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Ragnarok n’ Roll: An interview with Brian Wood

A comics interview article by: Adam Volk
Brian Wood has quickly become one of the most recognized comic book creators today, earning critical praise for his work as both an illustrator and writer. Originally a graduate of the Parsons School of Design, Wood first made a name for himself within the comic book industry with his 5-issue mini-series Channel Zero - published by Image Comics in 1997 and currently reprinted in trade format by AiT/Planet Lar. Wood later went on to work for prolific video game developer Rockstar Games, designing game covers and marketing content for titles such as Grand Theft Auto, Max Payne and Manhunt. In early 2000, Wood teamed with Warren Ellis as a co-writer on Marvel's Generation X, eventually taking over writing duties entirely. Over the next few years, Wood would continue his work in creator-owned comics developing several graphic novels and mini-series including: Couscous Express, The Couriers, Pounded and Fight For Tomorrow. During this time, Wood again collaborated with Warren Ellis, creating 14 covers for the critically-acclaimed Wildstorm series Global Frequency. In 2003, Wood left his full-time position with Rockstar to work with artist Becky Cloonan on Demo - a 12 issues series that went on to earn two Eisner Award nominations. The series was followed by Local (published by Oni Press), The Tourist (from Image Comics), Supermarket (published by IDW) and the popular Vertigo series DMZ. More recently, DC announced that Wood has been signed to an exclusive two year contract, continuing his work on DMZ as well as a new Viking-inspired Vertigo comic series known as Northlanders.

SBC's Adam Volk sat down with Brian Wood to discuss Vertigo, history, Vikings and the fashion appeal of giant horned helmets.

Adam Volk (AV): On your message board you recently said that: "Sex is always the #2 thing I think of when I think of Vikings (death being #1)..." Is that mentality prevalent throughout Northlanders?

Brian Wood (BW): I think sex and death are linked... well, they are linked, absolutely, from the start of time until now. Literature is full of it. Northlanders is no different.

AV: So what is it about Vikings that makes them so fascinating to us?

BW: I can only speak personally here... I hope everyone else finds them as fascinating at I do, though. I always found them interesting in a few different ways. They were these great, violent men who lived life completely on their own terms. They were religious but it didn’t rule their lives. They were fighters, explorers, craftsmen, and traders. They expanded their world in incredible ways in a short period of time. They were colonizers, but their practical need for land and money far outweighed any ideological leanings, so rather than try and control and change the land they invaded, they happily and quickly assimilated into the native cultures. A thousand years ago all this happened, and we still know them now.

AV: Northlanders is clearly a book steeped in historical realism. Given the scope of the story, to what extent do you have to ignore historical fact in order to create a more compelling narrative?

BW: That’s a good question. I think I’ll probably end up making mistakes more than I will deliberately ignore historical fact. Meaning, anytime something is off the mark historically, it’s not because I wasn’t trying. The fact that I am not using actual historical characters helps a lot...my story runs parallel to history with a few points of crossover. It gives us a lot of freedom. We aren’t as restricted by history as we might be otherwise.

AV: So you’re trying to approach it as realistically as possible?

BW: There are a few minor points I am deliberately fudging or ignoring. For example, our main character leaves the Byzantine Varangian Guard for a bit, intending to return after his personal business is concluded. That would be impossible – it seems that in real life you were either in or out. One couldn’t come and go as they pleased. Also one of the characters uses what is basically an English longbow. At the time in history the story takes place, you’d be hard pressed to find many of those in use, at least in the way I’m writing it. But like I said, it’s all minor stuff that won’t get in the way of the story.

AV: For many writers, historical fiction is often the perfect vehicle in which to examine contemporary themes. Is Northlanders allegorical in terms of exploring modern issues (such as the nature of religion or the struggle between “East and West” - as seen through the character of Sven?)

BW: Yes. I think it’s crucial to make that sort of connection to the reader. Northlanders is a book about cultural change, the old vs. the new, clashing ideologies, and how one person can feel caught in the middle. I'm not bludgeoning readers over the head with the analogies, and it never slows the story down, but its there for those who appreciate that sort of thing.

AV: The book looks like it’s going to have a fair amount of blood soaked action scenes as well as more introspective character moments. What is about artist Davide Gianfelice that you think makes him suited to this book?

BW: I think Davide’s an incredible talent, and would be suited for any book I can think of. He’s got a great attention to detail, a perfect handle on technical things like perspective and anatomy, and no matter how stylized he gets, everything feels real. And so far, no matter how many 9 or 10-panel pages I throw at him, or how much reference he needs to refer to, he’s handles it all perfectly.

AV: What kind of collaborative approach have you and Davide established in terms of merging both the art and the script?

BW: I have never been a collaborator, at least in the way I think you mean. I’ve never sat down with an artist and brainstormed, or had a lot of back-and-forth on concepts or writing or art. I prefer we just stay out of each other’s hair – I do my part, he or she does theirs, and it all comes together. So with Davide, I write him the best scripts I can, maybe for very tricky parts I will thumbnail the page since my Italian is way worse than his English and things can get lost in translation. There are usually a few tweaks I’ll suggest from his pencils, but that’s it. It all goes very smoothly. I think the other time trouble can really arise in a partnership like this is when we get too involved in the other person’s creative process.

AV: Northlanders is currently scheduled as an ongoing series. How will this affect your work on DMZ and other projects such as Local and The New York Four?

BW: It shouldn’t affect anything. I’ve been writing Northlanders already for many months, on top of DMZ, on top of The New York Four, and to a degree on top of Local. But I just recently finished The New York Four and am writing the final issue of Local, so my schedule is actually opening up quite significantly.

I’ve always somehow managed to get a lot done at once... don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse, since I tend to feel I’m invulnerable when it comes to deadlines. Which is obviously not the case, I struggle a lot. DMZ’s been rock solid on its deadlines, and while Local has not, I tend to chalk that up to both Ryan Kelly and I becoming fathers right in the middle of that book’s run.

AV: You've previously said that you are going to be writing Northlanders in 8-issue story arcs. What made you decide to do this and what are you hoping to achieve within the arcs themselves?

BW: I like finite stories, and I like complete, stand-alone trades. Writing DMZ as a 5-year monthly is an interesting experience, but I didn’t want to do the exact same thing with Northlanders. Plus, changing everything up every 8 months keeps me on my toes, provides good jumping on points, and keeps the audience guessing.

AV: Given your experience in other mediums, what is it about Northlanders - or really any of your work - that makes you want to tell a story within the medium of a comic book instead of say, a novel or a screenplay?

BW: I've chosen comics as my career, and never really had the urge to move beyond that to film, so the choice never really occurred to me. What's great, and rather unique, about comics is that we're a small concern, financially. No one is sinking tens of millions of dollars into a new monthly series like they would a film, so the freedom is so much greater. A creator can see his vision realized just like it is in his head, not after being rewritten by a bunch of hacks, edited mercilessly, and filtered through a bunch of producers and a director. I have a feeling if I tried to write for Hollywood I'd be stressed out and driven mad within weeks.

AV: Alright, final question. Shameless plug time. Aside from Northlanders what other projects do you have in the works and what can we expect to see in the coming months?

BW: The New York Four, with Ryan Kelly, my artist on Local. That's a Minx book, due in June. Otherwise, DMZ continues monthly, and there's a new trade in March. Fight for Tomorrow, my first Vertigo series, is being collected in January. And the re-issue of my and Becky Cloonan's Demo will see print from Vertigo in May, I believe. Also next summer the Local collection. Big year for me, 2008.

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