Saturday, November 21, 2015

Late to the Party: Northlanders

From Northlanders #10 (2008), written by Brian Wood with art by Dean Ormston.
A fan of historical fantasies such as AMC's Vikings television program, I have often wished that there were more similarly conceived comic books. Though the sword-and-sorcery genre, especially in the pulpy presentation of fictionalized barbarians such as Conan and Red Sonja, have been long time staples of the comic book racks, realistic depictions often seem limited to nuanced character moments presented as small parts of larger fantasies. Recently I came across Northlanders, a DC/Vertigo series which ran for fifty issues from 2007 to 2012. Now, this is Viking action!

Written by Brian Wood (whose current Revolutionary War set series Rebels for Dark Horse, is equally well-researched and written) with a variety of different artists, the stories told in Northlanders set in and around historical events during the Viking Age. Back when it was originally published, I was in a more cape comic collecting mode, purchasing and reading stories more closely associated with the medium such as Superman, Fantastic Four and Spider-man. Though I dabbled in the occasional Vertigo-style independent title, Northlanders somehow missed my attention. Now as my own tastes have shifted, I have been fortunate to acquire most the first twenty issues of the series' run via back issue bins. (Yes, there are trade paperbacks available for purchase, but I remain a single-issue collector--which presents its own challenges!)

Rather than binge reading--plowing through the 20 issues I have in quick order--I have elected to savor each issue and arc, reading them between novels or articles for school and other more recently published titles and series. This has been a most rewarding approach as I'll often reward myself with an issue after having completed other big-boy tasks such as yard work or grading papers.

As a whole, the series reads as an anthology of tales told from a variety of perspectives through a number of historical events set during the Viking Age. While  my own grasp of the historical accuracy is limited, it is clear that Wood has done his research. (As readers of the aforementioned Rebels will attest, Wood is nothing if not not through and his sharing of his process and research is in itself fascinating.) Violence, nudity and appropriately vulgar language earn Northlanders its "Suggested for Mature Readers" labeling, but having thus far made my way through the first two story arcs, or ten issues, these adult trope are story driven rather than gratuitous.

Interior art from Northlanders #7, art by Davide Gianfelice.
The common theme of the heavy weight of inheritance in the first two arcs, "Sven the Returned" by Wood and Davide Gianfelice in issues 1-7 and "Lindesfarne" with art by Dean Ormston, that create connective tissue between stories beyond the Viking Age settings of each. In "Sven," the eponymously named protagonist returns with desire to reclaim his Viking birthright from those who usurped his father, while "Lindesfarne" tells of another young boy who rejects his father's brand of Saxon cruelty in favor of a more violent Viking one. Both characters achieve a level of success on their respective quests, but as one might expect of hard stories in an incredibly harsh world, the resolutions lack the tidiness of traditional comic books. This is a good thing and consistent with the world Wood and his accomplices bring to life.

Only ten issues in and I'm hooked for the fifty issue run that Northlanders had, which conclude in 2012, especially as Wood is a constant through the entirety of the series. The artwork is consistently solid, and though it might lack the ultra realistic shading and pencil work that stories of this ilk seem to need, in concert with the writing and coloring it is far more than serviceable. In the majority of cases, I am unfamiliar with the interior artists (the though of Becky Cloonan coming up in 35 and 36 is surely something to look forward to), but they are the capable supporting cast.

As I await the return of Vikings to the small screen sometime in 2016, the prospect of continuing to make my way through Wood's Viking landscape one arc at a time is an exciting one.

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