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Dave McCaig

Black Road: The Holy North

Black Road continues Brian Wood’s take on emo Vikings. Set in Norway in AD 1000, Magnus The Black is a warrior who discovers a secret among the new Christian priests who are laying waste to the Norskk culture and landscape. This isn’t an extension of Northlanders, instead this series is set up to be a mystery thriller and not as historically accurate.

Magnus is a bear of a man, who respects his pagan upbringing, yet realizes that Christianity is taking over the region and wants to help his people through the transition. However, this makes his unpopular with both sides, as neither fully trust him. A former soldier, he is grieving the loss of his beloved wife and wants reassurances from the Catholic priests that they will be reunited in Heaven together. He takes on a job of escorting a Cardinal from the Vatican up the “Black Road” to a new compound up North. The job goes sideways, and he joins up with Julia, the Cardinal’s adopted daughter and the local blacksmith, Kitta, to finish the journey northward. There they find a rogue priest, Bishop Oakenfort, who wishes to shift the power of the Vatican from Rome to Norway and for him to be in charge. Chaos ensues.

I’d also like to know Wood’s true view on Christianity and about his faith journey, as many of his works portray the Church in a very negative light. While historically accurate in many respects, his bleak and dark views only show the negative side of this era’s conversions, and is not a balanced viewpoint. But I obviously find it fascinating, as I keep on reading his graphic novels.

The artwork was solid, by Garry Brown who did the artwork for Wood’s The Massive series.  His style is rather blocky, which doesn’t always translate for faces, yet his backgrounds are detailed and the Scandinavian landscapes are well drawn.  Dave McCraig does the coloring, as he did for the entire Northlanders series, and effectively guides you through the changing chronology with color changes to signal Magnus’s flashbacks. I read the compilation of the series, which included V1-The Holy North & V2-A Pagan Death.  At the end of the book it included a mock up of the first issue, after which Wood changed direction and re-wrote parts of it, which was interesting to see the evolution of the story.

This Norse saga will appeal to all Northlanders fans, although like I said earlier, it is not a continuation of that series. Magnus The Black is a layered individual with conflicting desires, and this story has the potential to say something fresh about faith and conversion, so while I doubt the series will continue, I’d read more if it does.

-Nancy

Wood, Brain & Garry Brown. Black Road: The Holy North. 2018.
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Northlanders: Books Six & Seven

Brian Wood’s Northlanders saga has drawn to a close. Seven books have given us intimate portraits of Viking individuals and families through out the years, in three geographic areas- Iceland, Europe and the Anglo-Saxon regions. I am sad that this series has come to an end, and will miss these emo, petulant and violent warriors!

Thor’s Daughter and Other Stories: Book Six 

The Siege of Paris– The longest of the three stories is set Paris in AD 885 and is based on an actual historical battle that was documented by Monk Abbo Cernuus, a character in this story. Told from the perspective of Danish soldier of fortune Mads, he and the other Viking soldiers prepare for a long siege.  Despite only a small army defending Paris, they manage to put off the Viking fleet. Mads is able to cut off their supplies and a battle ensues, but a political settlement is reached and the soldiers end up fighting in vain. Illustrated by Simon Gane, the rough and cartoonish looking drawings were not to my liking.

The Hunt– A hunter, whose wife and children have left him to live in the city due to unusually cold winters in the wilderness, tracks a deer through wintry Sweden in AD 1000. Defiantly bitter about it, he obsessively hunts the deer wanting to prove to himself that he is still a provider. The artwork by Matthew Woodson is decent with some nice landscapes.

Thor’s Daughter– Set on an island in the Outer Hebrides, islands off the coast of Scotland, in AD 990 we meet Birna Thorsdottir, the daughter of the man who owns the island. A tough teen, she is still caught unaware when her father is ambushed and killed by some of his guards. Kicked out of her home she seeks other guards that still remain loyal to her family. She ultimately gets revenge, but there is a huge gap in the story to explain how she persevered and claimed her birthright. The artwork by Marion Churchland was lacking and the short story was not strong enough to deserve the title of Book Six.

The Icelandic Trilogy: Book Seven

This last book details a family’s rise and fall through several generations in Iceland beginning in AD 871 and ending in AD 1260. Three artists are utilized- Paul Azaceta, Declan Shalvey and Danijel Zezelj- as we move through the different eras.

We begin with Norwegian immigrant Val Hauker, whom with his wife and son Ulf, settle on the empty shores of Iceland. Within a year other immigrants begin to move there too, but Val wishes to establish dominance as he was there first. After a violent run-in with the Belgarsson clan, Val wishes to teach Ulf a lesson on how to be strong against future attacks, but he goes too far and turns Ulf into a sociopath. Time passes and Ulf grows up and he consolidates power so his family can reap the riches of the region. He frees an Irish slave and takes her as his wife, and their bloodthirsty ways grow. However, I do not understand how Ulf becomes so powerful- why would other settlers align with his small family in the beginning? While this establishes the beginning of the Hauksson dynasty, I did not buy it.

Skipping ahead to AD 999 we meet the fifth generation of the Hauksson’s, brother and sister Brida and Mar. There is a Game of Thrones vibe here,  including a sexually charged relationship between the siblings. When Mar leaves to loot among the southern coast, the Belgarsson clan aligns with the growing group of Christians in the area, putting the Haukssons at risk. Brida needs backup so she finds the illegitimate son of her father,  hoping her half brother Ott can help strengthen her position. When a converted Mar returns, the twins fight over how Christianity is changing traditional Icelandic ways, but Mar argues that they must join with them if they want to stay dominant. At the height of their family’s power, this is a turning point for them, and the siblings need to adjust accordingly.

The final jump is to tenth generation heir Godar and his impetuous son Oskar in AD 1260. Godar is a steady man who is documenting his family’s linage and has the riches of his family in stable holdings, now that the family no longer has to go to war to retain their power. However, Oskar wishes for glory and makes a power play so he and his allies can fight soldiers from Norway who are encroaching on Iceland. But things don’t go as planned, and after several failed military maneuvers, Oskar loses the confidence of those he leads. The Hauksson family is now in decline, 400 years after settlement, but the family name lives on…

I am a huge fan of much of Brian Wood’s work, especially Briggs Land and Rebels, and this sometimes uneven series further cemented him as one of my favorite authors. Some stories were obviously stronger than others, but the problem I had was the inconsistent artwork. Illustrators like Leandro Fernandez, Becky Cloonan and Ryan Kelly were excellent, others were horrible. Dave McCraig, the colorist throughout the series, did the best with what he was given and kept to an earth tone palette which brought some consistency to the varying art styles. I loved every single work of cover art by Massimo Carnevale and wish he had illustrated some if not all of the stories. Wood shines with his historical fiction series, and you can tell he does his research, although he often will put in modern sensibilities into his work. His interpretation of Viking history is one you don’t want to miss!

-Nancy

Read my reviews on: Book One, Books Two + Three, Books Four + Five

Northlanders: Books Four & Five

Northlanders continues to wow, after my initial rough start with Book One. The fourth book in the seven book series was my absolute favorite!

The Plague Widow: Book Four

The story takes place in the frozen Volga region in AD 1020. A plague has come to the seven hundred person settlement in October, and as winter has started, burials in the cold ground are impossible so pyres of dozens of bodies are lit to dispose of the diseased bodies. Frantic with worry the inhabitants listen to their elderly leader plus the local priest Boris. Boris counsels strongly that the settlement go under quarantine and those who show any sickness be banished so those remaining may live. But what they don’t take into account is how claustrophobia sets in, and they find they locked the greater danger inside their walls with them.

Hilda, a young beautiful widow with an eight year old daughter, is caught in the crosshairs as her former status as a wealthy woman is stripped when her husband dies of the plague. Destitute, with a long winter ahead, she struggles to survive and is targeted by Gunborg, who is the second in command and has it out for her after she votes against him in council. Two other men want her as a wife, but each man has different motivations and their jealousy of one another results in bloodshed. A final battle between Boris and Gunborg comes to a head, and Hilda and her daughter are given a chance to escape.

The art by Leandro Fernandez is a perfect match to the story. He captures the isolation of a Viking settlement shown mostly in dull colors with overlays of blue wash, which effectively shows the icy coldness of Russian winters. Some of the changing artists in this Northlanders series have not been to my liking, but the pairing of this excellent story with Fernandez’s precise artwork made this a winner.

Metal and Other Stories: Book Five

After how much I loved The Plague Widow, this book turned out to be disappointing in comparison. Metal is the long middle story, with two much shorter stories book-ending it.

The Sea Road

Illustrated by Fiona Staples who is now known for the Saga series, this short story takes place on the open sea in AD 760. Captain Dag is running cargo along the coast when he suddenly decides to turn the tiller and sends him and his crew westward towards the unknown. Putting his men at risk on a moments whim, he wishes for greater glory but instead encounters storms, mutiny and crew members experiencing hallucinations and going berserker. When they finally make landfall on Greenland, the few surviving members are met with treachery by the captain and their epic journey is for naught. This was an interesting take to show that many unknown sailors died ignobly with their discoveries unrecorded.

Metal

I recently read Boxers & Saints, about how Christianity changed China forever, and how many fought the new religion as it significantly changed their culture and resulted in many old traditions being outlawed.  So it was quite a coincidence that a week later I read another graphic novel story about Christianity changing Norway in AD 700.

Erik is a young blacksmith who is tied to traditional Norse Gods and is against his settlement allowing a new Christian church to be built. He watches as priests and nuns move in, along with a teenaged albino girl whom the nuns mistreat. In the night Erik burns down the church but first rescues the girl Ingrid and they run off together. The story then becomes a Bonnie and Clyde caper, with a strange magical realism aspect, that doesn’t match the rest of the series of realistic fiction. There was no subtlety, it was just Eric slaughtering any Christians he encountered, so the reader could not take his side at all in his wanting the Nordic Viking traditions to live on.

The art by Riccardo Burchielli was awful. Not only was I unable to get into the story, but the people he drew were grotesque looking. Erik is drawn as a hulking troll, not even resembling a human (the picture in this post makes him look normal, the rest of the series does not). Ingrid is drawn slightly better, but there are some sequences that she was drawn so horribly, and I didn’t understand why. In the concluding pages, Erik is drawn so differently that I question if the same artist drew him.

The Girl In The Ice

The best of the three stories is illustrated by Becky Cloonan and is a character study of an Icelandic fisherman set in AD 1240. Jon is an elderly widower who discovers a young girl frozen in the lake ice. He carves her out and brings her back home to investigate who she is and how she died. With no obvious trauma on her body to explain her death, he doesn’t understand why no alarm in the nearby settlement would have been sounded when a girl went missing.  Soon some patrolling soldiers discover Jon trying to hide the body and take him into custody believing he is the killer. He is taken into town to be tried for the murder, and we learn how the girl came to be in the ice. It ends on quite the melancholy note.

I have the last two volumes on hold and look forward to wrapping this series up. My only real complaint is that the art in the various volumes is so inconsistent. While I liked the first and last illustrators in this book and the cover art throughout by Massimo Carnevale was top notch, when a story has sub par art the entire story suffers.

-Nancy

Book One

Book Two & Three

Book Six & Seven

Huck: All-American

Millar, Mark, Rafael Albuquerque & DaveMcCaig. Huck: All-American. 2016.

There are a few library’s graphic novel collections that I scope out, to see what titles they have, and compare my work library’s collection against it as to help me make purchasing decisions. When I spotted this title at my home library, written by Mark Millar who is famous for Civil War, Red Son and Old Man Logan, I snatched it up to read it. Why hadn’t I heard about it? Well…it turns out it is because it is “the feel-good comic of the year”, aka it is saccharine, light and completely forgettable.

Huck is a behemoth of a guy, but a literal gentle giant. We find out he is an orphan who was left on the doorstep of an orphanage, and now works at a gas station. He has secret powers and uses them to do good deeds around his community, whose residents keep his secret. A woman who has recently moved to town spills the beans to the news, and suddenly the world knows about his abilities. A local politician tries to harness Huck’s powers for his own benefit, and to use him as a conduit to the president. However, Huck’s outing has garnered more attention across the world in Russia. Huck, an earnest and trusting man, is contacted by a bearded man who says he is his twin and that they should try to find their mother. Without spoiling anything, it’s pretty obvious this man is not who he says he is, and Huck’s origin story is explained in the last third of the book.

There are obvious parallels to the Superman story, and I did appreciate the uncomplicated nature of Huck, with him being a true superhero without all the brooding and infighting with other heroes, but the story was too predictable. The artwork is attractive with a warm color palette of yellows, reds and oranges, but is fairly standard in layout. There were a lot of close ups of Huck’s face, with him looking confused and/or simple minded, and too much mocking dialogue about how he was only a gas station attendant.

At the end of the story we get a two page “Meet The Creators” spread, which was actually nice, to see the people beside Millar and Albuquerque get shout-outs. But in Millar’s bio it lists his works that have or are in production to be turned into feature films, and Huck is listed as one of them in development. What?? There is not enough plot, for it is paper thin, and seemed rather resolved to me at the end. While this wasn’t a bad graphic novel per se, it just didn’t seem like a Mark Millar story, which are typically more epic in scope. This book will not be making the cut for me to purchase for my library’s collection.

-Nancy

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