Eternal is a special book. We named it one of our Most Anticipated Comics of 2018, and we’ll be shocked if it doesn’t end up gracing quite a few Best Comics of 2018 lists come December. Written by Beautiful Canvas co-creator Ryan K. Lindsay, drawn and lettered by The Dregs breakthrough artist Eric Zawadzki and colored by Rednecks colorist Dee Cunniffe, Eternal tells the story of an isolated band of shieldmaidens who refuse to cede their land to invading men, and of their leader who will stop at nothing to preserve her way of life—or avenge it.
Along with Black AF: America’s Sweetheart, also out this week, Eternal is Black Mask Studios’ first entry into the original graphic novel format, with a page count that allows Lindsay, Zawadzki and Cunniffe to orchestrate a symphony of snowy violence and Viking vengeance. Rather than opt for a traditional Q&A or review, Paste is thrilled to host Lindsay’s full page-by-page annotations for Eternal, in which he praises Zawadzki and Cunniffe’s contributions, reveals how plot beats changed throughout different drafts and offers a peek into the first truly great comic of the year. It should go without saying that the below text is full of spoilers for the book, so do yourself a favor and save Lindsay’s notes for your second read-through.
Ryan K. Lindsay on Eternal:
This book has been a labour of love for over three years now. On again, off again, it’s been an amazing ride. It’s a pleasure to now sit back on the party end of this dance and think about the steps we took.
I stopped giving Eric cover advice or ideas a long, long time ago. The guy is simply one of the best, and the world is always better served with me getting out of his way.
The concept of woman [versus] environment on display in this cover is monumental. The eye-catching nature of all that negative space is genius. The posing of Vif looks intriguing and majestic and everything our shieldmaiden should be.
It’s a delight to have this cover launch our book.
We brought Courtney Menard in on this project because we wanted this book to feel special, to feel unique, to be something nothing else is being right now.
I loved her work on 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank with the credits page wallpapers, so we thought we’d take it a step further and use a Courtney design to be end pages for the book. That gives us the experience of something more than a single issue, this is a standalone volume, this is something you need transition papers to soak into.
And she knocked it out of the park. I love these papers, they give the book complete flow to open and the close. The colours she chose were great, and the little swords are the eye catch for me.
Now, with the book open, we begin.
This is our shieldmaiden epic.
Eric had the great idea to have an entry page that’s just the one panel down the bottom. This is how we meet Vif, battle ready, battle worn, and all alone surrounded by blood.
This is a bold entry, this is her walking into the forthcoming story with steel and resolve.
This is Eternal
An in media res fight page. No verbose explanation [I had to edit myself with great strength to avoid this], no settling captions or imagery. We are thrust into brutality and confusion and I want the reader knocked off their foot a little before they begin. I want them to know something is coming.
And while it’s something heavy and metal, it’s also beautiful. Just look at Eric Zawadzki’s ink work and staging on this page. Every movement of each character is paced out, every hair [I love Eric’s hair] and reaction exists in the real world.
You cannot imagine what it felt like to get these pages in my inbox. This is a pure distillation of why we make comics.
It’s then a huge transition to this page because everything changes, Page layout, structure, gutters, colours, tone, everything. And I don’t want to use a non-diegetic caption here. I don’t want to have to tell you, because I don’t want you know where/when this violence will come. I want you stranded now, in another scene, and trying to piece together exactly how you’re going to be informed by Vif’s epic battle.
I constantly think of the Aja/Fraction run on Hawkeye and how they made you piece it together. They didn’t tell you sometimes where things were, or when, and that’s because it doesn’t specifically matter. And if it does then the connections will be there for you to piece into the one linnear thing in your mind.
I never know if I’m smart enough to pull that off, but I’m always excited to try.
So we cut to Vif and her son talking about his father’s sword, and what kind of legacy will be in store for him moving forward. I want us to know Vif is a battlehound, and that she’s also a mother trying to raise her kid right. Those are her two end points.
And just in case you aren’t certain, yeah, Eric’s panel layout on this page is genius, it took him ages to perfect, and we are all now in love.
The truth of this page is…Vif doesn’t know what the future holds, or even what it should hold. She’s just as lost as her son, really, but she feels she should know better. She’s got more experience, she’s in charge, and yet she’s finding out that adults still have the same damn questions as kids. There are no answers, only experience and choices. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but acceptance is the final solution.
But waiting around for the moment you understand you know nothing isn’t an option in Vif’s world, and won’t be for Grimr either. This Vif knows, so she values action over most other things. She knows this will at least keep you alive, keep your head above the tide of blood, long enough to settle down in between battles to chew on what matters.
She doesn’t want her son to die, she wants to protect him long after she’s gone. Which, as you see, might be my most subtle dramatic/thematic set up ever.
Here Vif unpacks a mindset of violence I can at least understand and mostly support. You can’t just close your eyes and pretend you aren’t living in a storm. You have to be prepared to weather that storm, and find a way to hold your own footing.
She’s a good mother. She doesn’t want to crush her son, cube him into Viking, she wants him to survive. She wants him to have that level of control.
The flower being cut was an addition to script a few drafts in. It helped visually sell the point of this talking page.
Vif sends Grimr off, with the lesson percolating inside him. This isn’t a solution, but it’s an ingredient for one.
And here ends the ornate panels as we blend from the family to the main violent narrative drive for Vif. It’s such a brilliant visual effect to draw us into the intricacy and intimacy of what family is.
This page also serves to show the duality of Vif’s life at this stage. She’s caring and maternal in one beat and pissed off and powerful the next. She’s berating two men who have already been defeated and have been waiting all this time for Vif to be mother and now she can address what comes next in the story. Going from the B plot to the A plot not.
Because Bjarte sent these men, and he will need to be dealt with. And you can see Vif is the woman to do this.
I also think that while I love Eric’s style with hair, he’s maybe just slightly better with eyes. Any panels with close ups on eyes are amazing.
This kind of title page was an early concept piece from Eric. It got across the tone he wanted to bring to the story. It slows everything down, thickens the mood, and in my mind plays out like a really slow sombre opening credits sequence for a movie. In a one-shot, where real estate is usually the royal card, Eric wanted to show that we were committed to stretching out. We want to tell this story a certain way and single-issue constraints be damned.
“A Shieldmaiden Ghost Story” subtitle was the cherry on the cake, because Eternal is the summation, but it’s not necessarily the big sell.
You’ll also notice the credit says story by Eric and me—that’s because the initial script, against the eventual thumbnails from Eric, showed he’d put just as much effort into breaking and plotting and writing this beast as I had.
This page was initially an opening page. I was going to jump straight into the fray. But that was nixed pretty early on, from memory. But this was the first concept page Eric ever drew up, and it was gorgeous, and then changed, and remained gorgeous, and changed again, and is now still gorgeous perfection.
Everything about this page is about texture. The air, the water, the foam, the wood, the rope, your hands, the work. The battle in your guts.
This page sets a tone for Vif that’s battlemode, but still real world—unlike those red pages. I love the pacing Eric brought to this page.
I couldn’t even tell you why, but I love those sails in the first panel. I think it’s because I can tell you exactly how they feel just by looking at them. I can tell you the thickness of the material, how rough it is, and how they smell. It’s such a small thing, but it brings me right into this page.
Eric letters himself and I love how he then places things just perfectly into his art, or sometimes I feel he places his art just perfectly around the letters. Also: dig that red font.
This whole page is one slowburn, a long approach, to unleash onto the next page. So, how to make our shieldmaiden unleash: have this Pict asshole down the bottom start mansplaining and accusing a woman of being irrational. Insta-hack.
Okay, alongside Eric’s eye and hair, I love the way he illustrates motion. He’s such an obvious choice for a kung fu comic that it annoys me we aren’t on Iron Fist right now. But, for now, this Viking slice action will have to suffice.
Vif isn’t here to mess around, she was never going to negotiate. This is a battle, for one thing: Bjarte. And she’s got back up.
She screams it out, there’s no need to be stealth, she’s certain they can overcome him with their might.
This page of battle is a blur of motion and inset panels and screaming. War is hell. I wanted to show Vif as a well-trained shieldmaiden, one who knows how to attack, and win battles, and get to what she wants. The question isn’t: can she? The question is: should she?
I love the manga panel style here of sloping gutters and inset squares. It pops so well and leaves the perfect column for Vif’s battle smack talk. Which I am pleased with. Because it toes that line of literal and just downright hardcore. I hope.
And it speaks volumes to who Vif is.
The font drops here as Vif does lower her voice. She enters the hut, again, not afraid. And so we meet Bjarte, and he’s not much, really. Some crusty old dude playing in the arcane.
I like that Eric used those ornate panel borders for family, and standard for our shieldmaidens, but slanted for action, and now black borderless for Bjarte. Eric’s on another level.
Now, of course he then also steps up to mansplain to Vif why he was gunning for her village.
Giving Bjarte a reason for gunning for Hvallatr came in a later draft. It made him more interesting if he thought he had a goal, or even perhaps if he was right. The shieldmaidens all working in unison were creating a special energy. He can try to persuade Vif with this promise of more, this desire for power.
Of course it doesn’t work.
Vif acts, quicker than even Bjarte could assume, because that gift of power means nothing to her. She doesn’t want a larger domain, she’s not out to conquer, she’s out to live a controlled and beautiful life.
Her stabbing through the mist is a haunting image. Her doing it silently says even more, too. She didn’t want to talk, or ask, or bargain. She came with a plan, and here it is executed instantly.
The captions on this page hint at what’s happening as we move forward, and I was happy when they fell into my lap. They sum up everything that I need to explain how Bjarte ends up in the spirit realm, haunting Vif, but without having to say it overtly and try to explain it. Because balls to that.
Eric’s drawn a powerful page that drags you down slowly through it, but for me it’s Dee’s colour palette shake-up into this page that make everything pop.
But I do love Eric’s ability to draw this silent moment amidst a fevered battle. This proclamation that the job is done, and so the whole job is done. It’s a great way to show us Vif’s standing in her community as they react to her.
This page is a blacklight poster, right?
Working our way down—Dee’s work on that sky is a masterclass. It’s some real bloody art.
Then we get that cloud of smoke allowing the captions to cascade down over it, leading the eye down. Though you want to look back, because of that face in the cloud, that mocking laugh of someone who knows better than we and Vif do. They know the job isn’t done.
Then we get to the boat, and those sails are right in my hands, I can feel them. There’s texture and life in these pages, and I’m in love. I’m transported right into the story.
The boat rows through the water and Vif looks right out into nothing. Thinking about what’s been? Thinking about what’s to come? Living in the intersection of those two eras.
I don’t write many splash pages, but when you get something as pure and perfect as this, it makes you want to get out of the way and let the artist create something magical.
This battle is a recurring scene throughout. We don’t reference the time, we don’t explain it, we just jump in.
We just want you to feel the brutality, to steep in it.
Dee’s colours certainly helped with this.
I love the choreography here. The way Vif uses the sword and shield deliberately for each attacker. The way we can chart the time that’s passed by how much blood has gurgled up into the air. These pages are an artist’s showcase, no writer needed.
From a page of visceral action to one of visceral emotion. I’m damn proud of how this page came out. Eric’s layout is just perfection. The central heads of Grimr going down, punctuating this scene, and the double shot of a mother and son uniting. And yet it’s also the amount of negative space that Eric afforded himself around the edges of this central hammer that make it all work. That isolation for these two, adrift in a violent world.
I also think the rise and fall of dialogue, big-small-big works well to build a swell to that final line. A line I’m really happy with. Any time you can wrap it all up in a single balloon and not need anything else is a good time to be a writer.
We move from one outstanding page straight into another. If there is a need to submit an artist’s economic ability against their absolute mastery of the form, I’m submitting this one-two punch.
The establishing shot works perfectly, the pause to recalibrate. The caption without a box perfectly placed.
What follows is something I remember somewhat scripting, a one-page montage to show time moving, but words on a page could never do these visuals justice. The three tiers swiftly moving us through three seasons is so easily done through colour and choice of sky-leaf-snow. We can see Vif’s new lifestyle as she settles into something akin to comfort. She’s awash in the little things.
The sword was always going to be that strikethrough image, but Eric chose to offset the panel heights against Vif’s tiers and the result makes it pop all the more for it. It’s a striking page, easily one of my favourites, and it’s a stellar example of how things click in the script, but only come to life once they are properly illustrated.
This page also barely has any words, nor did the last page, and yet so much is brought to the reader. The emotions are present in the last page, here it’s the sense of time and place. It’s the understanding of a life without the violence and emotion that we can fill in the human gaps.
Naturally this only lasts a page and we are dragged out of it by a balloon tail poking in between panels and leading us down the garden path.
This page is really just a slice of exposition and a retell of a simple event.
Trust Eric to make it more.
The staging of the woman on the left, looking away from her memory, and the four tiers showing us a boat cruising along and being bisected by an ethereal wanderer. The placement of Bjarte coming out of the mist on the water, to the faces of the shieldmaidens as they row and see him on deck, to the subtle drag on his form to promote the sense of movement and direction as he’s left behind and the boat sails on, the rear scout watching him not changed for a moment.
A scary tale better shown than told.
Originally, this page took up a lot more real estate. I unpacked each scene, but soon realised all I needed was the essence. I know it’s another montage, but I need to get past this and onto the meaty emotional stuff again. So we get the snapshots, and we lay things out with the captions, and you get the idea and the progression, if not each exact scene.
I do love how Eric drew that goat, though.
It builds down to that panel of Vif. These vignettes in a panel are nothing else but fuel for her fire. She’s not going to take this onslaught any longer.
Which means we go straight back into the fight, and she’s finally getting a few hits against her. This battle can’t last forever, even though it’s been rolling all book long.
The sword goes through Vif, but she’s not slowed down. She turns and swings and his head pops off so clean. Blood streaks through the air. I look on these pages constantly and wonder which film director I feel in tune with on these, and I’m still not sure. Would David Fincher direct shieldmaiden violence?
Look at those little speed lines on everyone’s forearms as they swing.
Look at the way the blood floats.
Look at Vif’s hair, constantly whipping around like you know it really would.
A slower page, one of nasty portents, and something you need to use to build to the next large moment. You can’t keep on escalating, you have to lull the reader down a little. I think.
So we reestablish location with this gorgeous upshot into the clouds. We show Vif pensive, pondering flames, staring at a fire, considering the future.
Putting that vision into the fire was a great choice from Eric, and it marginally hints to the fact it’ll all be a fiery mess.
I like the pacing of the captions on this page. If you get lost in them, then you can understand Vif’s train of thought as she leads into this coming fight. She’s considering the larger implications, the bigger idea of what they can all represent. It’s all lofty ideals and wonderful ideas.
It’s someone losing their mind in the other stuff instead of focusing on what is right in front of them.
That final silhouette also makes me think of Frank Miller, and I have zero problem with that.
The density and pacing on this page are astounding. The top and bottom tier anchoring a mini nine-panel grid in the middle. Bjarte laughs and Vif slashes and the world becomes the bad place.
And it all happens so fast. It’s one page, and a scattershot of panels, all moving faster than we can see. That’s battle.
But at the end, as things clear, we get an idea. We feel what’s coming.
Eric handles death so well. He did the same in Headspace. He’s not salacious, he’s not intrusive. He gives you space to grieve, to feel, and you can thank him, but you can also hate him for it.
The bastard slices into us as Vif has sliced into her own son.
It’s all the little things. The ring of moments around the dying at the centre.
And at the end, Vif alone with the death of her family—hence the return of that familial border panels. Genius.
And the negative space of that one horrific moment bleeds out colour into the real world and it all connects, the sound fades in, and Vif breathes again.
Everything is lost. Everyone is low. Pause and bow your head.
Then fade to black.
This mid-tier solo panel of mourning is all Zawadzki.
I love what Dee did with the colours on that sky. Imagine this page if he wasn’t this amazing. Imagine a generic sky and some sunrise stuff. Blergh.
This panel slices right across my heart because of the dark above and below, and because of all that light all up in Vif’s world.
A splash of darkness. An immersion into darkness. We want you lost in the abyss, because that’s where you’ll find Vif at this moment.
This was all Eric.
It was also planned before Saga did similar, but I’m still happy to swim in the rippling wake of giants.
The only thing lit and alive is death. A funeral pyre for your son. It doesn’t get any worse.
But Vif is there, up front, taking her last look. This is the mettle of her character.
The rest of the world still doesn’t exist, the darkness swallows.
This whole sequence is exactly what we mean when we consider what to do when the story gets room to breathe.
Everyone is actually there, in different positions, fulfilling different roles of this morbid curio of life.
Vif is alone, and yet supported. Grimr burns. And Bjarte watches. He watches because he can wait. He’s enjoying what he’s caused so far, it brings him joy. He soaks it in, yet you can’t see him enjoy this.
We are all alone together in this world most of the time, aren’t we?
The fight returns, and that opening shield block over the head and behind is a wild bit of business.
Then she throws the shield, because it was never planned to last forever. It was never going to be something she could defend from. Vif takes two hands to the blade and just won’t stop.
Vif, back where we began, and this time no intricate family panel borders. Visually, we are told everything. It’s not about objects, it’s about people. They are the only thing that matters. Last time we were here, Vif wasn’t alone. The world changes, and yet remains so much the same, and it’ll break your heart.
I gave Vif this silent moment to break down because that’s what happens. Grief is a tide that overcomes you, and just because it ebbs out doesn’t mean it isn’t always waiting to roll on back in.
Her pain is so evident on her face, and that’s all on Eric. You can script that moment until the cows come home, but it’s the artist who makes that moment live.
Vif is in the darkness of grief, she’s still isolated, and then she steps into the light. There is a reemergence, but it isn’t pleasant. Another shieldmaiden points to a camp on the horizon, no doubt men come again to rattle their sabres, and Vif has had enough of all this bullshit.
I think we can all understand that moment, where everything builds up, so you know the next thing is going to get nuked. This is that moment.
But we splice it with a little something extra, because Vif isn’t just defending her chance to return the status quo. Vif needs vengeance, and this is her opportunity. It only takes a moment for her to decide and she is off.
Side note: I love the faces of the shieldmaidens and wish we could have spent more time with them.
I love the slight Dutch angle on this panel. The choice to focus on Vif’s feet, the journey to the sword, the choice to grab it. We don’t need to see her face, her actions are what matter here.
Then the ethereal hand, the singular moment she grabs her husband’s sword. There is now no turning back. So we jump into her gunning for battle, determined, and she shirks off any support. This is her noir descent and she’s not dragging anyone down with her.
The shieldmaidens are suitably confused.
Though the best bit is the two shields against the fence, and then there is only one. Gold.
This entire page was an Eric addition. A moment of Vif working through the elements. A visual representation of her moving through the world, and against it.
That idea of nature being a catalyst, something to fight, something to overcome. Something that can be tamed. Is a powerful interaction.
There are shades of The Grey and Wind River in this page. There is that idea that Vif, in this state and moment, is a greater force than the earth and nature could muster, says something.
I also, always, continue to love Eric’s weighting of balance in his page layout.
Vif appears at the Viking camp. She has already drawn her sword, she is ready to attack. Did you notice the sword is tied onto her hand? She is not here to yield, or to do anything but step into the battle.
And in case you didn’t recognise some of these dusty faces, you make the connection in the bottom as she enters the red. That scene that’s been playing out, it’s finally merging with the narrative timeline. And everything about that was Eric’s idea.
That berserker red, something we know Wolverine does, and we’ve read through countless other barbarian warriors before, is such a great visual shorthand. It’s simple and yet it pops because the rest is muted, because we pause for open emotions, whites, and blacks, and now the red.
And it’s a montage of panels from prior pages. It’s like Eric is replaying those pages to us on fast forward, showing only the finest bits, and then setting us right up for the needle drop into the next page.
Jeez, fast forward, and needle drop—not only crossing my analogies, but showing my age here on this one.
That tackle straight up is fantastic. And Vif isn’t slowing down. The page shows her raining down blows, though Panel Three also has her getting stabbed through the thorax. She just doesn’t care.
This was never about survival.
Everything drawing the eye down into the bottom right hand panel builds this sinking velocity and it’s a masterclass in guiding the eye and dropping the reader with weight to propel speed. I love it.
And if the page was dropping before, now it’s slowly creeping in. Jolting in with each beat, bringing us in on the insanity. Making us hear every slash and hack until eventually the world becomes white noise, the eye of the berserker storm.
That eyeball transition is Eric, and it’s great. From the height of battle, to the low of post-battle.
Vif is dead. I hope that shocks some people. I know she wasn’t about survival in how she went about things, but the narrative also hinged around her, so hopefully you feel the impact of her loss.
We certainly give you a page to sink into it because we want you to feel it, and process it, and wonder what comes next.
Also, how good are those birds circling. Bloody Eric at it again with the brilliance.
Eric actually inserted this page late in the game, because he shuffled a few things from thumbs to final pages, and he wanted to build a different page turn in, so this page got cooked up, and I love it so much. The empty space, the haunted air, the tone of it all.
How Eric draws that mist is beyond me. True Viking magic.
We transition to Bjarte. Lost, alone, and who knows how long he’s been like this, wandering the woods, waiting for what comes next.
I went for a different style of narration for this Coda just to show it’s a different scene, and time, and segment of the narrative.
Eric draws out his isolation perfectly.
Vif taunts Bjarte, she berates him, and he is caught off guard. He’s been alone a while now, he doesn’t know how someone’s found him, and I love that final panel and him turning to look at us. He’s scared, as he damn well should be.
In a page like this, you want to drop captions that hold weight. You want to be kind of metal. I hope I’ve done the build to the end justice.
This image of the spectral Vif is horrifying, and it burns into your brain. She’s vengeance personified. She’s wielding a flaming blade, she’s hollow-eyed, and she’s attacking us [through Bjarte’s POV, so we know how he feels].
This is the end.
What happens to Vif next. Well, I’m sure you can figure it out.
I love this book. I love what Eric and Dee did with it. I love the length we ran it to. I love that Pizzolo backed us and allowed it to exist in exactly the format we wanted.
This project has truly been something special to me, and I’m so in love that we got the timeline where I get to hold it in my hands.
I hope you’ve enjoyed it [enjoyed lots about it] and hopefully we can get this band back together again in a few years for our next jam.
See you then.