What can I say? Brian Wood writes a mean Viking story!
Published by DC/Vertigo, 8 issues (#21-28 of the ongoing series), cover dated December 2009 – July 2010.
I guess there are SPOILERS below. I mean, it’s not really a spoiler-y kind of story, and I know I didn’t spoil some things, but I certainly didn’t mind spoiling other things. So beware! Be aware!
The first thing you notice is the artwork.
You open the issue and see three panels: One shows three corpses, partially hidden in snow, surrounded by black trees on a white ground. The perspective is from above, so we see the splayed bodies and the trees rising up from the ground like rays of the sun. The second panel shows a white world with a thicket of black trees on the horizon. In the right foreground stand three gray trees, the foremost sporting a bloody handprint. Then, the third panel shows the Volga river, black water choked with corpses, indeterminate masses of flesh like a beaver’s dam, the eerily viscous water sucking them down. It’s horrifying, true, but it also sets the mood of “The Plague Widow” beautifully. This is a story of winter and death, and Fernandez establishes that wonderfully on the first page of issue #21.
Despite the fact that the artists on Wood’s Northlanders are top-notch, the surprising thing is that Fernandez, of all of them, perhaps does the most with the least. The entire story takes place in the winter, so Fernandez doesn’t get to show a beautiful landscape as Ryan Kelly did for Ireland in “The Cross + The Hammer.” The story takes place far from the wind-swept coasts of Scandinavia, so Fernandez doesn’t get to draw dramatic ocean or coastal scenes like almost every other Northlanders artist. He is constrained by Wood’s desire to tell the story of an isolated settlement in the middle of a harsh season, with snow blanketing the ground and everyone wrapped in furs.
Yet Fernandez turns this to his advantage – “The Plague Widow” is stunning, perhaps the most beautiful and primal of any Northlanders story, because Fernandez has to convey so much with so little. He’s conveying grand vistas of utter white (or gray, depending on the time of day). His two main male characters have thick beards covering their faces, cutting off much of their expressive powers (Gunborg’s beard is less restrictive, and he’s often a cheery psychopath, so Fernandez is able to do a bit more with him). But Fernandez does amazing things with these limitations. In issue #23, he gives us a giant panel showing the forest surrounding the settlement. Against a slate-gray sky that matches the snow on the ground, he draws trees – green in the foreground, black in the background – and a single, large puff of snow in the distance as the trees shatter under its weight. It’s so far away we see nothing, but the immensity of the moment is staggering. In issue #24, Gunborg takes some men and tries to reach a settlement further south. As they leave, Gunborg looks up and Fernandez shows the forest from his perspective – naked trunks reaching anemically skyward, forming a small circle of light through which the blank clouds peek. At the end of the issue, Gunborg returns from his mission, and Fernandez shows him, alone against an almost totally white background, staggering through the depths, triumphant. We almost believe he can defeat nature itself, even though it’s a false hope. Gunborg burns the great hall in issue #25, and Fernandez gives us a full-page spread, shrunken houses dotting the foreground and background, covered in white, with the giant hulk in the center, burning white-hot and belching tar-like smoke into the sky. The people are so insignificant in the face of such elemental violence as to be unrecognizable – the crosses in the graveyard next to the hall look as human as they do. Obviously, Fernandez does have other things to draw, and when he is asked to focus on the characters, he does an amazing job. His characters are unique, from Gunborg’s gap-toothed, squinty-eyed visage to Hilda’s steely gaze to Boris’s inscrutable gaze.
These are characters who have endured, and Fernandez does a marvelous job showing that, as when Hilda is forced to cross the settlement twice at different times without enough protection from the cold. The first time she does it, when Gunborg forces her to drag a tithe to the great hall, Fernandez shows her as bowed but defiant. The second time, Gunborg’s nephew has taken her child, and she radiates pain and rage that this has happened to her daughter and to her home. The first time, it emboldens Gunborg to abuse his power. The second time, it emboldens Boris to challenge Gunborg. Both times, Fernandez shows us in her face how the men would react the way they do. Of course, as with any Northlanders arc, there must be violence, and Fernandez is up to the task, delineating it with almost clinical precision. The other artists in the series – Davide Gianfelice, Dean Ormstrom, Ryan Kelly, Vasilis Lolos, Danijel Zezelj, Fiona Staples, Riccardo Burchielli, Becky Cloonan, Simon Gane, Matthew Woodson, Marian Churchland, Paul Azaceta, Declan Shalvey – all have a bit of a scratchier line than Fernandez does (even those who don’t have a scratchier line normally do so in this series), and that’s partly why Fernandez is such a good artist for this arc, because it makes his scenery look more pristine, contrasting it with the ugliness that’s occurring in the settlement. But it also means that his violence, while as horrific as any in the series, also looks somehow cleaner, as if nature is trying desperately to preserve the purity of a world covered with snow. This is true even when Gunborg takes over the settlement and begins a progrom in earnest – it’s horrible, but precise. It matches one of the themes of the book, that of calculated violence destroying the humanity of those who perpetuate it. Only rarely, when Gunborg or Boris or even Hilda loses control of their emotions does the violence become a bit more messy – when Boris and Gunborg fight for the future of the settlement and when Hilda attacks Jens because he took her daughter.
The fine, confident lines of Fernandez make the book far more effective than another artist, even a great one, would have made it. Wood always does a good job enlisting artists to help him. With “The Plague Widow,” he got almost the perfect one.
Fernandez’s slightly cartoonish artwork masks, somewhat, the fact that “The Plague Widow” is perhaps the most complex story Wood tells in the course of Northlanders. It’s exciting, of course, and if you so choose, you can read it as a brutal thriller, but there’s much more going on in it. At its core, it’s the story of a woman and her daughter surviving an ordeal. Hilda’s husband, who doesn’t even get a name, dies of the plague ravaging the settlement on the Volga early on in the first issue, and Hilda must somehow protect her daughter, Karin, from Gunborg, the ambitious second-in-command. At first, Hilda despairs for herself and Karin and tries to expose both of them to the plague, but when they survive, she realizes she must do something different if they are going to remain independent. Wood does a marvelous job showing how Hilda slowly changes into a woman of steel – in the first issue, she rages at Boris, the priest, who claimed that the plague was contagious. By the second chapter, however, she’s doing “man’s work” – slaughtering a goat – and standing up to Gunborg. This is the first time she walks across the settlement – Gunborg demands a tithe greater than what others are giving, because Hilda’s husband is dead and she can “spare” more than others. It’s blatant extortion, but Hilda doesn’t bow down to Gunborg, and she takes the tithe by herself instead of trusting it to Gunborg and his men. When a neighbor, Thorir, brings her food, she accepts but also makes it known that she can’t be his lover, because it would weaken her position – she’s realized where she stands in the community and won’t allow herself to be tied to a man. When Gunborg brings his men back from their scouting mission outside the settlement, Hilda nurses one of them after he gets sick and tries to get him to talk about what happened out in the wilderness, because Gunborg, of course, isn’t revealing anything. In issue #25, Jens, Gunborg’s nephew, attempts to rape Hilda (after he kills Thorir), but she has already become much tougher, and she fights him off … with help from Karin, who has learned well from her mother. She sews up Boris’s wound in issue #26, again showing how much tougher she is than when the plague began. The second time she walks across the settlement, she’s doing it to save Karin, and Wood shows us that the circumstances are even worse than the first time – the leader of the settlement is dead, Gunborg has taken over, and he’s established a reign of terror. Hilda also has to walk across with even less protection than she did the first time.
When she reaches Jens’s house, he’s drunk himself into a stupor, and she cuts his throat with less difficulty than when she slaughtered the goat. In the final chapter of the story, Wood shows how far both women have come – they leave the settlement and strike out on their own, and when Hilda finally becomes too weak to carry on, Karin is able to find a shelter and save her mother’s life. It’s a beautiful story of a mother and daughter surviving a horrific experience and becoming stronger and more independent people because of it. Medieval women were always more “liberated” than we might expect, but Hilda manages even more than that, and it’s impressive how Wood tells her and Karin’s story over the course of eight issues.
Wood isn’t just telling a story of a mother and daughter, however. The other grand theme is the breakdown of civilization in the face of isolation and fear. For the first seven issues, the reader is trapped inside the settlement with the principal characters – Wood cleverly doesn’t follow Gunborg to the other town, so that we only find out later exactly what he discussed with them. We see the breakdown in society clearly because Wood makes sure the reader experiences the claustrophobia and the paranoia of the inhabitants, so when Gunborg returns and takes over, the terror is palpable. Fernandez helps in this regard, as well, as I’ve pointed out – his landscapes seem to encroach on civilization little by little, until Gunborg takes over and it feels like something primal explodes out of the woods, turning men into animals. Wood shows how easily society falls apart – these people walk a fine line early in the story, as Gunborg begins to assert his dominance, and even in issue #21, Wood shows how dire their situation is. Boris, the priest, convinces the old man – who rules the settlement – to banish those stricken with the plague from the settlement, and Gunborg ruthlessly follows through. Once outside, the banished turn on each other, and it foreshadows the horror of the later issues.
Of course, this kind of story isn’t new in history – the besieged becoming less and less “human” is common, and while they’re not besieged by an enemy, the inhabitants of the settlement are living in a similar situation – but that doesn’t mean Wood doesn’t tell it effectively. The idea of the strong preying on the weak is also common in a siege situation, and Wood shows that very clearly. When I first read this story, my mind immediately went to the situation in Münster in the 1530s, but when I re-read it, I had just read a book about the wreck of the Batavia off the coast of Australia in 1629, and the way the islands where the survivors clung to life turned into a slaughterhouse. Gunborg doesn’t do anything unique, but Wood does a marvelous job showing how quickly law and order can break down and how easily the weak can become prey. It might not be the most effective example of the breakdown of civilization because Gunborg is a chained animal from the beginning of the story, so we’re not surprised when he breaks the chain and goes on a rampage, but the destruction of the settlement is still a terrifying tale … and it helps with Wood’s main theme, as Hilda and Karin need to figure out how to survive the pogrom.
Wood even takes some time to introduce other themes – usually through Boris and Gunborg, who stand as polar opposites in the story. Boris, the priest, knows that the plague is caused by “invisible wee creatures” – to use Gunborg’s dismissive description – and lobbies the old man to banish the sick so they will not infect the rest of the settlement. For whatever reason, Gunborg thinks this plan is stupid. This is not the last time the two men clash, and it leads to their final showdown in the snow outside Gunborg’s house. Boris even knows that fire will destroy the contagion. In issue #23, when the settlement spots three ships marooned in the ice and it turns out they’re full of sick marauders, he tells Gunborg that they must burn the ships (this is after men have repelled the invaders). Boris understands this, and Wood does an interesting thing later in the story – Gunborg’s burning of the great hall can be seen as a perverse “burning out” of the infection that he believes has entered the settlement.
Gunborg, in his own twisted way, is paring the settlement of the “sick” – those who are too weak to defend themselves against. Just because they can’t defend themselves against men with axes and swords instead of the plague doesn’t mean that Gunborg’s analogy doesn’t make a twisted kind of sense. Again, Wood brings the story back to the breakdown of society. Gunborg takes Boris’s message to heart, and the settlement suffers.
As with many medieval narratives and with Wood’s series, a lot of “The Plague Widow” centers around Christianity. The settlement is a Christian town, of course, but Hilda often considers it abandoned by God. When the men leave the settlement in issue #24 and try to make it to the next one south, Hilda narrates over a scene of them in the woods. “Where is the white Christ, on a night like this?” she wonders. “Why is he absent when needed the most? Is he testing us? As in the stories of the saints that the priests tell us? Why must we suffer so? While the laughter of the old gods rings in our ears?” She prefaces this by thinking, “The old ways, I suspect, will never fully leave us.” Wood doesn’t get much more explicit than that, because he prefers to show that Boris, the priest, will stand up for the rights of the weak, and thus show Gunborg how muscular Christianity works (Boris is a warrior, after all – he kills more than a few people in the course of the story). Only at the end of issue #27 does Wood make the Christian aspect of the tale a bit more explicit – Hilda wonders if Boris will die so that they might live, a clear Christological parallel. The tension remains, though – Boris, the priest and the “foreigner” (given his name, he’s probably Russian, which makes that epithet ironic coming from the settlers), represents the modern – in this case, Christianity. The townspeople are old-fashioned Christians, perhaps not even actual converts, just praying to the old gods under a new name. Wood sets up the priest as the voice of reason, and it’s a fascinating switch by Wood, as most modern readers would expect the Christian to be the backward, superstitious one.
Boris has access to Constantinople, perhaps, by way of the Volga (it drains into the Caspian Sea, which was a bit outside the Byzantines’ and even the Arabs’ sphere of influence in AD 1020, but it also flows close to the Don, which drains into the Sea of Azov and was certainly close to the great southern civilizations), and he is at least cognizant of some of the debates occurring in the urban centers of the south.
“The Plague Widow” is a classic story in the vein of something by Joseph Conrad or Jack London, with people battling nature and their own demons, close to the edge of slipping away from sanity and civilization. Hilda and Boris stand as sentinels against the terror, but they stem the tide by the slimmest of margins. It’s an adventure story in many ways, but like the works of so many others in this genre, there’s much more going on beneath the surface. Wood and Fernandez create this harsh world and populate it with people who are trying to scratch out a living, where the smallest weight can upset the equilibrium. The downward slide of the settlement into terror is horrifying, but Wood is able to show how close we all are to it, and that makes it, like the best stories in Northlanders, a remarkably modern story. “The Plague Widow” has been collected in a trade, of course, and like the other stories in Wood’s series, you can read it in a vacuum, enjoying it for what it is – a gripping story of the worst and the best of humanity and how people can triumph over evil, if only they have the strength to do so.
As usual, I direct you toward the archives for more Comics You Should Own. Why waste time with mediocre when you can read the best?