The train brings me strange thoughts sometimes.
Today, reading something academic and completely unrelated to Vikings, violence, conquest or comics, I started thinking about the Northlanders arc that just wrapped up, The Cross + The Hammer. Since each arc on this book has been drawn by a different artist, I’ve taken to referring to them by the name of the artist. This was “Ryan Kelly Northlanders,” and it was shaped by Kelly’s art. I’ve loved everything Kelly has done with Brian Wood, and this story was no exception, but thinking about it today brought me sharply back to the similarities and differences from those previous books (Local and The New York Four, for you heathens who don’t read good comics).
On the surface, The Cross + the Hammer is a cop drama set back in Viking-occupied Ireland, with a rebel Irishman murdering any Norsemen he can lay his sword, axe, or bare hands upon. At first glance, it looks like CSI: 1014, but there’s far more depth to this book than David Caruso could ever hope to achieve with sunglasses and smirk.
(Tried to keep this relatively spoiler-free, but just in case…you’ve been warned.)
Just for starters, even the basic police story here is multilayered. It critiques good-guys bad-guys cop drama, with the invaders on the one hand and the vicious insurgent on the other. And by dropping the term “insurgent,” anyone who’s paid the slightest bit of attention to Iraq war news (or, ahem, to DMZ) will immediately consider the similarities. Magnus is a man whose country has been conquered, but his methods of fighting back are hardly laudable, and as the story builds, book by deliberately paced book, you watch him fall apart in slow motion, with a final reveal that shows just how broken he truly is and how far he’s gone.
So, do the Viking invaders have a right to prosecute someone who’s killing in the land they conquered by killing? There are no easy answers to this question–nor to any of the ones this book poses.
We also get an exercise in the unreliable narrator in comics, a difficult device to use (though Young Liars is doing great work with this, too). Though Magnus is not exactly the narrator, we see things through his eyes even though we get Ragnar’s voice-over, and this twist on the tradition actually makes it all work better. After all, it’s hard for an author to lie to you when you have the visuals to go along with it.
The book may indeed read better in trade, as Kelly suggested. It’s certainly fun to read back through the whole story, knowing the ending, and catch all the tricks and clues there–the story in itself is a mystery for readers to solve, a metafictional element that I wasn’t expecting at first. But there’s something to be said for the tension building slowly, issue by issue, with silent panels showcasing both the Ireland Magnus is fighting to preserve, and the destruction that both he and the Vikings wreak.
Kelly’s weathered Viking warriors are unromantic. They’re everyday men with dented armor and scars and craggy lined faces. Only Brigid is beautiful, and we understand why when we look into her eyes in the last issue, when the truth is revealed and we see her face harden into the lines of adulthood, bitterness, and anger. Kelly’s backgrounds are gorgeous, his details impossibly perfect, but what he’s really good at is putting the feelings in the faces of his characters–and in their body language, too, as in one panel near the end of book 6, where neither Brigid nor Magnus’s face is visible yet the pain in both of them is obvious.
Brigid’s quiet through the early issues is not, as it might seem, how the creators would have her, but how her father would have her–and by inference, all the men in the book. The inconsistencies in her character, the changes, the shifts, the darkness and coldness that creep up on her as if she’s aging before our eyes all make sense in the end, when we realize that maybe her story is the one that really matters, and through her the story of all the people surrounded by violence and hardened to it even if not driven to commit violence themselves. In a few pages she becomes a woman with agency, feelings, pain and not-so-pure motives, right in front of us, and the switch indicts us all for wanting the easy, happy ending of a father-daughter reunion.
Thus we get two stories: a story of war, and a story about love. Not a love story, but a story about a father and a daughter, but all the same a broader story about love, how it can blind you and make you crazy and how half the time we only love the person we think someone is, the person in our heads. Not the real thing. It’s a story about how you have to let go of that illusion and look someone in the eye, see them for who they really are, and understand that even if you can’t accept it. And much like Sven’s story in the first Northlanders arc, it’s a story about accepting your own flaws as well.
It’s the best Northlanders story yet. If you couldn’t get into it early on, give it another shot when it comes out in trade. If the first Northlanders arcs weren’t your cup of tea, try this one. And if you haven’t tried it yet, this is a great place to start.