By Andy Mansell | Contributor Published: 06/20/2013 10:00 am EST
Publish date: June 19, 2013 Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Domovoi is the first English-language graphic novel from Peter Bergting, a Swedish comic artist with an impressive pedigree. He has illustrated various Swedish-language translations of such fantasy classics as as The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. According to his website bio, he has “provided over 500 illustrations for covers…and interior art in a variety of styles.” That statement becomes abundantly clear by the second page of this volume.
Imagine a style that evokes the P. Craig Russell-inked Mike Mignola Hellboy and Paul Smith’s Leave it to Chance with buildings that look like they were designed by Seth, and yet together Bergting’s art gives the feel of being fresh and splendidly new.
Domovoi tells the story of Jennie a young adult of indeterminate age and her talking cat. Her grandmother, a sorceress, has just died, and Jennie is left to sort out some of her unfinished business. This involves a pouch of magical bones taken years ago from a powerful sorcerer. Of course, this turns into a journey—both physical and emotional—to the mythical Thrice Tenth Kingdom. Along the way, Jennie encounters many figures from Nordic folklore: Poleviki (the hilarious and scary field spirits), Sudice (the Slavic “Fates”), and we even get a few local zombies as well.
There are dangers and chases and a mystery or three, and the world in which the story unfolds continually grows in depth and complexity. Reinterpreting mythology and fairy tales is nothing new to comics, and thanks to success of Vertigo’s Fables franchise, it has become something of a cottage industry.
DISCLAIMER ALERT: I know very little (okay nothing) about Japanese and Nordic fairy tale traditions and I know only enough about mythological archetypes to reference Joseph Campbell whenever I speak loudly on elevators. That said…
Is it possible that Nordic folklore is similar to Japanese? I don’t know. They are worlds away from each other. But as I read and re-read Domovoi, one influence kept screaming to me and that is the work of the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. Jennie and her talking cat are mirror images of Kiki’s Delivery Service. The pursuit by the dark magical beings is right out of Howl’s Moving Castle, the river spirit and the bridges from Spirited Away, and the search for a mythical land and the indeterminate era are reminiscent of Castle in the Sky. But it is not just these (along with quite a few other) specifics, the Sweden of Bergting has the actual feel (if lacking the intricate detail) of Miyazaki’s world. This can’t be a coincidence and believe me, this is a good thing!
Regarding the storytelling, Domovoi is much closer to Hellboy than Fables or Sandman. The mythology is a means to an end, a rich and varied rack upon which Bergting can hang his talented hat. And the humor is really effective and, in some cases, laugh-out-loud funny (and none of the jokes come from the mouth of the talking cat).
There are pages where Bergting uses the word and picture blend to such a level—an appearance by an elf, the firebird, and a marvelous dissolve from a flashback—that you realize upon a second reading that this kind storytelling technique could only work as a comic.
However, Bergting suffers a few storytelling missteps along the way. In the three main action segments—a kidnapping, a car chase on a narrow bridge, and a zombie attack—his choice of angle and reference hampers the storytelling. You have trouble figuring out what happens. Before you think I am picking nits, I need to point out that this book reads fast. This quick rhythm adds to the storytelling. But, in these three panels, the reader is confused by what occurs and you are forced to stop—just as the pace is shifting into a higher gear. But these aren’t fatal flaws.
Mr. Bergting provides Domovoi with a complex ending that challenges the reader to re-investigate the story—especially the title—and the reader is left wanting more. I must assume that this, along with many other unresolved threads, will be addressed in future volumes. We can only hope. Peter Bergting is a major talent and any future publications deserve our undivided attention.
Andy Mansell lived in Chicago for over 40 years until his doctors advised him that he would die soon unless he got as far away from the land of Italian combo sandwiches and soft serve frozen custard. He is currently growing rather old rather quickly in Charlotte, NC as a member of the Waistline Protection Program. He lives for four things: his family, baseball, opera, and of course great comics. He is also looking for a ride back to Chi-town for just one more breaded steak sammich. He will provide gas, guaranteed. Contact him at this address.