Brian Wood's structure for "Northlanders," with each new story featuring a new setting and cast of characters, is certainly a brave one. The upside is certainly the huge versatility it gives Wood, letting him tell any and all sorts of Viking-centric stories that he wants. The downside, on the other hand, is that with each new story the first thing Wood has to do is establish that new cast and setting. So while the opening chapter of "The Cross & the Hammer" is certainly entertaining, I can't help but think that it will be the later chapters that will feel a little more robust.
The majority of this first issue fills us in on the basics of Magnus and his daughter Brigid, two Irish people in Viking-occupied Ireland during the year 1014 AD. We're get an idea of Magnus' skills and cunning even as he's being pursued by a Viking task force that hunts Magnus down in the name of King Sigtrygg. It's fast-paced and violent, and once the book starts moving it feels like it barely stops to catch its breath. I'm certainly interested in seeing if Wood is going to maintain this pace for all six chapters of "The Cross & the Hammer" or not; it would certainly be no small feat to successfully maintain.
The only slight problem I have with this fast sprint through the woods and amidst a pack of attack hounds is that it means that we never really get into the head of Magnus or Brigid; we see some of Magnus' fighting abilities, but there's very little time or opportunity to get more inside their characters. With five more chapters to go, I have faith that we'll get that before too long, but in many ways this feels like a tv show or movie's opening prologue before running the title sequence.
People who are familiar with Ryan Kelly's past collaborations with Wood, such as "Local" or "New York Four," might be a little surprised when they get a good look at Kelly's art in "Northlanders." Here it's brutally violent, with explosions of blood left and right (thanks in no small part to colorist Dave McCaig picking a gruesome shade of red for all of those bodily fluid eruptions) and a long sequence of Magnus killing a group of hounds. It's certainly a sharp reminder that Kelly is capable of more than modern day stories with teenage girls, and it's nice to see this other side of him. That said, I think my favorite pieces of art from Kelly in this first issue are actually from the quieter first few pages of the story, like the tight focus on Ragnar Ragnarsson's chin and beard as he addresses his fellow Vikings. It's a great portrait of the character, drawn with great care as you see each lock of hair carefully laid out onto the page.
"Northlanders" #11 is an exciting start to its new story, and I'm certainly looking forward to the next chapter. So far, the "Northlanders" experiment doesn't shown any signs of running out of steam creatively; if you've been holding out for a chance to give the title a try, between this new storyline and a collection of #1-8 both having hit stores this week, you've got more than enough opportunities available.