Varus #2: Retribution
Slayer Valmar, desperate to save the life of his beloved Kai, surrendered to an ancient spirit, one of the Darkin. The creature, true to its word, saved Kai's life... by taking it as its own. Valmar, Kai, and the Darkin fused into a single entity. A creature of rage, vengeance, and death.
When I arrived to Varus: Retribution, I was already sold on it. The first issue had amazing art and writing that accompanied a subversive story into trauma and tragedy, and the video that follows it is just spectacular. But something started rubbing me in a bad way.
As someone with a dissociative disorder, I’m well aware of the narratives about dissociative identity disorder (DID) and the multiple misconceptions about it that run rampant throughout media. However, I didn’t necessarily see this story as one about DID, since it lacked most of the elements that characterize the mental health disorder. It wasn’t caused to any of the characters in their infancy, and, well, while a big trauma like the death of a loved one can cause strong dissociation and the creation of various alters, this story is clear about it being magical and not a psychological metaphor.
There is, however, a problem with the narrative.
Even if it’s not about DID, it plays into its common false tropes and misconceptions; there’s a “scary demonic” part that longs to come out and do horrible things (like in – ugh – Psycho (1960), Split (2016), or – more on the classic mentally ill driven-panic ones – The Exorcist), the other characters try to fight it and there’s some messianic representation of good and bad, or human nature, encapsulated in a constant fight between “personalities”. In real life, someone with a dissociative disorder has exactly the same morality codes and ethics in all their alters. There’s no secret killer monster in anyone’s head. The reason Varus: Retribution is failing is not because in its core it has this explicit message, but because it plays with it, which aesthetically serves this purpose and reinforces that idea. We, as an audience, are supposed to know that this whole situation of three people inside of a body should look like a horror movie, and half of the writing revolves around reinforcing that idea in the monotonous dialogue about killing/not killing between the three.
There’s still something refreshing in the subversion of the narrative on this issue. Valmar and the Darkin seem to connect with each other in the need of vengeance for the unfair. It is revealed at some point that humans committed genocide against the demon species which the Darkin is part of, so the bond seems more real and a question of “should justice have horrible consequences for those who do terrible harm, like hate crimes or genocide?”. At the end of the issue, the three seem connected and make a decision together that, if the whole issue wasn’t so stereotypically executed, would make for a pretty good starting point for this character. Which, as far as the game is concerned, it is.
The art is mostly majestic and to the point, with incredible backgrounds, colouring and just spectacular artistic depth. It shines especially in the more empathetic panels, like Kai and Valmar connecting in a sphere inside their new body or the beautiful watercolor-like panels at the end. In its downside, it gets very baroque sometimes, I assume trying to recreate the “inside fight” and it loses itself in those confusing and narratively exhausting moments.
In Varus: Retribution, the main conflict of vengeance versus self-healing is an engaging one, with a great ending, but the execution nonetheless relies on tropes about mental illness that I hope we leave behind as we understand better what fantastical metaphors mean for real people.
Varus #2: Retribution: What We Choose To Show
Writing - 2.5/102.5/10
Storyline - 4.5/104.5/10
Art - 8/108/10
Color - 9/109/10
Cover Art - 7.5/107.5/10
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