Felan Reads the Comics 3: Northlanders

Northlanders 2: The Cross + The Hammer

On Sundays, Felan profiles his favourite comics and graphic novels from across the diverse medium’s history.

Oh man, vikings! Those guys are crazy. This week’s comic is Brian Wood’s Northlanders, a multi-faceted series of discrete stories all set in the age of Vikings. Far from being merely a blood-soaked medieval action book (although it is that, among other things), the quality and nuance of Wood’s approach to the material really sets it apart. With the stories ranging in time and place from eighth-century England to eleventh-century Byzantium, Wood really goes out of his way paint a picture of the larger historical context in which the Vikings existed.

Many of the main characters are outsiders to “mainstream” Viking culture – a prince in self-imposed exile returning home to the North, a savage one-man resistance to Viking rule in Ireland, a group of widowed Viking women fighting for survival, a young boy living through the sack of Lindisfarne – which allows the comic to avoid one-sided tales of glory and conquest. Wood refuses to pass judgement on the Vikings by showing their seafarer culture in a nuanced, detailed way, and by demonstrating the ways in which the northern conquerors in many cases brought stability and peace to the lands they colonized. By the same token, he doesn’t shy away from showing the reader how truly horrific the Vikings are from the perspective of their victims, or from depicting the unrelenting bleakness of life in the Northlands.

The use of modernized dialogue instead of contrived “olde-timey” voices is really effective, and helps to stress the point that there is more to Viking civilization than screaming bersekers (although, again, screaming berserkers do turn up). Wood emphasizes the clashes between different cultures and religions, and the material aspects of Viking culture that enabled them to become a world power, such as the changing technologies of war; rather than making it a story about Viking history specifically, it becomes a story about history itself, and the diverse processes that drive it.

Black Karl!

Each Northlanders story arc features a different artist, with great colours mostly by Dave McCraig, which means that the visual quality varies a lot. Davide Gianfelice’s work on the first story, “Sven the Returned” is gorgeous, all high-contrast blacks and gushing reds, against a never-ending stark whiteness. Ryan Kelly’s work on the second story, “The Cross and the Hammer,” on the other hand, pales by comparison, but Wood’s writing is good enough that it doesn’t really matter. The image above is by Riccardo Burchielli, one of the better artists to work on the series, from the current story, “Metal.”

Northlanders is an ongoing monthly series from Vertigo, and has been collected into four trade paperbacks so far. For more information and the source of the images in this post, check out Brian Wood’s Northlanders Tumblr blog: http://northlanders.tumblr.com/

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