The Viking Chronicles: Brian Wood Talks Northlanders

Brian Wood Talks Northlanders

Northlanders #18, on sale this week

Vikings may be stereotyped as axe-wielding brutes with a horned helmet, and while it’s not to say that some might not have been – there’s more to Vikings than what you might first think. And in the pages of the ongoing comic series Northlanders, writer Brian Wood and an array of international artists have chronicled warriors, bodyguards, monks, guerilla warriors and even Norse women, mothers and wifes.

In the currently running two issue story arc entitled “The Shield Maidens”, the folklore of Viking valkyries are brought to bear as a group of women who are the last survivors of their town are left to fend for themselves against an incoming horde. And in the upcoming twentieth issue scheduled for August, Northlanders returns to its roots with a look at the latter days of the series original protagonist, Sven. In the inaugural storyarc which spanned the title’s first eight issues, the once-exiled Viking Warrior had returned to his homeland and claimed his inheritance – by will and by blood. In this new story, Sven is now many years older, living on a remote island away from the mainland and it’s troubles. But Sven’s story has become legend – and some enterprising young men want to become legends themselves by ending one.

Newsarama: Good morning, Brian. Let’s talk Vikings, shall we? [laughs]

Brian Wood: [laughs]

NRAMA: In issue 20 you’re returning to the character of Sven, last seen in the first story-arc. With this series intended to be a series of stand-alone stories, what led you to return back to Sven?

BW: It's not going to be the norm, but I figured that if I had a good enough idea I could revisit characters. In this case, I did have ideas. Sven was originally designed as an old man, a guy returning to his home at the end of his life. For a lot of reasons we changed him to a younger guy but I never lost the image of him as a leathery old warrior veteran, and I still want to write that. Plus I loved working with Davide and this is a perfect chance for a reunion.

NRAMA: Yes, David Gianfelice – the artist of the inaugural Northlanders storyarc, about Sven.

BW: Who else could draw it? Sven is Davide's territory, it wouldn't be right to have someone else draw it.

NRAMA: When we were working out this interview, you mentioned you just returned from a trip to Norway. What all did you do while you were there?

Northlanders #19

BW: I was there as a guest of the Oslo Comics Expo, which was a great show run by very nice people. But obviously I was going to the Land Of The Vikings and made sure I was able to get some research done and see what sights I could: the Viking Ship Museum – which, I have to say, was stunning... I’ve seen hundreds of images of Viking ships, including the very ones in this museum, but was completely unprepared for how big they are. The scale is way off in the photographs. I would read how fifty, sixty, even eighty men would crew these boats, with a bunch of cargo or war materials or even livestock and could never figure it out. After seeing them, yeah, okay. They had an aura about them that said ‘battleships’ to me.

I got a lot of reference shots from the Folk Museum for the upcoming Northlanders arc The Plague Widow, which starts with #21. A bit different from past stories, this one takes place in a densely populated location, a small city.

I have to admit I was nervous going to this expo, not knowing if I would be booed off-stage or even just that locals would tell me I blew it, that I got everything in the book all wrong. Chances are fair they were just being polite, but the feedback was positive. One older gentleman, who spoke no English, pointed out various things in the book and I was able to understand that he was approving of each item and I could more or less understand the Norse words, but he did frown and mutter a bit as well at other things. Whoops.

NRAMA: Just like an American comic convention. [laughs]

Let’s talk about the structure a bit – Northlanders is built as an anthology of unconnected storyarcs, as opposed to your other big series DMZ which is a long-form narrative. What are the pros and cons of that to you?

BW: The format the book takes is not entirely unique, but pretty close. I remember at the time my editor, Will Dennis, saying it was like some macro version of DEMO... instead of self-contained single-issue stories I was writing self-contained arcs. But its not really even arcs in the traditional comic book sense. These are all separate graphic novels and short stories. It allows me to be hugely varied and versatile in what I write, and it’s a great creative counter-balance to DMZ, which is a traditional sort of ongoing narrative.

The long-short structure we have, these long stories broken up with much smaller stories, is also pretty handy – it gives me a breather in between, since with each start of a new long story what I am really doing is starting a new series from scratch and that requires a lot of planning and thought and outlining and editing. It also allows me to get a wide variety of Northlanders stories out there, stories that might not need a full 8 issues, but that contribute to the overall ‘world’ of Northlanders and provide great jumping-on points.

The book is still numbered like a regular series, which can cause some confusion, but the trades will all have no spine numbers on them from this point on, because they can really be read in any order. Think of them as a collection of original graphic novels and it makes a little bit more sense.

NRAMA: Gotcha. What do you have planned in the future for Northlanders storyarcs? I’ve always wondered if you’d cover Eric the Red and the expeditions to Greenland and North America.

Northlanders #20

BW: I've never had much interest in the North American expeditions... not that its not historically important or a cool story. But it’s a story often told and to be honest it doesn't seem exotic to me. I've been to Newfoundland, where the settlements were, and its not that far from where I grew up, compared to, say, Iceland or Norway. I do have story notes for a Greenland story, though, about the lost settlement but I have that scheduled to be the final Northlanders story, whenever that may be.

Most of my research is centered about the Viking invasion and colonization of Britain, and subsequently my interest lies there for the most part.

NRAMA: Throughout all your work, there is a thread of social politics and culture among people. More political in DMZ, but these cultural touchstones can be seen in modern-day work such as that as well as period pieces such as Northlanders if you know where to look. Is this important to you – to find some allusion to modern-day relatable problems even in these stories taking place in other time periods?

BW: I think it’s crucial. I am not sure what the point is otherwise, and I think it’s a natural thing for any storyteller to do, to find some point of entry for the reader into the story. And I think its what makes Northlanders make sense with the rest of my books.

What makes Vikings so good for this the role they played in history, what was happening at the time and what they caused to come about. I’m talking war, colonization, exploration, trade, coinage, the founding of what would become major European cities, assimilation, consolidation of power, culture war, helping spread Christianity, you name it. And what is so crazy to me is that they had no idea they were doing any of this...

You think of what we’ve seen in our lifetimes, the massive technological and social changes, how fast history moves for us, but back then, with an average lifespan of 40 years, time moved really slow. As far back in time as they could see, men fought with swords and shields, so to them a thousand years into the future of course men would still be fighting with swords and shields. Their sense of history was so narrow, and let’s not forget the were not a literate culture, but here they were, changing the planet forever. Fascinating.

NRAMA: Another thing that’s fascinating is how this plays into your larger body of work.

Thinking back to when Northlanders was first announced, the idea of you doing a book about Vikings seemed out of left field for the writer of DMZ and Channel Zero. But when I think about it – you did the same thing with DEMO and Local, which people perceived were outside of your wheelhouse until the books started coming out. What are your thoughts of broadening your spectrum of work such as that?

BW: With Northlanders, it was a specific request from my editor to think outside the box, so to speak, outside of my comfort zone, and that was a request that I decided to take as a challenge. I remember very clearly that day, sitting at my desk. My office is an alcove of my house that's built out of bookshelves, so I am surrounded by spines of books. I spun around in my chair and saw the box set for the excellent Japanese gangster film series The Yakuza Papers, which I was watching at the time. It's incredibly bleak, nihilistic stuff, but I felt it held these profound truths of a culture in transition, ravaged by war and struggling to find a way out.

I'm not sure why Vikings were in my head... probably because a month or so previous a DC editor had mentioned The Viking Prince to me... but I've always been fascinated with Vikings going back to childhood. So that was it: Vikings and gangsterism, nihilistic crime. My first draft of the proposal described a really grim, really bleak world of just the worst quality of life imaginable, a frozen outpost where these northlanders fought every day just to stay alive. I refined the pitch a few times, taking out much of the nihilism, expanding on the crime thing to include variations on that genre, and there you go.

With DEMO and Local, it was less of a conscious thing, less of a mandate. Demo felt entirely natural at the time, even though my books previous to that were more action stories, less cerebral, if you will. It was just time for DEMO to be written, and I think it was one of the first projects, Channel Zero excluded, that felt like I was finally writing “me”. And so now I feel I have two distinct things I do: whatever you want to call books like Demo, Local, The New York Four, and books like DMZ and Northlanders. They feel equal in my mind.

NRAMA: Before we go, I wanted to ask you about future projects. I hear rumors of a superhero book and perhaps even a cooking/foodie book?

BW: Yeah, it’s such a poorly kept secret. I’m writing a superhero book for DC, and am about 4 issues into the 8 issue run. There is thing sense of anticipation about it from readers that has me pretty worried, because no way is it going to be as interesting as that. Don’t get me wrong, I love this book and I’ve wanted to resurrect it for most of this past decade, and I’m giving it all I got. But it is a fairly odd choice. And this probably isn’t the only superhero book I’ll be writing soon, very recent events have suggested.

And the foodie book, Starve, is just a collection of notes and a general outline. I’ll get to that as DMZ draws to a close. “Foodie” is just one aspect of it – I have a series of projects I plan on writing in the next five years and they all have one thing in common to one degree or another: the end of the world.

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