As Brian Wood has settled into the “Northlanders” milieu, he’s fallen a bit further into the trap that has sapped some of the life from “DMZ”: the details of the world become more important than the characters. “Northlanders” is still a very good series — “The Plague Widow” packs a chilly emotional punch — but sometimes Wood can let the setting overshadow the characters. And that’s happening in some of the recent issues of “Northlanders,” including this one.
That doesn’t mean this issue is burdened with unnecessary exposition or descriptions of “The Settlement A.D. 1020,” it just means that he hasn’t completely convinced us of the reality of these characters. Or why we should care about their struggles. He focused so much on establishing strong characters in the first dozen issues of “Northlanders,” that maybe this arc suffers in comparison. But it does suffer some, even if it’s still a story worth reading.
Most of what makes the story worth reading rests in crisp storytelling from both Wood and artistic collaborator Leandro Fernandez. Issue #25, part five of the eight-part “Plague Widow” arc, moves deftly around the settlement, showing the political interplay between factions, and the personalities that drive the action. Wood gives us slivers of characterization, but he largely relies on the power of Fernandez’s imagery. And this is a showcase for his art.
You may have seen Leandro Fernandez’s work before — he’s done plenty of mainstream comics in the past, and worked for an extended run on “Punisher MAX” with Garth Ennis. But you haven’t seen it like this. Or, at least, I haven’t. In “Northlanders,” Fernandez uses a clear pen line and bold black shadows. It’s a bit like the work of Eduardo Risso, but with a stronger sense of the full figure in motion. His characters are lithe and dynamic, layered with padded fabrics and armor. One striking image of the bald archer, Boris — giving a word of caution while lurching toward his next hiding spot, with the icy village behind him, and a wisp of his breath in the air — sets the tone for shifty unease and suspense. It’s a strong sequence in a great-looking comic.
There’s an emptiness at the core of “The Plague Widow” that has kept it from being one of the best arcs in the series, but perhaps the emptiness is one of loss, of sorrow. Because that’s what the Plague Widows themselves feel, and as they stand strong amidst the attacks and manipulations by the vicious men around them, they cannot afford to feel much emotion beyond that. Although the rage is growing, as the finale of this issue establishes, and that may help bring an emotional charge to this story. So the horror of the conflict will matter more to the reader. So their fate, whatever it is, will resonate.