"Sven the Returned," the title lead of the first eight issues of Brian Wood's (Demo, DMZ) new Vertigo Viking series, Northlanders, is not a nice guy. The Norseman, who we first meet commanding a ship near Constantinople circa 980 AD, is the kind of avaricious plunderer who'd feel quite at home in the current mafia. It's Wood's entertaining conceit, in fact, to treat both Sven and his rival uncle (the aptly named Gorm) like competing gangland bosses right down to the modern hard-boiled language. "No matter how he tries to spin it," our quasi-hero thinks at one point, "Gorm's running an illegal operation."
What Sven's villainous uncle has done, a lá Denmark's King Claudius, is kill Sven's chieftain father and take over the Northland settlement of Grimness Bay. Wielding old talismans ("He'd used this dark magic sh_t to scare us as children," Sven thinks as he approaches his old home through a landscape of speared skeletons. "I see it still works.") and evoking the ancient gods, Gorm rules the settlement with an iron hand, treating his people as slaves. This sorry state means little to our protagonist, though, who's mainly returned to Grimness to claim his inheritance and then head back to the more civilized Constantinople. None too surprisingly, his uncle has no intention of passing any family riches over to Sven. He views Sven's shaven face ("like a baby's arse") as a sign of decadence, though since we've already seen his nephew in bloody battle, we know that Gorm is fatally underestimating the young man.
The first issue does a tidy job setting up this basic storyline and our two antagonists, though aside from a mysterious lady archer who makes an unspoken appearance near the end of the chapter, the only Northlanders to make an impression are Sven and Gorm. If anything, in the hands of artist Davide Gianfelice, the landscape proves a more compelling character than either of the story's posturing manlymen. Rendered in fine penned vistas, the harsh northern climate is so evocatively conveyed that when Sven gets left to die in the frozen wilderness, the moment is more suspenseful than it has a right to be. This is, after all, an eight-part story, so we know our man won't snuff it in the first ish.
Northlanders' action is energetically blood-spattered and its dialog believably foul-mouthed. This is not a comic book series for young readers, though I suspect that if I'd come across it as a tween-aged boy, I would've thought that it was nearly as cool as the men's mags my father had cached in his basement tool cabinet. (Hey, this was in those benighted days before the Internet and telecable.) If Sven's path as the initially unwilling savior of his people seems an overly familiar one, Wood & Gianfelice bring plenty of snap and visual pulp to the proceedings. The two-page panel where our antagonists re-meet for the first time is particularly ripe with the promise of spirited mayhem to come. Here's hoping the next seven issues fulfill that promise.