Sunday, 28 July 2013

Delphine by Richard Sala, Northlanders Vol 7: The Icelandic Trilogy by Brian Wood reviews

A young man and woman fall in love while at university but her father’s poor health drives the girl, Delphine, back to her hometown to look after him. The two never meet again but later on the man (he remains nameless throughout) decides to reconnect with Delphine and heads to her isolated small town in the middle of nowhere to catch up and hopefully reconnect. But when he arrives and wanders the empty streets of the town he notices strange people - a ghastly looking man grinning and selling mouldy apples, a funeral attended by witches, an insane cabbie, a creepy man and his demented mother, and a horde of small, ugly men following a ghostly, beautiful woman. Somewhere in this nightmare is his beloved Delphine and he is determined to find her. But will he even escape this town let alone find her...?

This might be my favourite out of Richard Sala’s books. I’m a big fan of his work and, aside from (the incredibly hard to find at a reasonable price) “Maniac Killer Strikes Again!”, I’ve read them all and “Delphine” is his best, most solid effort to date. An exploration of fairy tales and their symbolism, this book has the best elements of horror and fairy tales mixed in with Sala’s own unique drawing style and strong storytelling sense. There’s pieces of Hitchcock, Angela Carter, Poe, Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, ETA Hoffmann, and Charles Addams throughout this book, returning the original fairy tales of Perrault and Grimm to their dark roots, infusing them with macabre moments of horror. 

Sala’s choice of a sepia colour palette adds to the suffocating atmosphere of inescapable horror as our hero, ostensibly Prince Charming, goes from one nightmarish scenario to another, escaping a random beating by witches to a terrifying house in the dark forest inhabited by a woodsman with a terrible secret. And as day turns to night, the monsters come out to play and Sala really turns up the terror. Those familiar with fairy tales will recognise Sleeping Beauty, the wicked stepmother, the importance of apples, the dwarves, the woodsman, the frog, etc. and Sala has a wicked time playing with all of these elements to craft a wonderfully gothic horror story. 

Sala’s work sometimes mixes horror and comedy to produce some entertaining books especially the ones featuring the heroines Judy Grood and Peculia, but in “Delphine” Sala ditches comedy and writes this as straight horror - and succeeds completely. There are so many panels that are genuinely scary, like the funeral during the day - somehow witches and fiends in the daytime is more scary than at night. But at night-time? The haunted mirror in the dark room - wow. That creeped me out big time! 

“Delphine” is an amazing horror fairy tale written superbly and draw with impeccable skill by one of the most underrated comics creators out there. Fans of horror comics, and comics in general, need to pick up a Richard Sala book immediately - his work is too good not to. But read “Delphine” in particular as it’s a book which showcases his enormous talents at their finest. A remarkable achievement.



The year is 871 AD and Val Hauker arrives on the shores of Iceland with his wife and son, escaping the monarchic tyranny of Norway. Iceland is uninhabited and barren, a naturally beautiful but harsh environment to begin a new life – and a dynasty. His son, Ulf, will begin the ruling family, the Haukssons, and the book tells their brutal and violent reign in Iceland over 4 centuries from their auspicious beginnings to their rise in power and their eventual downfall.

The final book in the brilliant “Northlanders” series (saga?) is a fantastic Viking version of the Godfather! The rise and fall of the Haukssons is really exciting reading, from the vicious child beating that opens this story up, we see Ulf become the battle hungry Viking brutally laying the bloody foundations for his family to become a major power in the fledgling land. 

Jumping forward to 999 AD we see Ulf’s descendants Mar and Brida Hauksson, brother and sister, and how they’ve developed the family’s land and held on to power. Mar leaves Iceland to pillage the coastal towns of England leaving Brida to maintain the family’s position. If you like strong female characters, you’ll love Brida. Beautiful but intelligent with an iron will and physically the match of any man, she proves to be a formidable figure in the Hauksson clan – but she faces the most imposing challenge of her life when Christianity comes to Iceland and more and more of the Icelandic people abandon the Old Gods and begin to convert. Including her brother. 

The book jumps for a final time to 1260 AD where Oskar Hauksson, channelling his ancestor Ulf’s violent nature and lust for battle, finds that the violent behaviour and aggressive attitude that worked in the 9th century has a completely different effect in the 13th now that Iceland has developed from a few scattered colonies into more sophisticated towns.

The episodic structure of the narrative works really well as we see society advancing through the ages technologically and culturally but Wood is careful to make the focus of each story action and character development. The attention on character and story has been the approach Wood’s taken in each of the books in this series which is why they’ve been such excellent reads. Rather than feeling too far out of the modern reader’s experiences, Wood’s Viking characters have relatable personalities and goals (successful careers, family protection, challenging tradition, love and death and the pursuit of happiness at all costs) that has made reading the “Northlanders” series feel contemporary in spirit. While applying 21st century sensibilities to characters living hundreds of years in the past might seem contrived, there really isn’t a way into the mind of a Viking to make them seem authentic that doesn’t feel false. But by writing them like human beings today faced with the challenges they faced back then, it’s really brought the story to life in a way that seems as real as it can be for what it is: the universal and timeless story of the human experience.

I think the book length stories in “Northlanders” have been the best like “Sven the Returned” and “The Plague Widow” so I was glad to see the series ending with a feature length story rather than a collection of shorts – but I wasn’t glad to see the series ending at all! Like each book in the series, it can be read as a standalone piece despite the “Volume #” next to the title but I highly recommend all 7 books in the series, each one is utterly brilliant.

And, sadly, that’s it for “Northlanders”! Cancelled before its time. It really was an excellent series and I could’ve read a new book each year forever, it’s just a shame there weren’t enough readers out there who felt the same way. The good news is Brian Wood is the new writer on “Conan the Barbarian” which is basically “Northlanders” with a main character and feels like a very natural transition for him, so I’ll be picking those up to sate my appetite for stories featuring medieval lunatics with swords. But these 7 books remain, and what books they are! I urge anyone who’s yet to discover this series to pick up one of these books and take a trip to the frozen lands of the north to meet the bloodiest, craziest, and, most realistic Vikings caught on paper by a modern comics master.

Northlanders Volume 7: The Icelandic Trilogy

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