Review time! with Cape Horn

by  in Comic News Comment

“Dark angels follow me / Over a godless sea / Mountains of endless falling / For all my days remaining”

Cape Horn, which is written by Christian Perrissin, drawn by Enea Riboldi, colored by – take a deep breath! – Cosimo Lorenzo Pancini, Simone Massoni, Naomi Mallegni, Linda Cavallini, Diego D’Aquila, Sébastien Lamirand, and Hélène Lenoble, translated by Quinn and Katia Donoghue, and published by Humanoids for $39.95, is the kind of book I should love.

It’s set in the 1890s, it’s about a little-known area of the world, and it features a large cast doing all sorts of things, so it has a lot of interesting moving parts. But do I love it?

Perrissin sets the book in the final months of 1892 and early in 1893, and he populates it with a bunch of fascinating characters. The protagonist, such as he is, is Johannes Orth, a European with a mysterious past, and Perrissin keeps us guessing about it until the end. Orth isn’t the only main character in the book, though. At the beginning of the book, we meet his two companions, Duca and Kruger, as the three of them flee from the mercenaries in the employ of Julius Popper, a Romanian adventurer who had set up a gold mine in Paramo. Popper will haunt Orth throughout the book, as Orth never quite escapes him (even though you can find out what happened to Popper – he’s a real person – if you Google him). One of Orth’s companions betrays him and escapes to Punta Arenas in Chile, where he meets up with a prostitute who, of course, has connections to Orth. Meanwhile, an old American sailor, Jason Low (which is unfortunately changed to Law in the final volume; I’m not sure where the error lies), is trying to sail around the world, but the weather in Tierra del Fuego makes it difficult, and he gets caught up in the machinations on land. A French scientific expedition and a Protestant mission lie near each other in the islands south of the mainland, while an Argentine army outpost also calls the mission area its home. The commander of the post, Lagarigue, was sent there after some disgrace, and he hopes to redeem himself.

The mission is led by Reverend Thomas Bridges, who is attempting to create a dictionary for the Yamana, the native people of the area. He’s assisted by a young woman, Anna Lawrence. All of these people are drawn together and pulled apart over the course of the book’s four volumes.

Obviously, there’s a lot going on, and Perrissin keeps everything humming along well. The book takes some odd turns, and Perrissin doesn’t end it when we think he will – when Popper’s mercenaries find Orth, everything seems set up for a grand climax, but it doesn’t even end volume 3, and the final volume doesn’t feel tacked on at all. It becomes Orth’s story more in the fourth volume, as he tracks down the man who betrayed him, we learn about his past, and he’s reunited with Popper. As much as the first three volumes wove a tale with many different characters, by the time Perrissin moves to volume 4, only Orth’s story is largely unresolved. But Perrissin is quite good at throwing a lot of climaxes at us – every character moves through an arc and gets some emphasis, and not all of them end well. The book feels very naturalistic – some things happen completely by chance, some “good” characters don’t get a happy ending, and there are some characters whose fate we don’t learn. Perrissin has a nasty sense of humor, as some characters get their just desserts in perverse ways. It’s impressive how he manages to pull everything together very well.

Cape Horn, like so much of fiction, is about power. When you introduce a colonial element to it, it becomes more about cultural power, as the frontier of Tierra del Fuego, like the frontier of the West in the United States and Canada or any frontier, really, is about the clash between “civilization” and “barbarism.” Just because Perrissin sets this in a place unfamiliar to most people doesn’t change the paradigm too much.

The natives in the area, mainly the Yamana, have a choice to make – accommodate the Europeans and try to learn their ways, or resist as fiercely as possible and get killed or die out. Perrissin immediately sets up this dynamic in the book’s first scenes, which are an astonishing diorama of the main characters, as Orth, escaping from Popper’s men, spots Low at sea, and then Low sees an albatross which flies over the French who are arriving at Sunday Island and are met by the natives. One of the Yamana, Yakaif, offers to be the interpreter for the French, and Perrissin uses this opportunity to bring in all the cultural prejudices the Europeans have about the natives. They’re ugly, they’re dirty, they’re naked, they have tougher skin because they live at such harsh latitudes while wearing no clothing – even the more enlightened French, such as Doctor Frossard and François de Boeldieu, are typically patronizing toward them. Reverend Bridges, naturally, is only concerned about the natives’ immortal souls, but Perrissin does offer an interesting balance between the two groups of Yamana – the ones who accept Christianity and the ones who don’t – as each lifestyle offers good and bad options. As is often the case, the only people who think of the natives as individuals are the women and the outcasts – Anna is somewhat patronizing toward the Yamana, but she grew up with them, so she understands the pressures they’re under, while Orth simply knows that people are people, natives as well as Europeans, and if people treat with him fairly, he’ll return the favor. Yakaif, meanwhile, is forced to make a choice between his old life and his new one – it’s another common trope when it comes to this kind of fiction, but Perrissin does a good job with it. Ultimately, Perrissin comes down on the same side as most liberal writers – that the natives would have been better off without the “benefits” of “civilization” – but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t try to show the kindness of people like Bridges, who really do believe they’re working to make the natives’ lives better.

Perrissin offers a macrocosmic version of the “civilizers” versus “savages” idiom, as well, and it puts Cape Horn on a more interesting level than just an adventure story. Without commenting on it too obviously, Perrissin shows the way frontiersmen become marginalized in their turn.

The book takes place at the tail end of the colonial age – the American frontier was famously “closed” in 1890, and the African frontier wouldn’t be “open” much longer (the Fashoda incident was in 1898) – so Perrissin cleverly sets up a second tier of colonizers – the bureaucracy that comes in after the frontier has been tamed. It’s not a coincidence that the book ends in Buenos Aires with a general discussing the future of Popper’s empire, a future that points toward incorporation into Argentina. Popper and his ilk – Orth, Bridges, Frossard – have done the dirty work of establishing a “civilized” presence in Tierra del Fuego, but they’ve outlived their usefulness. The bureaucracy – represented throughout the book by Lagarigue – doesn’t care about Christianizing the natives, they only care about exploiting the resources of the area. If the natives are pacified through Christianity or eliminated through disease, that suits them but isn’t their main concern. Argentina and Chile, themselves settled by colonists centuries before, are flexing their muscles with regard to the Europeans, and Perrissin does a good job showing the passing of an age, when rebels like the people who cling to the land of Tierra del Fuego could make something of themselves without government interference, as the government was too far away to effectively police the area. The fates of some of the characters, including those whose fates are unknown, isn’t surprising, as Perrissin is pointing out that these kinds of people will have no place in the new age. The Buenos Aires section of the book, coming six months after the main events of the story, seems a bit anti-climactic, but it ties in well with the theme of encroaching civilization that Perrissin has cultivated throughout the book.

By the end, it’s not a shock that the white people who once exploited the natives, either benignly by converting them to Christianity or more malevolently by stealing from them, have much more in common with those natives than the bureaucracy back in Buenos Aires. Perrissin doesn’t comment on the irony, but he doesn’t have to.

Riboldi is key in making the other motif of the book come to life. Perrissin’s final conflict is between man and nature, and Riboldi’s astonishing artwork gives Perrissin the ability to make that statement without pushing it too blatantly. The first pages of the book show man at war with nature in many different ways: Orth, Duca, and Kruger ride across the barren pampas and along the bleak shore, and they could almost be alone in the universe. Then Orth spots Low, and Riboldi takes us to sea, where the waves rise up and batter Low’s small sailboat, almost overwhelming it at one point. Riboldi follows the albatross across the land and between majestic mountains until we reach the French, who are meeting the Yamana. It not only introduces us to some major players of the book, but also the dominating landscape, which will play such a big role in the story. Throughout the book, Riboldi gives us establishing shots of the small human settlements, which are usually backed by towering and pitiless mountains, showing how insignificant the people are even as they engage in life-and-death struggles. At one point, Anna escapes Popper’s men, and she hides in a foggy tangle of downed trees, and Riboldi makes the scene eerie and terrifying, despite the fact that it takes place in the middle of the day. In one of the book’s climaxes, Yakaif leads the French chasing him into a trap, which he helps spring mainly because he knows exactly how nature will react to their trespasses.

Riboldi also brings the animal life of the archipelago close to the human element, as he makes it clear who the interlopers are – one animal even gets a small bit of revenge on one person in the book. Perrissin’s point, aided by Riboldi, is that these people are struggling against a natural world that doesn’t necessarily want them there, and if they don’t understand how to live in this world, they will pay the price. The book ends with a small human settlement alone in the wild, as at least one character finds a way to balance human needs with the demands of nature. Riboldi does an amazing job with the humanity and their terrible struggles, but he also helps create a final piece in the larger theme of “civilization” versus “barbarism” that Perrissin is examining in the book.

Cape Horn is a rousing old-school adventure story, with bold men (and one bold woman) making bold choices in a larger-than-life environment, but because Perrissin and Riboldi are able to make it more than that, it resonates a bit more. The themes of the book aren’t new, obviously, but because Perrissin gives us so many characters and gives them well-developed personalities, it feels like the choices they make – even if they lead to tragedy – are logical ones. The setting does help, of course, as it feels fresh to read about a place that’s so unfamiliar, but Perrissin uses the time and place very well, which makes the book more subtle and fascinating. The process of colonization was never pretty and never straight-forward, and the creators bring that to vivid life. Cape Horn is a marvelous comic, and it would make a fine addition to your library.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆