It should come as no surprise that Black Road has the narrative structure of the “journey”. (The word “road” is right there in the title, after all.) While we were introduced to the characters and the setting in the first issue, here in issue #2 we move forward on the journey right from the opening sequence. We join our “hero”, Norseman Magnus the Black, travelling north on the legendary “black road” to an uncertain fate along with Julia, the daughter of a Roman Cardinal who was murdered in the previous issue. This part of their journey addresses what Magnus considers to be their most important task: figuring out who was responsible for the Cardinal’s murder. But there are much larger themes and story elements in play here, revolving around the relationship between Christianity and Paganism in Dark Ages Europe and a legendary culture in an important period of transition.
Beyond any plot points that issue #2 shows us (such as giving us the name of an important villain and calling into question the true identity of Julia), this issue is a meditation on the act of killing. For Magnus the Black, killing (or, more generally, fighting) once felt somewhere between a sublime act of spirituality and an ecstatic sexual celebration. He’s no fool: he had the natural amount of fear in the lead-up to violence, as a flashback to his first battle shows us. But when the fight started, there was absolutely nothing he would rather be doing. That has changed, and after the death of his wife, he feels nothing at all. He understands and respects the importance of violence (at one point here he insists on fighting Julia so he can convince himself that she is capable of self-defense), but he lost the taste for it. Magnus also has the opportunity in this story to introduce Julia to the cathartic exercise of mortal violence, setting up an important mentoring relationship between the two.
Times are tough in Norway when this story is set. The people of one village on the black road are starving and poor, but they are harbouring a Christian man on the run from a crazy Viking who was guarding a Cardinal they were sent to kill. When the crazy Viking himself (Magnus, of course) comes to town, they immediately give him up, but ask for payment, since they have been feeding the fugitive. It says quite a bit that their first impulse is to fuss over food, but as Magnus illustrates towards the end of the sequence, these people are within moments of turning to cannibalism. After questioning the man, and getting the information he needs, Magnus ensures that Julia gets the bulk of his earthly possessions and then offers her the kill.
Few comics have depicted the act of medieval killing with as much detail and (one fears) as much accuracy as Black Road. Julia takes two pages to execute the suspect, and it is shown in all its gruesome detail. Real-life killing is not like we imagine, especially when blades are in the mix. Characters don’t just fall to the ground dead at the first slash. Several blows are required. Ribs broken. Lungs filled. Arteries severed. It’s not romantic, and it’s not pretty. When the job is finally done here, I was reminded of the line from Lawrence of Arabia: “Never seen someone killed with a sword before…”
Death hovers over the black road (there’s a reason why it has that name), but the Norse people are as unromantic about it as Magnus himself. When Julia asks why there aren’t more graves, given that so many people have died along the road, Magnus responds, “We don’t go for symbolic monuments. We light massive pyres. We bury ships. Building little rock towards is a Christian thing.” Later, the Christian mercenary is horrified at the thought of including women in their battle group (something that seems perfectly natural to Julia and to Magnus), and Magnus once again takes a swipe at the new faith, shaking his head at how peculiar the Christian men are about women. But the simple fact is that Christianity lingers on death in a way that some other faith systems don’t. Its highest ritual is a sacrificial rite, its most important creeds go out of their way to remind the faithful of Christ’s death (and resurrection), and its very symbol is literally an instrument of execution. Pagan cultures, though they may appear grimier and more violent, ultimately celebrate life to a much greater extent. Even death for a Norse warrior was simply another way to distinguish one’s self and pass to another and more energetic life. The Norse weren’t the “suffer in this life to be free in the next” type. They were determined to be free and active and vital in both this and the next life. All this adds up to an important contrast between the new world and the old in the prevailing culture of the book, and speaks to Magnus’ crisis of his own faith. Since his wife’s death, his life on earth seems to have had little meaning, and his cynical nihilism fills every one of his scenes. A life without joy is no life at all, in his eyes. A Christian’s response may have been a different one, but Brian Wood’s story gives us a chance to explore this theme from a fresh perspective.
Deep philosophy, brutal violence and poetic art by Garry Brown all combine to make Black Road a dark and compelling new comic.