Berserker is a Top Cow comic book produced by Milo Ventimiglia, the star of Heroes and Rocky Balboa, and written by Rick Loverd. And, to be honest, the book feels like it is effectively emerging half-baked. The comic can – based on this trade paperback – lay a serious claim to the title of “bloodiest comic book produced by a major company ever”, but it feels like there’s remarkably little else going on here. Which is a shame, because it teases some very interesting ideas.
The interesting thing about publishers like Top Cow is that they get to tell the kinds of stories that larger publishers would normally stay away from. Berserker opens with a prologue that takes us to the Afghanistan conflict. We’re introduced to Farris, a former soldier who appears to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of what he as seen and what he has done in the war. Indeed, the backstory for the events depicted in this volume concerns the manner in which the Vikings exiled and killed their own victorious warriors – the Berserkers.
It’s a clever idea and an interesting parallel. In a way, both Farris and the Berserkers of legend are living what seems to be part of the veteran experience – returning home from wars that they fought to discover that their homeland no longer has a place for them and that their labours will go unappreciated. However, the simple fact is that the story doesn’t appear to have any idea of how to work that angle to form a sense of pathos or tragedy.
Farris discovers that he is a descendent of the Berserkers, and effectively goes into a Hulk-like state, blacking out engaging in mindless violence. Again, a near-perfect metaphor for post-traumatic stress disorder, like if Bruce Banner was a veteran rather than a nerdy little scientist. Unfortunately, the six issues here are a collection of disjointed sequences in which Farris slips in and out of berserker mode, killing and maiming dozens of people (and, for bonus points, often beating them with their detached limbs) in a series of seemingly random events. We’re also treated to the story of another Berserker, Aaron, who similarly discovers his “gift”. The half-a-dozen single issues included contain what seem to be an infinite number of sequences where a character introduces themselves to Aaron or Farris and then Aaron or Farris kills/dismembers/throws them.
The problem with all these needless encounters (well… I see “needless”, but it wouldn’t be half as gory if we only saw a ribcage every fourth page instead of every third page) is that they effectively cramp the storytelling style. Farris, on discovering his powers, suddenly decides, “There are others like you. They have to die.” Maybe he just watched Highlander once too often. Aaron walks away from a bunch of people trying to help him (and clearly capable of it) because he has daddy issues.
In fact, despite the interesting slant on the premise, it’s the most disappointingly mundanely conventional aspects of a superhero origin which work here. There’s the death of a parent caused by someone who will most likely become a sworn archenemesis. There’s a secret society plotting to rule the world. There’s a higher plan at work.
Part of the book’s problem is how relentlessly and ridiculously “nineties” it is. It screams “nihilism!” with far too much enthusiasm to be taken seriously. When one character suggests Aaron needs to see “the world for what it is”, he clarifies that the world is “a soldier with a gut shot. Walking wounded. Too stupid to know he’s already dead.” Rob Liefeld would be proud of that comparison (and Frank Miller might have to poach that. The comic’s idea of subtlety is illustrated when a US raid shoots some unarmed terrorists, and Farris remarks, “You wonder why they hate us.” Yes, you are clearly in the wrong for shooting unambiguous terrorists – people who have a habit of blowing themselves up rather than surrendering. Damn it, if only we stopped killing terrorists, all our problems would go away.
There is also nobody to root for in this mess of a comic. Seriously. On one hand you have the former grunt who has decided to put down everyone who happens to have been born to a specific genepool. On the other, you have a nihilist who wants to end the world. It’s kinda hard to take words of advice – “I know you feel like this thing’s a curse, but I’m gonna show you, it’s a gift, son” – at face value when the person saying them has the dismembered bodies of two FBI agents in his boot. It’s also hard to emotionally engage with these sorts of people who engage in ridiculously graphic and random violence (seemingly with a minimum of guilt afterwards). Cops and FBI agents are among those killed – many of whom were just doing theit duty – and nobody bats an eyelid. Normally, in a book like this, I’d spot the good guy by the one who feels most shook up about it. Unfortunately, nobody seems to care.
The plot line is – despite its simplicity when it is explained – very poorly laid out. The comic jumps back and forth through its own narrative to present the illusion of depth – but if you’re going to use the old time-slipping narrative plot device, please use it for more than just really bloody fight scenes. Use it to tell a story worth telling.
And there is a story worth telling here, somewhere. Perhaps it’s something of an updating of the “Hulk” myth for the twentieth century – changing the focus from the atomic bomb to conflicts overseas – but that isn’t reflected here. All that I see here is a desire to up the ante in gratuitous violence. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve got no inherent bias against that, and Jeremy Haun offers the violence in as much beauty as possible – but it can’t be all that a book offers.
After all, even the Hulk threw in a bit of popular psychology after a while.
Berserker is published by Top Cow Comics and is 180 pages long. Extras include a full cover gallery and a brief introduction from Milo Ventimiglia himself.