Sunday, September 04, 2011

In Conversation with Brian Wood

Mark and I are hugely honoured to bring you an interview with Brian Wood which we scored a few weeks ago as we were preparing for Viking Week. Brian is one of our favourite graphic novel writers and is well known for his work on DMZ and Demo, amongst others. His Northlanders graphic novels, are superb studies of character and settings. Here we get to ask him a few questions about Northlanders:

Artwork from Sven The Returned
Northlanders is such an epically told story, using strong images and even stronger characters.  Where did you decide to start with the series? In other words, were the characters there first or were the stories there first? 

I think the overall concept was there first, this notion to do a comic book series about vikings, and also to structure it as I did, a series of miniseries, an "anthology series".  Once I had that in my head, the "Sven The Returned" story was the first I came up with, and I put that into the proposal along with a few other story ideas.  But for the most past I like to keep things flexible, leave myself the ability to allow new ideas to come in at the last minute, which is sometimes how the best ideas are born.

What is it about Vikings, do you think, that appeals to your readers and to other writers who write stories about them? 

Well, I try and be an universal as I possibly can.  I honestly believe that is the #1 reason the series works so well.  The language is written in a modern style, I never use character names that are difficult to pronounce, and the themes of the stories themselves are the stuff of basic human drama.  In doing this, even though it is about Vikings, there is always something there the reader can relate to, hopefully.

Your decision to write a series of graphic novels, with its eight issue story arc, before a new story starts, is quite different.  Did you feel that you were taking a risk by doing this?

It's a risk, absolutely, and while Northlanders was a big critical success, its commercial success was a little less so.  Readers and retailers of comics have been trained to assume things about the way series should be structured, and their tastes have been shaped by what is the norm.  Even now, after screaming it from the rooftops for four years, its still hard to get the word out that the series is the way it is.  People reject it outright, in a lot of cases.

Northlanders is rich with historical background and especially Sven’s story-arc struck me as very detailed.  I know you visited Norway to do a bit of research, but what other historical research did you do and how much fun did you have playing with historical fact within the context of your writing?

I mostly read books.  And by reading books I mean I read over 60 books, easy.  I also visited Iceland, and Scotland many years ago.  I got pretty obsessed with doing research, I must admit, and I didn't REALLY need to read all those books.  But at some point i realized I could stop, that I had fully absorbed everything I needed to absorb to write the series purely out of my head.  That was kind of a cool moment.

Sketch by Massimo Carnevale for Shield Maidens 
Working with artists like Davide Gianfelice, Leandro Fernandez, Ryan Kelly etc. for the various issues, must become very much a collaborative effort.  How much time do you spend chatting with the artists before and during the process of creating the story-line and how much do their take on the story and what they produce, have an effect on you and the story?

I always know which artist I'm writing for, before I start on a script, so that allows me to look at their past work and craft a story that compliments their style, that plays to their strengths.  There's not a lot of back and forth in terms of writing the story, but for this book especially there is a lot of communication regarding history and photo reference and things like that.  But I'm pretty solitary -  I prefer to be left alone to write the story as I see it, and in return I don't micromanage the artist.  I think that's the best kind of collaboration.

I love the reaction to The Shield Maidens especially - link to piece  - and was wondering how reviews and comments like this influence you as a writer, especially whilst you are still writing the series? Do they create more pressure on you or do you feel that now you’ve given the critics something meaty to chew over, you can have a bit more gory fun?

I make the classic mistake in reading reviews of my own work.  It's gratifying, for sure, but a bad review that really ruin your day.  But as far as the writing goes, like I said in the previous bit, I dont really let anyone in on that process, especially anonymous people on the internet!

Brian Wood
We were very sad to hear that Northlanders got cancelled, but are cheered by the fact that we all had the chance to read a superb series.  What will be looking for from you in the future?  More historical epics? 

At some point I'll do another Viking book... I have an abundance of ideas.  I have another historical one set in the Quattrocento I hope to get to eventually, when I am ready for another excessive round of research.  But the big new project I'm working on is The Massive for Dark Horse Comics, about environmentalism in a post-crash, post-natural disaster world, set mostly on the ocean.

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