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Northlanders #37: Paris Hates Tourists [Review]

Ah Paris, the city of love. Of course, Paris has offered its love to many things over its long history, from art to fine dining to efficient dismemberment of the former ruling class. The latest issue of Northlanders story takes readers back to the city during 885 A.D., when the citizens of Paris were deeply in love with the idea of not getting brutally murdered by vikings, as thirty-thousand Northmen had showed up on the river Seine eager to pass by and raid the lands beyond the city.

But the defenders of Paris, though horribly outnumbered, refused to let them pass. Because even in those days the one true, eternal love of Parisians was giving people from out of town a difficult time.And so the city was besieged, as its resolute guardians managed to put together a surprisingly effective defense. The story is retold in the latest promising addition to Northlanders, writer Brian Wood’s excellent anthology series about the Northmen, from the perspective of one of the unlucky grunts in the massive horde being pushed into the unforgiving meat grinder of battle to wear down the defenses of the French.

In case you’re not familiar with the series, here’s a quick summary of Northlanders: Writer Brian Wood has been joined by a steady parade of talented artists in presenting an unconnected series of stories set in Europe during the age of the Vikings. Taking place anywhere from the 8th to 11th century, these tales have been told from the perspectives of men and women, of children and the elderly, and of warriors and those simply trying to live and survive in a harsh land.

The characters speak in a modern style rather than a historically accurate one, and the stories have ranged in length from one-shots to seven issue epics that effectively set intensely personal stories against a backdrop of sweeping historical drama. So while other comics can claim to offer issues that are “a great jumping on point for new readers,” with Northlanders a reader truly can pick it up from the beginning of a new arc, like this one, and need to know absolutely nothing about the previous thirty-six issues. I’d love to see more new series come out and take this approach, particularly if they can do it as well as this one does.

“The Siege of Paris” is a three issue arc with Wood joined by artist Simon Gane and colorist Dave McCaig. While past Northlanders stories have ranged from mysteries to war stories to psychologically-driven character studies, you can most simply divide them into “stories about people concerned about having weapons stuck into them” and “stories about people concerned about sticking weapons into other people.”

The new arc falls decidedly into the latter, telling its story from the point of view of veteran warrior Mads. Mads’ long career has seen him assemble a successful company of raiders and has now brought him to the walls of Paris in the service of King Sigfred. And while Mads has a lot of respect for the king in general, he’s not happy with the current battle he’s been asked to fight. Frustrated with the lack of progress, all Mads can try to do is search for answers to the question of why Paris’ defenders are proving so stubborn.

Good historical fiction does something more than merely present all the details of its time period with exhaustively researched accuracy; it makes the readers appreciate that the people alive in this time and in this place were not so dissimilar from us. They may not have had the technology and the information that we do, but they were motivated by the same desires to live as comfortably as they could, to find connection with others, to take pride in the skills they excelled at, and to turn those skills into a way to earn a living.

By walking us through Mads’ history, Woods helps us appreciate how a man living in the ninth century could come to make a living as a violent raider in a society with values vastly different from our own, and still be seen as a relatable human being — not simply as a blood-crazed killer. Another series that was able to pull off relatable characters from another time period was the HBO show Rome‘s portrayal of soldiers Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo during the time of Julius Caesar. Now, I’ve only had a little time to spend with Mads and his friends Egil and the monk Abbo, but my experiences with them so far remind me a lot of how I felt about Vorenus and Pullo, and that’s a pretty high compliment.

Northlanders has impressed with its art as much as with its stories, and “The Siege of Paris” is no different. There is a “European” feel to its visuals, for lack of a better term, that sets it apart from most other books on the shelves, at least here in the States. This is largely because its artists have mostly been, for lack of a better term, European.

Simon Gane of the United Kingdom steps up to handle the art on this, and based on my shallow understanding of how British and French people get along like Aliens and Predators, I’m assuming he thoroughly enjoyed depicting a Paris that is frequently on fire or getting hit with big rocks. It certainly looks good, with some impressive full page spreads to go along with a gritty character design that’s been a constant for most of Northlanders. Colorist Dave McCaig deserves special mention here as well. His use of deep reds for battle scenes and moments of danger, contrasted against faded grays, browns, greens and blues for the rest of the book beautifully sets the tone throughout the issue.

“The Siege of Paris” is off to a great start and I’m expecting to watch it develop into another strong addition to the diverse tales Northlanders has presented so far. If you’re a regular fan of the series you don’t need me to tell you to pick this up, but if you’ve yet to give the book a chance, now’s a great time.

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