Brian Wood Talks Northlanders

Since its debut in the early winter of 2007, Brian Wood's ongoing Vertigo series "Northlanders" has attracted critical attention for its genre-bending exploration of the Viking world. Opening with the ambitious, eight-issue "Sven the Returned" arc (with art by Davide Gianfelice), Wood upended expectations with his use of contemporary language, bleak backdrops, and a sophisticated look at the relationship between modernity and the ancient world. It was heady stuff for a Viking comic, but Wood didn't hesitate to include grisly acts of violence, either.

"Northlanders" could have easily been billed as "the Viking comic for people who don't like Viking comics -- but also for the people who do."

After the complex prodigal son story in "Sven the Returned," Wood seemingly reinvented the series in issue #9 by retelling the story of the attack on Lindisfarne from the point of view of a young boy. The Lindisfarne event is historically regarded as the birth of the Viking Age, and Wood used historical fact to tell a story about faith and loss.

Then, two issues later, he jumped to a completely different setting to tell of a brutal cat-and-mouse game between a rogue Irishman and the entrenched Viking forces. With each arc, "Northlanders" becomes a new type of Viking comic.

And Brian Wood has plenty of new stories lined up for 2009, as he told CBR News in this in-depth interview.

CBR: "Northlanders" has some pretty exciting developments coming up this year, but can you take us back to the beginning and explain how a "Viking Prince" proposal eventually turned into "Northlanders?"

Brian Wood: Ha, yeah, I guess it did all start with the Viking Prince. I was meeting with [editor] Steve Wacker, who was with DC at the time, and he was wracking his brain trying to think up some old property I could, for lack of a better word, re-invent. He brought up the Viking Prince, and while that didn't feel right to me, it did trigger something in my brain. I always liked Vikings, but it had never occurred to me before that maybe I could write about them.

A few weeks later, my Vertigo editor Will Dennis asked me to pitch another project, and strongly suggested I work outside of my comfort zone for this one. I still had Vikings in my head, and I remember slowly turning in my office chair, scanning my bookshelves. My office is almost entirely walled with books and DVDs, and I often scan the spines looking for inspiration. My eyes rested on the DVD set "The Yakuza Papers," which is this series of post-war Japanese gangster movies that are so wonderfully bleak and violent. Vikings. Gangsters. Crime. Violence. The very first thing I wrote about Northlanders was: "A nihilistic crime saga set in A.D. 870, when much of England was under Viking rule."

By the time I was writing the first script, I dialed the nihilism back a bit, as well as the most common tropes that go along with the crime genre. It's all still there, but I think its more accessible. I mean, I love "The Yakuza Papers," but it can be really hard to watch, really depressing and ugly, and I never particularly felt good after watching it. When I write bleak stories, I usually try and have some kind of hopeful element in it somewhere, even if it's unconventional in execution.

I think "Northlanders" is a crime book in the same general sense that something like "Scalped" or "100 Bullets" is, rather than something more straightforward like pulp noir or detective fiction or Cosa Nostra.

But why stick with Vikings, then?

What interests me about Vikings is not only who they were, but where they lived and what they represented; how they changed the world. 1000 AD, roughly where I set my first story arc, represents the ending of one world and the birth of another. The Vikings, expansive travelers and traders and conquerors, really pulled Europe out of its dark ages and into something more modern and worldly. Granted, they used pretty excessive violence to do it, but if there is any one thing to admire in that, it's that they were not driven by any sort of religious or cultural ideology. Their goal in conquering a land was not to make the natives worship their gods, but rather just to find land a with resources to grow. In most cases they happily assimilated into the native populations in order to achieve that.

How did "Northlanders" end up becoming structured like an anthology series, with each arc dealing with a different region of the Viking world?

I was already working on "DMZ," which is a normally-sort-of- structured ongoing book, and I was seeing what that was like. I was also writing "Local," and that, along with "Demo," represented the other end of the spectrum, format-wise. "Northlanders" sits in the middle. It's an ongoing monthly book, but it's built with self-contained, independent story arcs, complete little stories. As far as I was concerned, it was the best of both worlds. From a marketing standpoint, it had some interesting features: regular jumping-on points, a better chance of a wider audience if these individual stories were varied enough, and collected editions that could be read in any order. The rotating art teams went along with that.

Each of the three arcs so far has not only focused on a different set of characters, but they have been examples of different genres, one might say. They are all set against a Viking backdrop, but it seems like you're reinventing the series with each new storyline. How much do you take that into account when planning these arcs? How do you decide what type of story should come next in the overall scheme of things, if there is a kind of overall scheme?

There is no overall scheme, I don't think. Just a list of story ideas and historical events I wanted to deal with. I think, in the end, "Northlanders" will have covered the Viking Age pretty well. I wrote "Lindisfarne," an account of the raid that sort of started it all, historically, and in time I will write a story about the lost Greenland settlement, which was the end of all Vikings, forever. I'm skipping around in time a lot, but it's like placing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle - you don't start in the upper left and solve a jigsaw puzzle row by row. You do it randomly, but as you go the full picture slowly clarifies.

At the end of "Northlanders," I will have written a comprehensive look at the whole historical era. If I can be so bold as to say this, it'll be like a second set of Sagas, the "lost" Sagas.

I am also deliberately trying to avoid the norms of the genre. I knew immediately I would not be dealing with mythology in the book, at least not in anything beyond treating it as folky superstition. I also have yet to set a story in the Viking homelands. Everything's been set in the lands they invaded, instead (although that's mostly because my research is stronger there). The next big arc will be set in a small village off the Volga, near the Caspian Sea. Again, not what people think of when they think about Vikings, but Vikings did live there.

In the future, I'll set stories in Iceland, in Greenland, and in native Norway and Denmark. Probably not North America. For some reason, those Viking stories never appealed to me. It may just feel too close to home. I prefer more "exotic" locales, personally.

What's your process for working with your artists on this series, and how often do you know who you'll be working with before you start writing?

I always know who the artists is before I write anything, because I do think that, even at a subconscious level, a writer customizes a story for the artist; playing to their strengths and weaknesses.

You famously collaborated with Ryan Kelly on the critically acclaimed "Local," which received the hardcover treatment last year, and his "Northlanders" story arc is wrapping up this winter. Was anything different about the collaboration this time? Did you find yourself trying to push him to see how far you could stretch him artistically, or was it simply a matter of wanting to work with someone of Ryan's talent again?

I always want to work with Ryan. We've been working together, almost continuously, since mid 2005 when we started on "Local." It was a given that I would ask him to draw a "Northlanders." We get along great, personally and professionally, and I think our work compliments each other.

It's been different on "Northlanders," though, since the subject matter is obviously so different. I think we're seeing less of the "New York Four" Ryan Kelly and much more of the "Lucifer" Ryan Kelly, which makes total sense. But there is a real human element to this arc -- which hasn't concluded yet, so I am being careful in what I say, but the last chapter is a rather epic emotional gut punch and it's primarily with that in mind that I wanted Ryan to draw it. I could see it in my mind, by his hand, well before I even wrote it.

Ryan Kelly's arc ends with issue #16, and you have some great artists coming in on issues #17 and 18. What can you tell CBR readers about those two issues?

These are two single-issue stories, two one-shots. The first is an ambitiously titled story called "The Viking Art of Single Combat," and it's just as ambitious in deed as in word. Using a 22-page swordfight as context, I run down the theories and tactics used during that time in history. I imagine a cross between the visuals of Vagabond and the language of something like Warren Ellis's "Crecy," but probably more detailed than that. Certainly wider in scope. Something for the History Channel set. Vasilis Lolos is drawing that one. He's drawn "Pirates Of Coney Island," "The Last Call," "Pixu," and "5," for which he won an Eisner.

The next is "The Shield Maidens," which takes the folktale of the Valkyries, the women warriors, and grounds it firmly into reality -- takes the mythology right out of it. As you can imagine, it deals with the women of a village and what they do when all the men have been killed in a siege. We'll have Danijel Zezelj drawing this.

Any chance of characters from earlier arcs making a return appearance? Sven, perhaps?

Sven will return, under the title "Sven The Immortal," and of course Davide Gianfelice will draw it. I hope it'll be soon, within the next six months, but it all depends on the schedules. Right now I have issues #19 and #20 of the series planned for Sven.

What do you have planned for "Northlanders" later this year?

After these short stories, I am working on an outline for the next longer arc, which will be at least six issues and possibly eight. I had started gathering information and writing notes for what I thought could be a prose novel about the Black Death, but for a variety of reasons I am starting to think this idea would be better served as an arc in "Northlanders." It couldn't be about the Black Death, since that happened way later, but I found some records of minor outbreaks and sicknesses I could use as a starting point. Like I said already, this would be set in what is Russia today. I believe Leandro Fernandez is going to draw it.

How much do you think the current social/political climate affects your Viking stories? Most of your other work is so directly keyed into the "now" that one wonders if there isn't an allegorical message in your "Northlanders" stories as well. Do you see it that way at all, or is historical fiction a different beast entirely?

I think it's all a crucial part of "Northlanders," and I think its what links the book to me, to my identity as a writer. It's what makes "Northlanders" make sense with the rest of what I write. In broad terms, I am taking themes of today and placing them in history and contrasting and comparing and finding similarities and imagining how they would have played out differently in a different world, so to speak. Religion, obviously. Culture war, identity issues, racism, bigotry, invasion, occupation. Coming up in that plague story: xenophobia, torture, terrorism and the prosecution of terrorism, as well as sexism.

My goal is to have the book work on that level, but also as a piece of ripping historical(-esque) fiction. I never want it to not be fun, and even if a reader was not interested in thinking about these topical themes I just mentioned, if they want to just read a book about dudes beings speared through the throat and bad-asses stomping around on a frozen lake or whatever, this book can work for them.

Any final words for readers -- or prospective readers -- of "Northlanders?"

On the subject of the modern language used in "Northlanders," particularly objections from readers to the "modern" cursing: An old acquaintance Arni Beck, Icelander and product of a thousand years of Viking DNA, wanted me to pass this along: "When you get those emails, just tell them to go to a Viking country. The Vikings will then tell them to shut the fuck up."

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