Tuesday 29 November 2011

Comic Book Review | Northlanders Vol. 1 - Sven the Returned

Without some social contract in place - some agreement to say I will not harm you on the condition that you do not harm me, signed in spirit if not on legal letterhead - life, according to the 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, tends towards being nasty, brutish and short.

Nothlanders, the long-running comic book series about Vikings and all the bad juju they do by DMZ co-creator Brian Wood and in the first arc artist David Gianfelice, is nasty and brutish all right - in fact from the outset it is so very nasty and so excruciatingly brutish as to sicken, on occasion - but short? Short it is not.

Oh would that it had been! Would that Sven the Returned, the story this first trade collects, had been six issues of the ongoing long instead of eight; were that the case, Northlanders would have gotten off to an excellent start. But no. Instead, from the very beginning, writer Brian Wood seems content to spin his wheels, artificially inflating what should have been a solid introduction to the series to such an extent that it seems simply, sadly insubstantial.

It's the year 980, or thereabouts, and Sven has come home. Home for him, which is to say the place where he was born, is Orkney, a small island to the North of Scotland where Sven's father ruled the roost. Least he did till he died... murdered by his brother, Gorm, who has since piled evil upon evil and stolen Sven's inheritance. But now, after years abroad, living a life of luxury in Constantinople, the wayward son returns with dark designs of his own: to take back his birthright, by force if necessary.

And in the end, blood will tell. Fucking buckets of the stuff.

Northlanders has a pretty grim premise for a comic book - make no mistake: it is a far cry from teenagers nibbled by radioactive insects and blind men bearing sonar superpowers - and I'll admit I had my doubts as to whether such a story could sustain itself in the long term. That, in fairness, remains to be seen, but Sven the Returned seems an unconvincing opening statement in the case for sequential swords without sorcery, with as many high points as it has utterly loveless lows.

First and foremost, there are at least two issues' worth of padding in the first collected volume of Northlanders. Never mind the meaningless digressions that make up the larger part of what is in essence a fairly straightforward story - a bloated chronicle of Sven's lone wolf war on an isolated Viking settlement - for more egregious than these is Wood's use of space. There are wasted pages in each issue... needless single and double-page spreads in every last part which leave the heavy lifting to the artist, who despite his self-evident skillset can't single-handedly make something interesting out of nothing.

Here: look at Orkney. Rugged, isn't it? Now, look at it again. Had enough? No? Well, look at it ten more times! So it goes. 

This is lazy storytelling, plain and simple, and there is evidence of Wood's lamentably simplistic approach elsewhere. With all its contemporary cussing, for instance, the dialogue and narration of Sven the Return is obviously attempting a Deadwood, but Brian Wood is no David Milch - certainly not judging from this - and it sticks out like a sore thumb

That said, David Gianfelice's art is... if not attractive, exactly, then absolutely suited to the book. Alas, he's not the regular penciller; I'll be sad to see him take leave of the series as of the second volume of Northlanders, called The Cross + The Hammer. Which I will be reading.

If that comes as a surprise given my various criticisms of the creative force behind this series, then consider this: Northlanders is doing something that to the best of my knowledge no other comic book has done. Sequential swords without the sorcery. Dungeons without the blasted dragons. It's blazing a trail, in a way, and if there are a few missteps along the road to Something New... then so be it. So be it, so long as it isn't all bad.

And Sven the Returned is many things, but not that; not bad, not in any sense. Just too long, for what it is, and awfully self-serious where I'm sure a little silliness would have done this series the world of good.


  1. I wasn't a huge fan of Sven the Returned myself, but there are a couple other Northlanders trades I wouldn't mind reading some day. I think my gripe was that it just wasn't as good as other gritty, tough talking sword wielding stuff out there.

    Wood works with some great artists in this series, so the fact that Gianfelice is out after this arc is softened by the other folks working on the other story arcs.

  2. I liked the art a lot; I actually didn't notice those empty pages, maybe I'm less perceptive or maybe the art filled it in for me - the emptiness can tell a story too, give you a feeling of space in Sven's head/heart/spirit, of emptiness of life then, I don't know.

    My biggest issues were the inconsistencies in the storytelling - I felt like it read like a bad Hollywood historical action movie. Very predictable (except the Saxons at the end, that honestly kept me for the next volume). The narration was obvious where it was coming from, so no surprise there. Sven's lack of compass - moral or even intellectual, was too apparent. You feel he should have some moral drive that takes him home to liberate his people - I even thought when he said he just wants money he was joking when I first read it. OK, so it takes him a while and the deaths of friends to get the "I guess I have a role here" thing, but too little, too late for me at that point.

    Also, he's a great warrior - why? We don't know, b/c he rowed boats a lot? Not b/c his father was, because he ran away from home and responsibility too early.

    Pacing was also rough - slow and steady in the beginning, but then at the key climaxes rushed. The whole fight at the end, and then the turnabout with the saxons, that should have been this big discussion where the Norse realize they're on the same side and decide to fight. Instead it is taken care of in a couple of panels, and the reader says "Whoa, how'd they become buddies?". The bad guys didn't even doubt Sven was making this up about the Saxons?