Comics author Brian Wood has cultivated a vast readership of both fans and critics with his renowned Vertigo series "DMZ," a fiercely relevant story about the plight of a people caught up in a world of political corruption, ideological warfare, and human suffering. Through the prism of hopeful, true-to-life characters and a not unappealing brand of didacticism, Wood's work in a nearly dystopian, fictional comic book setting is an ongoing, comprehensive examination of real-life problems our present-day Media can barely begin to articulate.
Brian Wood's latest project pursues a similarly pertinent goal, featuring compelling, modern characters in stories about religious strife, apocalyptic precursors, technological sea changes and post-millennial tensions; all the comforts of home. It's called "Northlanders," it debuts this December, and it's set one thousand years in the past. CBR News spoke with Wood about the new Vikings series and what makes the first millennium sound so familiar.
"I'm trying to blend equal parts historical fiction, violent swordplay, and dark, edgy drama," Brian Wood told CBR News. "Speaking as a fan of the [Vikings] genre, and not trying to single anyone else out, I've never seen a comic on Vikings or anything close to it that I've enjoyed. So 'Northlanders' is me trying to create that book, the perfect Viking series, if I may be so arrogant!"
"Northlanders'" first arc, "Sven the Returned," tells the story of a Viking called Sven, an erstwhile prince living it up far away from home. "Sven is Norse and living in Constantinople, part of the Emperor's Varangian Guard, a real-life squad of elite Vikings hired as mercenaries," Wood explained. "But when Sven learns of his father's death he journeys back home to Northern Scotland's Orkney Islands to cash out on his inheritance. He doesn't want to be Lord himself - in fact he hates where he comes from and who his people are. He loves being the worldly, cosmopolitan sort, living in the city at the center of the world and enjoying all the perks and luxuries of his position, and the idea of life in a grubby, cold, superstitious backwater settlement like his Orkney village does not appeal. But he heads back to collect his father's wealth and whatever else he can find, with plans to quickly return to the Varangian Guards and buy himself a promotion."
Naturally, homecoming doesn't go as smoothly for Sven as the Viking prince would like. His hometown and former friends – even his family – are living under the tyrannical rule of Sven's ruthless uncle Gorm, a darkly comic old fiend who's even raised Sven's childhood friend, the beautiful Thora, under his dubious "care."
"Violent and supersticious and panicky, Gorm likes to rely on his old mystic and the reading of the runes rather than the advice of his trusted head of security Hakkar, who is Sven's equal in battle," said Wood. "Gorm's running the place like the mafia, and Sven's arrogance and prejudice earns him a severe beating and he is left for dead in the ruins of his childhood farm. So that's his choice - cut his losses and go back home to his cushy life in the Middle East, or take out his Uncle and get that money?"
Probably informing Sven's eventual decision is the feral "Hunter's Daughter," also known as Enna. A half-wild, native Scot who roams the countryside, Enna is "Northlanders'" signature Brian Wood character; a feisty young person, largely a loner and in possession of a remarkable talent – in this case, sniping Viking invaders with her father's longbow, "a weapon not so common at the time and in those parts," said Wood.
Indeed, Wood has become a self-taught expert in all things Viking and period specific to "Northlanders," including weaponry. "A year and a half of serious research," Wood said. "This is where my OCD really kicks in, and as my wife can attest to, any excuse I have to buy a book I will take. The collection of books on the subject I've accumulated over the last year and a half would be the envy of any university library. It's complete overkill, probably, but I did this same thing with 'DMZ,' just front-loaded my brain with as much research as I could it into each day and its carrying me through really well."
In preparation for "Northlanders," Wood even traveled to Iceland itself. "I have already been to Orkney and all over Northern Scotland, which is where the first Northlanders story takes place, and Iceland is rich, rich, rich in Viking history," Wood said. "We spent a week there, and the geek in me got a lot of thrills walking in the same footsteps as the people I read about in the Sagas. I want to go back to Scotland, and hopefully to Norway and Denmark."
On the surface, "Northlanders" is a radical departure from the work Wood's known for; his street-level (and sub-level) stories filled with infectiously idealistic and startlingly authentic young people with extraordinary talents trying to save the world. As it turns out, the Vikings and their period of history and culture have always been attractive to the author.
"Vikings are my geek thing," Wood confessed. "I am not so into superheroes or zombies or 'Battlestar Galatica,' etc. I always feel on the outs in groups of friends and colleagues when they start talking about pop culture or genre themes like that, because I really have no access. I didn't even start reading comics until I was 25 or so. But Vikings are the one exception, if you want to call them a genre thing. I've always liked them, always been fascinated, going back to childhood. I wish I could remember the start of it all, because its not like there was a lot of it in a kid-friendly format back then.
"A lot of it is stylistic, the visual side of the history," Wood continued. "Scary guys with swords, black boats with dragon heads on them, frozen moors, lissom Nordic women, those helmets with the eye-holes, gods of thunder, death, and sex. It really is a no-lose combination for a kid in elementary school. And those women? Fierce 'shield maidens' who would pick up swords and fight the enemy when the men had fallen - how cool is that?"
"Of course they were all very violent, horrible conquerors, rapists, murderers, and thieves. As an adult, now, doing the research I can see that, as well as appreciate the time in history and the circumstances that made all of that understandable and, in the end, an important part of history. And I have to say, especially seeing what came afterwards with the Crusades, Imperialism and colonialism and the wars of the last few decades, its almost refreshing that the Viking expansion was based solely on need, the need of farm-able land, food, and trade routes rather than any sort of ideological mission."
It is along those lines that "Northlanders" reveals itself, like "DMZ" before it, as an all too relevant look at a contemporary planet Earth. "At its core, the story is about the old vs. the new," Wood explained. "The Vikings were forcing change on Europe, opening it up to trade and settlement, pulling Europe out of its dark ages, albeit at the point of a sword. But hot on their heels was the growing Christianity movement, threatening to replace the 'old ways,' the ancient pagan religions and gods.
"Sven is the perfect embodiment of the 'new,' a globalized (such as it was at the time) person, exposed to all the known cultures of the world, clashing violently with the past, both his own personal past and the past as a concept, these old ways, the old gods and rituals and way of life.
"People at the time, a little bit like we did a few years ago, really thought the world was going to end with the millennium. Leading up to this was no doubt very tense. Change was afoot, the old gods seemed to be dying, these Vikings were everywhere, and on top of it all, Haley's Comet was doing a fly-by of Earth in 989AD, quite close, actually -- close enough that it burned in the sky like a second sun, day and night for three months. Imagine what people thought about that?"
"Y: The Last Man's" Massimo Carnevale provides painted covers for "Northlanders," and illustrating the series is Italian newcomer Davide Gianfelice, who landed the prestigious Vertigo gig after an exhaustive artist hunt. "I knew what I didn't want, but I wasn't sure what I wanted in an artist, exactly," said Wood. "We tried out a few artists, all of whom were great, but something wasn't gelling with the story in each of the cases.
"Davide came as a suggestion from Will Dennis, my editor, who seems to have all of Italy locked down in terms of talented comic book artists. His first samples struck me not only because he is one of the most perfect artists I have seen in comics when it comes to anatomy and pure draftsmanship, but also because he did a lot of research on his own right at the start and I felt confident that he could handle whatever I threw at him. I already have a great working relationship with another Italian, Riccardo Burchielli, on 'DMZ.' I really like the way European comics look."
"Northlanders" marks yet another in a line of publishing experiments for Wood, who's released work in virtually every form a comic book can take, from digest to original graphic novel to monthly ongoing to done-in-one single issues and beyond. For "Northlanders," Wood intends to innovate upon his "DMZ" format, which is an ongoing series of complete arcs with stand-alone, guest-illustrated single issues in-between, all starring the same core cast.
"What I came up with for 'Northlanders' was an ongoing series of limited stand alone stories," explained Wood. "Meaning each story arc of 'Northlanders' is an 8-issue story and then everything changes. The next arc starts with an entirely new cast, new setting, new location, and most likely a new art team (we'll rotate them). The link holding the series together is the idea, the genre, the style of the book. I figured if I could do this with 'Demo,' where everything is new all over again each issue and the book gained readers, doing it every 8 issues should be a snap.
"In the end, as these arcs are collected into trades, you'll have a group of 'Northlanders' books that work just as well on their own and read out of order as they do as a normal sort of Vertigo series. A new reader could pick up the third 'Northlanders' volume and enjoy it and never have to know there were two that came before. Again, Vertigo has been great in letting me try this, even though it kind of bucks their system a bit."
Being a Brian Wood comic, "Northlanders" distinguishes itself from other similarly set historical epics like "Age of Bronze" and "300" in a number of pronouncedly modern ways, such as foregoing the occasionally wearisome language that some readers may associate with literary depictions of the era. "Those titles are interesting comparisons to make because I think Northlanders falls perfectly in between," Wood said. "I am not going for the perfect historical fiction of 'Age of Bronze' and neither am I going the '300' route (I don't even know what to call it... 'video game' route?)
"'Northlanders' is set in a certain place and at a certain point in history and I strive for as much accuracy as I can manage, but the stories are not based on real people or real events. 'Northlanders' runs parallel but separate to actual events.
"And we are going for the type of energy in the action you saw in '300,' as much as that can translate into a comic book, but there is a lot more meat on the bones. There is a solid backbone of a story that the action is a part of, and not the other way around. As much as I enjoyed '300,' it was a movie where the fighting was really the centerpiece.
"I tend to compare Northlanders to HBO's 'Rome,' which is about actual people and events, but what I see in common with 'Northlanders' is the maturity of storytelling, the mood of it all, which is really why 'Northlanders' fits in so well at Vertigo, despite it maybe appearing on the outside to be way off mission for them. It's also why I've always loved Vertigo as a reader - the stories are smart, sophisticated and mature in a way that no one else seems to do. I've seen the term 'the HBO of comics' applied to a lot of companies, but it really only fits at Vertigo."
Wood plans to catalog much of his historical research and reading lists on northlanders.net, an official site featuring additional information, downloads and other content as the series progresses. The site currently features an image from Wood's travels in Iceland in preparation for "Northlanders," which debuts December 5 from Vertigo.
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