Northlanders # 1
by Brian Wood and Davide Gianfelice, cover by Massimo Carnevale
Northlanders is the new Vertigo book from Brian Wood, much loved in these parts for his great underground series: Channel Zero and Couriers. I never picked up Demo for some reason, and thought his last Vertigo series DMZ was a little flat – but this looks a lot better.
In Northlanders the story is set in 980AD and is a tale of Orkney Vikings, specifically the errant son; Sven of Orkney who’s been away from his homeland for many years until he receives word that his father has died, his uncle has seized all of Sven’s rightful land and wealth and has enslaved the settlement, treating all as slaves and prostitutes. After hearing the news and promptly dispatching the messenger (shooting the messenger is bad, running them through with broadsword seems fine), Sven heads home to Orkney.
Sven, looking rather more dashing than your trad Viking. Amazing what the right tailor and hairdresser could do, even in 980AD. (soundtrack to panel: Rod Stewart or the Titanic theme, up to you.) From Northlanders # 1, art by Davide Gianfelice, published DC/Vertigo
So far, so good. Okay, so we’re running through familiar territory here.
Ostracised Prince returns to claim rightful throne usurped by Uncle – isn’t that the plot of the Lion King?
But it’s the style in which it’s done that made the book fly nicely. Wood adds a new dimension to the plot by making Sven the Viking version of new man, with no time for the old ways of gods and the fates. He’s been out in the real world for a while and has come to enjoy the trappings of civilisation and finery and sees this as an excursion to reclaim gold he sees as rightfully his, gold that will buy him greater position in Constantinople by next Spring. He wants to be in and out, taking his money with him. This is no saviour come to free his people, this is a mercenary come to take what he believes has been stolen from him
Wood’s writing style here is slightly more open and fluid than his style on DMZ and at several points comparisons with Ellis and Ennis are inevitable. There’s a similarity in writing with Ellis’ recent (and excellent) Crecy, in as much as it’s a historical fiction spoken in a distinctly modern style. But this is not to say that Wood is merely aping these writers. He has his own distinct voice as well, clearly visible on the page. Sure, it’s only the first issue, but it’s a great little set up for what could be a very good series. It’s billed as an ongoing, but I just can’t see it having the legs beyond a couple of dozen issues at most. However, I live to be proven wrong.
One aspect to credit Wood on is his research. At last a Viking tale with longships that aren’t the size of a wooden Titanic. These ships were tiny, with barely enough space to sit down in and Wood creates a sense of acute claustrophobia during the seaborne scenes. A nice bit of realism ably carried off by the artist Davide Gianfelice, who looks like he’s quite at home here and is more than reminiscent of some Walt Simonson in places, with an angular, detailed style.
Gorgeous splash page art from Northlanders # 1 by Davide Gianfelice. Published DC / Vertigo.
Northlanders is easy enough to pigeonhole as Brian Wood’s Viking thing. But in doing so, you’re possibly doing it a disservice. It’s no real surprise to say that, by a few issues in, I can see Sven’s mercenary attitude to his people soften as he learns to accept his inheritance as more than a payday and begins to be the true King of these people. From here I’d guess Wood will play heavily on the idea of the young, civilised, slightly cosmopolitan King dragging his people into the new millennium.
It’s an interesting and arresting start. Well worth carrying on with. Of course, as you may have gathered this was written a while back. Northlanders is now up to issue 5 and I haven’t kept up with it. But I intend to get the inevitable trade sometime this year.
Richard Bruton is a lifelong comics fan and former Comic Book Store Guy; you can read more of his thoughts on comics and life on his blog Fictions.