It’s too easy for us today to slip into a simplistic stereotype of the “dark ages”, or the early medieval period. Barbarians roaming across the countryside, committing unspeakable acts of carnage and pillage, and scared villagers clinging to superstitions is pretty much the standard scene. But Black Road remembers that there was quite a bit of cultural diversity in this period, starting with the last vestiges of the Roman Empire, where an aristocratic sort or a church official could still live in the luxury to which he had grown accustomed. There were also a fair number of muslims in Europe at the time, known as “moors”, but definitely coming from a more civilized culture than the northern realms. And then there was the Norse culture, as yet essentially untouched by Christianity, still going through its unapologetically violent rituals of bloodshed, then drinking and storytelling.
Magnus the Black is fiercely proud of his own culture and heritage, but that doesn’t make him closed-minded to the wide range of cultures he’s encountered on his dark journey up the black road. In mourning, cynical and taciturn, Magnus isn’t so much a broken man as one that has been worn to a husk by the inequities of life. The death of his wife and the betrayal that led to it has made him somewhat of a man without a country, but being hired by a rogue Cardinal as a bodyguard/escort over the black road gave him some forward momentum. The death of said Cardinal, and the acquisition of his “daughter” (in Roman armour) added a new twist. And here we are, in issue #4 of this excellent comic by Brian Wood and Garry Brown, still walking the road and still learning about the subtle complexity of the dark ages.
It’s interested to get a glimpse of Rome as this issue begins. Far from being already in ruins, Rome feels placid and rural, with good food on the table and good wine in the goblet. We see Julia, the slave the Cardinal acquired “in the Haifa market”, practicing her archery. Her origin in Haifa is a big hint to Julia’s true background (her real name probably wasn’t Julia, for one thing), and when we see her later, singing a Hebrew song while walking across an ice sheet with Magnus, it’s made abundantly clear: Julia is Jewish, yet another example of the diversity of dark ages. She’s small, but tough, accepting Magnus’ advice to wear snowshoes, and putting up with pain in her broken ribs without too much complaint. Later, we learn that she has superb long-distance vision, able to identify an individual person from quite a distance. Magnus is suitably impressed, and it adds to the growing master-apprentice relationship growing between the two.
The actual battle in this issue (and what would an issue of Black Road be without some sort of great Viking battle?) takes place in the past, adding one more layer of information to the backstory of our hero. We now know that after a great battle, he was followed back to his village by a sore loser, and the village was burned and his wife was killed. The villagers blamed him, because it was out of revenge for a hard-won victory that their homes were sacrificed. Magnus, in this re-telling of his tale for Julia, remembers another face from the past, a face that is now following them through the snow and will no doubt add some interesting twists in the issues to come.
As a comic, Black Road is wonderful at finding the quiet moments and releasing tension rather than constantly focusing on action or posing. There are long pages here that simply feature two people walking, through the land of the ice and snow (and from the midnight sun where the hot springs blow), whistling a song or just enjoying the experience. Anyone who has walked a long distance in winter is aware of the wonderful calm that the landscape induces, with its seemingly otherworldly sun and insulated quiet. It’s rare to see a comic brave enough to revel in that, rather than hurry on to the next action sequence.
Not much actually happens in issue #4 of Black Road, and that’s just fine. It’s nice to spend some time with the characters rather than feverishly building plot. And despite the lack of cheap tricks of suspense and world-building, the next issue will be greatly anticipated. We, as readers, just like in Heart Of Darkness or any of the great journey stories, in some ways know where the road is going to take them, but we can’t wait to find out anyway.