Brian Wood talks NORTHLANDERS: THE PLAGUE WIDOW
The Rus, as they are called, camped above the river trading furs from a log hall, axed out by slaves. The men—tall as date palms, blond, tattooed— had set a pole out front carved with gods to which they offer things to bless their trade. This was all I saw of their piety or conscience. Caliph, they are the dirtiest creatures of God.
- Ibn Fadhlan, On an Arab Mission, Encounters Vikings Volga River, 922 A.D.
I’m looking at the “bible” document I wrote when I was developing THE PLAGUE WIDOW. I consider Northlanders to be the high point of my current output. It’s certainly the title where I feel I am at my creative peak, firing on all cylinders, and a lot of that has to do with the format. It keeps me on my toes constantly, always in a position to refine the concept; each time I start a new story what I’m really doing is starting a brand new project. So there’s a lot of proposal writing and outlining and collecting of reference that goes along with that, and each story gets a bible document.
Here’s the working list of titles I generated:
THE WINTER OF THE PLAGUE
THE PLAGUE WINTER
THE PLAGUE YEAR
THE YEAR OF THE PLAGUE
THE FALL AND THE DEATH
DEATH OF A VILLAGE
I remember the first two were the ones I presented to my editor Mark Doyle, and I think we had agreed on The Winter Of The Plague. The others are more stream-of-consciousness, just writing stuff to exercise the brain sort of thing (you should see the titles list for The New York Four - close to a hundred ideas). The Plague Widow, the actual title, came later, in an email exchange with Mark. Not sure how or why, but as soon as I typed it I knew it was the one. I changed a few things around in the outline so the story more closely followed Hilda, our widow. Before that Gunborg, the “crooked cop” was the lead character.
(Gunborg, a few observant readers have pointed out to me, is a female name. I knew this pretty early on, after I had assigned it to the character, but I loved the way the name looked and sounded, so I kept it as a sort of joke.)
THE PLAGUE WIDOW came out of a bunch of notes I had written for a prose novel about the Black Plague. I had it in my mind to write it, until I began to get a sense of just how many novels are out there already about the Plague. So I moved the material over to Northlanders, thinking it would have greater impact as a graphic novel, even if I had to switch it from the capital-P Plague to a lowercase, fictionalized plague. Beyond that, the story is pretty much intact. Using the book A Prayer For The Dying as inspiration, I wanted to tell a story that detailed the fall of a village suffering under a plague, and every step they take to protect themselves just throws up new challenges. Grim stuff, coming from a guy who has a history of writing, grim, depressing stories. I started to refer to it as “survival horror”. Viking-survival-horror-plague-drama, pretty much the book I know I’VE been waiting for, as a reader!
I wanted to make a change from past stories and set this one in a city, or what would pass for a city back then, as opposed to the Viking equivalent of a one-horse town. I wanted streets and alleys and open air spaces. I was lucky to have just returned from Oslo, Norway, on a research trip and had several dozen photos of period homes I took at the Folk Museum there. I sketched out a really simple map for Leandro Fernandez with the city layout, as a guide. So when I would write that scene where Hilda is forced to march across the city, he and I are both on the same page in terms of what landmarks she would pass and what would be in the background as she went.
One thing that really attracted me to the Rus, the Vikings who settled in what is now Russia, is the inherent mixing of culture that the location would allow, a mainstay in all Northlanders stories. I came across this great quote in a book called The Vikings In History: “in 839, the Rus’ were Swedes. In 1043, the Rus’ were Slavs.” I made the residents of the city Christian converts, but not so much that the pagan detailing on some of the architecture would have disappeared. Boris, the “foreigner” in the story, is someone who would have travelled north from the Middle East, and his very presence brings out the xenophobes in the story. But he persists, right up to the end.
With NORTHLANDERS, I’m looking to set the gold standard for Vikings in comics, and the longer the series runs the more creative I am with the term “Viking”. The first few stories dealt with the sort of hacking, slashing marauders that immediately comes to mind, the 9th century criminals, the invaders. Themes of culture war and assimilation followed, and with the short stories that make up most of Book 3 Blood In The Snow, I feel I was hitting my stride, confident enough in the series to start taking risks. THE PLAGUE WIDOW and the currently running Metal are great examples of this, and I’m especially proud of my upcoming The Girl In The Ice, a Viking-era murder thriller, and The Siege Of Paris, a fictionalized account of a real-life battle that is obscure enough that even people familiar with the history of the Vikings might be surprised exists.
I am immensely proud of THE PLAGUE WIDOW (on sale tomorrow). Leo and I had a blast doing it, and don’t be surprised if you hear about me and him on another book, shortly.