Graphic Novel Review: Northlanders: Metal

(Titan Books, �14.99)

IN an American comics market glutted with endless titles featuring gaudily-clad crime fighters, non-genre books are often lost on the shelves.

Unlike European and Far Eastern publishers, Marvel and DC tend to stick with what they know, and what they know are superheroes. But fortunately for the more discerning reader, most of the other publishers are happy to bring out a wider range of titles covering everything from horror to romance, and some of DC’s more interesting books can be found under the Vertigo imprint, famous for the likes of Sandman and Preacher.

Although Vertigo struggles to hit the sales peaks of those celebrated books, it’s still a haven for experimentalism and creator-owned series, with recent hits including Fables, 100 Bullets and Scalped.

Tragically just bubbling off the radar is the remarkable Northlanders, written by Brian Wood and illustrated by a host of different artists, a chance to see Vikings done right.

When you think of Vikings, is your first impression that of Hagar the Horrible? Hairy men with horns on their helmets raping and pillaging in sudden raids from longboat warships? If you’re a comics fan perhaps you’ll be drawn to Marvel’s Shakespearean-speaking Thor the Thunder God and his Asgardian comrades in arms? What Northlanders has proved is that it’s time to think again.

This series has done to Vikings what TV’s the Tudors did with the England of Henry VIII, Spartacus achieved with the Roman Empire, and Deadwood managed so well with the Wild West – taking a period of history and injecting it with a contemporary feel through dialogue, character interaction and parallels to modern society.

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It also differs from many comic books by avoiding a central cast, instead focusing on different groups and individuals and reflecting their lives in the harsh world of the Dark Ages.

A remarkable piece of post-modern fiction in any medium, Northlanders stands head and shoulders above much of the usual comics output, and it’s fifth volume of collected stories, Metal, offers a perfect selection of stories which highlight just how good it really is.

Although most of the series’ narratives avoid any supernatural influence, that isn’t the case in the remarkably title story, which features a disgruntled giant blacksmith’s mission of vengeance against the Christian influence permeating his land.

Other stories include The Sea Road, and The Girl In The Ice, focusing on the first Viking explorer to cross the Atlantic, and a mystery surrounding the body of a young girl frozen in ice, both of which serve to further enrich the Northlanders world.

It was recently announced that the monthly Northlanders series will finish with issue 50, meaning a final two more collected volumes will follow this one. While that is a great loss to the industry’s diversity, it’s certainly worth celebrating the fact that a book about Vikings managed to last so long. Highly recommended.

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