Publisher: Image Comics
Writer: Brian Wood
Artist: Garry Brown, Dave McCaig
Release Date: 13th April 2016
Black Road is an historical Viking adventure, set during the Christian conversion of Norway between the 8th and 12th centuries. A ‘Magnus the Black’ mystery, the series follows a Nordic man, Magnus, for hire as a fixer; he agrees to transport a Roman Cardinal through the North Road, or the Black Road as it is locally known, to the Hammarussk Coast.
Magnus’ reluctance to set off on the Black Road, as well as the fact that the Cardinal’s intentions for travelling to his destination through such a treacherous path, remains a mystery. Not long into their journey, bandits set upon the pair and Magnus loses his cargo, waking up days later from a severe beating. Against his better judgement, he finds himself continuing on his quest, this time with a new companion.
Writer Brian Wood’s limited use of captions provides historical exposition via simple yet haunting text to convey Magnus’ thoughts. Speaking of the Christianisation of his country, the difficult, long campaign is captured in phrases such as: “[the Christians] are changing Norskk, changing it with words and with iron and with blood’; and “Churches bubble up like blisters, and priests spread like lice.”
This is very much a character piece, with Magnus – influenced by the death of his wife – using his time with the Cardinal to make up his mind as to whether he will embrace the Christian ways or retain his Pagan roots. Ultimately this will decide who he will fight for in the larger war, and this lack of impulsiveness lends a great deal of intrigue and depth to his character.
Similarly, black humour is injected into the musings of Magnus; in response to the Cardinal’s dismissal of the threat of bandits, as he states that he has a guardian angel, Magnus thinks: “Of course he does. They all say that”. On top of this humour, Wood’s clever, layered writing means that this reference comes back again in the issue, in relation to the broader plot.
This is of course not Wood’s first foray into Viking history; his Northlanders series from DC Comics (Vertigo), which ran from 2002 to 2012, focused on several Viking tales and various characters. Like Black Road, Northlanders imbued the fictional stories with historical touches, but the action was based in and around England. In this new series, the Nordic aesthetic lends a rugged sharpness and beautiful simplicity to artist Garry Brown’s creative portrayal of Viking Norway, under the tension of Christian and Pagan influence.
Evoking the cinematic landscapes of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Viking epic Valhalla Rising (2009), Brown’s strong lines and use of space are mastered by Dave McCaig’s colouring. Heavy inking and a sullen, bleak palette convey the ruthless nature of both the vast environment, and life at this time in history, as Brown doesn’t shy away from the realistic violence.
All in all, this is an historical treat for fans of action-adventure. The first issue introduces the story arc perfectly, while providing just enough historical context to make this a fascinating and captivating read.
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The writer of this piece was: Rebecca Booth
Rebecca Tweets from @rebeccalbooth