February 3, 2010

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Northlanders Volume 1

Written by Brian Wood
Illustrated by Davide Gianfelice
Vertigo

From an early age, I've had a thing for all sorts of mythology, and therefore am always attracted to anything in prose or picture that relates back to that time.

So the idea of a book featuring characters from the age of Vikings definitely appealed to me, and I liked what I'd read of Demo before I had to return it to someone. (Note to self, get that from library soon.) Plus, my memory was that the reviews of the book were pretty positive, making this one worth a flier at the comic book store.

This first trade follows Sven, a young man who opted out of the Norse myths and moved on to forge his own life. For reasons unknown, he opts to return to his home, to find it ruled by his corrupt uncle.

It's one man against many, but Sven is unbowed--he'll take back his inheritance no matter what the cost. As the bodies pile up, Sven soon wonders about his decisions, and his belief that the gods of the Norse are wrong. Can he claim what is rightfully his, with only a smattering of allies? Or will fate and the weight of history break him?

In the end, Sven must examine all that he claims to want and see how he fits into the bigger picture. Can a man who claims only to wish to live make sacrifices for the greater good?

Wood's plotting here is excellent. We start with the very familiar tune of vengeance and move through complex motivations on the part of several characters. By the end of the story, we're on to a larger, more conceptual story about the passage of time and how history repeats itself. However, Wood is careful not to abandon the original idea--it's now just a part of the larger whole. I really liked this as a narrative device, and wish I saw it more often in comics.

To make this work, Wood must give us a character who is willing to change as well, and Sven does just that. He is initially single-minded, but the time he spends back in his homeland forces him to rethink his actions. Sven learns from those around him that despite his worldly travels and sophisticated airs, he is just as simplistic as those he dismisses for their belief in the old ways. Wood reduces Sven down to his core by stripping away everything he thinks he wants and needs, and in the end, Sven is stronger for it--and so is the story.

This would not work without a solid supporting cast. Wood makes you think that the uncle will be the foil, but as with all the other changes, Sven soon sees he has a greater adversary in Hakkar. Hakkar is smarter than the average tribesman, and serves well as a counter to Sven's plans for vengeance. In fact, one could argue that a main theme in the book is that Sven's enemies are those he cannot see until it is too late, something that is true for so many in history.

Other main characters are less prominent but play important roles. Enna is the woman who makes Sven think, and Thora is the woman who turns some of the details of the plot. A family who lived with Sven in his early days set seed that bear fruit later. Gorm, the uncle, sits at the edges but comes on when Wood needs an unthinking, irredeemable menace to push Sven and Hakken into action against each other. They are not nearly so fleshed out as Sven and Hakkar, but without them, the story would be flat. Wood makes sure they have some extra complexity so that we care when/if something happens to them.

There are two things, however, that bothered me just enough about Northlanders that I can't strongly recommend it. The first is that Wood gives the entire cast a modern tongue. I'm no prude, but four letter swears are all over the place, and they only serve to distract from the narrative, not to add emotion. I know it's a Vertigo book, and you can cuss, but Wood's script is too far over the top. When not swearing, they're talking far too much like people in the twenty-first century world. Gianfelice's visuals put me in the setting, but Wood's words knocked me back out. That was an issue for me from the start, and I just couldn't get free of it.

The second problem I had is that this story is awful to its women. Sven's mother is raped, Thora is beaten and used, and Sven is rarely nice to either of his steady relationships. I'm sure the idea was to go for period realism, but if the characters are going to talk modern, then they should act modern. And I'm afraid I just wasn't able to like the way Wood's female characters were treated. Had the script been more authentically dialogued, I think this would have been less of a problem for me.

Davide Gianfelice's illustrations were perfect for the setting and the best thing in Northlanders after the plot. The characters are grimy, bloody, and just a bit rough without looking like he'd forgotten to finish the illustration. He works hard to make even the stock characters look a bit different from each other, and Sven's worldly look compared to his Viking brethren is just right. I was also impressed with his use of eyes to portray the crazed Sven, the cowardly uncle, and the calculating Hakken. While there are the patented Vertigo boob shots, they're appropriate for the action going on in the story and did not cause me to feel like they were there for fan service.

Overall, if you're looking for something different to read from the usual modern-day comic and have a thing for the age of Beowulf, then this is worth giving a try. It's a flawed work, however, because of the modern tone clashing with the period setting. I loved the plot, the evolution of Sven, and Gianfelice drew a great story to support those elements. That said, I just can't see myself reading it twice, and that's what I use as my bar for giving recommendations. Northlanders blew just a bit off course, and that's a shame.