Sunday, September 04, 2011

Northlanders - Sven The Returned by Brian Wood & Davide Gianfelice

In this first volume collecting NORTHLANDERS #1-8, DMZ writer Brian Wood stabs Viking lore in the face with a fresh take on what it means to be a warrior. Meet Sven, an exiled Viking prince who must return to the desolate lands of his birth to reclaim his vast inheritance upon the death of his father. 

Mark and I were late to finding Northlanders.  The first collected volume, telling Sven's story, was already bound together in graphic novel format, but this did not stop us both falling for the strong imagery and superb storytelling by Brian Wood and Davide Gianfelice. 

The first volume, tells the story of a young Varangian guard, Sven, being told during a battle with some Norse warriors that his uncle Gorm has stolen his rightful inheritance.  Sven, exceedingly arrogant and dismissive of the place he once called home, decided that he would be interested in meeting up with this thieving uncle of his, not to take back his inheritance, the village and lands of Grimness in Orkney, but to get the riches owed to him as the rightful heir of his father's. 

He sets sail from Constantinople and arrives in the Orkneys to find that his uncle has done his utmost to ravage the lands, over which he held ultimate sway, inflicting his special brand of heavy handed religion and superstition on the locals.  

Sven, being soon discovered on the shores of the island is taken to meet Gorm but it is indicative of how little Gorm regards Sven, that he leaves him alive, cast outside of the settlement.  If this was a way to encourage Sven to run away, like he did when he was a young boy, it was the wrong tactic. 

Sven stays, still arrogant and dismissive of the land and its people, thinking that they are still living very much in the dark ages, complete unaware of the majesty of Constantinople and other amazing cities he has seen.  He fights guerrilla tactics against Gorm's warriors and holes up in a lone farmstead, where one of Gorm's slave girls and playthings Thora, keeps his bed warm when she can.  

Slowly but surely, Sven's arrogance is whittled away as the battle for mere existence takes its toll.  He still has issues with the villagers and the land, uncertain how anyone would want to live in a place as arid and hostile as this, until he makes friends with a wild young Scottish girl who lives on the island.  Their friendship strengthens and they face the winter out together. 

Enough about the story lines itself, I don't want to give it all away, because it has to be read to be appreciated.  But, needless to say that there are a lot of battles, one to one combat and clever tactical fighting on Sven's side of things.  There are also quiet reflective moments that elevates Northlanders to a very meaty feast of superb storytelling.  Sven is wholly formed - his actions and reactions are easy to understand and come to grips with.  Enna, the wild Scottish girl, represents the things he is running from, his understanding of the land and his ties to the old ways.  Things do get a touch melancholy, but it very much reminder of the duality of the Viking way of life: the fierceness of battle, the joy, the blood, the gore, the adrenalin, pared with the reality of it all, the coming down of that high, to the facing of reality that even though you may not fear death, it was very close to you indeed, your place in the universe and what plans the Norns have for you. 

Sven meets Enna
Even if you are not someone who reads graphic novels and yet find yourself intrigued by Vikings and the Norse, Northlanders is a series that will hit the right spot.  Visually it is a feast with some amazing set pieces.  The amount of research done by both Brian Wood and David Gianfelice is superb.  Right through from the rich colours used to depict Sven's life in Constantinople, to the quieter more solemn colours used to showcase Sven's life on the island, they enhance the story and fill in far more by showing us what Brian isn't telling us with dialogue or narrative.  

I love this series.  You can pick up each of the bound graphic novels and read them as standalones because that is what Brian decided to do when creating Northlanders.  Each bound GN is a story of eight volumes bound together.  Together the books form a series of anthologies, with different characters and settings.  It is a brave move and one we've come to enjoy thoroughly.  We hope you do too. 

Find Brian Woods' Tumbler page for Northlanders here and read Issue 1 of Sven's Return here. 

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