When Brooklyn-based comic book creator Brian Wood was asked to think outside his comfort zone, which is decidedly urban and somewhat futuristic, he reached for the Vikings.
“I looked at the books on my bookshelf,” he says, “and saw this book about the Vikings and thought perhaps I could do something on them.”
Wood never read comic books as a youngster, discovering them instead as an adult and thereby bypassing that seemingly important boyish stage of superhero adoration. He began his career as an illustrator rather than a writer, but slowly transitioned when he realized he wasn’t speedy enough to become a comic book artist. At the time he looked over his bookshelf for that Viking book, he was an accomplished writer and graphic designer whose portfolio included comic books like "DMZ,"Demo" and “Local.”
“I guess I was always interested in the Vikings,” he says. “How can a boy not be? So when I was asked to pitch a new monthly, I began doing a lot of research. I actually over-researched, I read everything. I went to Iceland and that trip was very important, because I visited the museum with wax figures featuring scenes from the Icelandic sagas, and I saw the Godafoss waterfall, where the Vikings threw their statues of Norse gods when they converted to Christianity.”
He also fell in love with the landscape, the harsh, rugged landscape and the romantic notion of people struggling to survive there. Eventually his research developed into “Northlanders,” a comic book series with separate fictional stories set in and around historical events during the Viking Age.
“The complexity at the time of the Vikings I find fascinating,” Wood says. “There was this enormous change in history, and the Vikings were a huge part of that change. As Christianity was on the rise and paganism receded, the Vikings were practical and pragmatic people. They didn’t hesitate to change religions in order to more easily assimilate. A nice change from the crusaders, for example.”
Wood’s Viking stories, illustrated by various artists, take place in that gap between the old and the new, between heathens and Christians. In his first book, “Sven The Returned” we meet Sven, a Norseman’s Hamlet who is in Constantinople when he finds out his father has been killed and his uncle Gorm has taken over, thus usurping Sven’s birthright. Sven returns home, claiming he wants his father’s money but that his uncle can keep the responsibility and the power. It’s a violent story set in a time when men were men and women exotic femme fatale types. The writing is rather violent, too. Wood reflects on the aggression of the Vikings:
“Were they unusually aggressive or were they just doing what they had to do in order to survive? Maybe they were simply running out of habitable land, maybe they were desperate? It’s hard to tell.”
Since the trip to Iceland, Wood has also visited Norway, where he made a point of visiting the museum that houses the enormous Oseberg Viking ship.
“I find it interesting that Scandinavia today is one of the most peaceful places in the world,” he says. “Whatever happened to the brutality of the Vikings? When did all that change?”
That’s the million-dollar question.
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