By Andy Frisk
November 2, 2009 - 19:12
The winters in Russia can be harsh. Often by mid-October the ground is frozen solid. When the winter snows bring the plague with them, the harsh existence that a small settlement on The Volga River is forced to endure each winter becomes even more unforgiving. In October of A.D. 1020, a young woman named Hilda is left widowed and alone, with a young daughter to look after, but she is but one player in an unfolding drama of superstition vs. science and greed vs. the good of society. Boris, a priest who preaches science and a scientific approach to dealing with the outbreak of the plague is challenged by Gunborg, the settlement’s chief merchant who enjoys kickbacks, according to Boris, and sees Boris’ suggestions as a detriment to the continued lining of his pockets.
Brian Wood continues his intelligent and insightful run as creator and writer of Northlanders by launching what will undoubtedly be another superb story arc. “The Plague Widow 1 of 8: Seven Hundred on The Volga” gets this new arc off to a strong start in Northlanders #21. Wood continues to craft intelligent socially and politically relevant stories, which although set one thousand years in the past, accurately comment on current events and demonstrate that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The modern threat of pandemics such as an outbreak of H1N1 pales in comparison to an outbreak of plague in A.D. 1020 Russia, but the universal ravages of disease on mankind and our settlements and cities is a universally understood concept and fear. In the context of this concept, Wood develops conflicts that modern readers can relate to very easily. When an educated voice of reason, with harsh but actually sound scientific methods of combating the plauge is raised, it is denounced by the uneducated, superstitious, and easily manipulated masses. Gunborg, the chief merchant of the settlement, who is more concerned with his profit margin and his kickbacks, has his monetary gain threatened by Boris’ suggestion that the settlement close its doors to outside trade until the plague passes. Gunborg resorts to assaulting Boris’ manliness and standing as a man of God since he “uses so many words” (in other words, he’s educated and poses threat to Gunborg’s manipulation of the masses through superstition). Gunborg plays the role, which is sadly recognizable to modern eyes, of the money and profit driven demagogue who values said money and profit above human life. The tale of a money hungry demagogue (and his clash with educated and reasonable ideas), who is willing to play God with the lives of the settlement’s uneducated and easily manipulated members is, unfortunately, a tale that is also too easily related to by modern readers.
Along with a new story arc, Northlanders’ readers are treated to a new artist. Leandro Fernandez’s pencils and inks continue the tradition already established in Northlanders of high quality, historically accurate, and highly detailed artwork. Fernandez recreates, with great accuracy, a Russian Volga River settlement circa the turn of the previous millennium. The architecture, dress, merchant ships, and period weapons are all painstakingly recreated to fit the tale’s historical timeframe. Fernandez’s grasp of anatomy and facial expression are also very strong, and round out an all around solid recreation of early 11th century life and death.
Overall, Northlanders continues to be just one of the many solid reads being published by DC Comics’ Vertigo line, helping prove that Vertigo is one of, if not the most important, and prominent publishers of not only mature readers titles, but intelligent and literary titles as well.
Rating: 10 /10