Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Northlanders Vol. 1: Sven the Returned

Northlanders Vol. 1: Sven the Returned
by Brian Wood and Davide Gianfelice
Vertigo Comics 2007-2008

Hillary Brown: Oh, Vertigo. You may well be my favorite big-market imprint. Thanks for picking this out for us to read, Garrett, as I'm not sure I would have grabbed it otherwise. I know Brian Wood's rather well known for DMZ, but I haven't read any of that or, uh, any of his other stuff, nor do I know Davide Gianfelice, so I'm coming to this as I often do, stumbling around in the dark. I'd say Northlanders definitely has both strengths and flaws that are pretty obvious even to a novice like myself, though. Wood's writing (and he's known slightly more as an artist, right?) is decent at moving the plot along, and, like the TV series Rome, the story ends up examining power dynamics to some extent and taking some surprisingly pacifist (or, I dunno, utilitarian?) turns. The dialogue comes off a little contemporary in its phrasing at times, which is very difficult to avoid but should be, unless you're going to go all A Knight's Tale, and there's a little much in the way of buoyant, rosy-tipped boobies, but it's a pretty good, straightforward series. So what do you think of the book? And what do you think of my recently discovered Vertigo love? Do I just like sex and violence too much?

Garrett Martin: I like your Vertigo love. It's cute.

Northlanders is a weird one for me. I have the first ten or eleven issues, basically the first two arcs, and I like 'em well enough, but it's never been on my pull list, and I've never bought an issue the day of release. It's at the top of my list of shit to buy when NEC runs their seasonal half-off sale. That's true of a lot of Vertigo stuff, or at least of most of the Vertigo stuff that I do buy. I would've given Young Liars more than one issue to impress me if it was only $1.50. I probably even would've bought the Un-Men, whatever the hell that was. Unfortunately they order so few rack copies of Vertigo stuff that they almost always sell out before the sales. Anyway, I'll at least flip through the first issue of every book Vertigo puts out, and they're the only company or imprint I do that with.

But yes, Northlanders, and vikings, courtesy of Brian Wood and his significant internet presence. I haven't read much by him, just this and the first DMZ trade, but he's really good at establishing environments. In both books the settings are as vivid and important as any character, and isn't his comic Local fundamentally about the character's relationship to various towns? Northlanders has convinced me that the Orkneys must've been a pretty shitty archipelago back in extreme pre-9/11 days. So that's good, and so's the plot, with the intrigue and the morality and the boobs. Well, yeah, probably too many boobs, like you said. Definitely not a book you read on the train. So dude's definitely doing some things right, yeah?

Northlanders is still kind of off-putting, though, and that anachronistic
dialogue is a big part of it. I understand why Wood made the decision to have the characters speak like this, and it could've been just as distracting (and potentially Mighty Thor-like) if he tried to approximate ancient foreign speech patterns, but that knowledge doesn't make the dialogue any less vexing. Am I being petty? Should one aspect of an otherwise high-quality (and oh yes beautifully illustrated) book substantially impact my opinion?

HB: You know, there are a lot of comics out there, and I don't think it's necessarily petty to want your experience to be as good as it can be. Sometimes I forget how much I enjoy the best stuff, but whenever I read any of it, it comes flooding back and I think how much I want everything to feel the same way. So, yes, I think it's okay to be annoyed with flaws. It doesn't mean throwing the whole book out the window. It just means that something that might otherwise be five stars can be docked to four. It's like Andie MacDowell's presence in Robert Altman's Short Cuts. She doesn't ruin the whole movie, but she's kind of like a fairly noticeable pimple on its face. I know we might seem like we're too picky on here sometimes, but it's important to evaluate aesthetic things thoroughly.

Enough. Off the soapbox. I think you're right to point out Wood's ability to establish an environment. I've honestly never thought about the Vikings colonizing the northern British isles before. Even in my medieval lit class forever ago, when we talked about them raiding the monasteries in the area for gold and such, I didn't think about them staying, and they're not generally thought of in pop culture as an empire-driven people. So not only is it interesting to set a story in that place and time, but it's also educational in a really good and smart way. I could, in fact, have used even more background detail about the history stuff, especially as Wood doesn't call that much attention to it. It's just sort of presnt, and if you're interested in stuff like that, you look out for it.

So, I'm trying to think of another book set in a historical era that does dialogue well. How's Age of Bronze?

GM: Right, the history is there, but it's never thrust into your face. You'll frequently see Vertigo compared to HBO's original dramas in terms of quality (y'know, at least the good ones, from both companies), and Northlanders reminds me of Deadwood in how it uses history. Both series are complete fiction, but with a strong underpinning in legit facts. I'm pretty sure none of the characters in Northlanders were ever real people, unlike Al Swearengen, but Wood strives to be accurate on a more macro level. I know very little about this subject, but the presentation here feels believable. Only that pesky dialogue sticks out.

Have you read Age of Bronze? Great book. Greek literature and culture is such a foundational element of our own that it has to be easier to write a book like that in a way that feels conversational and natural for the time period without losing or overwhelming a contemporary reader. The dialogue there has never felt inappropriate to me.

What do you think of how Wood's structuring Northlanders? This first arc was followed up by a two-parter that took place in an entirely different year and location, which was then followed by another completely unrelated arc. Would you prefer a book that focused on one group of characters for its entire length, or a set-up like this?

HB: I haven't read Age of Bronze, but I do have it, and I think Deadwood is kind of a great thing to bring up in terms of its handling of dialogue. I don't know if Milch's take is historically accurate or not (there's a lot of controversy over this), but by god does it feel authentic. The answer to how to handle the issue is: be David Milch. Not so easy to achieve.

I'm glad you brought up the structure because it's something I really like and am intrigued by. I don't think Wood could have kept the story going were he just to focus on the one character, and the way one's interest is piqued by all the historical stuff would indeed lead a creator to continue in that direction. It's possible that it's just because I wasn't attached to any characters, but I'd be totally happy to move on and learn about something new but related. Eight issues is mostly enough for any one character/storyline, don't you think?

GM: I wouldn't say any amount of issues is necessarily enough for a character or a storyline. Ed Brubaker's first storyline on Captain America basically lasted for forty or so issues, and other than some wheel-spinning during crossovers it never felt bloated or stretched out. In this particular isntance eight issues are definitely enough, though. Maybe even too much?

Wood succeeeds more with Lindisfarne, the two-parter that followed Sven the Returned. It makes many of the same points, but more directly and concisely. Dean Ormston's art is also nice, although kinda no match for Gianfelice, another artist we've sorta short-changed on this here blog. I had some issues with Wood's writing, sure, but Gianfelice's art easily made up for whatever other problems I had. It fits the subject beautifully, very detailed and European in a way you don't usually find in mainstream American comics, even from Vertigo.

HB: Yeah. It probably could have been cut by an issue or two. Gianfelice does good hair, especially, which is kind of important with these dudes with all their braids and beards and such. I like his style mostly, and it's both detailed and (this is important) well-colored, without any of those gross-looking digital backgrounds or gradients, but I wouldn't put him in my absolute top tier of artists. Maybe it's that his people tend to be a little bit too attractive and not varied enough in body type? Or that he has little in the way of weirdness? It's rarely confusing, though, or poorly laid out, or any of the other problems that plague a lot of books. So props there.

1 comment:

Paul DeBenedetto said...

I love this book, but I wonder how much of that love actually has to do with Brian Wood? After all, there's hardly any dialogue. You can read the entire first arc in about 7 minutes. But the art is gorgeous, and the action sequences are impressive, and easy to follow.