Coming Home In The Dark Ages

sven deer 80.jpg A soldier returns home to tend to affairs after the death
of his father. Sound familiar?

It
did to me, too, but in Northlanders: Sven the Returned it’s a good thing.

Set
in the Orkney Islands and Constantinople in 980 CE, Sven the Returned (Vertigo, 2008) is part of writer Brian Wood’s continuing series about the people usually
called vikings, their lands and occupied territories and the people
fighting them between roughly 700 and 1100 CE, aka, Europe’s Dark
Ages. Northlanders was conceived as a series of alternating eight- and
two-issue storylines. Wood collaborates with a different artist each
story.Set
in the Orkney Islands and Constantinople in 980 CE. Davide Gianfelice illustrates Sven the Returned
and returns himself for the 2009 one-shot, “Sven the Immortal”
(#20). Dave
McCaig
colors every issue, gorgeously.

Breaking
with Viking comic tradition, Wood uses modern language in
Northlanders.
No matter how many die, no grief-stricken character says anything
like Thor
does here
:

“Hear
me, you elements! Hear me, storms! Rise up in your wrath! A warrior
hath died this day and you shall carry him to his destiny! No longer
Eilif the Lost, but Eilif the Dragonslayer! Strike now! And fire this
holy mound!”

I’m
not criticizing Thor’s speech. After all, awesome is beyond good and
bad. His kind of language helps readers lose themselves in a
stylized, heightened past—or epic now—and marks the long, long
ago. But the modern English works.

Wood
also uses genres often used in Twentieth and Twenty-First century
settings: homecomings, heists, homicide investigations.
In fact, Sven the Returned reminds me of the kind of
story where a successful goateed urban hipster returns to his small
town home, disdaining small town life but then rediscovering his
roots and finding himself along the way, or so the cheesy trailer
might say. Heartwarming. It could be any number of holiday movies. It
could even star John Cusack.

sven deer 250.jpgBut
the short story arcs remind me of old war anthology comics,
which told individual stories from different times all united by a
common theme: war. And Sven
the Returned
does have some
resonance with stories of a soldier coming home and fighting for
what’s his, like say, First Blood.
Except while Sven is a vet, he is not just trying to go home. He
is not pushed too far, or at least, he does some of the pushing
himself. And his deerhunting is very different than The Deerhunter.

Sven
is a cosmopolitan Norseman returning to Orkney after living in
Constantinople for many years. He likes the city. He has a life
there. He’s a soldier in the Emperor’s elite Varangian Guard. He
likes his goatee. He likes his modern open relationship with his
modern, wealthy Byzantine girlfriend. He even says so:

“She
had other men. I had other women. These were modern times in a
modern city. Should not relationships be modern, too?” (#5)

Sven’s
an atheist who believes in making his own fate, disdaining the desire
to die sword in hand in order to enter Valhalla but using the fear of
dying swordless against his enemies. Sven is complicated and not
very likeable, but he’s engaging because he is an asshole and an
asshole I recognize. He is embarrassed by his roots and his podunk
home town, well, settlement. He does not like Orkney or its people.
He plans to come home just long enough to take his father’s gold, not
to avenge his father or to help the people by killing his shifty,
usurping uncle, Gorm. But Sven’s plan goes wrong, as they usually do,
mostly because he thinks he can waltz in and take the money. And
Sven ends up caring about his people despite himself, as anti-heroes
usually do. It’s just that he finds himself through fighting, loss
and blood and not the singing of all the Who’s down in Whoville. It
is a Viking story after all, with Norsemen, Saxons and one lone Scot
and Constantinople and a helluva lot of beautifully inked and colored
blood.

So
yes, my idea for Sven the Returned as a holiday story is crazy, but I think that many of the seemingly
anachronistic elements Wood uses, whether characters that say, “Can
we talk?” or homecoming/heist plotlines, give the story immediacy.
Sure, anachronisms can get ugly, but Sven
the Returned
isn’t. The characters feel authentic and
comprehensible, while the setting is historically accurate. Sometimes
in historical recreations, the characters are presented as less
intelligent or sophisticated than people now. It’s easy to patronize
the past. It’s hard to get a sense of past people’s humanity, a sense
of both their similarity and difference, across time and space and
culture. Northlanders does,
even when it’s just an asshole hipster from the big city coming home.

~~~

Carol Borden will see you in Valhalla.

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