Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Graphic Lit: An interview with Brian Wood

Most of writer Brian Wood’s comics tend to take place either in the present day (“Local”) or in the near future (“DMZ”), so it’s a little surprising to see his latest work take place in the distant past.

The Viking past, to be specific, since his new monthly series, “Northlanders,” trades urban landscapes for longboats and swords as Wood and artist Davide Gianfelice introduce us to Sven, a twentysomething warrior who’s come home from Constantinople to reclaim his inheritance and overthrow his evil and corrupt uncle.

I chatted with Wood over e-mail about his new series. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: Why Vikings? What attracted you to the subject matter?

A: The book's all about societal change, about the old versus the new. The first millennium, where this first story takes place, is the tipping point for Europe, where the Dark Ages gave way to rapid globalization, such as it was. When Christianity really began to take off, replacing the old pagan religions. Where new ship technology opened up trade and exploration and colonization. New societies were formed, like the Normans, and the east literally collided with the west. I can't think of anything more ripe for a writer to work with.

All that coupled with a childhood fascination for Vikings and for that part of the world (Scotland, Iceland, etc) is what made me go outside my comfort zone and pitch this book.

Q: In the first issue Sven seems to be following a classic hero's journey. To what extent will you be playing with mythological elements of Viking culture?

A: No mythology in this book. Well, brief references to it here and there, but I'm treating it as I feel is the realistic way, like a superstition, not an all-encompassing thing. It's not like Thor where our hero wanders the land having a flowery conversation with the gods. Life was hard back then and people had to be more concerned with where their next meal was coming from than a whimsical folk religion. At least that's how I'm approaching it in "Northlanders."

Q: In the course of your research did you discover anything that either changed your impression of viking culture?

A: Oh, yeah, dozens of things. I did an excess of research and as a result have really more ideas than I could ever use. All of it just broadened my appreciation for this culture, and one thing that always comes back to mind is about the violent conquest and colonization they did. It wasn't about a ideology or religion or bigotry. They did what they did out of a simple and powerful need for land and food, just to survive. And once they had that land, they happily assimilated themselves into the native culture in order to keep the land peacefully. There's a certain pragmatism to that I can respect, especially considering what followed the Viking Age — the Crusades.

Q: I understand you plan on introducing different characters and storylines as the series continues. What made you decide to take this interesting tack with the comic and how did you decide upon which story would be first?

A: Sven really epitomizes the whole point of the series, which is to show this part of the world in flux, just as it was in real life, with Vikings as the engine of change. Europe was modernizing pretty rapidly, in large part because of the Norse and their technologies opening up new lands, new trade routes, new colonies.

Sven is the perfect example of a globalized sort of man, such as they were in 980 AD, who's rejected the old and is fully embracing this new world, new way of thinking, rejecting the old folky religions. His homeland, which is thrust back upon him, is the classic small town backwater, a relic of the dark ages. For that reason I wanted his story to introduce the series.

I've been writing self-contained fiction like this since 2003, when I created "Demo," which was a series of completely disconnected stories. There were no common story threads or characters. It was a fantastic experiment that really paid off, so I did it again in 2005 with "Local," which was nearly the same format but with a single recurring character.

"Northlanders" is an enlarged version of the "Demo" format, but instead of one-issue stories, they are eight-issue stories, completely self-contained from each other. I found I really like writing this way, that it keeps the book fresh and interesting, and that I can make it work.

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