Northlanders TPB Vol. 4: The Plague Widow

by on Nov.08, 2010, under Comics

Brian Wood has been on fire this year. After a stretch in which his titles seemed to be stagnating, he’s come back with the eighth volume of DMZ, which I already praised to the skies, and now this fourth volume of Northlanders, The Plague Widow.

Northlanders has been Wood’s attempt to revive the Viking genre with a little more historical accuracy than it’s usually been afforded. Rather than employing a mythical, eternal Viking North, he’s set his books at specific times, in specific places, which has allowed him to make use of actual medieval politics as a backdrop. The first volume, for example, Sven the Returned, had a hero coming home to Orkney after years in the center of civilization at the time—Constantinople. The second, The Cross and the Hammer, was set against the Norse occupation of Ireland in 1016.

All of the tales in the series have featured lone warriors, or perhaps a few fighters, waging guerrilla campaigns against vastly superior forces. But in the third volume, made up of short stories, it seemed like Wood was grasping for ways to make that narrative fresh again, and not necessarily succeeding.

Here in the fourth volume he has. We’re in a small settlement somewhere on the Volga. A plague is sweeping up and down the river, carried by trading ships. An outside adviser convinces the town’s leader of the revolutionary notion that disease is contagious rather than an act of God, so the settlement drives its sick out into the snow to die and seals its walls.

The protagonist, Hilda, is a young woman whose husband has just died of the plague, and the book is quite simply the story of her trying to survive the long winter and protect her daughter. Cut off from the outside world, the town’s supplies dwindle, and its strongest armed men exert power over their neighbors more and more tyrannically. Artist Leandro Fernandez hems us in with interior scenes that look crowded and stuffy, exterior scenes drawn entirely in bleak shades of blue.

This is in a way the same story as before, a lone hero facing overwhelming odds. But unlike Wood’s previous Viking heroes, Hilda isn’t strong or cunning. She simply hangs on, sometimes gets a bit lucky, and suffers when she must, as when one man forces her to walk across the settlement, in the snow, in bare feet and a light dress. By the end Wood has put her, and the reader, through the wringer, and while she makes it, she has to begin to worry about what effect all this trauma will have on her daughter.

This is genre fiction done as well as anything I’ve read this year. Brian Wood has gone from promising newcomer when he first published Demo in 2003 to legitimately one of the best writing any kind of comic today.

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