If you’re one of those people who read single issue reviews to help determine whether or not you should buy the trade paperback, I’ll give you a bit of advice right up front: you should by the second “Northlanders” trade, and you should stop reading this review as soon as possible. Because it’s impossible to talk about “Northlanders” #16 without spoiling things for you, and “The Cross + The Hammer” story arc works much better if you don’t know what’s coming at the end.
Brian Wood gives us a twist here that shakes the foundation of this six-issue story (and though he hinted at it in the finale of issue #15, here he solidifies that dramatic turn of events, leading us to realize, “but if that’s true, then…oh….wow.”)
Still here? Then I can only assume that (a) you’ve already read this issue and you want to read what someone else thinks about it, or (b) you want to see how juicy the spoiler is before you decide if the trade is worth your hard-earned and/or ill-gotten cash.
Before we get to the shocking reveal, though, it’s worth pointing out that I would have probably recommended this “Northlanders” arc even if it didn’t have such a dramatic reversal at the end. It would have been a slight recommendation, and though I’ve neglected to officially review the past handful of issues for CBR, I would have probably given them around three stars each. They’ve been good, and artist Ryan Kelly has been doing some interesting work here, giving us a different look than we saw on his absurdly-not-Eisner-nominated “Local” pages. But though I championed “Northlanders” early and thought the opening “Sven the Returned” arc was wonderful, I had been a tiny bit disappointed with “The Cross + The Hammer” because it was four merely good issues in a row, without much apparent complexity or depth. It was Magnus on the run with Ragnar chasing him down, following a path of bloody corpses until the inevitable showdown between the two savage men. The only respite from the juggernaut of death was Magnus’s relationship with his young daughter, Brigid. So for four issues this was basically a simplistic version of “Road to Perdition,” but with Vikings. It was good, but nothing more.
The relationship between Ragnar, Magnus, and Bridgid took on a radically different perspective by the end of issue #15, though, and that new perspective is confirmed in the pages of this newest issue.
Magnus has been alone the whole time, carrying on a “Savior of the People” rampage against invading forces while hallucinating about his daughter. Brigid has long since grown up. The invading forces have long since established themselves as the law of the land. Magnus lives in the past, mentally, and his quasi-Romantic quest to liberate his people is nothing more than a figment of his imagination. Magnus, seen as the freedom fighter for the first four-and-a-half issues of this arc is revealed to be a sad, lonely man fighting a war that has long since been lost.
In “Northlanders” #16, the now-grown Brigid is asked to help put a stop to her father’s killing spree, and her words with her father break his heart, and ours. The final image of the issue, a Ryan Kelly splash page, captures everything that this arc was really about: the adult Brigid in the foreground, tears streaming down her face, as her father lies slain in the background — an undignified death, turning everything we once thought about the story on its head.
Brian Wood’s “Northlanders” continues to be one of the best monthly comics on the stands today, and the conclusion of “The Cross + The Hammer” arc proves it.