Northlanders is an ongoing Vertigo title, with 5 volumes in print as of August 2011. Written by Brian Wood and drawn by a slough of amazing artists, the book is, on the surface, about vikings.

Creator/writer Wood has written his fair share of comic books, most of which can be summed up in great one-line pitches. DMZ is a war between two factions of the United States that reflects the post-9/11 political setting. Local is a string of one-and-dones about the importance and influence of our hometowns, all thematically and narratively connected. Supermarket is “Swedish-beauties meets Ninjas”. But there’s always a lot more going on between the panels than these reviewer-friendly taglines let on.

So what kind of a book is Northlanders? Wood himself admits that he pitched the book as a “viking crime book”: vikings as criminals with gangs fighting for territory. And at first glance, I suppose the book could be described in that way. But, like all those other books above, there’s much more going on. Northlanders has been an examination of family; legacy; our relation to geography; the globalized world; capitalism; faith, in its many forms; and of human potential, be it good or bad. Mostly, it’s a book about change: the moment between two great paradigms where people make choices, take sides, and ready their God(s) for blood.

Northlanders: Metal is perhaps the best collection published because it demonstrates these theme so strongly. The first story, “The Sea Road”, with art by the extremely talented Fiona Stapes, is a single-issue story (or warning) about how small the world already is, and how much smaller its going to be. Short, sparse, and beautifully rendered, the story ends before you want it to but the thoughts linger long after.

From there Woodgives us, with more than a helping hand from his DMZ accomplice Riccardo Burchielli, the five-part “Metal”, where an old believer struggles against the rise of Christian capital. There’s mysticism, old gods, and some bloody viking action, but there’s a love story at the arc’s core. Here, Wood shows us that time between eras at the human level. Much like DMZ’s reporter at the middle of it all, the viking couple walk us through an increasingly hostile world.

The collection ends with a two-part arc drawn by frequent Wood collaborator Becky Cloonan. In “The Girl in the Ice”, it is an old Christian man that is caught amongst change. After finding a girl frozen in a lake, he abandons normalcy to pursue some answer whilst rival viking gangs lay claim to the world around him. His quest is a pious and personal one, while major political and physical events occur around him without consult.

If you’re a new reader, pick this book up. Although the spine says it’s Vol. 5, don’t let that scare you away. Each issue and arc of this title is self-contained, at least narratively speaking. If you like the themes and ideas in this book, go back and pick up the first four collections. If you’ve been reading comics for years, this book is a definite departure from your usual superhero fare. If you’ve been reading Brian Wood’s work for a while, chances are you’ve already read this. But, if you haven’t, grab it off the shelf. If the tagline “viking crime book” hooks you, great, but I promise there’s a hell of a lot more going on than that.