Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Northlanders #42

Cover by Massimo Carnevale

Northlanders #42 (July 13, 2011)
Writer: Brian Wood
Penciller: Paul Azaceta
Colorist: Dave McCraig
Letterer: Travis Lanham

I picked up Northlanders #42 mostly because it was part one of The Icelandic Trilogy and if I love anything, it’s part ones.

Also, I’ve become increasingly interested in non-superhero comics (though my first tentative forays into graphic novels were non-superhero actually) and, as a huge history buff, I was curious to see how a period of time that I know next to nothing about would be portrayed in a comic.

Wood crafted an intense storyline: in 871, a family consisting of a father, mother and son, Ulf, arrive on the rocky shores of Iceland after being driven out of their native Norway. They’re completely alone as they build a new life for themselves in the harsh terrain of Iceland but within a few years, more Norwegians arrive, turning their new home into a settlement. Tensions mount and violent fights break out over land and families. Ulf’s father decides it’s time to toughen his son up so he can face the unforgiving realities of life in the settlement. So he severely beats Ulf for several hours straight.

It was pretty extreme and, like the rest of the issue, quite unpleasant to read. Nonetheless, I was aware of Wood’s strength as a writer. He managed to take a group of people from a past and culture that I am completely not familiar with and feel no connections to and portray them as both believable and engaging. I didn’t necessarily like anyone in this issue but that wasn’t the point. In fact, I’m quite sure Wood didn’t want the reader to like any of the characters. Rather, he was focused on portraying a distinct moment in time with all of its harsh realities all while packing a powerful punch.

In fact, Ulf is a decidedly awful character. The beginning of the issue saw him as still quite young and therefore simply trying to survive with his family. By the time he is beaten by his father, he is an angry and now dangerous young man. The beating he endured changed both his character and the course of the issue (and I’m sure, the rest of the run as well). Following it, he became cold, distant and capable of astonishing violence.

I did feel, however, that Wood placed a little too much emphasis on Ulf’s beating. I have no doubt in my mind that being severely beaten by one’s father would tremendously affect you, most likely negatively. I simply felt that Wood’s use of this experience as a catalyst for the narrative was quite frankly, something I’ve seen before in what I like to call the Alan Moore Effect.

Basically, I’ve noticed that Alan Moore is fond of having characters go through a traumatic event that irrevocably alters them, typically for the worse. There is typically minor disturbing events before this cataclysmic one but there is still clearly a before and an after. In Alan Moore’s works, these include: a failed comedian with a dead wife falls into a vat of acid and becomes the Joker; the prisoner in room 5 is tortured and blows up his cell and becomes V; a vigilante fails in returning a kidnapped child alive to her parents and becomes the unpredictable and dangerous Rorschach, etc. Ulf, in turn, went through a transformative experience and is suddenly capable of stabbing his mother to death for no reason.

I was shocked by the brutality of this conclusion. I know this was Wood’s intent but I nonetheless couldn’t understand why Ulf killed his mother. She was just telling him to come inside from the cold! Again, I understand that most of the shock of this murder stems from the irrationality of it. Ulf, after being beaten by his father, is now as sociopathic as other comic book villains, only he’s the protagonist.

Also, as a female comic book reader, it was just wince-inducing to see the one central female character (who was barely central at all) killed off so viciously and callously by her own child. Let’s be honest, if Ulf should’ve killed either of his parents, you would think it would’ve been his father. But then again, the entire purpose of his beating was to teach Ulf that violence is power and power is more important than anything else on the settlement.

Azaceta’s art, meanwhile, was very strong and emphasized the severe and isolated landscape of Iceland, along with McCraig’s stark coloring. It was quite unlike other comics out there, which I appreciated.

Now, I just have to decide if I should pick up the rest of the series if only just to see if Ulf continues down this violent and thoroughly unpleasant path.

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