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‘Northlanders’: Brian Wood Talks Turning 25

It’s been a month of milestones for Brian Wood and Vertigo Comics. In the span of just a few weeks, the writer’s prominent “DMZ” arrived at its 50th issue, followed by the return of he and Becky Cloonan’s “Demo” with a brand new second volume. The achievements aren’t quite over, however, as the Nordic-themed “Northlanders” turns 25 this Wednesday.

Like many of his creator-owned projects, “Northlanders” presented Wood with a number of creative risks. The book’s habit of changing artists, casts, settings and genres from story arc to story arc makes it more akin to an anthology than to most ongoing series, but from those risks have risen rewards for more than two years and counting.

Continuing reading for a fuller picture of Wood’s thought process as he’s crafted the series past 25 issues, and how the writer intends to press onward.ComicsAlliance: With its origins as a “The Viking Prince” proposal, “Northlanders” saw a few mutations before it evolved into its current incarnation. 25 issues later, how do you think the series has continued to grow and change? Have you experienced any “happy accidents” or surprises along the way to form your current outlook on the title?

Brian Wood: Yeah, that was something an editor – Steve Wacker, actually, before he moved to Marvel – suggested, and I never got to the point of pitching it. I didn’t see it as really fitting what I felt Vikings were all about, so almost immediately I decided to pitch something original.

“Northlanders” is a really interesting book to talk about and dissect. And that’s mostly due to its structure. It’s made up of totally separate books, really… each time I start a new “Northlanders” story what I am really doing is starting over again from scratch. And what is so amazing about that, as a writer, is I can constantly reinvent what “Northlanders” is. I can learn from past mistakes and apply them to future stories. In theory, each “Northlanders” story will be better than the one that came before.

There was a risk to this, in not having a single storyline or a set of characters for readers to get attached to and follow. What reason would they have to stick with the book over time? I had proven, though, that I could pull this off on a smaller scale with Demo and Local, so I was confident… mostly. It was still risky for a Vertigo book, which has never had a book like this before.

The other factor in Northlander’s development is the fact that I’ve been researching the book as I’ve been writing it. I’m always uncovering new information and interpretations that my own sense of what Vikings were all about is constantly evolving. You’ll never see another “Northlanders” story like Sven The Returned again, because that was a base sort of take on the genre. I don’t mean that in a negative way, but just that it was much more straightforward than the stories that came after.

“The Shield Maidens” and “The Plague Widow” are good examples of the impact this continued research has had. These are unconventional Viking stories in every way possible, even looking outside of comics into the few Viking films and videogames that have been made. The story that will come after “Plague” is another advancement, something that I will tease as “Norse mythological fundamentalism with a black metal twist”.

CA: “Northlanders’” current story arc runs through issue #28 and follows the effects of a plague on a Viking population. Though history plays an important role in the story from a plot perspective, what influences helped you set the tone of what’s turning out to be something of a survival horror tale?

BW: Survival horror was always the point of this, yeah. This is also one of the least historical stories so far… there were certainly Vikings in that part of Russia and I researched the clothing and types of buildings, but that settlement is fiction (much to some reader’s surprise, there really is a “Grimness”, the village in “Sven The Returned”), that plague is fiction, and there is zero crossover or even references to anything historical.

“The Plague Widow” came about after I found the reference, and my wanting to further explore the role of women in this sort of society, especially a Viking society that had fully transitioned over into Christianity. I had story notes already for a book about The Black Plague, but after seeing how many novels existed already on the subject, I decided to use them for “Northlanders” instead. I’ve always been attracted to survival stories, to bleak, cold landscapes, and I love putting fictional characters through the worst situations imaginable… who doesn’t? You’ll see, you’ll see how much worse it gets for Hilda and the others.

CA: One of the biggest differences between “Northlanders” and other Viking flavored comics is the lack of period dialogue. What were your considerations when making that decision? Do you feel like it’s helped ground you as a writer as much as its helped readers connect with the story?

BW: Well, here’s the thing: There is no period dialogue I could have used for the book. That’s an undeniable fact. Unless I went back to college and got a degree in ancient Scandinavian languages, whatever dialogue I wrote was going to be inaccurate. I was going to have to “translate” into English.

So, understanding that, what were my options? Write it like Thor? That’s even more wrong. What is commonly called “Shakespearean speak” has so little to do with the Viking Age it might as well be an alien tongue. The Vikings existed five hundred years before Shakespeare wrote anything. Much like horned helmets, that association was invented in modern times. This created a problem, because comics fans, regardless of common sense, still expect a Viking in a comic book to talk like Thor. I got so much crap early on for the speaking voices in “Northlanders.” I’ll take some of the heat for it, because I was still learning as I wrote and I made a couple errors (the infamous “on my radar” line, which was nothing but a slip-up, but I’ll defend the “perp” one to my dying day) and I think the dialogue I am writing now is better than what I started off doing.

So that left me with doing something modern. Or modern-ish. I applied a bit of common sense myself: most people back then were illiterate. As Christianity grew, so did literacy, but for the most part your average Norseman had little language. Their vocabularies were smaller than ours are now, and can you really tell me that they didn’t curse? Of course they did. And they were more likely to be blunt and direct about it. Life was hard, life was short, and I am going to go out on a limb and say that “shit” was probably a common curse word.

And as readers have seen throughout the series, the sophistication of language varies. The father in “Lindisfarne”, a devout Christian who probably reads the bible for hours every day, speaks with a lot differently than the heathen coming ashore to kill him. Ragnar, in “The Cross + The Hammer” adopts a much more formal tone when writing to his King than giving order to foot soldiers. Hilda speaks simply and kindly to her young daugh
ter, but in her after-the-fact narration, she is slightly stilted and detached. It’s all considered, all thought out.

CA: When it comes to writing what’s essentially a historical fiction comic, you have to conduct a lot of research to maintain the series’ authenticity. Which comes first for you as a creator: the fiction or the history? Is it different for every story or do you tend to flesh out your tales from one angle or the other?

BW: Usually it all starts with a very simple idea, and that could some either purely out of my head or from a book. I guess with “Northlanders” it more often than not comes from a book… I’ll read something cool and it sparks something in my brain and I’ll figure out a way to use it, an angle to take with it, a story to pack around it.

CA: Like with “DMZ,” you’re able to collaborate with a rotating team of artists on “Nortlanders.” What about this kind of work flow keeps you coming back to it? Do you think it has something to do with your experience as a designer and an artist in your own right?

BW: Maybe… I mean, its done mostly out of necessity with DMZ. I’m sure Riccardo wishes he could draw every page of that book, but he likes things like weekends off and spending time with his girlfriend on a yearly vacation, so he’s actually contracted to draw 10 issues per year, and we get guests in to cover the other two. “Northlanders” is a different case, where rotating artists in is part of the whole point of it.

There are good aspects to both… with “Northlanders” I am always kept on my toes, adjusting script-writing styles to match the artists, and the book can end up appealing to a broader range of reader the more varied it is. But having a rock solid creative partner like with Riccardo has obvious benefits too. He owns the book with me, we’re both in it 100%.

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