Northlanders #9-10

Written by Brian Wood
Art by Dean Ormston
32 pages, color
Published by Vertigo/DC Comics

I don’t think there’s any way about it—Brian Wood’s ongoing series Northlanders is a bit of a gamble. At a glance, it doesn’t seem like too much of a reach; a series about Vikings told as realistically as possible seems like a sure-fire hook for readers, right? What makes seem a little less so, though, is that each new story arc stars a completely different set of characters, and often in a different setting entirely. In many ways, it’s really a series of mini-series about different Vikings, all under a single umbrella header. With the first Northlanders story having come to a close, it seemed like a good a time as any to check out the comic and see how the switch would be handled—especially after jumping from an 8-issue story to a much shorter 2-parter. And the end result? Well, I’m still not sure how the market in general will treat Northlanders, but my mind is certainly made up.

It’s the year 793, in the small town of Lindisfarne, England, home of a church, monastery, and a general center for learning. It’s here that Edwin lives with his father and his older brother Cerdic, and prays to the Gods of the Northlanders for someone to save him from his plight. Tormented by his father’s zealous behavior towards both Christianity and the sword, Edwin can imagine nothing greater than for the Vikings to appear, destroy Lindisfarne, and take him away from this horrible place. And then, one day, it looks like Edwin’s prayers may actually be answered.

After writing a large eight-part epic to kick off the series (with a collection of that initial story due at the end of October), it’s nice to see that Wood can just as easily dial the scope of things back and tell smaller stories under the aegis of Northlanders. "Lindisfarne" is certainly very different than "Sven the Returned" but at the same time, they’re both clearly drawing on the same basic idea. Edwin in many ways feels like a very naive protagonist, wishing for the Vikings to come and rescue him from his life, but I appreciated that once things got rolling that we see that Edwin is much more aware of his surroundings and situation than we would think. Maybe it’s because the idea of the young boy getting what he wished for and finding disaster has been tackled elsewhere in a bit of a cliche, but it’s nice to see Wood avoid that pitfall and keep the story both on track towards its brutal and violent conclusion, and have some surprises and slight side-steps that keep the reader hopping. It would be easy to have the inevitable also be the predictable, but the two are certainly not mutually inclusive of each other here.

It’s also worth noting that Northlanders doesn’t shy away from violence. If one of Wood’s goals was to treat Vikings as a multi-faceted group of people, I think he’s succeeding here. The end result is that the Vikings here are not the dumb brutes that they’re so often portrayed as elsewhere. They’re crafty and smart, and it’s a reminder that they’d have to be in order to succeed beyond any initial advantages of strength and surprise. At the same time, though, Wood isn’t afraid to write a story that features a massacre courtesy of the Vikings; just because they’re smart does not mean that they aren’t afraid to use every asset available.

The art for Northlanders #9-10 is courtesy Dean Ormston, and as always I’m reminded how good of an artist he is, as well as wishing that we’d see more of his art on a regular basis. Ormston’s art is beautiful in its stark, brief nature; he’s able to do so much with just a small handful of lines. It’s funny how sometimes it’s the background details that really jump out from Ormston’s art as well, like the eerie crooked branches of trees that splinter and divide like fractals, or the pale crescent moon slowly rising in the background. Ormston provides the colors for "Lindisfarne" as well, which lets him really play with using those colors as part of his planning on every page. From the deep green skies over Lindisfarne and the church in the first issue, to the yellows that surround the arriving Viking fleet, each hue is carefully selected by Ormston with great effect.

I think the most important thing here, though, is that while "Sven the Returned" could have certainly existed as a mini-series within its own right, the same isn’t true for "Lindisfarne" and for that alone I’m glad that Wood took this approach for Northlanders. I like that it lets Wood take short breaks when he wants and tell stories that aren’t (and shouldn’t be) long enough for their own project, letting each arc hit just the right length. That said, though, if Wood ever wants to write some more about Edwin’s life, well, I certainly wouldn’t say no. With a new story arc beginning next month, and the first collection hitting stores in a month, if you’ve been waiting to give Northlanders a shot, now’s the perfect time to do so.

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