Comic Picks By The Glick

Northlanders vol. 5: Metal

July 17, 2011

Writer Brian Wood returns to one of the series’ recurring themes, the impact of Christianity on the title characters, with the title story.  Though its description on the back cover cites “modern day ‘Viking’ black metal” as an influence, the end result reads like the writer let this influence get the better of his grounded sensibilities.  “Metal” is a tale that is both straightforward and familiar as a hulking and none-too-bright blacksmith in a small Icelandic town wages a one-man war against the incursion of Christianity into his homeland.  Aiding him in the fight is a young albino girl he rescues from some nuns and the goddess of the land, Hulda.  You’d think that last bit would be a bit of mushroom-induced madness, but the supernatural is quite real in this story.

It also proves to be the tale’s undoing in the end.  While the supernatural elements are at first presented to the reader in a way that suggests this is all happening in Erik the blacksmith’s mind, things happen in the last two issues to assure us that no, they are quite real.  It’s a jarring tonal shift in a series that has been thoroughly grounded in the real world up until now, and the story isn’t the better for having them.

That said, I’m not sure what the story would have without them as it’s presented in such a one-dimensional “good pagans vs. evil Christians” manner that it’s hard to care about either side.  Writer Brian Wood’s depiction of the missionaries doesn’t strike me as completely unrealistic, but their vices are presented in such a manner as to make them cartoonish villains.  However, there is one standout character in this arc:  Black Karl, a pagan mercenary hired by the Christians to track down Erik and his girlfriend.  Though he’s willing to take their money, he doesn’t put any stock in their beliefs and the scene where he spells it out to one of the nuns is the best part of the story.  Ultimately, I’m left with the feeling that if Wood had told the story through his eyes instead of zombifying him later one, “Metal” might’ve been one of the better arcs in the series.

Art is from Wood’s “DMZ” collaborator Riccardo Burchielli.  I’m conflicted on his work here because while I like his work on “DMZ” a great deal, here he seems to struggle with making the characters look misshapen and ugly in a way that has the reader thinking that it represents “stylistic exaggeration” than a miscast artist.  Sadly, the latter feels more true here.

The other stories collected here are a miixed bag as well.  “The Sea Road” is founded on an interesting idea, with some very nice art from Fiona Staples, as a trader seeks out new route for resources on the open sea.  It’s a personal fight against stagnation that ends tragically, and to my mind pointlessly as well.  We’re given a speech by the captain at the end that feels more like a ham-fisted way to add a deeper meaning to the story that simply isn’t there.

The final tale, “The Girl in the Ice” is the strongest one in this volume.  An old man on the fringes of society stumbles upon a girl frozen in an ice lake.  After freeing the young lady from her icy grave, he tries his best to find out how she died, but the local authorities come calling first.  It starts off feeling like an episode of “CSI:  700 A.D.” but the twist the story takes in its second half and the truth behind the girl’s fate do wind up presenting a more interesting take on the bonds of a community in this era.  In short, it winds up achieving the added depth that the previous stories lack.

Ultimately this volume is skippable for fans of this series.  The one good story here doesn’t make up for the two that are not.

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