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Northlanders #1
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.

Derek McCaw


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