Ah, yes, historical fiction in comics. How groovy!
I’ve been a fan of Nick Bertozzi for a few years now, and while I haven’t loved everything he’s done, I like his art quite a bit and I love that he writes about interesting topics. I’ve never been a big fan of the Lewis and Clark expeditions (despite living for some time in Oregon, where there’s a college named after them), but I loves me some historical fiction, so I figured I’d give this a look.
It’s published by First Second and is listed at $16.99.
Bertozzi tells the story of the expedition in a fairly straightforward fashion, with one major exception, and through that we get a good sense of what life was like in the early nineteenth century both in the middle of civilization and out on the frontier. So we begin at the White House (the first version), which was built in the middle of nowhere in Washington, and it’s always fun to see a time when life was much more informal, as Thomas Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis seem to be the only ones at the house. Bertozzi takes us through Lewis’s preparations for the expedition, including asking William Clark to join him (Lewis is very much the star of the book, with Clark fulfilling almost a sidekick role), and their departure from St. Louis in 1804 and their trip west. The actual expedition is largely undramatic – most Americans know the basic outline, and we know that Lewis and Clark made it to the Pacific and returned safely. So the journey is much more fascinating as a travelogue, as the “exciting” sections are presented less as dramatic points in the narrative as parts of the whole. The most exciting moment, perhaps, is when Lewis and Clark, sick of portaging, decide to ride the rapids at The Dalles (in Oregon). Even then, we know that they come out okay, so it’s just more of a way to follow their trail.
Bertozzi, however, does a very nice job with the characters in the book reacting to the travails of the route. The relationship between Charbonneau and his wife, Sacagawea, is an unpleasant one, and Bertozzi doesn’t shy away from showing its ugliness. Clark’s slave, York, is presented in an uncomfortable way to modern audiences – he’s depicted much more like a servant than a slave, and even rejects the notion that Clark would free him when the expedition is over.
Even Lewis, late in the book, expresses surprise that Clark hasn’t freed him yet. There’s also a lot of humor in the book, with two characters providing some of the comic relief. Bertozzi also does a nice job showing how the various Native American tribes treated the expedition. Some of them, like the Mandan, were very accommodating, while others were very wary. Bertozzi doesn’t get into the Indian culture too much, but he does a nice job showing how different the tribes were from each other. It’s an interesting glimpse into how the Indians sought to live with the whites and use them to their own purposes, which didn’t work out too well, as we know, but this was still early in their interaction with the new Americans. Lewis, however, goes through the biggest change. He’s committed utterly to the mission, and when he can’t find a water route to the Pacific, he begins to feel the pressure. As he goes through some feverish moments, Bertozzi delves into his psyche a bit more, as he starts to hallucinate. Lewis’s death is generally regarded as a suicide (although there’s some doubt), and Bertozzi does a nice job showing how he starts down the road to his early death. It’s the most speculative part of the book, but it’s very effective.
The art in the book is unsurprisingly good, and Bertozzi does a lot of neat things with page layouts and panel design. Some pages have no panels, just drawings in space, while other pages have a large image with panels placed on top of it. He creates several double-page layouts to express the vastness of the wilderness through which the expedition is traveling, and he often shows his character in very long shots for the same reason.
When Lewis and Clark shoot the rapids, he jumbles the panels across the page to show the bumpiness of the ride. When the Indians speak in their languages, he changes the word balloon borders to reflect that, a nice touch. Lewis’s mental degradation is handled very well, as his hallucinations become more fervent and his final day is more disturbing than the rest of the book. Bertozzi does an excellent job with the natural setting, doing a nice job with the animals and giving us an appropriate sense of grandeur when the expedition reaches the end of the Columbia River and sees the Pacific for the first time.
Bertozzi writes at the beginning that he wants to give us the experience of what it was like trekking across a vast wilderness peopled by very few, and he does it very well. This is a gripping adventure story about a small group of people tackling something unknown and triumphing over their own fears, but in the case of one of them, perhaps losing something in the process. Even if you know the general story of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Bertozzi does a very nice job taking us into what it was like to leave everything familiar behind and setting off into the great unknown. That he manages to turn the book into a psychological drama is a big plus, too. I’m not sure if this is as good as The Salon, Bertozzi’s tale of murder among the modernist painters of early 20th century Paris (because that was pretty damned good), but it’s still a remarkable comic, and you might want to give it a look.