writer: Brian Wood
artist: Davide Gianfelice
All hail the return of the hero! As a culture,
we cycle through genres, and it looks like it's time for
fur-caped warriors in the frozen north to have their time
again. If you asked, "Nanook?," then guess again, Bunkie.
In Vertigo's new offering Northlanders,
we actually don't have much of a hero. "Sven the Returned"
may be our protagonist; he may even be in the right in his
quest. But he's also just as bad as any of the men around
him, brutally slaughtering any that stand in his way. In
his mind, showing mercy involves allowing an old man to
pick up his sword so that he can find his way to Valhalla
when he dies.
These weren't pleasant times, and neither
Brian Wood nor his artistic cohort Davide Gianfelice shy
away from that. On the plus side, the violence never feels
gratuitous. Gianfelice favors action in his layouts, and
only when absolutely necessary does the gore splatter.
The layouts, too, pack a lot of story onto
the page. Densely plotted and cinematically shot, Northlanders
has something going for it a lot of first issues have been
missing lately - it's written as a solid first chapter,
not as a gorgeous beginning for a trade paperback. Though
Gianfelice allows a few splash pages, they serve a solid
narrative purpose, in particular a two-page spread of Sven
confronting his Uncle.
Essentially, as Wood himself describes
it, this is a crime story set in 980 A.D. Like Ed Brubaker's
Criminal, it's also quite possible that each story
will be only related by ethnicity, not by characters. "Sven
the Returned" plays like 100 Bullets meeting Hamlet,
and I still can't decide if it works completely.
Wood chooses to have his characters speak
in a fairly modern vernacular. Even if you know that Stan
Lee forced Thor into a pseudo-Shakespearean rhythm, it's
hard to shake the feeling that that's how it should be.
Yet obviously, this isn't a story of highly-educated intellectuals
occasionally clanging swords effetely. Their talk has a
coarseness to it that reflects what Roger Avary and Neil
Gaiman did in Beowulf,
but with more of an American rhythm to it. Back to that
idea of it being a crime story…
Veteran colorist Dave McCaig influences
the book, too, playing in a reduced palate that mutes the
passions experienced by the characters. This distances things,
intending to make it seem more historical and faded in a
way that a faked Norse saga wouldn't be. After all, Wood
begins with the narrative, "A very long time ago in the
lands we call home …these things happened."
Well, maybe they didn't, really, but this
book still fills a niche that the popular culture seems
to be turning toward. Vertigo long ago left off being a
mature horror line, and with Northlanders, they prove
that what the imprint really stands for is challenging material.