Review

Northlanders, Vol. 1: Sven the Returned

by Brian Wood and Davide Gianfelice

Created and written by Brian Wood, Northlanders goes far back in time, to 980 A.D., to explore Viking history. A serious period piece, it explores the dynamics of Viking culture on the cusp of change, amidst the spread of Christianity.

After learning that his father is dead and his uncle has claimed control of the family estate and wealth, Sven, a Varangian soldier, returns home to reclaim what is rightly his. His reappearance in Orkney, of course, does not go well and he soon finds himself an outcast single-handedly waging war against his uncle and his soldiers.

While the overall plot has been the subject of countless historical epics, Wood crafts a story that is uniquely his own. For starters, Sven is not acting out of any high ideals for his land or countrymen. His desires are selfish—he seeks only to get his cut of the money and return to Constantinople, his true home. He doesn’t care about the people his uncle shoddily rules over, or the damage that has been done to the land in the wake of his father’s death. It’s enough, simply, that his uncle fears him and gives him what is his by virtue of birthright.

Wood wisely makes Sven an outsider amongst his own people. Cut off from his family and sold into slavery at an early age, he lived the majority of his life in Constantinople, far away from his native home in Orkney in the northern reaches of Scotland. The reader is able to experience the clashes in culture alongside Sven, learning about the Viking’s warrior ways and their fundamental beliefs and ideals.

By aligning ourselves with Sven early on, it makes his growth as a character all the more personal. Although he starts off as a selfish, almost would-be conqueror, his immersion into Viking culture and the characters he interacts with provide for a sense of honest, well-earned change. Over the course of the issues collected in this volume, readers are given a strong composite of his life from childhood to present-day, and the events that have defined and shaped him. His relationships with Thora, a child-hood love that has become nothing more than a sex slave to his uncle, and Enna, an orphaned Scot who snipes people with her bow and arrow for amusement, are layered and complex. Each relationship evolves and changes over time, and in turn changes Sven and his outlook on what it means to be a Norseman. Sven becomes so richly defined over the course of the book that by the end he’s an entirely different person. It’s a very natural progression as a character, and a terrific example of the old writer’s maxim of “show, don’t tell.”

Gianfelice’s pencils are, largely, well-drafted. There are instances where his lines become muddled, and facial features are lost in the thick lines, creating an oddly deformed appearance here and there. It’s a small complaint, however, since the characters appear to be historically accurate, as they should be—rugged, scarred, and shaped by the harsh climates and history of violence. These are not the pretty boys of superhero comics, but an honest depiction of men and women living lean lives, scraping what they can from one another and the earth they inhabit.

Also included are the covers that graced the monthly issues, crafted by Massimo Carnevale. His art is a unique beauty that changes over time, alongside the story being told. Initially, the images are composites of finished work and rough draft sketches, half colored, half black-and-white line art. By the time the last chapter opens, and the story itself has progressed and become more defined and fulfilled, Carnevale’s art is presented as a final, finished image.

Northlanders is really a terrific book, and unlike any other comics on the stand. It’s a well-crafted story about change and death during a pivotal moment in history as one culture slowly began to cede to another, and, ultimately, ceased to exist. An epic, historical narrative about Vikings—really, what more could someone ask for?

Reviewed by Michael Hicks on July 10, 2012

Northlanders, Vol. 1: Sven the Returned
by Brian Wood and Davide Gianfelice

  • Publication Date: October 28, 2008
  • Genres: Graphic Novel
  • Paperback: 200 pages
  • Publisher: Vertigo
  • ISBN-10: 1401219187
  • ISBN-13: 9781401219185