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Northlanders Vol. 1 TPB Review

The first volume of Northlanders (Sven the Returned), by Brian Wood and Davide Gianfelice comes out today, and you should give it a read, as it is a good book.

First off, Massimo Carnevale’s cover for the trade is amazing.

In any event, this book collects the initial Northlanders story arc of eight issues (all for the insanely cheap introductory price of $9.99!), and Brian Wood really takes advantage of the extra-long first storyline, as he tells an absolutely epic tale.

The gist of the story is that a young man named Sven, who is living in Constantinople, learns that his father has died back in Scotland, so he returns home to gain his inheritance from his uncle, only to learn that his uncle has no intention on giving him anything, which leads to a long-out confrontation that takes many twists and turns.

The concept of Northlanders is that each story arc will feature a different story of different vikings, from all sorts of different perspectives. Such a system gives Wood what is one of the most powerful weapons in serial storytelling, and that is finality. Knowing that your story ends when it is finished gives you all sorts of freedom you just don’t have when you need to stretch your characters to an ongoing series, and Wood uses all of that freedom beautifully to gives us a story with a true ending, and a striking ending at that.

The style of storytelling Wood uses will be quite familiar to anyone who follows either the Sopranos or Mad Men, as both shows spotlight characters while interspersing a healthy amount of flashbacks for the main characters to inform their current actions. With eight issues to work with, Wood is able to fit in an extensive flashback to Sven’s time in Constantinople.

Davide Gianfelice’s artwork is strong, and he captures the starkness of the time period impressively. I also love the way he depicts violence – he makes sure it is visceral, and it is not cartoon violence at all, you really feel it throughout. This is never more evident than in an unexpected battle scene towards the end of the book.

The main character, Sven, is a fun guy to follow – I especially love how Wood handles his thoughts. He makes Sven a horribly unreliable narrator, so when he says stuff like, “I knew then that ___ would happen,” we know that that is just Sven trying to convince himself, and not that he has any keen insight into what will ACTUALLY happen.

One thing to note about Northlanders is that Wood uses the approach of “have the characters talk modern even though the book is set over a thousand years ago.” It’s an acceptable approach for historical fiction, but I know some folks get put off by that sort of thing, so I felt it is worth noting.

This is a comic that can truly be termed “grim and gritty,” but only because that is the times that it is depicting.

It’s a strong read, and even if you’re not totally sold, it’s eight issues worth of comics for ten bucks – hard to beat a deal like that!

Recommended.

10 Comments

I think I’m going to go pick this up. To be honest, I’ve haven’t read a lot of Brian Wood’s work except ‘Local’ and I like the finality in those stories. I hate to to be a history buff but what time is it set in? The vikings of 700 AD are a much different people than those of 1100 AD. Having said that, this is the kind of book I’ve been waiting for: Something set in medieval times which isn’t fantasy.

Does anyone know of any other books like this?

I love this book. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Nice review, Cronin the Barbarian.

Laurence: As for the time period, it’s 980 A.D.

Just wanted to say that Norhlanders #5 is one of my favorite single issues of the year, great to see DC getting behind Wood and putting this out at a great price!

this comic flat out rules, bought the singles and will buy the trades as well, one of the few titles i will buy in both formats

i’ve read this in issues and would highly recommend it. especially at a $9.99 cover price. that’s a heck of deal for a great story line.

Good review, Brian – I’m glad to see so much love for this book. I thought it was just ok after finishing the first arc. Not realizing it was an ongoing, I was glad that it was over. (And I generally love everything Brian Wood does) When I realized my mistake I made the decision to pick up #9 anyway and see what happened – Holy crap. #’s 9 & 10 were two of my favorite comics from all of 2008. This gave me cause to head back and re-read 1-8 again, and they read MUCH better in one sitting than they did in monthly installments. I made get this trade even tho I’ve got the floppies… ten bucks? That’s awesome.

A wonderful comic-a must read( I recommend all 4 volumes including the new one-the plague widow-which is great) if you are into viking things as I am!!

I have to disagree on this one with you all. While I liked the art, I thought the storyline was lacking. It was exciting, far better than I could do, but I don’t think it really took advantage of the medium. It felt like it wanted to be a movie, not a comic (that happens a lot these days). Comics are great because you can stop after each panel or page, look at the characters, think about what they’re doing or expressing visually, dig into their thoughts. When I dug I didn’t find enough in Sven; rather I saw more holes. If all he wants is money, why’d he go all the way back, risking his life and love? There must be more there, but I never caught a glimpse of what it was – even in that scene where his lover (who he slept with and knew since a child but never knew her religion?) asks why he needs to return, and he says she won’t understand, well chalk that one up to chauvinism or whatever, but as a reader, I certainly wanted to know, and never found out. I wanted to know how he became a great fighter – how’d he throw that sword to save his soon-to-be lover into the bad guys neck – when we hadn’t seen him fight, in fact we only saw him run away from a fight and heard his mom say he’s chicken. I’ve been rowing boats since a kid, and that never taught me how to chuck a sword across the beach into a guy (have I been rowing the wrong boats?).

I really really dug the surprise of the Saxons – great timing, but that’s OK by my book cuz it is comics. But I would have really loved to see how Sven 1) convinced Gorm’s troops that the Saxons were really there and he wasn’t tricking them; and 2) how the two Norse armies realized they needed to unify as a people. I don’t know if it was laziness on the writer, or lack of pages that made the book go to hyperspeed there, but to me that was a valuable scene that could have had more detail. It would have highlighted Sven turning into a real leader, rather than making you just up and assume it (we also never learned how he learned leadership, or even when it became natural for him…I guess you can’t cover everything in 8 issues). By showing that change, it would have made his giving up his power even the more impressive.

The book’s overall message is ambiguous, which I guess I like (comics tend to be too black and white).

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