Writer: Brian Wood
Artist: Davide Gianfelice
Colorist: Dave McCaig
Letterer: Travis Lanham
Cover: Massimo Carnevale
By Michael David Sims
05 December 2007 — Anyone who's listened to Earth-2.net: The Show or visited the Earth-2.net forums knows I'm not Brian Wood's biggest fan. Saying nothing of his writing, my problem with the man stems from the standoffish, dare I say arrogant attitude he's presented at comic book conventions. When a creator presents himself in an unfavorable light, I find it hard to separate his public persona from his craft. Instead of seeing his comics as being independent from him, I see the creator and the comic books he creates as one creature. Worse still, sometimes I see the creator before the comic. And that's the case whenever I see DMZ on the shelf: it isn't a comic book created by Brian Wood, it is Brian Wood. So all of that indy arrogance he oozed last I saw him on a panel (Wizard World Chicago 2006), I see dripping from DMZ.
When his next Vertigo project, Northlanders, was announced, I was none too happy. A mature Viking action / adventure book sounded cool, but, again, I was putting the man before the comic — or, at the time, the concept. No matter how good the preview art was, I told myself, I wasn't going to give it a look.
Then I saw the preview art, and despite my initial reservations I had to admit that it looked good. Still, I was reluctant to buy it because of the writer. As I wrote at the Earth-2.net forums, "I can't line the man's pockets with my money." So the refusal to buy or even try the book was still pressed into my brain.
Then I came home Tuesday night and found the first issue of Northlanders sitting in my mailbox. Yes, DC mailed me a physical copy of the comic book — an early copy, no less. Upon opening the envelope I exclaimed, "Oh no!" Jenny saw what I held and chuckled. "You have to review it," she half laughed, half sung.
Swallowing my anti-Brian Wood pride, I sat down to read Northlanders #1 almost right away. If DC was kind enough to send me the issue, I thought, at the very least I can give the book a fair shake.
And you know what? This is a damn good book!
The first thing you'll notice are Dave McCaig's colors. Northlanders opens with a sparse splash page of two Viking ships sailing away from the fading horizon. Though the page is mostly green — with the two ships serving as brown specks, like eyes set too closely together — the colors pop. They weren't laid down haphazardly; you can see a refined craft here. As the horizon melts into the sea the gritty greens become darker and darker, warning us of what's ahead.
As we turn the page the violence that's inherent to a Viking story begins. Death fills the seas just as blood permeates the air, leaving a red haze over the green and amber sky. A lesser colorist wouldn't have thought to add this touch. A lesser colorist wouldn't have laid a blue-grey sheen over Sven and his shipmates as he sailed home, signifying a sense of hope and foreshadowing loss. A lesser colorist would have rendered Sven's uneasy companion in drab colors, not a bright yellow meant to imply that he's unaccustomed to battlefield graveyards. A lesser colorist wouldn't have cast a large, grey shadow over the impoverished village of Grimness. A lesser colorist wouldn't have hued the night sky with a green aurora while, once again, laying that hopeful / foreboding blue-grey on Sven. Nor would he have colored the closing splash page in a similar manner as the one which opened the book. But this is Dave McCaig we're talking about, a man who knows and obviously loves his craft. Each month in New Avengers he adds the finishing touches to Leinil Yu's rough pencils, giving the book it's unique, urban flavor. And though Northlanders is far from urban, it's just as gritty — thanks to McCaig.
Davide Gianfelice's fluid, European pencils aren't lost behind McCaig's beautiful colors. Quite the contrary: they're enhanced by the colors. Setting the colors aside, pretending Northlanders is a black and white comic book, Gianfelice's work would still shine. As noted before, the opening and closing pages are very sparse when it comes to details, but they tell such a story.
We open on the high seas, just as Sven's ship is about to engage in battle with another Viking vessel. Besides a few clouds, the two wooden ships are all we see. In other words, Sven's life is a smooth, open book. However, as the book comes to a close, a distant fire set by Sven is surrounded by rocky terrain. In just a few short weeks, Sven has gone from cruising through life to this: sleeping along the mountainside, his future finally cast in stone. It's a beautiful dichotomy, the opening and closing pages. And though I'm sure much credit has to be handed to Brian Wood for scripting it as such, it's Davide Gianfelice's pencils that perfectly executed the scenes.
Being a Viking book, we know to expect violence, and, once again, Gianfelice delivers. In a scant two pages Sven's men have won a frantic, bloody battle, leaving us in awe at the sheer brutality of these men. Nothing else illustrates this better than Sven's blood-soaked hand as he approaches a helpless messenger. Gianfelice's illustrations coupled with McCaig's colors bring this one panel to life, while telling us everything we need to know about Sven: he's heartless, vicious and takes no prisoners. Further renderings of Sven show off his smug arrogance, too. No matter the odds, his face is always plastered with a slight "What the hell do I care?" / "I'm better than you" smile. Around him the privileged openly mock his self-importance, while the downtrodden never lift their eyes. It's touches like these that breathe life into a comic book. It's one thing to tell us a character is smug or disdainful or beaten to the edge, it's another to show it — and Davide Gianfelice takes every opportunity to show us the life that these characters teem with.
For me, a Vertigo comic succeeds or fails on the longevity of its creative team. If Gianfelice and McCaig continue on Northlanders, at the very least it will be one of the best looking comic books on the market today.
So what of Brian Wood's writing?
What can I say? The man's penned a compelling story filled with despicable characters. No matter who wins the battle between Sven and his uncle, it's the villagers they oversee who will suffer. Neither man seems to care for them; it's the money and power and land they want. It's not easy writing a story filled with unlikable leads, but Wood does just that here. Where he succeeds and others have failed is in the glimmer of hope he adds to Sven. Despite his attitude and rush for riches, there's a sense that Sven will become a better man along the way. Journeys change people, and Wood is aware of that. If you look at Garth Ennis' Preacher, where Jesse Custer begins is not where he ends, and I foresee a similar change in Sven's character and attitude as Wood's Northlanders builds towards its final destination.
Northlanders, being an ongoing series, could have taken its time telling Sven's journey from his ship to his uncle's keep; in this modern age of comics, it wouldn't have been unreasonable to spend two, three or more issues before Sven's foot touched his homeland. Instead of following that trend, Wood paces his story so that things happen quickly, yet never feel rushed. After the opening battle we jump ahead six weeks. Turn the page and an undisclosed amount of time has passed. Turn the page again and Sven is in the settlement of Grimness, his cloak and shield discarded. Therein we find stories: what happened during those six weeks, how long did he travel on foot, what happened to his protective clothing? Instead of feeding us such details, Wood allows us to fill in the gaps with our own tales. Good writers get to the point without bogging us down in unnecessary details; good writers allow their readers to fill in some less important gaps.
First issues are crucial to the success of a series. They have to be brimming with characterization and story while hinting at the future, but they can't give away too much. Enough has to be held back to ensure readers will purchase subsequent issues. It's a fine line, but Wood treads it well.
Thanks to this single issue of Northlanders I have begun to rethink my "creator before the comic" stance. And despite my initial misgivings, I trust that Brian Wood will treat these characters well. There's very obviously a deep love for this subject matter swimming in his heart, because it shines on every page. Without hesitation I highly recommend Northlanders #1. Series like this don't come along often — when they do, they need to be embraced.