[Slightly Edited From My MAL Review]
"God's divine creation is so brimming with love... and yet there is no love in the hearts of men." -Canute
Philosophical brooding, barbarous violence, political intrigue, and the stubborn refusal of hope to roll over and die no matter how dark the age- all in a beautifully drawn package. Makoto Yukimura delievers a prime example of the heights sequential art can reach. (Can you tell that I'm into this series?)
This series is brutal and it's mature, but those two things are not the same. There's no shortage of graphic carnage and gory battles, but any mangaka worth his or her salt can splash some buckets of blood around and call their story 'mature'. Where this story earns its praise for maturity is in how it handles that brutality. There is no romantization of the Viking Age here, the Norse glorification of violence is not just devastating the people they come into contact with, but even their own culture (suppose you're a Dane who DOESN'T want to go around murdering and raping everything in sight? Too bad- at best you'll be an outcast). In some way every character has to react to the violent culture of the Norse and their reactions are critical in determining their personality. Some embrace it, some run from it, some try to change it through politics, some find solace in religion, some despise it and lose themselves in the hatred of everything. While plenty of manga (and other media in general) simply use brutality for shock factor and call themselves 'deep and mature', this manga actually successfully uses the brutality as part of its main theme. But 'Vinland Saga' doesn't simply wallow in nihilism either (another easy trap for 'brutal' stories to fall into), it has rays of hope. Not easy to reach, sometimes not possible at all without going through Hell first, but still real.
This story uses brutality well, incorporating it into a deeper theme instead of losing itself to gore and nihilism; and it uses hope to counterpoint the brutality without resorting to saccharine slap-happy schlock. The only thing keeping 'VS' from a perfect story score is that the series has yet to reach its finale. So far, however, it has been magnificent. A proper ending and this series will be damn near Shakespearian.
Permit me to go off on a short tangent addressing complaints that the series gets 'slow' during volumes 9 & 10 (the 'Farmland Saga' arc). While it's true that there is far less spectacle and bloodshed than in the preceeding volumes, slowing things down at this point was critical. The story arc contained in volumes 3-8 had worked itself to its climax and natural conclusion. Trying to strecth that arc with yet more fighting or plotting would have been to "Vinland Saga's" detriment- the story needed a minute to catch its breath and make sure it stayed on course. Volumes 9&10 are where the story firmly and overtly establishes its theme, and handles character development that will be critical to driving the current arc. (And don't worry, the pace starts picking up again in volume 11- with plot developments that promise plenty more action to come).
Since it's on a monthly release schedule Makoto Yukimura can afford to go for quality rather than quantity. The first chapters were on a weekly release schedule, so they are somewhat less impressive (but still excellent, it's only that the monthly chapters are utterly jaw-dropping). It's clear that a great deal of research went into this series, houses, clothes, utensils, and weapons are all highly detailed- no settling for slapping some medieval stereotypes on the page and moving on. The panels are simple squares and rectangles with clear borders between them, broken up by the occasional splash page- with a series this detailed special care must be made to make sure each image is distinct and the flow is easy to follow. The aesthetic goes for a high level of realism, with very little stereotypical 'manga' influence (no chibis or gigantic eyes here). The art is absolutely stunning.
Characters make a story. If the cast doesn't have engaging conflicts and interesting development, neither the art or the plot will be able to make up the difference. Thorfinn is a ball of rage and pain as he tries to avenge the father he hardly knew. Canute is a timid and frightened young prince who must conquer or surely die. Askeladd's mind has plots within plots and is more than meets the eye. Thorkell.... OK, he IS pretty easy to figure out, but that's the point. Even the secondary characters have distinct and believable motivations and a few surprises. Nobody feels like a plot device or a cardboard archetype who's only there to do some specific thing because 'the story said so', the cast truly seems like real, flawed (often badly, occasionally horrifically flawed) people interacting with each other.
The cast is a masterclass in character development. The art is stunningly real. The story takes full advantage of its setting and subtly communicates a deep and mature theme- the ONLY thing I can see undermining this series is a bad ending when it finally finishes (not that I hope it will do so any time soon). I will confess I have a love for historical fiction that might make me more predisposed to liking a series of this nature, but given the examples I've provided I believe I can honestly this is a series any fan of serious manga needs to read.