considerably more ‘middle’ in comics now, than we’ve ever had. Almost all of it is for younger readers, aiming at rebuilding a market that was abandoned in the west back in the 60s (or earlier), and slowly that’s moving up through YA and even Adult fiction. Slowly, though. The comic industry we have today is very close, in many ways, to the comic industry I dreamed about when I initially read Thompson’s editorial above. It’s a little bit more weighted to kid-readers than I thought it’d be, but the diversity and breadth of English language comics, which includes work like manga and BD, is the best it has literally ever been. But you can kinda see how it’d be better, right? Another dozen Vinland Saga style books would be a great start.

(Also worth noting that TV and steaming are amongst the greatest they’ve ever been too. Network TV is pretty dire though.)

56:50: I think I come down somewhere between Deb and then David and Chip on this one: It is heartbreaking when he has to go back to war, he very much knows it will mean the end of for him (if not his way of life), but his last battle is truly glorious too, and awesomely depicted.

Heartbreaking, but you know, totally awesome.

And that’s this episode! We hope you enjoyed Vinland Saga Volume 1, we certainly did!

59:33: THE BREAK!

This week we go right into shout-outs!

David Shouts-Out His New Comic, Apollo Kids, created with Caleb Goellner! It’s available now on Gumroad for just five American dollars, and features a pair of twin kids fighting in a world that has been overrun with the mistakes of the past. Grab a copy online now: https://davidbrothers.gumroad.com/l/gEmfn

Deb Shouts-Out the new manga Heaven’s Door, by Keiichi Koike, available now for pre-order for January 2022 release from Last Gasp Books. She grabbed an early pre-release copy from Last Gasp and showed it off at the recent sorta-San Diego Comic Con, along with teasing us all with it through the video chat. Looks awesome! Mangasplaining Season 3?

Chip Shouts-Out Secession, which is a television program I hear. 

And that’s the episode! As always please consider checking out your local comic shop for print manga purchasing, find one near you at comicshoplocator.com, or maybe check out your local library for print and digital lending options!

Check out Mangasplaining theme song composer D.A.D.S. on Spotify!

Thanks for listening and reading along!

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11 Responses

  1. Thorfinn says:

    Vinland Saga is finishing soon imo

  2. Andrew says:

    Gundam’s central theme is that war is essentially a giant meat grinder into which we throw whole generations in order to try and settle grudges (pretty much always in vain) or to satiate a small handful of people’s thirst for power & money. And in the end, the only people guaranteed to win are those in it for the money (the ones in it for power have a 50/50 shot, depending on which side they’re on). But it’s all told through engaging combat between incredibly toyetic giant robots to help move merch, which I think goes hand in hand with David’s point that a good antiwar story is also a good war story.

    Neither here nor there, but the Gundam Build Fighters/Divers series feel like the modern-day version of G Gundam in that they’re attempting to divorce the “war is hell” story a little bit because these days it’s considered a little gauche to use antiwar messaging to push toy war machines.

    Really enjoyed the episode & Vinland Saga, although I didn’t clock the comparisons to Gundam until now, which may partially be why it’s my thing. The only thing missing is a bunch of silly, borderline inappropriate names made out of spite once the creator realizes none of the executives are actually reading the scripts. No one tell Chip about Quattro Bajeena.

    • Andrew says:

      I also think it’s absolutely hilarious that, rather than figure out what they mass market “24/Justified” midbrow stuff could look like in North American comics, the biggest players in the industry have invested decades & billions of dollars into making superhero stories the dominant mass-market franchises for film & TV worldwide. And the fact that it hasn’t translated back over into the books is totally understandable (because they continue to be very inaccessible, even to those who have seen the movies & watched the shows), but makes the whole situation so much funnier.

  3. Miguel Corti says:

    I think this episode pushed me to finally read Vinland Saga. I’ve been putting it off for years despite hearing its praises sung by everyone who’s read it. I guess not being a huge Viking fan, like some of you, is what kept me from pulling the trigger. Not sure if I’ll buy all the volumes at once, but it’s undoubtedly at the top of my list now. SInce I haven’t read it yet, I can’t comment much on what was said in the episode, but it I found it all delightful. You all do a great job explaining the parts of the manga under discussion, so I never feel lost.

    I find it funny the episode behind this one is Golden Kamuy, because before I was familiar with their respective stories. I would invariably confuse them and their creators all the time. Maybe I can finally put that confusion to rest.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation around “middle” comics, and the entire discussion Vinland Saga engendered. I hope you don’t feel bad for going off topic, but I love when art is used as a springboard to discuss other subjects, and this was a perfect example of that. (The episode on “Journal of My Father” might take the gold for that, though.) I think it’s great that you use the review of the manga to expand the conversation to different subjects and themes, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

  4. Kilgaen says:

    I’ve just started reading Berserk and I’m so surprised you only mentioned it passing! Vinland Saga feels like it is in direct conversation with Berserk. It’s like Yukimura picked it up and thought “Okay, but what if it was in the real world?” So you hit some of the same beats from starting in “modern day” and then having an extended flashback to a happier time which wasn’t as happy as it seemed. A main character who started as a child who was thrust into war and whose fighting style was shaped by having to be a child who can’t use a sword for adults. Discussions about what it means to be a man, a grown adult, and having hope in a horribly violent world. It’s a lot less violent and gross and shocking, less nihilistic, but it seems to deliberately reference Berserk and looking at it through a more realistic lens. Even with a horse punching scene.

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