"Northlanders" writer Brian Wood has an entire bookshelf dedicated to Vikings.
If you glance through Wood's library, you'll find titles from your typical non-fiction research books like "Gods and Myths of Northern Europe" by HR Ellis Davidson and "Collapse" by Jared Diamond to some of his favorite fictional Viking stories like "Vinland" and "Magnus" by George Mackay Brown. "I'm a big research guy," said Wood. "I say I have OCD when it comes to research, and everybody laughs. It's funny, but I'm not really kidding about it. I really over-research to the point where my wife has to tell me to stop buying books.
"It wasn't until I was writing the book that it sort of dawned on me how much cultural stuff there was and how important and cool it was, also how little I knew," Wood told CBR News about the acclaimed Vertigo series. "I thought I was cool because I knew that Vikings didn't actually have horns on their helmets and I knew some things about how they built their boats. As time goes on, my appreciation keeps on growing. The whole research thing is a huge point of pride for me, even though I make fun of myself for doing it. There's a commitment to this book that I don't think most people really get, because no one sees the stack of books with a thousand post-it notes sticking out of it next to my desk."
"I haven't read every single book all the way through," he continued. "There are books that sit here until I can use them. I have something here called 'The Viking Art of War.' It's an encyclopedia, almost. I barely cracked that book until I wrote Issue 17, the battle issue with all the staffs and shields. At that point, I opened the book and made good use of it. There are a lot of books here that I know I'll eventually use for stories."
This month, "Northlanders" joins the exclusive library of Vertigo titles to hit issue #25 and Wood couldn't be happier. "'Northlanders' is my favorite book to write right now," he said. "The reason for that is how it's structured as stand-alone stories. I never get a chance to get bored. I never get a chance to get lazy. Each time I start a story, what I'm really doing is [launching] the book over again. I'm starting from scratch; it's a new story and new characters. That's how I treat it. I never try to view it as arcs in a book; I view it as separate books. Whatever I learn from writing one story I can then apply to the second one and make it better. In theory, each 'Northlanders' story should be better than the one previous, if I'm doing my job right. It's a great way to always keep it fresh, to never get bored, to cover a lot of ideas that I couldn't in a book like 'DMZ' that has a cast of characters and a single story thread. I can deviate a bit, but nowhere near as much as I can in Northlanders. That book is a real pleasure to write."
"Northlanders" #25 is part five in the series; current "The Plague Widow" story, which centers around a widow and her child attempting to simultaneously brave and survive both a plague-ridden village and one nasty winter. While many poignant moments occur within the storyline, for Wood, it's all about the characters. "'Northlanders,' for all its genre high-concept of Vikings, it's really about the characters themselves," he said. "I don't expect anybody to understand living in a plague. Some reviewers draw comparisons to swine flu, but really we should be so lucky to get swine flu. [Laughs] I don't see a lot of connection there; I don't expect any readers to empathize with seeing somebody die of the plague in front of you. I feel like that sort of struggle, even if it's to a lesser degree, that feeling of hopelessness, feeling like the world is against you, is a universal theme. That's what Hilda's going through. There's going to be a lot of worse things that are going to happen. I keep forgetting that there are only four issues after I've written seven of them. I called this one a 'survival-horror' story and the whole horror aspect of it is yet to come."
Perhaps surprisingly, for all the titles in the writer's massive library of Viking research material, Wood tells CBR that "The Plague Widow" is likely the "Northlanders" story least based on actual events. "'The Plague Widow' is actually the least historical one of the bunch," said Wood. "I remember I came across a few quotes about these Volga River Vikings. They were cool to read. They're super tall and blonde and filthy, they all wash their faces in the same bowl of water and it's nasty, so there's some fun quotes there. I thought that was interesting. I researched some more and immediately it began to appeal to me, because I like cold weather, I like the extreme stuff. I like putting characters through extreme conditions like that. This is something that I hadn't even begun to touch on in 'Northlanders.' It's pretty much taken place in Britain, and I had never gone that Far East. I had some notes from a book that I had wanted to write about the actual black plague, but I had abandoned that because there are an awful lot of books about the black plague. I took those notes and applied them to the story here, but aside from that, this plague that happened in the story wasn't a real plague that happened. I mean, it's hard to say because I'm sure there are hundreds of unrecorded ones, but it's not based on anything. The location of their city isn't based on anything. All the clothes and the buildings are all accurate, but as far as history goes, there's no crossover with any of the actual historical events. It's a little bit different, and each 'Northlanders' story is different in that way, this one is just on a less historical timeline than others."
After "The Plague Widow," Wood intends to mix things up a bit with a story basis unlike anything the series has seen thus far, and it's quite a shift for the writer as well. "Coming up is the aesthetic of black Viking heavy metal music applied to the story," said Wood. "The story itself isn't about music, it's not about anybody playing music, but it's whatever aesthetic you find in that music placed into a story set in the actual time. It's a big shift for me, and it's slightly tongue-in-cheek because some of those lyrics are pretty over the top. I like to describe it as the story about Norse Mythological Fundamentalism – it's extremely heavy pagan shit, which I don't really do. Most of my stories have been about Paganism changing into Christianity. This is hardcore Paganism. We're going to be announcing the artist of that, which I think will be well received."
As for the future arcs of "Northlanders" beyond that, Wood was relatively tight lipped, but he was able to reveal a few plans that he'd like to see come to fruition, even if they aren't solidly planned out at this point. "One of them that's going to require a lot of research, even more than I already do, is the Viking siege of Paris," he said. "Who knew? I didn't know about that! Even after researching Vikings for a couple years, it came as news to me. There's obviously a story there, I just have to figure it out."
Looking even further into the future of Wood's continuing Viking short story epic, the writer is quick to admit that he doesn't have a planned end date for his favorite title – and he didn't when he pitched it. "There's no ending to 'Northlanders,'" he said. "There isn't one. My pitch explained the whole concept behind these separate stories. I just wrote out ideas for three years worth of stories – five arcs, five separate stories – and crossed my fingers and hoped that was cool. The more research I do, the more ideas I have. My big fear is that something will happen and I won't be able to write them all."
While he doesn't plan to wrap "Northlanders" any time soon, Wood does have one very concrete plan for his final story. "There's a very famous expedition settlement in Greenland that literally vanished off the map," he explained. "They were there one year and they weren't there the next. There are a lot of theories as to what actually happened. Where did they go? That's a story that I'm going to tell, but I've marked that as the final one I'm going to tell. When the series ends, that's what I'm going to end with."
If you'd like to read a few of the books on Brian Wood's research bookshelf, check out these titles, both fiction and non-fiction, recommended by the creator of "Northlanders" himself.
"Vinland" and "Magnus" by George Mackay Brown
"The Ice-Shirt" by William T. Vollman
"Eaters Of The Dead" by Michael Crichton
"Conscience Of The King" by Alfred Duggan
"Viking" Trilogy by Tim Severin
"Queen Emma and the Vikings" by Harriet O'Brien
"Gods and Myths of Northern Europe" by HR Ellis Davidson
"1066: The Year Of The Conquest" by David Howarth
"Wars Of The Irish Kings" by David Willis McCullough
"The Viking Art Of War" by Paddy Griffith
"Collapse" by Jared Diamond
"The Year 1000" by Robert Lacey and Danny Danzinger