Northlanders #18, in stores June 24thOver the course of seventeen issues, writer Brian Wood has carved out a new niche in the broad spectrum of comics for a group of ancient people: the Vikings. While the stories themselves are fictional, they are set in and around historical landmarks, times and events from the eighth to eleventh centuries in their various lands.
In last month’s issue, Wood and artist Vasilis Lolos did a special one-off issue that is both a 22-page sword fight and a treatise on living as a Viking in those times. That issue seemed to strike a chord with readers, becoming a high-water point for both reviewers and bloggers alike.
And later this month in the next issue of Northlanders, a new two-part story-arc entitled “The Shield Maidens” begins. The story, illustrated by Danijel Zezelj, takes on the idea of Valkyries in Norse folklore in a bitter and harrowing reality.
Deep into his second year on the book with many more to come, we talked with Brian Wood by email shortly after returning from a trip to Norway.
Newsarama: Thanks for talking to us again, Brian. Late last month Northlanders #17 came out, a one-shot issue featuring two warriors battling with the lives of their people at stake. What was your impetus for doing this one-shot?
Brian Wood: I've talked a lot in the past about the huge amount of research I've done for this book. I over-research, really, to the point where I sort of think I might have OCD. And I realized recently that I had reached a tipping point of sorts where I was retaining so much in my head that I had stopped referring to my books and notes when thinking about Northlanders. I had internalized it all.
This issue, which is a hyper-detailed dissection of not only these two warriors fighting it out on a frozen beach but also of Viking warfare, tactics, weapons, and psychology. I wanted to put myself to the test, to see if I could pull this off in a single issue, and also to create a perfect done-in-one, an "ambassador issue" for the series as a whole. I wanted to show off my research, and to further explore how modern-sounding language can work well in this book. With lines of dialogue like "baking him like a biscuit" and "dig out your kidney with a trowel" that felt natural and casual, humorous and timeless, its me making a point that not all stories told in this genre have to sound formal, stilted, or complicated.
I thought about the excellent manga series Vagabond, and I knew that was the sort of feel I wanted for the art... fluid, energetic, almost abstracted in some of the battle scenes. Vasilis Lolos was perfect, and he understood just how to draw it. And obviously, this issue should remind everyone of Warren Ellis's Crécy, which I always felt was a great book.
NRAMA: You’re not the only one – that was a great graphic novella Warren did.
For this issue of Northlanders, the narrative is an essay of sorts, on the state of living in these times, and the particulars of battle. When reading this book, I read it twice – once as a comic, then once just reading the text as an essay or a monologue of sorts. How did this all come together for you?
BW: It was hard to actually begin writing this. I knew in my head what my concept was, that you see in previous answer, but this was not a traditional sort of story that I could outline the way I usually do. In the end I just dove right in and started writing. The technical stuff went in first, the details on weapons and tactics, and then on a second pass with dialogue I fleshed out the characters and the set-up. But I really wanted to pack this issue with info, and something was missing. That was the human side of it all, the parts about being both a perpetrator and victim of this sort of warfare, about living in this world, wanted to keep your family safe and your harvest from spoiling while this seemingly random violence swirls around you.
I like to think of writing a comic as recording a song, with the various tracks and takes that all combine like layers to create a seamless-sounding piece of music. This issue, more than others, is exactly like that.
NRAMA: When writing this narrative – did you write it in your own words, or were you imagining it being by some other character heard but not seen?
BW: It's not exactly my voice, my tone, but it is meant to be me talking to the reader, yeah. I don't usually write like this, in third-person omniscient narrative where I am 'god' and know everything, including what is going on in the characters heads and how everything will end. I don't know if I would see myself using it again... its a little cold and I think what makes it work here is the humor and the casual tone of voice.
I did really have to push myself with the dialogue - I would write a caption "normally" and then go back and go over it line by line and figure out how to make it just slightly over the top, make it sing. Again, the line "dig out your kidney with a trowel" probably started off as something more like "stab you in the back". But which, especially in this context, is more fun to read?
NRAMA: [laughs] Yeah, definitely.
Reading Northlanders #17, it sounds like you’ve really done your research – especially when describing the measurements and weight of the weapons used in this particular battle. Can you tell us about your process or method of researching for Northlanders?
BW: I just read. I read a lot of books. I think I can safely say I have over a hundred books in my research library for this series alone (and an equal amount for DMZ), and I have read a good 60% of them. Others are waiting to be read, or are very specialized academic volumes on mythology or architecture that I don't always need to read cover to cover but can look up things in the index as needed.
I've also traveled a little bit, to Iceland and most recently to Norway. On this last trip to Norway I did some crucial research that will be used in the next Northlanders volume.
NRAMA: I saw on your blog photographs of Viking ships…. Might that have something to do with it?
The next issue is the beginning of a two-issue storyarc entitled “The Shield Maidens”, ad is solicited at being about 3 Danish women who take up arms against invaders after their men are killed. Can you tell us more about it? 7. The idea of 3 women – is it allusion to the 3 furies or possibly the Norse Valkyries that are commonly depicted in mythology?
BW: Yeah, that's exactly what it is, my take on the notion of the Norns and the Valkyries aka The Shield Maidens. From the start I vowed that Northlanders would not be a book about mythology, but would take a more street-level approach to everything. So when I would make reference to myth, I treated it as superstition or casual religion at best. Thor or Loki being out there somewhere was given as much weight as we give to knocking on wood or not opening an umbrella in the house. I always figured that life must have been hard enough without having to worry about what characters in folk tales were thinking.
So in this story, I wanted to take the idea and apply it in a realistic way. The Valkyries are pure fantasy, and the Norns, the Fates, are a way to humanize the cold, hard facts of how life unfolds. Obviously there are not three women spinning out lives as literal threads on a spindle. But I mirrored a lot of these ideas into my three characters, three wives (well, two wives and another) of dead men who allow fate to guide their actions in escaping from a hundred Saxons trying to kill them.
The research involved in this was incredibly difficult. Meaning, I couldn't find out what a Danish wife at the time would be thinking. The Sagas hold some information but those are just stories and lyrics and often written decades or even centuries after the events being told happened. I found a few slim volumes on every day life in England at the time, and using that and contrasting with what I knew about the Danes, I was able to make a decent approximation. I utterly refused, refused, to follow stereotypes or refer to other fictional depictions for reference. Even if I ended up failing, I wanted to be as true to facts as I could. I've written a lot of comics with female characters, and based on feedback and reviews I seem to do a good job of it, of not writing women "like a typical man would" as it is said, especially with Local. I felt like one misstep here would unravel it all, so I tread very carefully.
But society back there was horrendously sexist, and that needed to be addressed. The women couldn't simply be empowered by picking up a sword... too often in pop culture women are shown as "strong" simply by kicking someone's ass or talking with a foul mouth. I wanted to go deeper than that. Certainly my three characters pick up swords but they don't view it as a feminist act. If anything its a process they put into the hands of fate, and the choices they eventually take reflect an inner strength irrelevant to how much blood they shed. I'm proud of this.
NRAMA: And your collaborator on this is a familiar face from your other monthly bnooth, DMZ How is it having Daniel Zezelj draw these two issues?
BW: I am such a huge fan of Zezelj, and after working with him on DMZ I knew this would be a special story and that he can, obviously, handle anything I gave him to draw. So I just concentrated on the writing and probably directed him less than what is normal for me. And the book looks great, not much else to say. It's just such an honor working with him.
Check back on Monday for a second Q&A with Wood talking about Northlanders as a whole and in its future.