by Brian Wood (writer), Vasilis Lolos (art), Dave McCaig (colors), Travis Lanham (letters)

The Story: Two vikings, champions for their respective lords, meet in a battle to the death on an icy plain.

The Good: Wow. Just wow… This issue is truly a work of art and a testament to what a writer can do with 22 pages. It is an experimental done-in-one that succeeds in everything it tries to accomplish.

If you’ve not read Northlanders before, this issue captures the spirit of Wood’s view on Vikings. It encapsulates the very paradox that Wood continually traverses in this book, that bizarre mixture of bleak nothingness and warrior heroism. The comic perfectly presents the life of the Northlander as being one that is both paradoxical and cyclical. Is the Northlander’s life glorious in its purity and simplicity, or is that very purity nothing more than a facade for meaninglessness? At the end of the issue, astute readers will realize that an answer to this question is never really given, nor should one be. The whole viking existence is defined by this ambiguity and ambivalence.

Wood achieves this message through a stunning balancing act in his writing. Containing more or less no dialogue, Wood makes extensive use of a narrator through various text-boxes. The narrator’s tone again showcases the strengths of Northlanders; the voice is at once very contemporary and understated, while somehow capable of channeling the spirit of a grizzled veteran raider. The information that this narrator relays is an incredibly diverse array of biographic information of the characters, the nature of viking life itself, technical (well-researched) details regarding viking weaponry and tactics, and finally, quotations from the sagas. What you ultimately get is a feeling that the very specific (these two warriors) comes to be representative of something much larger than Viking life itself. In turn, it comes to be an expression of fundamental aspects of human nature. It’s remarkably intelligent, stunning work.

All the more impressive is how this juggling actually lends itself to a chronological progression. The comments on viking life in general go from the young conscript, to the grizzled raider, to the retired farmer wishing for it all to end. Which in turn mirrors the details of one of the warrior’s (Egil) own life, a bold 16-yr-old raider turned broken down warrior.  It’s all remarkably cyclical; it’s a rise and decline in an uncaring world that maintains the same pace regardless.

The Not-so-Good: Despite the art fitting Wood’s writing incredibly well, Lolos’ art may prove divisive.  If you demand hardcore realism and detail in your comics, you won’t find it here. Lolos’ style definitely has a “sketchbook” feel, seeming to intentionally throw modern comic “polish” to the wind for a book that is neither modern nor polished. In the end, Lolos’ art manages to keep pace for the most part by really fitting the tone of the story:  it’s ugly, brutal, and, thanks in no small part to McCaig’s colors, very, very bleak.  It’s not complex or refined in the slightest, but then, neither is the viking.

Conclusion: An astonishingly good comic that shows what can be done with 22 pages.  This may very well go down as one of the best single issues of the year.

Grade: A

-Alex Evans