By Ben Boruff
In Gunnveig’s Saga, familial revenge and progressive gender roles receive a Viking makeover. At times, the story reads like an underdeveloped blend of How to Train Your Dragon and Mulan. Gunnveig Hákonsdóttir, the female protagonist, is wronged by her brother, so she decides rather abruptly to take revenge by assuming the identity of Gunnar Kristjánsson, a young male Viking, and travelling to Norway—all of which the reader discovers in the first several pages. The comic’s internal monologues are clunky and often cliché, but the story progresses at a steady—perhaps too steady—pace. The narrative does not linger long on any one plot point, which gives the reader license to overlook some of the comic’s weaknesses, like the simplistic characterization of Gunnveig and her companions. As a character, Gunnveig Hákonsdóttir has the potential to be kick-ass, but the comic’s narrative limits her. She is a silhouette of a strong female character, but she lacks the substance needed to be compelling and relatable. In an age of independent, intriguing female characters like Jessica Jones and Kamala Khan, Gunnveig falls short.
Though Gunnveig is unconvincing as a character, her motives as a protagonist are worth dissecting. In many revenge narratives, the desire for retribution comes from the antagonist, and the plots that feature protagonist-driven revenge are often fueled by an even deeper love for someone else, like a murdered lover or a kidnapped child. Gunnveig, however, wants revenge only because her brother damaged her pride. In other words, the entire story is powered by a largely selfish desire. Though Gunnveig is not evil—she is portrayed as a relatively guiltless woman with admirable self-respect—her primary goal is to get her inheritance back, an action that helps no one but herself. At times, Gunnveig’s inner monologue hints that her quest for revenge may be a means of honoring her deceased father, but those moments are fleeting. Such pure, unapologetic self-interest from a protagonist is refreshing, and it is one of the few truly stimulating aspects of this comic.
Though pleasant to view, the artwork distracted me. The uncomplicated colors and hazy backgrounds draw the reader’s attention to the foreground of most panels, as if Gunnveig and her companions exist in a dreary dream world, a blurred reality filled with a few melancholy Vikings. The panels progress slowly, often without much variation. At best, the obscure settings intentionally mirror the protagonist’s angst. Gunnveig is a troubled woman, and her bleak environment reflects that misery. In fact, some panels nicely pair narrative density with visual simplicity, like the stained-glass prologue of Beauty and the Beast. At worst, however, the artwork weakens the story, stripping the narrative of all nuances. Either way, as I read Gunnveig’s Saga, I spent most of my time attempting to mentally justify the minimalistic artwork—at the cost of appreciating the story.
This comic should appeal to Viking fanatics and individuals of Icelandic heritage, but others may find it cumbersome. Though many pages are peppered with cliché dialogue and overused tropes, the comic has some moments of true creativity, artistic ingenuity, and narrative finesse. Much like Gunnveig herself, Gunnveig’s Saga has the potential to offer an original approach to some important topics, but so far it lacks the substance to effectively do so.
Gunnveig’s Saga #1
Writer: Arnar Heidmar Önnuson
Artist: Melissa Nettleship
Publisher: WP Comics Ltd.