This week, the kind editors said I could write the Friday Recommendation, and I am pleased to bring to you a series that is very near and dear to my heart. With the days growing shorter and the nights colder, there is not a series out there that can get the blood flowing like Brian Wood’s viking epic, “Northlanders.” Grab the nearest flagon of mead, hoist your sails and pillage this gem of historical fiction.
A couple years ago, Brian Wood was one of the most prolific and relentless authors I had never heard of – until I picked up a copy of “Northlanders.” It would be a lie to say that it wasn’t the beautiful cover by Massimo Carnavale that sealed the deal. Instantly and thoroughly I became mesmerized by the strong characterization and the general wealth of historical background that went into each issue, and to be honest, as enjoyable as comics like “Thor” and “Journey into Mystery” are, no one could ever accuse them as sticklers for accuracy. If you aren’t a history buff, don’t be afraid to pick this series up. Brian Wood has already done all the work for you, and his thorough research and attention to detail meld seemlessly into the story. You don’t have to know a thing about the time periods the stories are set in to enjoy the human drama Wood puts into each and every single issue.
I had an ex-girlfriend who picked up an issue left on the coffee table, and pegged the series as “just a bunch of bloody guys with swords.” While certain issues make that assumption understandable, that split second decision does the series a huge diservice. These are stories about people, pure and simple; stories made all the more engrossing for the intensity and, yes, violence of the situations the characters are placed in. To give you an idea just how moving this series can be, issue #40, a single issue story about a hunter and a deer, was the single most moving comic I read in 2011 — and to see why, take a look at artist Matthew Woodson’s black and white pages for the entire issue. That alone will prove to you the level of detail placed into the book, and if you manage to find the issue with Wood’s words, that will multiply ten-fold.
There are a couple of things about “Northlanders” that make it unique for any comic book series, and even for a Vertigo book. First of all, there is the fact that the book rarely has a continuous story. Each arc tends to be a self contained story, set in a particular place and time in Nordic history. One arc might be about Pagan and Christian animosity in Scandinavia, while another tells the tale of a city besieged by vikings near the end of the 800’s. This allows a new reader a jumping on point every couple of months, and it gives the creative team the freedom to tell a different kind of story with each new arc.
Another fairly unique element, even to creator-owned titles, is that each new arc brings with it a new artist, and each artist is generally the best man or woman for the job. This book carries some big names on it’s cover, with the likes of Becky Cloonan, Fiona Staples and Declan Shavley have all lended their talents to “Northlanders.” Only a couple of rare times has the art seemed flat, or ill-suited for the story. Running fifty issues at the series’ tapout, that is a feat!
The third element this book offers is a sense of bleakness and desparation, and I mean this as a compliment. Comic books tend to have a culture of ‘Batman wins’ or ‘good prevails.’ In many “Northlanders” stories, the good guy does not win; innocents suffer, and man is beaten by nature. Every story is set in an unforgiving landscape, with people just as brutal. It is incredibly refreshing to find a title that isn’t about horror or crime to have such a realistic tone.
In a nutshell, that is why “Northlanders” deserves a shot at being included in your comics library. While the intention is that you will run out this weekend and purchase all six trades, you don’t have to. Thumb through just one and see what intruiges you most. Then go back later when you need a fix. If you want a tale that ‘has it all’, I’d suggest picking up books one or five, ‘Sven the Returned’ and ‘Metal’ respectively. Hopefully it’ll be your cup of mead.