Brian Wood: Telling the Tales of the Northlanders

Northlanders #9

Sven, the lead character in Brian Wood’s Northlanders knows that he can get ahead, can move on with his life, and set things right –

if only he can kill his uncle.

With six issues under its belt, the Vertigo series is winding up its first arc, “Sven the Returned,” which tells the story of Sven, a young Norseman who has returned to his homelands in the Orkney Islands after his father was killed in battle. But Sven’s ascendancy and inheritance is thrown off track when his unlce Gorm assumes the lands, wealth and power of Sven’s father.

Now, all that was once friendly opposes him, and in the story so far, Sven has waged a bloody war of revenge against Gorm and his men. Taking up with the madwoman Enna, Sven has sworn to kill Gorm – even if the reasons as to why are hiding from even him. And at the end of issue #6 – the Saxons have landed, and troubles abound.

Sven’s story will conclude in issue #8, and after that – a two hundred year jump backwards, with a new protagonist and storyline.

We spoke with Wood about the coming arc, and Sven’s current ordeals.

Newsarama: Brian, before we start into the current arc which is wrapping up, let's talk about issue #9, where the series, according to the solicitation, starts an entirely new arc, with, what looks to be an entirely new cast. So when Sven's story ends in #8, it really ends?

Brian Wood: It does really end. It concludes and resolves and with #9 we have a new cast and a new story, we move backwards in time two hundred years, and Dean Ormston comes in to take over on the art. Now, all that said, I think later on in the life of the book we'll see Sven again, but it'll be a new story, probably a two-parter. I like the idea of these finite story arcs, but I do see some value in checking back in with some of the characters later on, and of course to bring artist Davide Gianfelice back to draw it.

But I don't want anyone to think that this arc that ends with #8 ends on a cliffhanger or an open note. It's a self-contained story. Any possible new Sven story will also be self-contained.

NRAMA: Why this approach from a creative standpoint? Telling long-form from one point of view vs shifting stories from various point of view is a line you freely cross back and forth in your work, but what led you to take this approach with Northlanders rather than, say, telling a 60-issue long story of Sven, ending, say, with his death?

BW: A few reasons, both creative and practical. As you said, I've done this before, telling self-contained stories and changing casts of characters, but typically it’s been single issue stories. I felt that if I could do that, I could apply the same to longer story arcs. And while developing Northlanders, I realized I had a lot of stories I wanted to tell, many hundreds of years of history I wanted to cover, and the desire to have the freedom to change genres, storytelling styles, and POV's.

On the practical side, it seemed like a cool way to keep the book fresh, and appeal to as wide a readership as possible. The start of each new story arc really is, for all intents and purposes, a new #1. It's a clean jumping on point, and gives retailers and readers who maybe didn't like some aspect of one story line, whether it be the characters or the story or the art style to try again when all that is switched up. I have no idea if it will work or not, but it's worth a shot. Another benefit to all of this is once these books start to be collected, it won't matter at all what order they are read in. Each trade is its own separate book.

NRAMA: Tease out the coming arc a little - you're flipping things from where they were with the first arc. How do the Saxons see the Vikings that are invading? As the solicit says, this is the first attack you're chronicling, right?

BW: The attack on Lindisfarne, yeah. I guess you can't say it was the very first Viking attack in history, but it was the first recorded one, and it was a doozy. Lindisfarne was a monastery town with an impressive library and learning center, and lots and lots of concentrated wealth. Monasteries made great targets for raiders since they were rich, they were static, and generally undefended. A crew of Vikings sailed over and just obliterated it. It was so out of the blue and so unprecedented in its ferocity that the residents of the town thought the Vikings were actual demons from hell. Nothing else could explain it.

The importance of this raid, in historical terms, cannot be understated, and I noticed something interesting while doing research for it - on a lot of Christian websites, people are still upset about it! 1300 years ago, this happened. It was such a violation of a symbol of the Christian faith that it still affects people. That's fascinating.

The narrator of this story is a little boy named Edwin who believes that he called the Vikings to Lindisfarne, just through the sheer want of some action in his life. Once they arrive and his family is put in peril, that's when the conflict arises.

NRAMA: You touched on this earlier, but with the narrator being a boy…what do the Vikings look like?

BW: Gods and monsters. People in England and people in mainland Europe shared a lot of the same pagan beliefs, shared the same gods, and had myths and stories in common. Edwin, technically a Christian, is in love with these stories. And when those dragon boats drift in from the fog, heading straight towards him and his home, he believes the gods have shown themselves.

NRAMA: You've made no bones about the research that goes into DMZ for locations, etc. What kind of lead-in work do you do for Northlanders? What have become some of your favorite sources?

BW: I just read. I read lots of books over several years, and I've found that's pretty much all it takes. Same with DMZ - I front load my brain with as much information as possible and it sees me through. Once I'm writing the scripts I rarely have to refer back to books. I just know the material pretty well.

In the case of Northlanders, I took a trip to Iceland to soak up some of the landscapes, and I've been to Scotland a few times in the past. That helped a little bit, if only to help my artists with reference photos. And I guess I do tend to refer back to my reference more with this book than with DMZ, since it is more historical and I am constantly inventing new story lines. I just read a book on the Battle Of Clontarf in Ireland, which may find its way into a story sooner rather than later.

NRAMA: How much of this - Viking history and culture was new to you prior to Northlanders? How much has your reading/researching opened up for the series and storyline as you've moved forward?

BW: I was familiar with Vikings in the same way that I think a lot of people are. We have a general sense of who they are, what they did, what they might look like, and some of the mythology that goes along with that. And of course comics like Thor and Conan, which share some similarities with actual Vikings. I was really into Vikings as a kid, and thought I had a pretty well-rounded knowledge of it all, but I realized I knew nothing once I started researching.

NRAMA: So wow us Mr. Viking scholar - what's something new that you learned about Vikings/Northlanders that surprised you?

BW: I think it was to the extent that the Vikings, Norse and Danes, occupied England. I knew they did, and I think I knew they occupied London for a time. But I guess Alfred The Great is so great because when England was reduced to nothing but a few square miles of swampland, he managed to preserve his kingdom and turn it all around. We could easily say that we were just a few square miles of swampland away from England being Daneland and us speaking a different language than we do now.

I think this is why I enjoy setting Northlanders in Britain. I'm fascinated by that occupation.

NRAMA: Back to research for a minute, within the first arc, Davide's art has been very specific, not the generic "insert Viking here" traditionally seen in comics. Even the scenes in Constantinople had an authentic look, different again from "Medieval Middle Eastern city" set that can sometimes show up. Is that your notes and legwork that you provide him with, or his?

BW: A bit of both. It's incredibly hard to find solid reference for Vikings. There are lots of re-enactors out there and some written descriptions from the times, but you can only get so much from that. Most of what I find is idealized stuff, costumes and fairytale nonsense. Which is a good place to start, but I want all this to feel real and lived in and practical, so we have to sort of invent what that would be, to apply notions of practicality and common sense to it.

Obviously the horned helmets had to go. Constantinople was originally a Roman city, so it was easy for Davide, a native Italian, to get that right. I supplied all the Orkney stuff. We just mashed all this together and refined it down to what you see in the book. It wasn't easy or quick, I have to say. And right now Ryan Kelly, the artist on the third arc, and I are working on character designs, going through the same process.

NRAMA: How did you end up with Dean on the coming run?

BW: Just one of those things where he was available at the right time and my editor Will Dennis hooked us up. I love Dean's work.

NRAMA: Let's go back to the current arc, “Sven the Returned” - by issue #6, Sven has had many chances to turn back, many people asking/begging him to do it, many good reasons to, and many opportunities. Why can't he stop on this path to kill his uncle? After all, he's left before, found a life before... or did Enna nail it? He's not whole, and doesn't know why, but this revenge seems to be the most logical reason?

NRAMA: I think he feels he has an obligation, and it would be selfish to just take off. It sounds a little rough to us now, but the best thing for everyone involved is for him to commit a few high-profile murders. Welcome to life circa 1000AD, I guess. I've seen a few complaints online about how immoral the book is, about how horrible Sven is, that he's such a killer. Not sure what they expected from a book about Vikings!

NRAMA: Very true. Something that's struck me throughout the story has been the...timelessness of it all. That it could be told in a variety of settings. That is, the motivations and thoughts of the Norse don't feel too "alien." I'd imagine that's a fairly fine line you're trying to walk with this series - accessibility vs. the novelty of the setting making things compelling?

BW: Accessibility is something that's always at the front of my brain anytime I am writing anything . It's the name of the game, getting your readership to connect to the material, however they may choose to. I've heard that this book could easily be a western, or a mafia story, which is true although I think what's unique about it is the cultural/religious stuff. That's what sets it in its place in time and makes the player's identities crucial.

Our main goal, me, the artist, my editor, is to create this book set in a genre that is not uncommon in comics but to make it something no one has seen before in this medium. We ditched the mythology, we took everything "street level", its researched with an eye to the day-to-day, and we subvert the norms with the choice of artists and how we present the material.

NRAMA: Can you school us a little? The story is set in the Orkney Islands...yet those guys were considered Norse and Vikings? Why are they Vikings rather than mad Scotsmen?

BW: The Norse were the first ones over from the mainland in any serious way, with the intent to colonize. And Norse meaning Norweigans... the Danes hit Britain much further south. The "locals" in Orkney were probably Picts and Scots (whom Enna probably descended from) who had no defense and pretty early on Orkney was a stepping stone, a pit stop that a lot of raiders would use on their way further south and west.

The Vikings built the right kind of boat to make all this possible, the wide, stable craft with shallow drafts that could hold dozens of men and weather the open seas. They invented the technology that enable them to be the ones to colonize this part of Europe.

NRAMA: On the more scholarly slant, as we saw at the end of issue #6, the Saxons have landed. Why's that a big deal for the people on Orkney?

BW: It's a big deal for Sven and his peers. The Vikings were kind of ruling England, and the native Saxons were undoubtedly striking back where they could, having eventually appropriated the same shipbuilding technology. History gets a little hazy here... it can be argued that a Saxon raid that far north would be unlikely, but I went with it anyway.

NRAMA: Last time we saw Gorm, he wasn't...all that well, mentally. What has Sven's return and resultant campaign done to him?

BW: Gorm's always been superstitious and paranoid, and Sven's return really amped that up. I do have a regret that I wasn't able to spend more time and space on this... I find a lot to like in a character like that. And yeah, by the end of this arc Gorm is basically useless, and his right hand Hakkar has stepped into the leadership role, which becomes very important at the end.

NRAMA: Sven's crow - his fellow traveler. What did they mean to Norsemen? They valued them so highly as to carry them on sea journeys, but what does having one associate itself with you mean, as in Sven's case?

BW: Crows and ravens and blackbirds are common fixtures in mythology, from Norse to Celtic to Native American to just about any other culture you can think of. Since Northlanders is not a story that uses mythology, I decided to go my own way and have this crow presence be something that the atheist Sven ignores, and Enna's personal folk-religion interpretation is met with indifference or even scorn. Over the course of the story, the crow remains, a witness to Sven's crimes and his pain and eventually his resolution to the conflict. Is the crow just a bird or is Enna right that he is a shadow-animal of sorts to Sven? I leave that open to anyone to decide.

NRAMA: Speaking of Sven's journey, has he gone too far down this particular road? Can the void that he's trying to fill with his uncle's death ever be filled?

BW: I think when all is said and done Sven finds some measure of balance and satisfaction in his life. He's never had that. As a child he was ignored by his father, pressured by his mother, and actually had his childhood stolen from him. In Constantinople he seemed happy enough, but he was building towards a level of success in the military that he didn't get a chance to achieve. Confronting Gorm is something he finds he has to do, but I don't think that's going to be the thing that fixes everything. Like a lot of the characters in my stories, the journey is really internal, and Sven needs to find a way to make peace with himself and with his life in order to be happy. He needs to accept who he is, to deal the hand he was dealt, rather than striving for something intangible and, ultimately, unattainable.

Sounds fatalistic, I know. At the start of the book Sven condemns his fellow Norse for being small-town losers, essentially, people who are born and live and die in the same patch of dirt. It'll be interesting, then, to see how this story arc ends for him.

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