Northlanders and Spider-Man: With Great Power… – Two Reviews

Nothing quite screams “it’s over, folks!” like the last issue of a comic book run or volume, especially if you’ve been collecting it since the first issue. It is a time when you can pat yourself on the back, congratulations on a job well done, my friend. You’ve stuck it out and can say you have fully experienced the story as the creators intended it, piece by piece, month by month, time, character, theme, script and art all building to that last page, the one with “The End” on it.

Two stories by compelling stories ended this week, in Northlanders and Spider-Man: With Great Power… At first, I was all, “Oh good, two totally different titles — nothing in common with each other at all, this will be two straight, separate but equal reviews.” Well, after reading both series last night, I realized that there were indeed similarities — they are both new takes on classic tales, right? Brian Wood brings a whole new vernacular to his Viking story, providing a decidedly modern sensibility to a tale that is set 1,000 years ago. David Lapham takes his rock roll take to the Spider-Man origins, almost daring us to accept Peter Parker as a sort of anti-hero (scratch that — Peter’s a whiny jerk). Both feature main characters go through a similar arc, starting out as basically selfish pricks and, at the end, sacrificing what they wanted to so badly at the beginning for the greater good (one more willingly than the other). But other than those two points, they are pretty different and one, by far, is a more successful story for all sorts of reasons. I think. As you will see, this analysis may have been a bit more than I bargained for. Let’s move on to the third paragraph, shall we? Where we discuss Northlanders? Oh, and, if it’s not already obvious, this article’s gonna be nothing but spoilers throughout, just a warning.

Northlanders by Brian Wood & David Gianfelice

When I first began this book, I thought it was your basic “prodigal son” tale, where the young hero, one spurned by his family, goes to the big wide world, has lots of adventures, meets lots of women, and then comes home to conquer the false king and lives basically happily ever after. And, at first, it was a lot like that, just with more boobs and blood. However, by the end, the story becomes much more than a classic revenge tale, and again shows why Brian Wood continues to be one of the most innovative creators on the scene right now.

Sven starts out with one goal — go home, get his money and get back to Constantinople so he can get a promotion, a boat and get back to his girl Zoe by the spring. He has no interest, at all, in his past, he doesn’t care about tradition, he could care less about the dirt farmers that helped raise him, and the last thing he wants to do is get involved with some crazy Scot lady who tends to shoot arrows at people. Sven is very much the “modern man” — he’s in a pretty open relationship, he’s aggressively skeptical about religion… he wants to be part of the world, not shivering in the cold in some backwater village.

As with all tales, our hero goes through a transformation, thanks to a series of reversals that, befitting a Viking tale are both bloody and tragic. At the end of Issue #4, when thrown the head of his beloved from Constantinople, Sven’s life is completely changed, his past taken from him and his dreams dashed. Issue 5 takes place in the past and gives us a Sven’s backstory, from running away from home, to becoming Zoe’s guard and lover in Constantinople. I really enjoyed the restraint that Wood uses here, because it left me wanting so much more. The scenes that take place in the city and palace really reveal a world that just seems rife with possibility (Guy Gavriel Kay writes about a city very much like Constantinople in his Sarantine Mosaic books — worth a look). Issue #5 ends with Sven telling Zoe that he needs to leave, and Zoe resists, saying, “This doesn’t feel right.” Oh, if the characters would just do what Obi Wan says and just trust their feelings! But no, Sven tells her not to worry, that he doesn’t believe in superstitions and leaves her for the last time. With this one issue, Wood gives us the opportunity to empathize with Sven, and by the beginning of issue #6, we are ranging for revenge just as mightily as he.

As Sven medicates himself by hacking away at his enemies, we see the real story that Wood unfolds. This is, above all, a story about a family, beginning with a classic “girl shoots boy, boy and girl fall in love.” Enna, the last living member of her Scot clan, who were vanquished by the Vikings, rapidly becomes Sven’s partner in crime and his lover and guide. Enna really is the soul of the book, telling Sven to trust his shadow (the raven) and, in the end, his heart.  In the end, Sven does get his revenge on Grom (in a scene reminiscent of Hamlet — Hamlet refuses to kill Claudius while he is praying lest Claudius go to heaven by default; here Sven refuses to let Grom have a sword, so he can be sure that Grom does not get into Valhalla) but it’s really the least of his worries: the Saxons have invaded and have basically crushed the local forces.

And, finally, the last transformations occur for Sven. First off, during the battle, he “stops thinking and does the right thing,” finally putting Thora out her misery. Second, he “surrenders” to the Saxons, basically buying time for the rest of the Northmen to gather their forces and strike back at the Saxons–there are more battles to be fought. The revenge he wanted gives him no joy, his only desire is to give his brethren a chance to fight back for their home. However, the war is over for Sven. In the last issue of the story, #8, Sven takes Enna and leaves, giving all of his titles and fortunes to Hakkar, again bidding farewell, this time for good, to his homeland.

But he doesn’t go back to the modern world he thought he loved so much. He and Enna carve out a living in an island off the coast (guided, again, by his shadow, whom Sven has learned to trust), and we realize, at the end, that Sven’s story was not for our ears, but his son’s. Sven has come full circle, from a self-absorbed and arrogant knave who was ashamed of his home to a father and husband who understands that even as the world shrinks and boundaries change, true love, “born out of adversity and pain, stronger than love” and family remain constant. This crazy tale of Vikings and maidens, of blood and sex, reveals itself to be a deeply personal revelation of a man who learns the meaning of his life. It’s nothing less than a love letter, and reveals another side of Brian Wood.

The book should make for a great trade. Davide Gianfelice’s art is both beautiful and edgy, with gorgeous vistas and manga-style action sequences. His lines convey the intricacy of fabric and armor as well as the lines of age, anguish and passion. This is an interesting pairing, at first I wasn’t convinced the art was “grungy” enough for a Viking tale, now I couldn’t imagine it any other way — his faces betray an amazing amount of emotion, these characters are carved into memory, like the jagged cliffs of the Orkney Islands.

Spider-Man: With Great Power… by David Lapham and Tony Harris

I guess this book was kind of a  big deal when it came out. The apparently controversial David Lapham teams up with Tony Harris to bring us a bold alternate telling of Spider-Man. And it was, at first. Peter Parker, like Sven, has pretty simple needs: “I want people to respect me, I want to be cool.” He is a teenager, a bundle of nerves and hormones who is constantly in his own way, who hates his life and his aunt and uncle and just wants to be left alone. Peter Parker, it seems is just a bitter kid with a chip on his shoulder and, like it or not, you’re gonna get five issues of whining before you even get a hope that the kid’s gonna change.

The story is set up with the first page of each issue — the events of the story take place during that whole period of time when Peter was working his wrestling scam, using the money he gets to fix up his car and impress Liz Allen, Flash Thompson’s girlfriend. Like Northlanders, we have the main character as the first person narrator, but the trick her is that it’s taken as a kind of accusatory, almost chiding future version of Parker, who can barely contain his disdain for this irritable teen.

The first issue pretty much takes care of the origin story — the spider bite is relegated to a few panels on page 10 — and the story then kinda does this X-Statix meets Spider-Man thing, where Parker uses his celebrity to meet women and go clubbing. Some might find this kind of thing edgy, but I guess it just reminded me of “bad” Peter Parker in the latest Spider-Man movie. He’s a jerk, I get it.

Where the reversals and transformative moments were pretty clear in Northlanders, this post-modern Peter Parker’s reversal, his transformation from prick to hero, come almost grudgingly, by accident. When he saves Ben at the end of #3, when he does something truly heroic, it’s completely instinctual (he basically stopped thinking and did the right thing, too) — as the narrator says, “you’re scared, you do it [help other people] anyway.” We get a glimmer of hope that Peter can change when, after Peter moans that he wanted to do more, Ben explains that the Fantastic Four have that great power, and hence that great responsibility, that just surviving is enough… which just doesn’t sit well with Peter. This is a good moment, but quickly gets forgotten as the story continue to unwind. Peter is really pushed into being a hero because the mob guys who are investing in his wrestling career are pissed that J. Jonah Jameson is deriding Parker as a guy with powers who doesn’t lift a finger to help anyone but himself, which is hurting their TV ratings.

As the series began to draw to a close, the story and the book began to fall apart. We know the mobsters need Peter to be a hero at the end of book 4, and then, at the opening of book 5, there he is, rescuing some guy who is trying to commit suicide. I must have missed something in the setup for that one. Peter’s most overt redemption happens when he saves Jameson — his first real, honest-to-goodness heroic act that he chooses for himself — but then cheapens the act by faking positive news editorial, stating that Spider-Man is, after all, a real hero. Then he goes home, convinced that he will no longer be Spider-Man and we see Aunt May crying her eyes out — where’s Ben? How did he die? Will this push Peter to don the mask once again? Oh, no, he’s fine, he was just out looking for Peter — but boy was he worried. And that’s it. Ben, Aunt May are hugging while the TV shows the face of a man wanted for armed robbery… I guess this is guy who is going to end up killing Ben?  

With Great Power… is an interesting, if flawed, effort to illustrate an intriguing part of Peter’s life, when he was just coming to grips with his power and how terrible he handled it before he accepted his destiny as Spider-Man. But I came away from the last issue feeling frustrated and, as I write this, I am still confused as I try to chart Peter’s transformation, probably because it happens in fits and starts and he’s mostly resistant to it throughout. Tellingly, I never really got to like Parker. He was just too cynical and bitter for me to care about. I didn’t like how he kept refusing to see why helping people could be a good thing. Even when the guy he tries to help dies, he doesn’t mourn the loss of a human life, but feels betrayed that he died when Peter actually tried to do the right thing and help him. I get it, yes, that’s the whole point, but I wanted to see Peter recognize — really recognize — what loss was, which, of course, is coming right around the corner with Ben’s impending death. Maybe you all got that from the last page, but I certainly did not until I started writing the last paragraph (seriously). And yes, I understand the appeal of the anti-hero but I wanted to see a more solid transformation — again, Sven from Northlanders was a total anti-hero jerk off, but we get a chance to see him change his ways, not because he wanted to, but because he had to. Yes, I get that this is only a few months (if that) in Peter’s life and it is perhaps unfair to compare it with the few years that pass for Sven, but I think that some kind of active reckoning would have been more dramatically appealing.

Something does change with issue #5, just not with Peter. By the fifth page, you begin to ask, just like the bank robber in the middle of the page, “Where the HELL is Tony?” Issue #5 is written and drawn by David Lapham, who does his best to channel Tony Harris’ art style. Now, I don’t know what happened, but I have to say, I preferred Laphan’s art. I am tired of seeing the same actors, over and over, in every Tony Harris book I read since I first encountered him in Ex Machina. And while some of the panels looked like Lapham tracing over previous Harris panels from earlier issues, there was still an energy and freneticism to Lapham’s lines, much like his work in Young Liars, which I enjoy. But still, this change in artists just draws more attention to the feeling that everyone involved in the project just kinda lost steam — the last issue really is just a few action sequences tying together the last narrative bits necessary to finish the story.

…The End? Of course not.

By the end of these two stories I realized just how much I value transformation and catharsis in storytelling. At first light, the stories are very similar: two individuals are forced to become heroes, despite their best protestations. Northlanders tells the story of a man who finds a family in a land he spurned, with art as sharp, ragged and desperate as the land it takes place in. With Great Power… tells the story of a frustrated, confused geek who lashes out at any kind of responsibility, with art that is modern, colorful and, ultimately soulless, much like the clubs and people Parker is drawn to during his initial posturing. But both stories end with hope. Sven will raise his son to be ready for a changing world. We trust that Peter will grow up and know that he will be a hero. Even though both books have their problems, both stories tell us that we can change, that despite our worries, fears, mistakes and misgivings, we get another chance to do good. Flaws and all, that’s good comics.


Mike Romo looks for acting work and, ultimately, redemption in LA. He can be reached at



  1. I just hope people don’t judge Lapham by this book.  Check out Silverfish or Young Liars!  I still haVe to track down Stray Bullets myself.

  2. Great review.

    I picked up With Great Power… mainly because I liked Tony Harris‘ stuff on Starman. (Didn’t he do a couple of Elseworlds JSA mini-series’, too?) I picked it up for nostalgic reasons, too. I read Kurt Busiek’s (I thought it was Busiek’s) Amazing Fantasy mini-series, and I really enjoyed his Untold Tales of Spider-Man. I thought this would fit in that library pretty well. I think what I found was that it was more like John Byrne‘s Spider-Man: Year One. Which wasn’t an earth-shattering must read.

    All the more reason why I stick with BendisUltimate Spider-Man.

  3. Northlanders was really good. Except it lacked one very key feature of any good viking tale. A lust for life.

    I’ve read more about the Northmen than anyone not getting a doctorate in Scandanavian history should legally be allowed to, and one thing that’s a constant in all of their stories is that the Vikings were a people who loved life. Yes, they endured countless hardships, but they exuded an unquestionable joy at sailing, whoring and hacking that makes them the most naturaly romantics peoples that have ever walked the earth.

    Northlanders captured absolutely zero of that spirit. It was just emo.

    That said it was a very good 8 issues and I’m looking forward to see where the series goes, but I just wish that Wood would break out of his rut of moody, iontrospective characters for just a little bit and give me a viking comic that’s actually true to who the vikings were. 

  4. @SixGun – Correct me if I’m wrong, but the first arc of Northlanders took place on the Orkney Islands – Scotland is not exactly Scandanavia – However, I am genuinely curious as my Anglo-Saxon/ Pre-Anglo British history knowledge is certainly lacking – Would the characters in Northlanders actually be Vikings?  I keep hearing that this is a Viking book, but aren’t these people the pre-viking conquest inhabitants of the Orkney Islands?  The Native Orkneyites so to speak (Celts perhaps?) Not to get all scholarly here… Just curious. Any iFanboy members from the Orkneys out there?

    If anyone has yet to pick up Northlanders and are curious, #9 would be an excellent jumping on point – very good stuff. 

  5. Wanted to add that Northlanders Vol 1 trade is up for preorder at Amazon.  First 8 issues for $10.  (and Tales of Wonder has it for $7).  God I love Vertigo, if for no other reason that making it that much easier to get into new things.

  6. @youngday

    Yes, these are vikings. This is late 10th century when the Northmen have kicked the original inhabitants out.

    This is explicitly stated in the book! Enna  is  said repeatedly to have been of the original inhabitants of Orkney whose brethren were killed by Svens people.

    So uh, hell yes these are vikings! 

  7. Nice analysis Mike.  I started both of these series, and didn’t end up finishing them.  I didn’t like Lapham’s take on Spider-Man, and I couldn’t get over the modern way in which Wood’s characters talked.  After three books of boobs, modern speak, and very little momentum, I dropped.  I might scope this trade as the overarching story sounds somewhat interesting.  Time will tell.

  8. Good work, Mike. I started Northlanders, but dropped it after the second issue. Not because it was bad, more because it was slow as a monthly book and I knew it’d read great in trade. So looking forward to when that comes out.

  9. hey guys–

     thanks for the comments. I gotta admit, this article really got away from me by the end of it. I had written all these notes while re-reading the Lapham book, and then, as I was writing, I kinda "got" what Lapham was doing with the ending, which totally screwed up my whole take on the book! 

     I think both books have their flaws–I see your point about the modern speak, but I think that, in a way, it was the best choice. I think it the story would have been less emotionally wrenching if they had all been speaking like Thor. I mean, sure, you could tone it down a bit, but I think the value of the effort is to just GO FOR IT.  I figured that we were reading a kind of translation anyway, that all of this was basically just the language for our minds to read, rather than our eyes to record, like a movie. you know what I mean? Obviously they didn’t talk like that back in 980AD, but I figure if Wood actually did have them talk the way they did, we wouldn’t understand it in the first place.

     My real issue with the Lapham book was that it just felt too cynical the entire way through. I want to like, or at least empathize, with the main character, whom I am supporting not only with my time, but my money, too.  Parker was just a dick–I can see WHY he was like that but still, we need him to have good intentions and hopes if we are going to believe any of it.

     Anyway, thanks for reading.