It is a journey of courage and loyalty through worlds of myth and legend, adventure and terror, fantasy and even a bit of science fiction. The long-running Belgian comic series, Thorgal, is an adventure series about a mysterious child from the stars who is taken in by a Viking tribe and grows up to be one of the most intrepid travellers and warriors of his day, Thorgal. But Thorgal isn’t like other strong-hewed heroes of the Conan, the Barbarian tradition. Yes, a lot of his stories are gripping sword-and-sorcery adventures, but Thorgal isn’t the archetypal solitary drifter, looking out only for the next adventure and the next bag of gold.
Thorgal is a man with a family — he has his wife Aaricia and his children, Jolan and Wolfcub, who are both touched with magic in their own ways. An outsider in the Viking village where he grew up, Thorgal has had to struggle to find a place in the world. His mysterious heritage brings him into contact with objects of futuristic science fiction technology, anachronisms in a world of swords, sailing ships and rough-hewn marauders. He encounters figures from his alien heritage, and also meets mystical creatures like dwarves and the Nidhogg serpent, travelling into magical realms from the Norse mythology and beyond.
Thorgal spans over 34 volumes, and 9 spin-offs in French, 15 of which have been translated into English. Created by writer Jean Van Hamme, who is also known for series like XIIII and Largo Winch, and for continuations of the Blake And Mortimer series. The Thorgal books are illustrated in an intricate, realistic style by Polish artist Grzegorz Rosinski. Each panel is a work of art with breathtaking settings. In recent years, Yves Seinte, another skilled comic book writer, has taken over writing the series.
Van Hamme’s stories are able to encompass a great range of moods — from high adventure, suspense and terror to sparks of humour and the tender ties between Thorgal and his small, brave family. The stories also run the gamut from mystical quests and piratical encounters to time-travel extravaganzas and journeys to fascinating places in this world and beyond it. This places them above a lot of other sword and sorcery themed comics, which tend to revolve around combat, and focus on amoral adventurers, motivated by simple greed or at best a restless sense of longing for adventure. Thorgal does not seek out adventure, rather he has it thrust on him even as he tries to carve out a safe, happy life for his family and himself. In a way he is like Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey, who is just trying to get back home after the Trojan war and ends up getting drawn into one fantastic adventure after another, mainly against his own will. Like Odysseus, Thorgal has the strength and intelligence to take on each challenge and rise up to it.
Thorgal isn’t the only hero of the series, though; his wife Aaricia is just as formidable in her own right — struggling to bring up her children and a growing clan of extended family, while dealing with the long separations from her husband imposed by a series of unexpected and perilous twists. She is betrayed multiple times, forced into slavery and so on, but she never loses her indomitable spirit and manages to match up to every challenge that the chaotic, dangerous world throws at her. It helps that her two children have their own formidable powers — Jolan is a wizard in the making and Wolfcub has the ability to talk to animals.
Some of the spin-offs tell us about Thorgal’s youth and about the adventures of a character named Kriss, who captured Thorgal at one point. More recently, the series has focused on the adventures of his son, who is shaping to have as exciting a life as his parents, and has already saved them more than once.
More than just a series of adventures, the Thorgal books are an invitation to a rich, growing world of dangerous challenges and all kinds of strangeness and wonder.
They are among the foremost epic narratives in modern popular fiction, and it is a very good thing that they are finally available to English readers!