This week, “Northlanders” hits Issue #21 and starts a brand new story arc, titled “The Plague Widow.” After a full four issues of two-issue arcs, the series is back to its original format of longer stories placed squarely in the Viking lore.
With each story arc, "Northlanders" follows a different character in a tenth- or eleventh-century setting where Vikings have made their mark; sometimes the protagonist is a Viking, as in the first arc, "Sven," while in others the heroes are fighting desperately to repel the Norse invaders. This new arc, “The Plague Widow,” promises to deliver content never before seen in the series with a hint of survival horror for the players involved.
CBR News spoke to writer and series creator Brian Wood to pick his brain on the newest arc, some of the challenges of writing Vertigo’s Vikings, and his plans for the future of the title.
You've been doing a number of two-issue story arcs since the last longer arc, "The Cross + the Hammer," wrapped, including one that revisited the protagonist of the first "Northlanders" arc, Sven. How much did you enjoy doing these shorter stories exploring the greater "Northlanders" world and what's it like for you going back to a 8-issue story arc format?
Everything about Northlanders is total fun to write--the single issues, the two-parters, and the long stories. I think the structure of the book, which is really a bunch of unconnected stories, keeps my enthusiasm high, and allows me to constantly apply what I learn as I go. I start fresh with the start of each story, literally. It's a fantastic way to write a series.
I always like writing short stories, and have done it steadily in my career since "Demo," and the ones I've written for "Northlanders" (which will all be collected in a Book Three, due in March) are the strongest of my career. That said, I'm eager to get back into a longer story. Eight issues was the length of the first story, "Sven The Returned," and I think it's the perfect length... long enough to feel "epic" and satisfying, since it is a single-volume story.
The newest arc is called "The Plague Widow," and not a whole lot has been revealed about it so far. How will this particular story fit with what we know so far in "Northlanders?" Will we be seeing any old familiar faces, or is that something more for the two-issue arcs? Is there anything at all you can tell us about the story?
Nothing familiar. Not even close, really, since I'm shifting the location of the story a good thousand miles east, into Russia. In the general area of what is now Moscow, on the Volga. The Rus lived there back then, who were an interesting mix of the more-familiar western Norse and what we'd now call Slavs. That sort of cross-cultural thing that I always find interesting.
Leandro Fernandez is the artist for this story, and if anyone's read his "Punisher MAX" books or his "Queen & Country" they should be excited to see more of his work. He's amazing, I've wanted to work with him for years and he's doing some terrific work here. His storytelling is perfection, and he draws these frozen landscapes so well that my editor Mark Doyle and I remark how it give us goosebumps looking at the pages. And, as always, the colorist Dave McCaig delivers another unique and artist-tailored palette for the book. I couldn't be prouder of this story.
What do you think fans of "Northlanders" should look forward to for this new storyline?
I describe this arc as being "survival horror," which it is in part. Like most, if not all, of these stories, there is an undercurrent of crime, a feature of the book since the first draft of the first proposal I wrote. And after that each story has fit into a genre of its own, from a Hamlet-style revenge tale, a police procedural, etc. "The Plague Widow" is a combo of crime and survival, with a very emotional through-line story about a single mother, newly widowed, having to make her way in a society that's falling apart around her. This is also the first "Northlanders" story that I've set in a city, essentially, a large settlement of hundreds of people, complete with streets, alleys, open air markets, a police force, docks, and all sorts of locations like that. It's a completely new thing for the book, which typically is set in very rural areas.
The story itself can be simply described as this: a settlement village on the Volga decides to shut its doors and seal itself off from the outside world as a plague hits the region. It's not a decision they made lightly, or unanimously, as it involved not only ejecting their entire sick population into the woods, but its also denying the city essential access to fuel, food, and trade all at the start of winter, typically a very long and brutal time of year. Add into all that the fact that different factions within this city differ about if this was even a smart move to make, or if the theories on how to contain airborne disease are sound.
The main players are Gunborg, the local police chief and head of what passed for organized crime back then; Boris, a foreigner of uncertain origin who strives to educate the people on how to ward off illness; The Old Man, the village elder who has to balance the opposing personalities of Gunborg and Boris; and Hilda, the titular widow and single mother, who inherits a place on the Assembly but is always at risk of being marginalized because of her gender (to put it mildly... she truly fears for her life)
To really boil it down, these villagers are so eager to shut the outside world out that they give little thought to who they're shutting themselves in with. Add to this the absolute brutal, brutal weather, which is a major component of this story. I mean, by issue four of this story they're already boiling tree bark and leather for soup. It's a really tough story, really dire for the characters in it.
For each arc, it seems like you deal specifically with different time periods or cultures in Viking folklore or culture. With the first arc, readers followed Sven in Constantinople returning home to claim his birthright, while in the second, Magnus, an Irishman, lives by destroying invading Vikings in his homeland. Where are we heading to in this next arc?
Russia, 1020 A.D. to be specific. I can see that I've been tending to set my stories, for the most part, late in the Viking Age. I think that's because what appeals to me most about this time period, like I've said, is the mixing and clashing of cultures, the assimilation of one religion into another, and the expansion of the literal world as the Vikings continue to push and invade. In this story specifically, I chose that relatively late date since it coincides with when the scientists of the times were beginning to theorize about how diseases are transmitted from person to person, which is a factor in this plague story.
Some of the shorter stories have taken place earlier, and skip around all over the region. I think this is where the unique format of "Northlanders" helps us: the separate stand-alone stories give us that freedom to basically start fresh with each story and cover a huge amount of subject matter, much more than if we stuck to just one group of characters at one point in time. It’s my hope that, when all is said and done, "Northlanders" is a comprehensive look at Viking times overall, almost like a second, fictional set of Sagas. All things Viking to all people.
How much research did you have to do for this new installment of "Northlanders?" How does it compare to research you've done for other story arcs?
Most of my research consists of reading books, lots of books. But earlier this year I was invited to Oslo, Norway, for the Oslo Comics Expo, and my friends Espen and Iselin took me around the city a bit, specifically to the Viking Ship Museum and the Oslo Folk Museum. Seeing the period villages at the Folk Museum directly contributed to The Plague Widow, and it was great to get a look at what I've only ever seen in books, and, as I've said online a few times, seeing actual Viking longboats was a revelation. You think you get a sense of their size and the craft involved in building them, but you really don't unless you've seen them up close.
I'm in the process now of securing a travel grant to visit Greenland to research for an upcoming "Northlanders" story that'll be set there.
What has been the biggest challenge in developing this arc?
In general, with "Northlanders," the biggest challenge is always the same: delivering a good story that's heavy on the historical stuff but doesn't alienate. Scandinavia 1000 years ago might as well be another planet for as much as it has in common with 21st century English-speaking comic book readers, so giving that reader an easy point of entry, emotionally, to connect with the story is always the most important thing. I have a few basic tricks to help that, the first and simplest being the names of the characters. Think about this: Sven, Enna, Gorm, Hilda, Brigid, Edwin... these are familiar sounding names I've used that are easy to say and read and remember. Compare with names like Hjordisa, Sygtrygg, Illugi, etc... which are all real names from the Sagas and are very cool looking, but are a lot less accessible. I try and do the same with locations and place names, and finally with story concepts and set-ups. "Northlanders" is a book that at the same time should feel exotic and understandable.
What about readers who may not have been introduced to the book? Is this a good place for them to jump on?
If there is one thing I hope people learn from this article is this, and I'm going to put it in all-caps: "NORTHLANDERS" IS DESIGNED WITH FREQUENT AND NUMEROUS JUMPING ON POINTS. The book was designed this way. Okay, we are up to issue #21 of the book, and in that time we've had perfect, 100% accessible jumping on points at #1, #9, #11, #17, #18, #20, and #21. I know the ongoing numbering makes that seem unlikely, and that numbering is an aspect of the direct market we can't escape, but each of these jumping on points, the starts of brand new stand-alone stories, is also numbered as a #1 in the book title somewhere. With this #21 we even redesigned the trade dress to further underscore that. The Plague Widow may have a #21 on the cover somewhere, but that just means its the 21st monthly issue we've done, not part 21 in a larger story. It's really part one of a new story.
So all that said, yes, jump on with #21. And understand that the "Northlanders" collections can be read in any order you like, and any of the shorter stories, like #17, #18-19, #20 can also be read in any order.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I feel that I'm doing some of the best work I've done on "Northlanders," and everyone involved, right up through the ranks at DC Comics is making a huge effort with this book. Don't judge it by its genre... Vikings may often come off as one-dimensional but that's not how I'm approaching it. I always point to two recent stories as examples of the book's range: #17, a one shot entitled "The Viking Art Of Single Combat" that takes the entire breadth of Viking battle tactics, weapon specs, war theory, and motivations and packs it all into a single sword fight, as well as the emotional fallout of war, conscription, rape, and displaced families. That's a single issue story.
The other is the two-part "The Shield Maidens" (#18-19), which on the surface is a story of a trio of wives of fallen Norse warriors holding ground against a hundred-strong Saxon army. Just under that its a complex comparison story of these women and the mythical Norns, or Fates, one of the very few times I've dealt with mythology in the series. For all its bloody battles and light moments, is a feminist story set at a time when the very concept was, to put it incredibly mildly, fringe. Not just a titillating "girls kicking ass" tale, but a story of women's role in war, of their place in society and what can be, or cannot be simply assigned to "fate." It's one of the best things I've written.