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Review: NORTHLANDERS, v. 1
Comics are my first love. I taught myself to read with Spiderman; my first after-school job primarily financed my $100 a month comics habit. And even today, comics may be my favorite medium, even if I have left the month-to-month antics of superheroes behind me. (Not for outgrowing superheroes, mind you, but because I was fed up with the companies behind them. I'm sure I'll end up ranting about this at some point.)
One of the series I have been reading through recently is NORTHLANDERS, published by the Vertigo imprint of DC Comics, written by Brian Wood, who is more famous for his book DMZ. NORTHLANDERS is an anthology series -- each volume, coincidentally about as long as a trade paperback, is a self-contained story. (The artist also changes with each volume.) The only thing the stories share in common is that they are set in the Viking Age, and the main characters are, as the title implies, people from the Northland. Unusually for a "Viking" story, however, that does not always mean Norsemen or Icelanders; Wood takes the entirety of the Viking world for his setting, and only a few stories have anything to do with Scandinavia proper.
The first volume, SVEN THE RETURNED, illustrated by Davide Gianfelice, is set in the Orkney Islands of Scotland. Our protagonist - "hero" is a questionable term - is Sven, who left home years ago to travel to Constantinople and join the Varangian Guard. When he discovers his father is dead and his uncle has stolen his inheritance, Sven returns to the Orkneys with the intention of reclaiming his wealth and then returning to Constantinople (or, as the Norse called it, Miklagard, "the great city.) Naturally, things do not go as planned, and eventually Sven comes to realize his ties to his homeland are deeper than the money that he is owed.
The first few chapters were hard for me to get through - Sven starts out as a very unlikeable character. (Matters aren't helped by his character design, which features a soul patch beard that makes me think of a fratboy than a Varangian. I hope this wasn't a historical style.) It's also extremely bloody, and occasionally the gore reaches cartoonish levels. The dialogue can also be off-putting; Wood, following the pattern of HBO's ROME, has his characters speak in a very modern style, replete with cursing. I got used to it fairly quickly - it's certainly more natural than everyone speaking in Thor-esque faux-Elizabethan - but sometimes it feels like Wood is just showing off.
But I believe it's worth sticking with, if historical fiction is something you're interested in. The characters in NORTHLANDERS express a different viewpoint about the Viking world than most media presents. Sven, for example, is a worldly man who has traveled throughout the Byzantine Empire, a man constantly comparing his situation in the backwards lands of his birth with the high life in the east. In one memorable flashback, he discusses his relationship with his lover in Constantinople: "We didn't marry. Although there was love, there was simply no reason to marry... She had other men. I had other women. These were modern times, in a modern city. Should not relationships be modern, too?" The sequence comes off as genuine, authentic, the thoughts a person actually living in that world might think, instead of the artificial archaism I think infects many stories set in this period.
There is also a religious subtext that runs throughout SVEN THE RETURNED. Sven, born a Norsemen but mostly raised in Constantinople, has no religion, and dismisses most claims to the contrary as superstition. His uncle, however, clings tightly to the ways of the old gods, constantly looking for signs and omens. (This sets up a grimly funny scene in which Sven's uncle becomes convinced his nephew is a Draugr, a walking dead, because he cannot believe one man could kill as many of his men as Sven has.) Unfortunately, looking as this volume alone, it might seem as though Wood is using Sven as a mouthpiece for an atheist/materialist worldview that calls all religion a sham, but later volumes pursue these themes from a variety of perspectives. For a Pagan reader, the treatment of the religious conflicts in the Viking Age is reason enough to come back to the series.
The art, as mentioned, is quite bloody, but it's often gorgeous, especially the work of the colorist, Dave McCaig. The line art is painted in mute, textured tones that seem reminiscent of watercolors. Dark blues cover the Orkneys, a reminder of the isolation and paranoia of Sven's life there. The cool palette of the northlands makes the orange warmth of Miklagard even more arresting. As the winter sets in over the course of the story, the scenery becomes ever more barren and dark, and the inevitable slashes of crimson blood stand out all the more.
Although all of NORTHLANDERS is now out in paperback, SVEN THE RETURNED probably remains the best introduction to the series. The plotting is quite tight, the characters well-rendered, and the art engaging. Even Sven, acerbic as he is as first, convincingly transforms into a character worth rooting for by the end. Above all of that, though, NORTHLANDERS is worth reading for its distinctive, perhaps unique take on the Viking Age, a setting the comic presents as both alien to modern readers and yet more familiar than it is usually depicted.
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