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Sunday Slugfest: Northlanders #8

Posted: Sunday, August 3, 2008
By: Keith Dallas

Brian Wood
Davide Gianfelice
DC Comics/Vertigo
Matthew J. Brady: 4 Bullets
Joey Davidson: 4.5 Bullets
Martijn Form: 3.5 Bullets
Erik David Norris: 3.5 Bullets

Matthew J. Brady 4 Bullets

While Northlanders has been described by some as a story about "emo Vikings," that description doesn't really fit, outside of the presence of actual emotions and motivations to its characters, rather than treating them as the stereotypical cartoonish, beefy warriors with horned helmets and a thirst for mead. No, Brian Wood has put together a very interesting first arc here, using the setting to put together a nice character piece in which we witness the development and maturation of his main character, Sven of Orkney.

In the beginning of the story, Sven had little on his mind besides revenge and riches, returning to his birthplace, the Orkney Islands in Scotland, to claim what he believed was owed him, even though he left as a teenager and made his way to Constantinople. Over the course of the eight issues, Sven began a campaign of terror and violence against his uncle, the man he believed had wronged him, but as we see in this final issue, it was all for naught, as the Saxons arrived to conquer the area anyway.

So we get to see Sven change over the course of the story, from a headstrong youth intent on obtaining what he believes is his, to a righteous warrior fighting for what he believes is right, to a tired, resigned man, sick of violence and ready to just strive for happiness rather than fill his life with petty squabbles. The escalation of violence and killing eventually got to him, as he saw innocent people cut down around him and realized that some people just want to be able to live their lives without being crippled by the fear of death at any moment. It's a believable change, and we've been able to witness Wood develop it organically over the eight issues of the story.

This final installment wraps everything up, putting a nice bow on the package and offering a few monologues explaining all of this to us. It's possibly a little bit too eager to enlighten us as to "what it all means," but it's still a satisfying ending, bringing everything to a close after the big climactic action of the previous issue. Wood gives artist Davide Gianfelice the opportunity to show some nice, quiet scenes after some of the frantic action of earlier in the story. Here, we mostly see forbidding cliffs, snowy landscapes, and quiet, foggy seas. It's some nice work, showing Gianfelice's range, since he also does so well at the character art, lending weight to Wood's script through the way Sven and the others interact.

So overall, it's a great opening story to Wood's continuing series, with a well-developed character arc, some visceral moments of blood and gore, and a good showcase for an artist new to American comics. It should be interesting to see what Wood comes up with for future stories, and if you missed out on this beginning, be sure to pick up the trade paperback collection. It's good reading.

Joey Davidson 4.5 Bullets

If I were told to sit back and review the single, 8th issue of Northlanders all by itself, I'd probably have a hard time giving it a score on par with the rest of this Sven arc. Wood was telling a story and bravo to him for sticking to his storyline and giving it a great sense of pace and intensity. When it came time to close things up, Wood choose to dedicate an entire issue to only a few loose ends. Compared to the rest of the run, issue #8 is certainly the least intense. But if you're able to distance yourself from the issue a bit and look at the whole picture, the book is quite phenomenal.

One thing that Wood did throughout that I was actually impressed with rather than put off by was the dialect used in the story. Rather than adopting a strange, Norse accent and verbiage, Wood sprinkled contemporary profanity and language throughout. While some readers found the choice rather senseless and a bit disturbing, I felt that it actually worked on me in such a way that it never removed me from the story. To each his own, I suppose, but this aspect worked Northlanders into a better light for me and thus was never a distraction. Always consider, however, that I am the type of person who hates contextual language. It feels out of place and nearly useless. Florg the Legion of Super-Heroes!

As for Sven's character journey, well, it's been a ride. He started off as one of the most unlikable lot I have ever encountered in a story. He was savage, greedy and narrow-minded, all qualities that are likely to make anyone wince or look away. But throughout the first five issues, Sven earned my trust and adoration. He fought for what was right, and he avenged those who were wronged. Sven become a ray of light in the vast and untamed North. When the Saxons came, it wasn't a king but an outlaw who stepped up and united the island against their enemy. While the victory should not be considered won well, the book delivered a sense of completed momentum that gave purpose to Sven's character.

Davide Gianfelice. What can I really even say about him? His artwork has been incredible. The battle scenes were ripe, visceral and entertaining as all hell. Every cut and slash seemed to tear off from the pages in a bloody mess. His full page panels have been epic, iconic and nearly perfect. The gritty look of all of the characters and their surroundings added a dimension of enjoyment that I'm likely to compare to two other Vertigo titles: Young Liars or DMZ (another of Wood's). Gianfelice works artistic wonders, and I'll probably consider picked up anything with his name on it. That's how good he really is.

These first eight issues have been wonderful. Two issues longer than a standard comic arc, the story can only be considered drawn out if you don't like the non-eventfulness of the final chapter. But for those who are willing to step back and think of the entire plot, most will probably come to the same conclusion: it was a good run. I'm sad to see Sven leave us, but I welcome the next story Wood presents in his Northlanders. I will likely sell back these eight issues and buy a hardcover version. It's been that great.

Martijn Form 3.5 Bullets

Northlanders is all about landscape. The surroundings play a real important part in the narrative. In many ways, it can be viewed as the book's lead character. Brian Wood did a lot of studying, went to Iceland and took tons of photos to create a canvas for his characters to play out a drama of all ages. Artist Davide Gianfelice has probably seen all of Wood's Iceland photos because the landscapes are marvelously drawn. It builds a mood, and drops your 21st century mind back a millennium or so.

The landscape dictates greatly dictates the book's pace. Most Northlanders issues begin with a splash page of desolate scenery. I would be really depressed living in that era and in that kind of country side.

Northlanders isn't all about the landscape, of course; it's also about human drama and survival in a harsh reality. Sven is a warrior, but a warrior with honour and a soul, a soft spot, even as he chops off heads and limbs.

Northlanders #8 is the final installment of the book's initial eight part story arc. Wood took his time to tell Sven's story. As I remarked before, this isn't a fast paced book and you shouldn't be waiting for a massive punch line. This issue doesn't end with the big climax you probably wanted.

Did I want a big climax? Hmmm, though question. A large scale battle is always fun to read on paper, but that wasn't Wood's intention, I believe. Some issues presented some brutal violence, while others provided more background character information. Sven grew as a person with every issue, and by story's end this great warrior knew there is more to life than battling to survive as a human being. Brian Wood and Davide Gianfelice worked this out great, but this issue still feels like a long epilogue to the story arc.

It left me a bit…well, how shall I put it? I wasn't dissatisfied altogether, but there is this nagging feeling that the end isn't what I hoped for. I feel Sven deserts his people. He deserts his heritage and the landscape that is his blood. Sven has chosen for his wife, himself and a new family. Would someone do such a thing in that era where people's roots and family was all they had? Is this kind of action more something people do in our age? Well, I'm no historian or sociology professor, so I have to trust Brian Wood's expertise here. And I will.

I am more then happy that Brian Wood told this story. The saga of Sven is complete, and that's sad because I like his character. I wanted to learn more about his life, but at least he seems happy now.

Even though I rate Northlanders #8 3.5 bullets (just as I had rated Northlanders #7), let me state for the record that the whole arc is worth 4 bullets. When this arc is collected in a trade (which will only cost $9.95 for eight comic books!), it will be worth your time and money.

So Brian, tell us what's next? Will you focus on other characters that lived as Northlanders? Are you writing (comic) history here?

Whatever your answer will be, I will be there to watch and learn, just like a good student.

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Erik David Norris: 3.5 Bullets

With issue #8, the first story arc of Brian Wood's Northlanders concludes. What has been a great epic to start the series closes awfully quietly. Now while this isn't a bad thing, it didn't leave me with the lasting impression I would have hoped for. However, in no way does it sully the previous seven issues or character journey in the slightest.

The highlight of this issue is Davide Gianfelice's gorgeous pencils. Throughout the entire arc he has been spectacular in rendering the bloody violence of Orkney Island, as well as the utter torment of Sven. I'm happy to report he continues that trend here in issue #8. I particularly love the way he draws Sven's awesome white beard. He just looks like a bad-ass. Brian Wood's script for issue #8 also leaves a lot more breathing room for Gianfelice to stretch his legs and draw some truly beautiful panels during the issue's closing pages.

Speaking of Wood's script; issue #8 packs quite a few good closing confrontations to wrap up the plot. The final meeting between Hakkar and Sven is the most noteworthy as through this meeting Sven drives the moral of the entire arc home to readers. It also puts into focus the emotional journey Sven has traveled over the course of these eight issues. If you go back to the beginning, Sven and Hakkar were basically the same person on different sides of the battlefield, but here at the conclusion, they each show how far they have come through all this bloodshed. Sven has turned a complete 180 degrees, while Hakkar remains the same. Maybe in the future Hakkar will have the same spiritual revelation as Sven, but it's nowhere in sight here.

I also enjoyed how the story came to a close with Sven and his lady friend. The both deserve a happy ending and they definitely get it, as far as Vikings are concerned. However, with this happy ending comes a solid conclusion to their story without a need to ever revisit it. Wood has gone on record saying each story arc in Northlanders will focus on a different period and characters which is a shame really. I really grew to like Sven and to see him disappear is saddening. With the monologue at the conclusion of issue #8 the next arc could focus on the child of Sven, which would be a cool way to tie everything together. I guess it's going to take another month to find out. As for issue #8, I thought it was a good conclusion, but very quiet and therefore not as memorable as I would have liked. Wood provides some fantastic character moments though, but by now, that should be expected.

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