Review time! with Domovoi
I’m not sure where I first saw Peter Bergting’s work (maybe when he did The Portent?), but it’s damned good, and so when his all-new graphic novel Domovoi came out (from Dark Horse, for $19.99), I knew I’d have to pick it up. That’s just logic!
Domovoi is a story about Jennie, a waitress in a northern, Scandinavian city (the back of the book says it’s Stockholm, but this is never confirmed within the pages of the book itself). On the first page of the comic, we find out it’s not quite like our world, as it shows a cat talking to itself. On the second page, we see ghosts in one panel, just hanging out. On page 4, a goblin-looking dude appears. So, yeah, it’s a slightly weirder world than ours.
The plot of the book is fairly straight-forward: Jennie has inherited a bag of bones from her grandmother, Vasilisa, who has just died at the beginning of the book. The bones are a great sorceror’s, whom Vasilisa battled and defeated years earlier. As a symbol of his broken power, she kept his bones. Now that she’s dead, the sorceror’s ghost wants the bones back, and has sent the goblin-looking dudes (there are two of them) to fetch them. And so we’re off!
Bergting is a clever writer, so he doesn’t do what we might expect from this. Jennie follows the advice of her uncle, Ivan, who lives with her; her employer at the coffeehouse, who seems to know a bit more than she ought to; and from the Sudice, who function as the “Fates” of Slavic mythology, according to Wikipedia. (This is partly why the location seems a bit odd. For Stockholm, there is a lot of Slavic stuff going on in this book, and while I imagine there’s a Russian influence in Sweden, it feels far too paramount in this book. I was in Sweden once, when I was about five years old, so I don’t know much about the culture, and maybe there is a big Slavic influence. Of course, maybe this is all just fantasy. Crazy!) Finally, the poleviki (the goblin dudes, and that’s a Polish word) grab her, and she … well, I don’t want to give too much away, but eventually, she does what we thought she was going to do in the first place, and that’s head north to confront the sorceror. But there are some twists and turns before she does that, and there are some twists and turns along the way, too.
It’s an impressive comic because Bergting seems to take his time and we think he might run out of room and have to rush the ending, but everything fits in quite nicely when we do reach the end of the book. He gives us several interesting characters who don’t act according to the plot of a grand quest but act according to their personalities, which is nice. Jennie is an independent young lady who doesn’t care all that much about the past, so even though she appreciates her grandmother, she isn’t interested when the other characters start talking about “family honor.” She’s alone in the world (her uncle, for a very good reason, doesn’t quite count), so “family honor” means nothing to her. When she finally meets the poleviki, she finds out that they’re really not as bad as she thought, and she eventually comes to a tentative truce with them in her quest. She goes on her quest not to restore her family’s honor, but because she can’t think of any other good option. Bolshoi Korol (the sorceror) wants his bones back and he wants to kill Jennie, and she realizes she really can’t hide from him, so there’s nothing much to do except fight him. Even so, Bergting takes his time getting to that point and even getting to Korol’s fortress. It’s a meandering sort of quest.
He confounds our expectations in other ways, too. First, of course, the poleviki aren’t really bad guys, just guys hired to do a job. Their banter is fun to read, and they enjoy a good kielbasa dinner just like the next guy (and really, don’t we all enjoy a good kielbasa?). They help Jennie because they don’t feel right about killing her. In another situation, Bergting lets us think that something dire has happened to Uncle Ivan, but then he turns that on its head. When they set off to the north, Ivan insists they stop at a flea market and eat some waffles. Later, we meet a strange water ghost and a man who seems to be her keeper, and when the traveling group comes across them, things don’t play out the way we think they will. Even the ending, which is telegraphed very nicely (and subtly) throughout the book, becomes something different than we think it will be. It’s quite well done. Bergting’s story isn’t really about the bones, after all, and it’s not about the confrontation between Jennie and Korol. It’s about Jennie learning about her history but also making her own path, and it’s about appreciating the moment because no one knows when it will end. Ivan mentions this at one point, but it’s something that suffuses the entire book. The book is full of small moments of haunting beauty, and perhaps no scenes are better than the two scenes with food – there’s something wonderful and magical about Jennie, Ivan, the two poleviki, and Bulka the talking cat sitting around eating kielbasa and later waffles. Even some of the more potentially disturbing scenes – the two poleviki dig up Vasilisa’s dead body, for instance – are done with enough humor that it defuses the horror, and it also helps make the final scenes, when things do get a bit hairy, stand out a bit more. Bergting has created a world where people can communicate with each other and not simply hate each other, so when bad things do happen, it’s a bit more effective.
This is also helped by his stunning artwork and his wonderful colors. Bergting has a bit of Mignola in him, which is well suited for the slightly creepy vibe of the book (even though it’s often heartfelt, this is a story about an evil sorceror trying to kill someone, after all). He does a very nice job with the characters, especially Bulka the cat, who’s always flitting around the edges of the panels and expressing her disdain for the proceedings. Bergting fills the panels with cool details, such as the ghosts who occasionally show up, but he also drops some nice clues about what’s going on throughout, as well. He does a nice job blending the modern with the pre-modern, too – the town looks medieval, with narrow, cobblestone streets and crooked building jammed in wherever they fit, with dark arches leading into smaller alleys, but it’s definitely set in the modern world, or at least the recent world, as the poleviki drive a massive car and carry guns and everyone uses telephones. It makes the book feel disjointed (in a good way), as if the modern world isn’t quite as modern as it wants to be, and Bergting’s use of this tension mirrors the way Jennie feels – she’s a modern woman, with short hair and her reluctance to wear a dress, but other characters keep saying how she’s too modern, and isn’t it just too bad that she looks like boy? Bergting also does some nice work with the way he presents the action – very often things aren’t quite centered in the panels, so important stuff is happening off to the side a little, which makes us take in everything in the panel. He also does some very nice work with point of view, presenting unusual ways of looking at the scenery so that we’re disoriented on first glance but slowly realize what we’re looking at. It makes the action feel more immediate, like a “shaky cam” in movies but without the obnoxious stomach-turning jitterbugging of that technique.
Bergting’s coloring is excellent, as well. As the book takes place in the far north, and according to Ivan it’s the summertime (even though Bergting often draws orange leaves fluttering all over the scenery), it’s never so dark, even in the one scene that takes place in the middle of the night. When it does get dark, it’s more because Jennie is entering into some bad places. Bergting uses this perpetual twilight to color the book in gorgeous oranges, reds, burnt umbers, and moody blues and purples. It gives the book a patina of the ancient, which helps create that tension between the medieval and the modern that the pencil work adds to. It also feels nostalgic, as if all of these characters are holding on too tightly to a past that can never return, and Jennie is the only one who can escape it. It’s part of the real mission of the book, and the colors do a marvelous job adding to that theme.
Domovoi is a very strong work from a very good creator, and it’s well worth you while. It’s a bit reminiscent of Hellboy in style, but Bergting is far less concerned with the evil monster at the end of the quest than he is in the way the characters react to that quest. It’s a clever telling of a mythic kind of story with a very grounded tone, and it looks wonderful. There’s not much else to say, is there?
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆