A recent comic purchase…

Northlanders #20
DC Comics/Vertigo
Written by Brian Wood
Art by Davide Gianfelice

I love Vikings.

Northlanders is a comic about Vikings. (There’s also Image Comics’ Viking, so there’s clearly something in the water.)

If you like history, then Northlanders is one of the best comics that you’re probably not reading. It’s told in story arcs. One arc was centered on the Viking sack of Lindisfarne in the eight century. Another was set in Viking-occupied Ireland in the eleventh century. The debut story arc was the story of Sven the Returned, a Viking from the Orkney Islands who left his home as a child, went to Constantinople and became a soldier, and returned home when his uncle usurped his rightful throne. The story arcs an unconnected, except through the theme of the Vikings, and these arcs are separated by one- or two-issue stories, such as a recent one on the nature of Viking combat.

The latest issue, #20, is one of the single-issue stories, “Sven the Immortal.”

Set some years after the events of the first story arc, Sven the Returned (which is available in trade for the budget price of ten dollars), Sven has retired to the Faeroe Islands. It’s a harsh land, he’s made a life there, he has a wife and two small children, and he’s at peace.

Unfortunately for Sven, his name is now a legend throughout the islands. A group of young Vikings in Oslo want to make a name for themselves, and they decide to kill a legend and gain some fame. They set out in a longboat with just one thought — kill Sven.

What follows isn’t unexpected. If you’re seen a home invasion film (I’m reminded of Panic Room, honestly), you can guess the beats of this story. Sven’s attackers are young, they have little experience, but they think their youth and their numbers (seven) will prove decisive. Sven is old, but he has years of experience on his side. He understands tactics, he knows the land, he knows which of his attackers to target first, he knows how to instill fear.

What makes the story of “Sven the Immortal” fascinating is the manner in which Wood narrates the story. The attack comes about because of stories — the legend of Sven is told as a saga and sung by skalds in Norway. Sven isn’t omniscent; he can only imagine what motivates the band of seven. To understand them and their motives, he has to invent his own story. To defeat them, he needs to create a story. And finally, the story itself ends on a somewhat ambiguous note.

One doesn’t need to have read Sven the Returned to understand “Sven the Immortal.” The important details from that story are recapped here. This is a style of comic that I enjoy — a one-and-done, that I can sit down, read for twenty minutes, and enjoy. It’s a brutal tale, superbly illustrated by Gianfelice, returning to Northlanders for the first time since the end of Sven the Returned.

Recommended.

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