One of the series, along with DMZ, that made Brian Wood a “household name” among comic-book fans was his Viking-era epic Northlanders, so when word got out that he was going to be returning to that same time period with his artistic collaborator from The Massive, Garry Brown, in tow, for a new book from Image called Black Road, many folks — including yours truly — were pretty well stoked. Wood’s few carefully-chosen words on the (then-) forthcoming title indicated that it was going to be less a work of historically-plausible fiction and more just, well, completely made up, but no matter — if you feel the need to demand “accuracy” from your four-color “floppies” you’re about a hundred years too late, anyway.
Wood was going back to the proverbial well in terms of tone and temperament, to be sure, but the locales, personages, and even some of the timelines were going to be whole-cloth inventions more concerned with storytelling expediency than they were with any vague notion of “realism,” and that’s not something that I, at least, have any particular “beef” with.
Nor should you, if the semi-spectacular debut issue of this first “Magnus The Black Mystery” is any indication, the particulars of which can best be outlined as follows: In the Norwegian town of Iskfold in the year of who-the-hell-knows, a mercenary-for-hire named, as you may have already pieced together, Magnus Black accepts a perilous gig to accompany a Christian “holy” man to his destination that lies at the northern end of the dangerous and titular Black Road, running along something called the Hammarusk Coast. The region is suffering under the iron fist of monotheistic conversion when our story opens, and Black himself, for reasons not yet entirely clear but suitably hinted at, is considering ditching the old gods of Odinism or Asatru, but isn’t entirely sure this new faith being forced upon his fellow Norsemen is much to his liking. The incoming spiritual regime, needless to say, isn’t necessarily keen on folks taking a “wait and see” approach to the “salvation” they’re “offering,” though, and so treachery abounds around every corner — heck, even the job Black has taken on doesn’t prove to be what he thought it was, as he’s actually been charged with protecting an entirely different (and perhaps more sympathetic) party altogether.
The action in this opening chapter (titled “The Holy North”) moves at a nice clip, and Brown is a pro at delineating combat sequences, so that’s something to look forward to over the course of this title’s planned six-issue run (with further “mysteries” to follow should sales warrant it — and let’s hope they do, given that the recent Wood-scripted Rebels met a premature end at issue ten, and that his absolutely superb Starve is now slated to do likewise), as is his grim-n’-gritty depiction of both village and county life during what was undoubtedly a rugged at best/ vicious at worst time. Colorist Dave McCaig is employing a limited yet highly effective palette to drive the point home in these pages, and so far the results — aside from an overly-abstract cover which I feel missed its mark by a rather wide margin — are bordering on the breathtaking.
Now, maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I still feel that “keep it simple” is solid advice when constructing a first issue, and that’s probably where Black Road #1 finds its greatest success (among a fairly healthy number to choose from). Wood gives us just enough information about each of his characters, puts them in peril precisely at the point where we know enough about them to genuinely give a fuck if they live or die, and then uses the end result of the dangerous predicament he’s foisted upon them to add further layers of intrigue to the proceedings rather than actually resolve anything. That’s good storytelling basics right there, that is, and should go some way towards insuring that the always-precarious sales drop between issues one and two of any and every given series is minimized. As a reader — generally speaking,at any rate — you want your first issues to give you reason to come back for the second, and this comic serves up plenty of ’em.
My advice, then, would be an unqualified “hop on board now.” Black Road doesn’t seem to have any particular ambitions beyond giving us an intelligent, reasonably thought-provoking story packed to the gills with lusciously moody and emotive artwork, but — oh, wait a second, that’s a pretty solid definition of what makes for a good comic right there, isn’t it? At this point I can probably just safely say “what more do you want?” and wrap this whole thing up, and so I shall!