Process: Northlanders As Metal

(or Norse Mythological Fundamentalism & The Notion Of A “Container Series”)

(originally written June 2010)

Heavy metal and Vikings go hand in hand. I didn’t need Becky Cloonan and Espen Jorgensen to tell me that. I’m pretty sure I was first schooled to this fact walking across “stoner bridge,” a little walkway that crossed a pitiful stream and opened up onto the back of my high school’s parking lot in northern Vermont. Crossing it meant running a gauntlet of rednecks, headbangers, weed smoke, and heavy metal t-shirts. From Led Zeppelin to Bathory, the imagery was dominant.

And while I am no fan of Viking Metal, I can appreciate the imagery.

I’ve started to refer to Northlanders as a “container series”. With each new story arc, I’m able to reinvent the book to whatever degree I like, and I’ve found that the core concept of the book is flexible enough to contain a really wide variety of genres and story types.

Sven The Returned was as straightforward as these things go, the most traditional Viking story I was likely to write. From that point on, coinciding with my ongoing research blitz, I’ve made a big point in seeing how far I can stretch the concept. With the upcoming story arc called Metal, I’m taking what I’m able to take from the musical genre and apply it to comics. This is not a story about music, but a story that taps into the same dark mythology and nihilistic worldview that inspires the genre. This is radically different from anything that’s come before in the last 30 months of this series.

“Norse Mythological Fundamentalism” is a phrase from my story outline. Also in there are references to films like Badlands and Natural Born Killers. What if Charles Starkweather was Northlanders’ Erik, an ugly, failed blacksmith who decides that the growing influence of this cult religion “Christianity” is in danger of erasing his cultural identity? And what if Juliette Lewis’ Mallory Knox character was Ingrid, a young woman pressed into service as a nun, suffering daily insults and abuse for being an albino and a pagan?

What if Erik eats a ton of shrooms, wanders the forests for a few days, and is now convinced that Mother Nature herself is instructing him to purge this new religion from the land? And what if Mother Nature is actually not a very nice sort of god at all, but is instead really creepy and violent? What if Erik murders a bunch of priests and nuns in order to free Ingrid, tears his town down around him, and thinks to himself, “why stop there?”

Metal flies in the face of a few rules I had laid out for myself when I started Northlanders. But that’s cool, because the fact that I feel comfortable in breaking them is a testament to the elasticity of the series’ concept. Back in 2006, thinking that there is no way that overt mythology has a place in this book, was fine for the early stories where myth was treated as nothing more than casual superstition, if it was even present at all. But starting with The Shield Maidens and now continuing with Metal, I’ve figured out ways to include it while still making sure that Northlanders is Northlanders. And not, I dunno, Thor.

Now, on to RICCARDO BURCHIELLI. Resident of Florence, Italy, bass player in a metal band, and trusted DMZ collaborator of nearly five years. Drawing even one issue of DMZ is no mean feat – ask any of the guest artists we’ve had. It’s incredibly hard work, drawing a wartorn New York City for a thousand pages and counting, but he’s a dedicated and loyal collaborator. I’ve been encouraging him to take a break from DMZ for the sake of his mental health for a while now, and it took a guest stint on Northlanders to finally get him to agree. “Write me something violent, Brian,” he said. “Something with a lot of swords and blood.” And no buildings or helicopters, of course.
This is the preeminent example of tailoring a script to an artist’s desires and skillset, and I know Riccardo is dying to let loose on something different.

The five-issue METAL, at its core, is a timeless story: two young lovers on the run, shunned by their respective societies. Where it goes from there is the stuff of nightmares, to be honest. Set at the dawn of the Viking Age, the era of Beowulf and Germanic paganism, before exploration and trade brought light to the dark forests of Scandinavia. Misanthropy abounds, as does nihilism and fatalism, obsession and racial devotion. Dark times, dark themes. And two blighted teenagers try to carve out a space where they can just be themselves without the rest of the world giving them a hard time.

Can’t you totally see that airbrushed on the side of a van in a high school parking lot?