Brian Wood is not a writer that pulls punches. He doesn’t write “easy” stories, and he asks a lot of his readers, in all the best ways. Part one of his final “Northlanders” epic is no exception.
“Northlanders” #42 which begins “The Icelandic Trilogy” and is titled simply “Settlement 871,” is a powerfully moving bit of comics. It’s obvious reading this first brutal issue that Wood has every intention of going out with a bang. In “Northlanders” #42 we’re introduced to a small family – a father (Val), mother, and son (Ulf) - recently relocated to brutal Iceland when driven out of their native Norway due to land grabs. They’re among the first to arrive in Iceland and endure a tough, but blissfully quiet couple years before others start arriving in great numbers. And when people arrive, trouble is sure to follow. After a violent fight to protect his family, Val realizes his son, Ulf, is far too sheltered and perhaps too soft for the world that awaits him. He solves this problem by beating him horribly.
The result of that beating is both everything Val hoped to achieve and what I suspect he would count among his greatest fears. Wood shows all of this with a subtlety and nuance that only the best comic book writers can manage. Wood, as always, masterfully blends both the epic and the intensely personal together in a special way that trades wisely on the best of men and the worst of men, which are frequently interchangeable in the same way that greatest strengths are often greatest weaknesses. Wood’s savage ending here sets the stage for where he is prepared to go with this story: fearlessly into the grey areas of life where everything is more interesting, more cruel, and sadly, far more real than we’re used to seeing in comics. It’s a powerful bit of storytelling, and one of the best issues of “Northlanders” I’ve read.
Paul Azaceta and Dave McCraig deliver perfect visuals. They capture the cold majestic beauty of the Icelandic world our characters inhabit, and contrast it powerfully with visceral up close and personal horror. Azaceta captures both the epic and the minute with the same pitch perfect precision. McCraig bathes it all in a muted, subtle palette that shifts effortlessly as the emotional beats so demand.
It’s a true shame that this is the last arc of Brian Wood’s exceptional “Northlanders” series, a series that has been among the best ongoings of the last few years. But it’s a relief that Wood is clearly prepared to deliver his absolute best work with this nine-part story. Frankly, I’d expect no less.