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Saturday, 11 June 2011

Northlanders: Sven the Returned

written by Brian Wood
illustrated by Davide Gianfelice
colours by Dave McCaig
letters by Travis Lanham
published by Vertigo 

What's It About?
It is 980 A.D. and the Norseman Sven has returned home to the Orkneys from Constantinople to claim his inheritance. His father is dead but as he enters Grimness Settlement he discovers that his ruthless uncle Gorm has claimed the inheritance for his own.

An outsider and a stranger Sven finds himself alone, fighting a one-man war to reclaim what is rightfully his and return to Constantinople with its warm, wealth and exotic women before the past he escaped long ago kills him. 

What's Good About It?Sven The Returned is essentially a political story. By this I don't mean it is allegorical of some modern situation but that Wood has taken the effort to write the Norsemen of the Orkneys as part of a complex world. There is a fully-developed status quo in the Orkneys that Sven enters himself into but also on a larger scale Wood presents us with some sense of the international situation. The Orkneys here are a backwater, the Saxons are a rising power in the British Isles and Constantinople is the world's premier super power.

On the smaller scale each of the principal characters are presented to us as individuals. True to the politically complex presentation of this world most of the main characters have at least one scene where they set out their thoughts on the society they live in. These scenes aren't presented as asides or written as disruptive info-dumps but woven skilfully into their dialogue. Because the main issue of the story is leadership of the Grimness Settlement it's perfectly natural that all these characters would be talking about this.

As to our “hero”, it would be interesting enough to just have a Viking violently pursuing his inheritance through the medium of violence but Wood goes to great lengths to make Sven distinctive from the characters around him. Sven's backstory is as involving as the main plot, a history that involves enslavement and a life in Constantinople, the then-centre of the Muslim world and one of the most powerful and wealthy cities 0n the planet.

This next one is an odd selling point but bear with me. There's a chapter about halfway through the book set in winter where not much happens. The onset of winter acts as a complete disruption to the narrative but in this it only serves to make the story even more immersive. This is a society where winter is lethal. When Sven meets one of his enemies out in the snow they daren't fight because exerting themselves in that cold would kill them. Wood does his best to portray the Norse society from a Norse perspective, fighting in the dead of winter isn't even discussed as a possibility because to the characters it is self-evident suicide. 

What's Bad About It?
As this is a Vertigo book I have to throw out the usual mature content warnings: this book contains sex, nudity, swearing, violence, blood and gore. Vertigo publishes exclusively for an adult audience but as a general rule their titles are not gratuitous. The sex, the violence and all the rest is present for valid plot reasons, not as cheap sensationalism. Add to this list a rape trigger warning as the book features a female character who has been abused, an event that is not portrayed but is related in dialogue.

On a less serious note the sense of immersion I mentioned before receives a bit of a knock when some Saxons turn up with Cockney accents. Thanks to the BBC Drama Department and the British film industry the Cockney accent has been exported to the world as the de facto accent of English thugs and soldiers in all eras and in all situations. I can only assume this was the influence that led Wood to this decision but it sits uncomfortably against the more neutral English grammar used in the Norsemen's dialogue. 

What's the Art Like?
 The artwork in this book is well-matched to the writing. Gianfelice's drawing style is big on jagged lines and sharp angles and detail lines. This is equally true of his figures and his backgrounds. The tone of the art is “harsh”, harsh people in a harsh world.

The Orkneys are portrayed as a stark and desolate place here with both the sky and the ground coloured in a pallet heavily based on grey tones. Its telling that Sven's red shirt, brought all the way from Constantinople, is the brightest element on the page. Gianfelice places a lot of extra lines on the page to lend objects and people additional definition: the craggy lines on the face of Sven's attacker and the equally craggy lines on the ground that make it clear this beach is made from rocks, not sand.

The colouring in this book is extremely effective. This mottled, faded effect is present throughout and what makes it so effective is that it conveys a sense of age to the art. Bleached and faded by design it brings to mind the age-worn colours of 10th century art that survives today such as Biblical illuminations and stained glass windows, adding a sort of period feel to proceedings.

McCaig's predominantly dull grey and blue pallet expands during the flashback segments set in Constantinople to encompass reds, oranges and yellows, all colours that can be symbolically linked to gold. Constantinople is sunny, it is wealthy and most importantly it is the one and only place where Sven felt truly happy. The colours become rich not only to portray a rich place but a rich time in the character's life. 

Other Information
Northlanders: Sven The Returned (ISBN 978-1-4012-1918-5) retails for £10.99 and is available from Amazon here.


  1. How come and Constantinople back in 980 was center of Islamic world? Read some history pls. It was the capital of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) empire and wasnt conquered by muslims till 1453. Thats the only drawbak of this comic artisticaly. Portraying Constantinople ppl as muslims..

  2. Deleted the second comment by Anonymous because of abusive language.