by Brian Wood (writer), Davide Gianfelice (art), Dave McCaig (colors), and Travis Lanham (letters)

For those that don’t know, Brian Wood’s Viking-themed Northlanders works in completely isolated story-arcs.  As a result, this trade actually functions more like an original graphic novel.  Wood has actually pushed for Northlanders trades to be without numbering for this very reason.

Sven the Returned is the first of these tales and in some ways, it shows.  Much as I felt regarding the first trade of Wood’s other Vertigo series, DMZ, much of this book reads like a bit of a feeling out process on Wood’s part, as he gets used to his own series.  While that’s not to say that the writing is sloppy, it does mean that everything feels a bit simpler and more straightforward than what Wood normally produces.  In fact, this book feels much more basic even than later Northlanders issues.  While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, the fact remains that most of this book feels like little more than a gloriously violent, historical actioner following a fairly standard revenge plot.  While it definitely does succeed on this level, I don’t think we would have been wrong to hope for more.

Worse still, for most of the book, none of the characters are particularly nuanced.  Sven himself is essentially the unstoppable badass warrior who also wins through having a sounder tactical mind than his opponent.  Meanwhile, although his battle expertise does lead to some engaging captions, Enna is not anything particularly unique.  The same goes for the tyrannical Gorm, his murderous henchman, and Sven’s old flame…who is pretty much as stereotypical an “old flame” character as you can get – a seductress who now belongs to Sven’s enemy.  Meanwhile, you have Enna, who spends the majority of the book as the typical silent femme fatale.

That said, despite this simplicity, there are nuances.  Sven’s use of Gorm’s superstition and religious beliefs to terrorize his nemesis is well-done, leading to one of the coolest, and goriest, scenes of the book.  The clash of the old with Sven’s modernity is a nice touch.

Now, at this point, this trade may sound like a mediocre book worthy of being passed over.  That may very well be the case for the first five issues of this eight-issue collection.  However, in issue six, the book takes a sudden, massive upswing in quality in a manner so ingenious, that it reminds us of what Wood is capable of.  Wood essentially has Sven call out his own graphic novel.

Sven, around issue six or seven, comes to the realization of how pointless the entire book has become thus far, in its typical Viking characters and standard revenge/money centred drive.  Wood thus turns the graphic novel on its head by essentially having Sven call the entire tale into question.  When he does, the intelligence and depth of the book skyrockets.  Sven becomes much more of an individual and far more unique as a character, while the somewhat bland plot of earlier is completely abandoned.  The simple revenge plot is dumped by Sven as being meaningless and small and the book suddenly takes on a completely different plot, one that is far more grandiose and ambitious, treating issues of nationhood, solidarity, and culture.  Gorm becomes an afterthought, and old enemies now become friends, as their stereotypical rivalry of earlier is done away with when their roles and relationships come to be redefined by a new plot.

It’s unfortunate, however, that Wood uses a little bit of deus ex machina to create such a shift in the book.  It takes the arrival of a greater enemy in an event that is just far too perfectly and conveniently timed.  But given how much the book improves subsequently, I can’t gripe too much about this.

While the story’s quality may be divided down the middle, I can however say that Davide Gianfelice’s art is consistently amazing.  I’ve always loved his work and this book bears his trademarks.  Oddly blending an indisputably cartoony look with harsh, realistic environments and a good amount of piss and vinegar, it’s a very strange mix that leads to a wonderful contrast and a perfect balance.  That such a cartoony style is able to carry such maturity and grittiness frankly baffles me.  Gianfelice’s sprawling splashes of Orkney landscapes are also an absolute marvel, evoking a sublime effect combining awesome barrenness and sweeping beauty.  Dave McCaig’s colouring is also perfect for Gianfelice, adding a sort of grainy texture to the entire trade.

Ultimately, this is a rather strange book.  It carves out a very simple action story with simple characters and a simple plot and bumps along as such for the first 60% of the book.  Then, in the last three chapters, Sven, and hence Wood, essentially dump this all in the trash, openly criticizing it for its simplicity, meaninglessness, and pointlessness before switching to a plot/conflict that is far more grand.  This doesn’t change the fact that the first 60% of the book are nonetheless nothing special, but I do have to admire Wood for his gall and what appears to be metafictional self-criticism, as a character takes apart his own story and builds a better one.

Grade: B

*This trade collects #1-8 w/ covers.  I also recommend hunting down #20, which is a one-shot revisiting Sven and Enna several years after the events of this book.

-Alex Evans