This review discusses the basic plot with marked spoilers. Skip To The Verdict? »
Having come completely unexpected, I approached this original graphic novel with no prior knowledge.
What I found was a premise perfect for an alternate history short story.
The Nazis were not defeated in 1945 – WWII outcomes being a favorite focus of speculative history authors.
The Norse gods have returned and have been swayed to Germany’s side, prolonging the conflict decades past its conclusion in our world.
The reason for these events is relatively unique and makes an odd sort of sense.
As I mentioned, the plot hinges on an interesting idea but this unfortunately isn’t a short story – it’s a comic – and it falls a bit short.
The first chapter throws us into a suicide mission on behalf of the remaining Allied resistance. They’re accompanied by the one god that seems to be on their side, Loki. It’s this sequence that is based on Brin’s original story, “Thor Meets Captain America.”
This chapter ends with the reveal – how the Gods came back, how the Nazis turned the conflict around. The spoiler and discussion of it is contained between the next two images.
I’m putting this as a marked spoiler because finding this out was the most enjoyable part of the book.
In The Life Eaters, the Nazis won because mass sacrifices (in the form of concentration camps) had achieved their secret goal of summoning the ancient Norse gods through necromancy. These Aesir gain more power from the deaths of humans on the battlefield
These may not be the real gods, but mankind has a long history of belief in death magic, and only recently has pushed past it. This isn’t the first book to further investigate the paranormal dabbling of the third Reich, but it is the first where I’ve seen the entire holocaust presented in this light.
Finding some underlying reason for such insane mass murders – the quest for supernatural power, unrealistic though it may be, is easier to understand than the racial hate used to orchestrate the killing.
The “how” and “why” of the Nazi/Aesir victory is the driving momentum behind the first chapter. It allowed me to push past the clunky storytelling – often with huge blocks of text making this feel more like an illustrated short story than a flowing work of sequential art. These text blocks themselves are heavy on exposition and light on organic plot formation.
It’s possible that the book would have been better if the block text was spread out more, or dropped altogether, and the entire book was a longer reworking of this original text, relying on techniques that are unique to sequential art, instead of having some of the potentially strongest moments told in text over black background.
While there are other annoyances (I didn’t see the point of including a slang spewing beatnik – would the Beat movement even have come about without the end of the war?) my interest in the mysteries surrounding the Aesir kept me reading, and I genuinely enjoyed this first chapter, stumbling points and all.
I was a little confused at the end, though, because I didn’t realize that the main character for the first part (a square-jawed blond male) was not the character driving the latter two chapters (a square- jawed blond male). At some points the story actually seems to focus on a third character, an ex-weatherman drafted into the Nazi/American service. But I never particularly identified with any of them.
Perhaps it was because of the slightly annoying long winded internal dialogues, which usually attempt to make a reader more aware of a character’s motivations but distanced me from truly empathizing. Perhaps silence would allow us to judge the character by their actions and ascribe our own feelings to the events.
Or give the art a chance to convey the character’s motivations through body language and expression.
I any case, I found the remaining two thirds of the book less enticing.
While there were some interesting ideas (a weather war motivated by each pantheon’s desire for ideal temperatures) there were also cliches (other cultures raising their gods, resulting in a battle royal of violent pagan pantheons; Hero saved from drowning by kindly intervention of dolphins) and annoyances (in-story contradictions; an amazingly schmaltzy scene of the Abrahamites all coming together campfire kumbaya style).
There are a couple twists, though the main one is right in line with expectation of wayward god Loki’s “secret” motivations.
Thor referring to a puzzling situation as a “a riddle,” equating the world tree Yggdrasil to a space elevator. Such instances were sprinkled about enough to keep the book from being totally dross.
Also helping were Scott Hampton‘s illustrations. I’ve seen complaints about his art being stiff, and there were times where the critique seemed relevant – an strangely bent elbow here, an awkwardly frozen facial expression there. But he creates some very dynamic battle scenes, both of fields of soldiers and more intimate confrontations.
His portrayal of the aesir seemed spot on, their self assured superiority dripping from their stances and expressions.
Hampton has composed scenes of smokey warfare, dark forests and murky depths, and some appropriately fantastical landscapes.
Watercolors, sometimes realistically rendered, sometimes shifty and ethereal, are excellent for images of the supernatural and I’m always happy to see painted panels when they fit the story.
There’s also a few pages in the back where Hampton shares his process with some charmingly humble insight.
As he notes at the painting stage:
“Drawing problems I hadn’t known about begin to stand out as the picture takes on weight and depth. This is always unhappy-making. I’ll usually keep working around the problem areas hoping they’ll just go away. (This almost never happens.)”
“Finally, the panel is finished with that awkward hand (or whatever) either – A. cast in deep shadow or, B. obscured by a passing bird or leaf or flailing body or, C. fixed.”
It’s quite illogical to expect any artist to paint hundreds of panels and have them all come out with the same level of quality (especially under heavy deadlines).
It’s always nice to see people admit to the challenges of the industry.
I personally think that Hampton’s average quality is very high and look forward to seeing more of his work.
As for The Life Eaters, while there is much to like about it (most of all the interesting premise) it never quite lives up to its full potential, is never really a spectacular comic.
This is fairly common when prose writers make the move to this form of expression – their first few efforts tend to feel like novels adapted into comics instead of original works (even if they are.)
This isn’t Brin’s first foray into sequential art (it’s his second) but it doesn’t feel like he’s quite got it down yet.
Hopefully he will continue, though, since there is a lot of potential in this book – and I’m certainly interested in peaking into his award winning sci-fi prose work.
3 of 5. A very intriguing premise is burdened by some awkward pacing and storytelling problems. If you can get past that, there’s plenty of stunning art and a few interesting plot elements to be found here.
This book is a standalone title.
Brin and Hampton previously worked on a Star Trek OGN, Star Trek: The Next Generation – Forgiveness, which seems to have been well received by fans. It’s completely unrelated to this book, obviously, and may only be of interest to members of the Trek fandom.
If you enjoyed this book, you might want to look into David Brin’s prose fiction.
For more alternate history stories, I personally recommend the anthology collection The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century.
For more watercolored vikings in comics, you may want to check out Viking Glory: The Viking Prince.