Late last year I reviewed the first volume of Northlanders, Brian Wood's Viking comic book. You can read all about it here.
In short, I found Sven the Returned to be brash, ugly and unduly brutal, but at the same time, kinda compelling. Deadwood with Norsemen instead of outlaws, and axes over six-shooters... though that's giving it more credit than I expect it deserves. In his first unnecessarily protracted arc, about a lone wolf's war on the evil uncle who'd hijacked his inheritance, Wood attempted nothing so ambitious as David Milch did.
On the surface, Northlanders is all change as of The Cross + The Hammer, which is to say the second trade paperback collection of the series: there's a new artist - great at landscapes but lacking, I'm afraid, in the action department - a whole new story and a new central character. All appear to be huge upheavals, but however ostensibly different The Cross + The Hammer seems from Sven The Returned, I found the two books to be of a very similar spirit.
In Clontarf, in Viking-occupied Ireland, a spate of vicious killings has finally attracted the attention of the country's impromptu monarch. Someone - some gang of organised Irish rebels, by all appearances - is murdering the king's men, and only the king's men. Needless to say, this does not please the king, but he has kingly business to attend to - a war, amongst other things - so in his stead he sends Ragnar, a specialist hunter and killer of men, to put a stop to this insidious tyranny.
Curious and curiouser: when Ragnar arrives in Clontarf, in the first of the six single issues The Cross + The Hammer collects, he finds evidence that suggests they need trap only one man. But what kind of man must their mark be, to have slayed so many, and lived to keep killing?
Well he is a father, first and foremost: Magnus Rodain's life's work, as he sees it, has been about making Ireland a safer place for his little girl, Brigid, who travels with him, and indeed supports his every decision. This - Brigid's unquestioning willingness to hop along happily to the tune her father hums, despite all the awful things Magnus does supposedly in service of her future - this was the first of a few niggling issues I had with The Cross + The Hammer, and not the last.
In fact the last, if not the least or the most egregious, was the way Wood addresses the very problem I've just named and shamed. It beggars belief that Brigid comes to her father's aid after he's butchered an entirely innocent family because he was in a bad mood, certainly, but compared to the Shyamalanish reveal in the penultimate part, it makes perfect sense.
Between the first problem and that last, those reservations I have about The Cross + The Hammer will be familiar to anyone who read my early review of Sven the Returned. Most notably, there's an awful lot of wasted space on the page - in every issue an overabundance of wide or tall panels, and far too many splashes and spreads - such that reading this series on a monthly basis must have been particularly trying. With an entire arc gathered together like this the experience is markedly more tolerable, but you'll still make short work of it. There's perhaps than an hour's worth of reading in The Cross + The Hammer, give or take, so buy in with that in mind, if you're inclined to buy in at all.
And you know, I still think you should. Assuredly Northlanders would be a better book if it were a little less barren, especially if it stopped trying so damned hard to be provocative and "adult" - seriously - but it's a pretty decent one even given its predilections towards the empty and the explicit. Spare, in its way. And absolutely harrowing. With the aforementioned caveats, then, I'd certainly recommend The Cross + The Hammer, as I did Sven the Returned before it.