Berzerker is one massive brute of a barbarian, ludicrously muscled and swinging an axe the size of Balham. He’s Conan in all but name, feared throughout his land, yet not around when his village is raided, leaving his wife and child dead. After despatching the raiders in time-honoured barbarian fashion he drops into a pit with strange glowing sigils by assorted cave entrances. Choosing one at random, he ends up in the woods outside a major US city in the 21st century.

One of the most satisfying selections found in the 1970s run of Marvel’s What If? transported Conan the Barbarian to New York in 1977, and Berzerker Unbound is Jeff Lemire and Mike Deodato Jr. updating the idea. Lemire explores similar themes, highlighting poverty and deprivation, but has more space to explore the ideas and less compulsion to conform to the needs of action comics. It’s primarily a subtle meditation on the needs of companionship, fed by tragedy, yet also including enough action elements to satisfy, if not the full axe vs taxi sequence. There’s no wide-eyed wonder about Berzerker, but he’s more accepting of modern day technology than Conan.

Deodato’s art is strangely compromised. On the opening action sequences he’s phenomenal, and indeed on later ones, yet his depiction of more peaceful moments is more often than not handled as seen on the sample art. He’ll break pages down into small illustrations, or overlay a panel grid on larger illustrations, and the unnecessary approach distracts from the story rather than enhancing it. The required emotional poignancy is present, though, and he conveys the bond between Berzerker and homeless Joe Cobb forming the beating narrative heart.

Berzerker Unleashed presents an interesting idea worth recycling even for those familiar with the Roy Thomas and John Buscema story (or latterly Savage Avengers), and there’s a strong dramatic core. Dark Horse label this Volume 1, and Lemire leaves the door open for a sequel, but it hardly seems necessary.