Alongside “The Massive” artist Garry Brown, Brian Wood returns to the Viking era of Norway in “The Black Road” #1, which kicks off a journey up the deadly, titular road. Unlike Wood’s previous “Northlanders” series, “Black Road” promises to stick with a protagonist; namely, the unreliable Magnus the Black.
Wood and Brown immediately drop us into a punishing environment, one where the Norsemen and the Christians wage a deadly war of conversion and resistance. The most deadly of those places is the Northern Road, referred to by some as the Black Road because of the death that litters its stretches. And so, of course, that’s where our protagonist Magnus the Black has been hired to take Cardinal Farina.
Wood plays his cards close to his chest in “Black Road” #1, giving us Magnus’s interior narration without revealing too much about him. We know his wife is dead, that he’s trying not to take a side in the war that’s raging around him and that he has few friends — but we don’t see too much of his history just yet. It’s clearly something that’s going to be doled out to us over the course of many issues. For the moment, though, he’s a typical stony-faced protagonist with just enough of an internal code that he’s not going to wander away from what he’s pledged to do.
Probably the best thing about “Black Road” #1 is the way Wood manages to avoid choosing sides in the Norse/Christian conflict. It would be easy to have one side look better than the other, or even for Magnus to have certain leanings. I appreciated how they’re both depicted as fairly brutal and dangerous folk, and that there’s not going to be a good or bad side, merely a winner and a loser. It’s sufficiently bleak and yet compelling as a setting.
I fell in love with Brown’s art during his run on “Catwoman,” and it’s great to see he’s gotten even better. His characters look craggy and shadowed, but they’re still full of expression and visual depth. Characters who are only on page for moments still get a complete character design and come across looking realistic and formidable. Additionally, when the attack along the Black Road comes, it’s just brutal. Brown and McCaig make the mud appear dank and slippery, and characters look positively beaten down as the attack continues. When Magnus erupts in anger, it’s hard to not be a tiny bit taken aback by his fury as Brown depicts it. Brown is a strong talent, and watching the way he uses the blacks of his inks to carve out images of trees and burning buildings is really impressive.
Though the story is solid, it’s Wood and Brown’s depiction of Norway that will ultimately drag me back for more. It’s a good first issue, and I want to see how the duo builds on it going forward. For now, we’re off to a good start. It’s nice to head back into the northern reaches again.