Vikings have a special place in the European imagination, to put it mildly. A crazy blend of the wild west with the notion of the Fantasy Hero archetype set to a Heavy Metal soundtrack, the great thing about the Norse is that they really did exist. Perhaps not with the horned helmets and the hammer of Thor, but there really were very tough, very innovative folks around 1000 years ago, who led lives that seem to us, in retrospect, a hell of a lot more colourful and exciting than the usual picture of the “Dark Ages”. Brian Wood and Garry Brown’s new comic Black Road is billed as a “Magnus the Black Mystery”, the first in a line of stories featuring the black-bearded Norse antihero on a series of adventures in the frozen wastes.
This particular arc is titled “The Holy North” and begins with some backstory about how the Vikings had dug into fortresses on the fjords and set up shop in the newly Christianized homeland. The coming of Christianity is a big factor in this particular story, as the Norse were some of the most violent and charismatic people ever to take the cross. (Though some reactionary forces still resist the conversion, even in modern Norway.)
Magnus the Black, the very image of the powerful masculine fantasy hero, has just lost his wife, and buries her in a shallow grave in the comic’s first panels. He has yet to convert to the new religion, although in his town of Iskfold, missionaries are everywhere. Magnus is very ambivalent about the coming of the church, criticizing the institution for levying taxes on the newly converted, reducing many families to poverty. “Those who follow the old ways flee into the wilderness,” he notes, himself torn between the old gods and the new one. As much as he might critique the church, there’s no doubt that these skinny southerners in robes pay cash money to the right kind of strong man in order to be protected as they travel through the land. One such “cardinal” hires Magnus to take him north, along a dangerous stretch known as the “Black Road”. He temporarily stows his animosity towards the new institution and takes the job.
Since this is the first issue of a new series, that’s about as far as the plot gets (without spoiling). The style of the book is absolutely apt for the story it’s telling. Garry Brown’s art, complemented by colors courtesy of Dave McCaig, is suitably violent and muddy, with colors dipping into the earthy end of the spectrum, to say the least. This was a world without many bright, primary colors in any case — unless one was a wealthy Roman official, and even then, it wouldn’t be too long before your beautifully dyed toga would be covered in mud and dirt (and worse). McCaig therefore makes all the right choices. Brown has a very cinematic visual sensibility, which is quite effective, particularly in the early sequence of Magnus burying his late wife, transitioning from one scene to another with an epic “pull out” focusing on a flock of black birds against the arctic sky. Later, during the fight scenes (no spoilers there: it’s a Viking book, so there will be fight scenes), he conjures up the right sort of brutal energy with liberal use of Jack Kirby-inspired motion lines. (Although old Mr Kirby would never have drawn a character with his intestines literally hanging from his sliced midsection. At least, not in his day.)
By the end of this issue, the time-honoured story of a mismatched pair of characters on a long and perilous journey is set up, and as the road takes Magnus and his companion north along the black road, surely they’ll take the imaginations of many a Viking enthusiast with them. Blend in the intriguing historical conflict between Christianity and paganism in a rapidly changing Europe, which is also set up as a main theme, and Black Road will surely attract many other readers as well.