Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Comics You Should Own – ‘Northlanders’ #11-16

Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over fifteen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Today it’s the second post about Brian Wood’s Viking series! This post was originally published on 10 October 2011. As always, you can click on the images to see them better. Enjoy!

Northlanders by Brian Wood (writer), Ryan Kelly (artist), Dave McCaig (colorist), and Travis Lanham (letterer).

Published by DC/Vertigo, 6 issues (#11-16 of the ongoing series), cover dated December 2008 – May 2009.

Even though I recently read this news story [hey, it’s still there, ten years later!] that claims readers don’t care about SPOILERS as much as they claim they do, I will avoid the big one in this post. I’ll write about other stuff, okay? See how nice I am?

In “The Cross + The Hammer,” Wood decides to write a medieval murder investigation, and in the grand tradition of such stories, where we already know who the murderer is but the cop has to hunt him down before he kills again. In this case, the murderer is the ostensible hero of the story, a man named Magnus Mag Rodain, who is hunting and killing Vikings, while the “cop” is Ragnar Ragnarsson, a soldier in the army of the occupying forces. Right from the start, Wood twists the story on us, because we’re usually on the cop’s side, but Ragnar is so brutal and Magnus, at least at first, seems to have a noble cause and is a loving father, so we sympathize with them. Wood cleverly lets our pre-disposition guide us through the story, slowly changing our perspective on both men until we’re unclear where our sympathies should lie. It’s a nice trick.

As with many of the stories in this series, Wood provides some but perhaps not enough historical background (although, as he’s writing fiction and not history, perhaps he really doesn’t need to). “The Cross + The Hammer” takes place in April of 1014 around Dublin, which was a flashpoint of the conflict between Norse and Celts. On Good Friday in 1014 (the 23rd of April), the Irish “High King,” Brian Boru, fought a contingent of Vikings at Clontarf, dying on the battlefield but emerging the Pyrrhic victor, as the Vikings were technically broken as a political force. The background is a bit important in this story, mainly because part of the story is about accommodation and assimilation, and Clontarf was the last time one could truly speak of a “Norse” culture against a “Gaelic” culture – Vikings had been in Ireland for 200 years, and the two cultures were basically mixed by 1014 and would continue to mix afterward. This story is also about loss, and in a macro sense, Brian Boru loses as much as Magnus does but perhaps, in death, gains something as well. Interestingly, Ragnar calls Clontarf a “victory” for his side, and in a way he’s right – his lord, Sigtrygg, notoriously stayed out of the battle, retained his kingship of Dublin, and ruled until 1036, when he was forced to abdicate (he died in 1042). So Ragnar is right, but maybe he doesn’t know the exact details of why his lord managed to “win” the battle.

Magnus, therefore, is supposed to come across as a “true” son of Ireland, despite his Norse name. As Ragnar says in issue #11, Magnus is “only taking out the king’s men. The king’s guards, the king’s crops, our soldiers, our nobility, our occupation officials … he’s a one-man death squad, the seed of an insurgency.” Magnus himself never quite confirms that he’s killing Norsemen as a rebellious act. We learn in issue #15 a bit about his background (more on that below), but he seems to be out for simple revenge except for one statement he makes to Ragnar: “You steal our land and our women. You tax us close to starvation, then help yourselves to our crops.” But that’s as far as he goes. Of course he only kills Norsemen and only those Ragnar says he kills. But what really drives him?

Ultimately, this story is about family and what men will do to preserve it. Ragnar has no family, but he is loyal to his king and the realm, which provides him with a semblance of a family. Meanwhile, Magnus is desperate to protect his daughter, Brigid, with whom he is on the run. We learn a bit about their history and relationship (including what happened to Brigid’s mother), but mainly, Magnus is killing Norsemen, it seems, in a Quixotic quest to “restore” an ancestral homeland for Brigid, a place where she can be safe. Whether Brigid actually wants this or not is up for debate. In issue #12, Magnus tells Brigid, “When you have a child, or when you have someone in your care who you love, nothing else matters. You do what it takes to keep them safe, to hold on to them. We aren’t safe in our own lands with these foreigners here. They don’t care about us.” This seems to go back to Ragnar’s belief that Magnus is insurrectionary, but Magnus, we see, cares only about keeping Brigid safe, and if his agendum happens to dovetail with freeing Ireland from the Norse, so much the better. Brigid herself seems to believe in her father’s mission. After Magnus believes she has drowned, he slaughters a family at a farm. Of course, she shows up, and he admits that he went a bit crazy when he thought she was dead. She reassures him:

Don’t get all dark on me again. We searched that family’s house, yeah? We saw who they were. We saw the ties to the occupation. The old man has violence in his past. He was a bad man, bad to our people. His sons were bound to be the same, when they reached age. You may not have planned to kill them … but the mission was sound. You hear me, da? The mission was sound. You didn’t break your promises to anyone.

This makes it sound like Brigid is on Magnus’s side all the way, but it’s also interesting to note that she seems to be telling Magnus what he wants to hear. We’re not really sure if she really believes in the “mission,” because it’s obvious that, at least on occasion, she’s not convinced.

This becomes more of a puzzle because Wood does something very interesting with the way he writes the story. Magnus is the sympathetic protagonist (he’s a freedom fighter!) but Ragnar is the point-of-view character. We never get into Magnus’s head – we know him only from his actions and his dialogue, not his thoughts. He remains a bit opaque, while Ragnar is an open book – we see his thoughts from the letters he writes to Sigtrygg, and they are full of nuance and personality. It’s clever because, as I mentioned, Ragnar is the “good guy” in the trope – he’s the cop looking for a brutal murderer. So it’s interesting that Wood chooses to invert the expectations in this way – we want to know more about Magnus, because we sympathize with him, but we end up knowing more about Ragnar, because he’s technically the good guy. In fact, the only thing we ever really learn about Magnus’s past comes from Brigid – her revelations are tied into the end of the story, which I’m not getting into, but we have no reason to disbelieve her – and from Ragnar himself. As I pointed out above, in issue #15, Magnus has been captured, and Ragnar confronts him and gives us a biography: “Once a man of some importance, of land and wealth. Although you never flaunted it the way some do. A warrior, once professionally, but also in accordance with some odd moral code. An asceticus, a Cistercian [it’s anachronistic to call Magnus a “Cistercian,” but we’ll let it slide; Wood simply means he was a monk.]” We then find out that Magnus was the sworn vassal of a lord who was killed. He tells Ragnar, “He was innocent. We all were.” Ragnar finds this amusing: “Well, yes, you absolutely were. But that’s beside the point, isn’t it? You were being conquered.” This is about all we learn about Magnus until the very end of the story.

So why can we say that Magnus isn’t concerned with driving the Norse out? He claims toward the end of the story that he thought he could cleanse the land of the Norse, and Ragnar certainly believes that he’s trying to do that. But ultimately, he wants to be worthy of Brigid’s love. He has committed great sins in the past, and he has one chance left to redeem himself and become the father he wants to be. What is fascinating about this aspect of the story is that Wood shows both sides – Magnus is a good and caring father, yet he’s also a monster. Even as we move through the story, the psychological damage to both him and Brigid becomes more evident – what is happening to them and their relationship? This is why the final issue packs such an emotional punch – Wood shows us with stunning clarity how this kind of life can affect the relationship between a father and daughter. It’s gut-wrenching.

The idea of the Vikings themselves being a pseudo-family is part of the story, as well. Despite the fact that we sympathize with Magnus, this is as much Ragnar’s story as it is his, and Wood delves much more deeply into his psyche. He is as brutal as Magnus is (it was, after all, a brutal age), and Wood highlights the irony that he is in the “right” throughout the book even as Ragnar acts as unrestrained as Magnus does. Ragnar’s dispatches to Sigtrygg are full of details about the crime scene and a profile of the killer, but his bigotry about the Irish shines through whenever he gets a chance. He doesn’t just call Magnus a criminal, he calls him a “native” with a great deal of scorn, and later a “savage.” He writes, “This is likely not a man wronged so much as a man driven to a CAUSE. Such as it is.” He calls Ireland a “cursed place.” When he speaks of his strategy to flush Magnus out into the open, he says, “He will be the final example we need make to this miserable race of people.” He tells Magnus, “If you think that you are somehow elevating your race in the eyes of some tyranny, you are mistaken. You are a rat, skulking around in the darkness. You are a murderous bastard, a fucking filthy dog, a coward without an ounce of honor.” He still thinks Magnus is fighting for a cause, and he defends the Norse occupation deftly – it’s interesting that Ragnar, like many occupiers (not all, certainly, but many) can make a very good case that foreign rule is good for the natives, but he, like many occupiers, remains blind to the damage he and his ilk might cause. But Ragnar does care for his men and his people, in a fashion. At the end, he rants:

Do you know how many men I’ve lost?! Do you know how many have suffered at the hands of this … fucking animal?! … Countless lives snuffed out, families killed, women burned! For what? For what? You fucking people, your tribe, nothing but squabbling children … who need your noses and arses wiped!

Ragnar’s disdain for the Irish is probably inborn racism, but it’s been exacerbated by Magnus’s rampage. He might be a brutal warrior, but the fact is, Magnus did kill women and children, so who’s the monster in this story? Wood, as he often does, leaves it up to the reader to decide.

Wood’s frequent collaborator, Kelly, is a good choice for the story. One of Kelly’s strengths as an artist is showing a great deal of emotion on faces without relying on the writer to tell the reader. This allows Wood to step back and let Kelly tell quite a lot of the story wordlessly, which, when the artist is up to the task, is a marvelous thing. He gives both Magnus and Ragnar and the other soldiers in the story a rough-hewn look while making sure that Brigid remains innocent-looking throughout. The violence is visceral and disturbing, and when Kelly is allowed to open up a bit to show the battle of Clontarf, he excels in showing the awful, bitter, and brutal fashion in which wars were fought before we were able to kill people with missiles and keep our hands clean. Kelly has shown in other works that he is excellent at landscape and atmosphere, and the characters are placed into a painfully beautiful Ireland where they can shed blood with impunity. Wood even gives Kelly some full-page splash pages that don’t advance the narrative at all – they simply establish the gorgeous scenery contrasted with the dog-eat-dog world in which the Irish and the Norse live. Wood, a fair artist himself, trusts Kelly to tell the story, and no words can describe the battle in issue #14, for instance, or its bloody aftermath in issues #15 and 16. It’s all Kelly, and the silence makes it all the more horrific. Kelly is also very good at drawing clothing, and I’m not sure if Wood or he did the research into the clothes of eleventh-century Ireland, but Kelly nails it. Magnus and Brigid are dressed simply, indicating their social status, while Ragnar wears an impressive tunic of mail, befitting his standing in the kingdom. Kelly takes care to show the toll Magnus’s mission takes on his body and his clothing, and it adds to the terrific sense of realism that Wood has established in the story. This feels like an eleventh-century crime story, as much as anything can. Wood doesn’t try to modernize any of the characters, which makes them feel a bit alien to us, but also lends the story the air of authenticity. Kelly’s stellar art simply enhances that feeling.

The “twist” ending of “The Cross + The Hammer” might overshadow some of the interesting things Wood does with the main characters, but it shouldn’t, mainly because the ending ties into the main themes. If you haven’t read this arc yet, it’s a well done surprise, because when we re-read the arc, we can spot the clues (which is how the best “twists” ought to work instead of coming out of nowhere). Even if you know the twist, “The Cross + The Hammer” is a superb story, showing a man at the end of his rope and a man who, although he doesn’t know it, has missed the seminal event of his generation. Magnus and Ragnar are surprising characters because we think we understand them but we don’t, really, and because they are so similar yet so different. As usual with Wood’s comics, there’s so much going on underneath that once you get past the “police” work, there’s still a lot to uncover. “The Cross + The Hammer” is available in trade, of course. Why not give it a look! Or you can visit the archives to see other things that might catch your fancy!

[Some people in the comments when I posted this originally didn’t dig the twist, and that’s fair, but I never read or watch anything expecting a twist, so I’m usually at least a bit surprised by them, unless they’re so telegraphed that I can’t avoid it, which I don’t think this one was. The Amazon reviewers aren’t too kind to this either, but they’re just cray-cray. This isn’t as good as the first arc, I admit, but it’s still an excellent story for all the reasons I outlined above, and I do think the “twist” hurts it a bit, as stories with such twists usually become all about that instead of everything else. It’s frustrating. The twist in this story, as I noted, even fits into the themes Wood is writing about, so I don’t know what the big deal is. Anyway, the trade of just these issues is below, but there’s also the bigger collection of Northlanders to consider if you’re in the mood. As I noted last time, I don’t want to get into Wood’s personal life and whether or not he’s a bad person. I’m all about the comics in this column!]


  1. Eric van Schaik

    Nice to see that the site is back online.
    We just got into our hotel at the Azores and the island looks amazing.
    The story looks promising so I’ll het to find it when we’re back in Holland.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Eric: Yeah, we had a weird glitch that was, apparently, not our fault. I’m glad we’re back, too – we were all a bit worried for a few days that it would never reappear!

      Have a great vacation, sir!

  2. Darthratzinger

    When I first read that story the “twist” ending was really outstanding.
    Couple months ago I reread the entire series and went in “prepared” and even without the surprise it`s very hard-hitting, emotional and bleak (as is most of Northlanders).
    Greg, have You read Vinland Saga? It´s easily as good as Northlanders but slightly less…let´s say…realistic because the main character fights like a Ninja (which does sound stupid for a Viking story but it is a really intense series with great character development).

    1. Greg Burgas

      I own the first two big hardcovers of The Vinland Saga and have read the first one, but I need to catch up, as I think there’s at least a third hardcover. I like what I’ve read so far, though!

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