There came a point, when I was a kid in high school, when I realized that the problem wasn’t with history per se, but with the way it was being taught. History was full of all manner of things that it’s almost impossible to be bored by, but you wouldn’t have known that from the textbooks and the dry delivery of the teachers at the front of the room.
Why am I saying this now? Because I started reading Nick Bertozzi’s Lewis & Clark last night, and it’s just underlined how wonderful history can be, if done right.
For anyone who’s seen Bertozzi’s work before, it was a no brainer that Lewis & Clark was going to be good, but it’s worth pointing out that this is probably my favorite work I’ve seen from him: There’s something more assured about the artwork – it seems more fluid, more confident than in something like The Salon, for example, mixing a much more playful sense of scale and pacing with layout that seems to take in influences from Herge, Chris Ware and Edward Gorey in various places, as well as Bertozzi’s own style – but there’s also something different about the writing, as well: It seems… well, funnier than I’d expected.
(It’s weird; there was a couple of times in reading the book where I felt as it Kate Beaton had popped in to give a quick once-over in a scene, as if she was the only one to bring comedy to history the way that Bertozzi does it here, but that’s more likely because of my undying love for Beaton’s work than anything else… If nothing else, the influences I attributed to Beaton here probably more likely belong to Monty Python, if not elsewhere.)
The funny is great, though; as much as I’d been looking forward to this book since I first found out about it, I’d worried that I’d be too lost while reading it, lacking the historical backstory I didn’t hear about in school – Oddly enough, we didn’t hear so much about travails across the US in Scotland, nor did we get to play Oregon Trail – or missing the emotional “in” because of the book’s non-fiction bent. That fear was gone by the fourth page, as Bertozzi breaks the studies necessary to get the story where it needed to go into short skits that both humanize the characters and tell the reader “Yeah, it’s possible this book might go for the experience over the fact where necessary.”
And it is all about the experience: Bertozzi manages, somewhat surprisingly, to express some of the wonder, nervousness and naivete involved in the expedition across America, whether it’s the belief of most that they won’t survive (“If the savages don’t get ’em, the Spaniards or the British will!”), the deaths along the way, or the innocence of what lies ahead. The way that Bertozzi tells the story, my lack of history (ha!) with what happened beyond the broad strokes actually works in my favor, and I find myself caught up with each new twist and turn, so into it that I don’t even realize that I’m “learning,” or care that I should probably know all of this stuff already.
Lewis & Clark is a victory all ’round: As education, it’s amazing, making history come alive and making me want to learn everything I can around what Bertozzi tells me, to fill in all the details and clues he leaves behind along the way, and as a comic, it’s effortlessly entertaining, exciting and enjoyable. The work of a great artist at the top of his game, it’s the kind of thing you’ll end up reading over and over again, finding something new each time.