Comics You Should Own – Northlanders #1-8, 20
Published by DC/Vertigo, 9 issues (#1-8 and #20 of the ongoing series), cover dated February – September 2008 and October 2009.
I apologize for the SPOILERS below, but they’re there. I thought I could get around them, but I just couldn’t do it. Sorry!
Brian Wood’s Viking epic got off to a rousing start with the first story arc, “Sven the Returned,” which features a Viking warrior leaving his adopted home of Constantinople and returning to the Orkney Islands in A.D. 980 after his father, who rules part of the islands, is killed and his uncle, Gorm, takes over, cutting Sven out of his inheritance. In the most simplistic way possible, “Sven the Returned” is a revenge story – Sven doesn’t care all that much about his father getting killed, nor does he care about becoming the ruler of the settlement in the Orkneys. He doesn’t even care about the money that was stolen from him – his woman is very rich, he’s doing well as a member of the Varangian Guard in Byzantium, and he has no tangible reason to return. In the most basic terms, he’s offended that Gorm dared to steal from him, whether the cache is large or not. So he returns to the Orkneys and vows to kill Gorm. And so the plot is set in motion.
A few historical notes are in order, even though they’re not all that germane to the plot of the book. In A.D. 980 the Byzantine emperor was Basil II, given by history the wonderful nickname of Boulgaroktonos, the Bulgar-Slayer, because he led a successful war against Bulgaria, at that time the Byzantines’ great enemy in the east. Basil was only 22 in 980, but he was well on his way to becoming one of the greatest emperors in the thousand-year history of the Eastern Empire. The Varangian Guard, a unit of the Byzantine army, were personal bodyguards of the emperor and were recruited from the Norsemen for much of their early history. Wood plays a bit fast and loose with history here, as the Varangian Guard didn’t exist until 988, but no matter. All that we need to know for the purpose of the story is that the Varangians were elite warriors who did quite well for themselves in the emperor’s service.
If this is simply a revenge story from the tenth century, why on earth should we care about it? It is a ripping tale, as Sven returns with no allies and quickly finds himself beset by Gorm and his right-hand man, Hakkar, who’s a far better warrior than Gorm and who realizes that Sven is far tougher than Gorm believes. Sven wants no part of the rebellious mood of the settlement over which Gorm rules; the people live in fear, but he doesn’t care about them in the slightest. He fights Gorm’s men in small groups, but that can only take him so far. Eventually it comes down to a battle, but interestingly, Wood doesn’t give us what we’re expecting (which will become a standard theme in this series). With hindsight, we even know Sven survives, as Wood gives him an epilogue in issue #20, which takes place 30 years later. None of this makes “Sven the Returned” a great story, however – revenge tales can be entertaining, but not always great.
Wood is far too good a writer to give the reader a simple revenge tale, though. He adds in several common themes of fiction, putting his own spin on each. “Sven the Returned” and its epilogue, “Sven the Immortal,” are far deeper than they seem to be on the surface, which isn’t surprising given how Wood often works. The most easy theme to digest is one of the grand themes of literature, so clichéd that Thomas Wolfe named a novel after it – Sven can’t go home again. The point of this story is that Sven doesn’t really want to – he’s perfectly happy in Constantinople, and even when he goes back to Grimness settlement, he can’t believe he ever lived there and he wants to leave as soon as possible. When he first confronts Gorm in issue #1, he is beaten up by his uncle’s thugs and dragged away. But he’s made an impression, as he narrates:
I’m the legitimate heir, no matter how he tries to spin it. Gorm’s running an illegal occupation. Right then, I knew I’d get my money. I’ll be back in Constantinople by spring, a newly bought promotion in the palace guards, another ship, more men-at-arms. I’ll drape my girlfriend in gold, and she’ll feed me olives in bed. This will all be a distant memory. It’s just a matter of time.
With that quote, Wood sets up the irony of the story – Sven’s true home is not the Orkneys, but Constantinople, and as the story continues, he realizes that he really can’t go home again, because his life in the Byzantine service is effectively over. Wood teases us in the early issues with allusions to Sven coming around and truly “returning” to the islands – in issue #2, he spends time with Ivarsson, his neighbor from when he lived in the settlemen, who believes that Sven is home to stay, no matter what Sven says. Ivarsson tells Sven that he himself went abroad, but he came back: “There’s a lot of flash and excitement to be had in your world, Sven,” he says, “but there’s no soul, no meaning. Everything’s moving too fast for that.” He tells Sven, “What seems small and quiet will come to have greater meaning … if you open your mind to it.” Sven listens, but mocks the old man in his head. Sven remains resolute in his desire to go back to Byzantium. But something has pulled him back north, of course, even if he can’t quite describe what it is. In issue #5, which is a flashback to his days in Constantinople, he tells Zoe, his lover, that he needs to go back to the Orkneys. Sven narrates:
She wanted me to let it go. She had money, I didn’t need money. This was true. She was a thousand times wealthier than Gorm could ever be. She couldn’t understand why I’d want to visit a people that so completely abused and rejected me. I couldn’t explain it. I just had to go.
Despite Wood’s hints in earlier issues, Sven isn’t returning home to the Orkneys, Sven is leaving his home in Constantinople. And his home is taken away from him when Hakkar sends a man to kill Zoe, which Sven learns about at the end of issue #4. This event, however, while it severs his connection with his home, allows him to grow beyond both the Orkneys where he was born and the city where he settled. It pushes him past the petty rivalries that define both life in the north and even life in the east, where citizens might pretend they’re civilized but where, as we see in issue #5, they’re as mean as the Vikings of Grimness. Gorm and Hakkar have taken everything away from him, and while it’s a tragedy, it also allows Sven to turn his back on them and make a new home with a new lover. Wood takes a standard trope of literature and instead of making it a tragedy, shows it for what it can be – a new beginning. In the later issues, Sven surprises us with his choices, because he hasn’t come around to accepting the Orkneys as the place he’s “meant to be” – he simply doesn’t care about fighting over a wretched piece of ground. By issue #20, Sven is old and crotchety, but he’s also made his place in the world (even further north, in the Faroe Islands) and knows who he is and what has value to him. Wood uses another cliché – home is where the heart is – to show that Sven has found a place, with his wife and children, and even though it’s on a miserable island in the North Atlantic, it’s where he chooses to make a stand, unlike in issue #8, when he stops fighting the Saxons who have invaded the islands because he just doesn’t care enough about Grimness to die for it.
Another theme of the story is the tension between secular modernism and “old-fashioned” religiosity. Sven is scornful of Gorm and his superstitions – when he arrives at Grimness and sees that Gorm has left bodies on spears to cow the locals, he narrates, “He’d use this old dark magic shit to scare as children. I see it still works.” In issue #3, while in bed with Thora, a childhood friend whom Gorm sent to spy on Sven (she’s also the girl with whom he lost his virginity, years before), Sven first speaks of his lack of religious beliefs. Thora tells him that Gorm is superstitious, “really quite crazy,” and he knows nothing of Sven’s culture or religion, and the unknown frightens him. Sven tells her that he has no religion and he says that Gorm rejects the new, relying on “bones and runes” to tell him what to do. Sven uses this knowledge to mount a campaign of terror against Gorm – he puts a stag’s head on his own and kills men quickly, dragging the bodies away before the terrified survivors can lead Gorm to them. Hakkar is skeptical, of course, but Gorm is wracked with indecision about how he displeased the gods. Sven’s campaign drives Gorm further into madness, as he consults elders and believes zombies walk the earth. But even as Gorm spirals into madness, Sven can’t escape the religion of his past. In issue #5, he narrates about his relationship with Zoe: “These were modern times, in a modern city. Should not relationships be modern, too?” But he still has the old ways in his blood. In issue #1, he kills the man who brings him news of his father’s death, but he allows him to hold a sword as he dies, so the man will go to Valhalla. Later, in issue #4, when Ivarsson and his wife are killed, Sven narrates:
Men die in battle all the time, and whatever the afterlife, Norse or Muslim or even that of the white Christ, it was generally considered to be a pretty good time. So the passing was … should be … a celebration. An old man at the end of a good life. He was a Jomsviking. A warrior. But he had no sword in his hand. And I know the terror he must have felt, knowing that, as his life drained away, he was doomed to wander some inbetween place for an eternity. All for the want of a sword in his hand. Superstitious or not, he believed it. And who am I to tell him different?
This becomes important later, when he makes sure Gorm has no sword in his hand and when he allows Thora to hold one before he kills her as a mercy. Thora has been abused by Gorm and she will be raped repeatedly by the Saxons, and all she wants is to die on her feet. As Sven watches her holding the sword, he thinks:
I stood there for a moment, weighing the arguments in my head, about afterlife, religion, obligation, morality, the sanctity of life … while good men died around me and a poor girl begged me for something better. And so I just stopped thinking and did the right thing.
Sven has reached a point where religion or secularism doesn’t matter, because some things are bigger than that. Wood even suggests that there are forces beyond his ken – a raven follows him around, and the woman he ends up loving, Enna, tells him that the raven “belongs” to Sven, because everyone has “animal shadows.” The raven remains ambiguous, but Wood makes it clear that things in the north are a bit more mystical than in the south, which leads into a similar theme (which I’ll get to below). Wood doesn’t choose sides in this debate, simply allows his characters to come to their own conclusions. Sven never embraces religion, but when Hakkar brings him Zoe’s head, Enna asks him, “Would you like me to help? I can help send her on her journey, as I did with the Ivarssons. Do you know her people? What her rites are?” Sven replies, “… Her what?” and Enna continues, “What were her beliefs? Her religion?” Sven’s narration is inescapably sad: “Of course, I had no idea. I had never thought to ask.” Wood’s implication throughout isn’t that religion is the answer, but that Sven, disconnected from his past and his present, needs something that he can cling to, and just after this scene, he climbs into bed with Enna and begs her to hold him. It’s the only tender moment we see from Sven before issue #8, when he and Enna leave the Orkneys to start a new life, but it also shows that while Sven might reject religious trappings, he understands the hole that religion often fills in a person’s life. Even Sven, with all his modernism, can’t move beyond that need.
The theme that ties into this secular-versus-religious dichotomy is the idea of civilization versus savagery. In the first scene, Sven leads his Varangians against a group of Norsemen and slaughters them. This is “civilized” behavior. When he walks into the settlement, he thinks, “Grimness was hardly beautiful. But it was never a sewer.” Gorm has turned back the clock even further than Sven could have believed, and he’s shocked. At the end of the issue, when Gorm has thrown him out and left him to die, he narrates:
He thinks I’m weak because I don’t live as he does, as a Norseman. I say I’m the stronger man for it. I defend the great city. I walk its pavestones and see the cultures of the world, and I drink their wine and fuck their women. I see the march of civilization, and I earned my place within it. Up here in this dark corner of the northlands, these people squat in shit and scrape a living from frozen ground. They’ll live their short, miserable lives staring at this same landscape, praying to the ancient gods, and never know the world’s already passed them by.
As we’ve seen, however, Wood has already set up the irony in Sven’s statements. His first act in the story is one of brutality that gives the lie to his fine words. In fact, Wood shows in issue #5 that part of the reason that Sven survives in Constantinople is that he’s uncivilized – when Zoe’s life is in danger, he doesn’t hesitate to butcher the man who threatens her. He’s better at acting “uncivilized” than many of Gorm’s men, as he’s a far superior warrior, skills he learned in the civilized capital of the world. What he has learned in Byzantium is more efficient ways of killing people, as he shows in issue #7 when he unites the two sides of Norsemen to fight the Saxons. In issue #20, when the young bucks come to kill him, he shows that he is as savage and devious as ever. There’s nothing civilized about Sven – he’s a brutal killer who triumphs over Gorm not because he’s more civilized than his uncle, but because he’s smarter. Throughout the story, Wood implies that Sven’s vaunted “civilization” is worse than Gorm’s “savagery” – the killer in civilized Constantinople comes to Zoe with honeyed words, while Hakkar, at least, stands up to his enemies and fights them man to man. Even as Sven reminisces about Zoe, Wood introduces Enna, who kills as well as any man, and Thora, who finally refuses to be used anymore and dies like a true warrior. This tension between these two diametrically opposed yet eerily similar modes of life makes “Sven the Returned” and its coda even more interesting. Another fascinating way Wood and his collaborators show this tension is with Sven’s look. When he arrives in Grimness, McCaig shows him in a bright red tunic, the symbol of the Varangian guard but also, more importantly, the symbol of wealth and civilization, as it implies the use of dyes to create such a color. Sven sticks out in Grimness, where everyone is dressed in drab and functional clothing, living too close to the margin to worry about such things as bright colors. Sven’s red shirt, much like the use of purple in imperial Rome (and Constantinople), denotes wealth and status, while the Norsemen in Orkney have no use for those sorts of distinction. Gianfelice also changes Sven’s appearance as he moves away from the civilized society of Byzantium, mainly by giving Sven a beard over the course of the story. Shaving is a stylistic choice, and Sven being clean-shaven in Constantinople implies both a fashion trend and the time to groom. In the Orkneys, wearing a beard suggests protection from the weather and the lack of pretension about one’s appearance. Sven gradually becomes less “civilized,” but as Wood points out, perhaps he never was in the first place.
All of these themes are related, of course, and Wood ties them together well. Gianfelice does as well, as this is a marvelously drawn comic (and a well colored one, too, which isn’t always the case with Vertigo books). We’ve seen how Gianfelice helps Wood show the dichotomy between Sven and the inhabitants of Grimness with the red shirt and the beard, but he does it in other ways, too. When Sven first meets Gorm, Gianfelice draws a double-page spread of the two men facing off. Gorm has the requisite facial hair, with his beard braided and his hair flowing across his shoulders. His jewelry is wrought silver, almost brutal, while the brief glimpses we get of Byzantine jewelry show a much smoother, refined look. In issue #5, we also see a woman in Byzantium with a chain stringing from a pierced ear to a pierced nostril, an indulgence that would look foolish in the Orkneys. Enna and even Thora are rough-hewn – Thora’s shoulder blades are harshly defined – while Zoe is far smoother. Enna’s hair is unkempt, and Zoe’s is bouncy and silky. Gianfelice makes these differences very subtle, which makes them more effective. He’s wonderful at the sword fights, and the book is very violent and very bloody, but he’s also very good at visually explaining Wood’s themes. McCaig colors the Orkneys drably, for the most part, although he does make sure to highlight the stark beauty of the islands in some scenes by tinging everything with the red of the rising sun or the painful blue of the cloudless sky. Constantinople, as a large city in a far more sun-splashed part of the world, is colored much more brightly, giving it a lusher and more nostalgic hue. McCaig needs to use red quite a bit for all the blood, and those pages of violence, as nicely drawn as they are, become more effective thanks to the shocking use of so much red, showing not only the blood but the rage of the combatants. The artwork on the story works in very nice harmony with the writing, which is always a good thing.
“Sven the Returned/Sven the Immortal” is a fascinating story because Wood presents it as a simple revenge story, but it’s far more than that. Wood is very interested in the way people react to each other and their environments, and this story is a prime example of that. It’s a “Viking” story, to be sure, but the themes Wood explores are universal, which makes this a compelling read. The idea of being adrift in the world, the battle between spiritualism and atheism, the belief that what is modern is automatically better – these are problems people still struggle with, and Sven’s journey, despite taking place a thousand years ago in a part of the world unfamiliar to many, is one that strikes at our very cores. Northlanders, the series, features many great stories, and it’s nice that Wood began it with one of them.
“Sven the Returned” is collected in one trade (Northlanders volume 1), while issue #20 is collected in volume 3. The first volume came out before issue #20 shipped, but it would be nice if, in subsequent printings, DC collected “Sven the Immortal” with the first eight issues. It forms such a nice coda to the main story and shows the culmination of some of the themes Wood explored that it’s silly not to include it. Such is life, I suppose! And, as always, be sure to check out the archives for more Comics You Should Own. They won’t bite!