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Graphic Novel Review: Northlanders The Cross + The Hammer by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly

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The year is 1014 AD, come the battle of Clontarf, at which Brian Boru, High-King of Ireland, fought against the Norse king Sigtrygg of Dublin. Wrapped around these true historical events, the second volume of Northlanders is a standalone story arc that continues to explore the bloody tales of fierce Norse settlers and their inevitable clash with equally fierce natives, or yet other invaders, as in the previous volume.

Three bodies lay slain in the grass, somewhere in a green farm near Dublin. Who is avidly killing the Norse King’s men? Enter the turbulent and agonized Magnus – once a proud land owner and a loyal son of Ireland; now supplanted and persecuted fugitive. His sole purpose in life is to kill the Norse occupiers, one by one, if needs be.

The only person he cares about on this earth is his young daughter Brigid; as a contrast to his savage killings, we get tender moments with Brigid. His nemesis is Ragnar Ragnarsson – a skillful Norse scout sent by king Sigtrygg, to investigate the violent deaths inflicted by Magnus.

Ragnar gradually becomes obsessed with the capturing of Magnus, and he and his men will go unto any extent in order to achieve their goal. All along, hunted Magnus becomes increasingly desperate, his attacks more frantic and reckless – Has he already begun drifting away from reality, or is the mission still sound?
Vertigo Northlanders 2
This graphic novel assumes the mixed genre of realistic-medieval-Viking-fighting drama with a crime-investigation flavor. Surprisingly enough, the story uses modern language and modern methods when describing Ragnar’s investigation – such as building a “Profile” for the suspect, as Ranger had learnt in “College”. I am not sure whether it was as appropriate for the story, but I am keeping an open mind here.

One also cannot ignore the obvious similarities between the first volume of northlanders and this second one. Both protagonists in both volumes were supplanted from their lands and status. Both are extraordinary warriors who can take just about anything or anyone, and both choose to live on the fringes of society and embark on a killing rampage against their usurpers. Both volumes have slightly annoying and sloppy plot inaccuracies. For example in this volume, three bodies are depicted in the opening scene of the book, while the characters speak only of two.

Vertigo Northlanders 2

A bunch of good things can be said about this story by writer Brian Wood. It is realistic rather than fantastic. Though it does focus on extraordinary individuals, It attempts to give the readers a taste of the overwhelming effects of cultural clashes and assimilation in this era, through the eyes of extremely interesting and complex characters.

Alas, the story is not without downfalls. It holds a surprising twist towards the end, which would generally be considered a good thing, unless it is not properly built up during the earlier stages of the plot, thus making it hard to follow when it finally hits you at the end story. I found the ending so confusing that I had to re-read it several times over – and still felt that the story had holes and wrapped up too quickly.
Vertigo Northlanders 2

The art by illustrator Ryan Kelly is truly beautiful. Though the first volume was illustrated by a different artist, this second volume tries to keep a similar style in depicting the wrinkled, scarred, bruised and bearded Viking warriors. Especially notable are the characters of Magnus and Ragnar, skillfully created in a way that is both impressively rough and extremely expressive.

Colorist Dave McCaig (he also worked on the first volume) continues to successfully create a sense of urgency and hardship, by using dark colors that make you feel as if it is always sunset or night, and not forgetting the dominating shades of green – it is Ireland after all. I may have seen other, more flashy art in comics, but this art has blood and it has sweat, and most importantly it has soul.

I have mixed feeling in regards to this comic. On one hand it was a grim standalone story with a confusing end. On the other hand it has a unique style, interesting characters with great art to my taste. This makes it a fairly good read, and I actually feel compelled to go on to the third volume.

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  • BoobieleBoobiele

    interesting story. great graphic. sure to put it on my list