Bertozzi Brings "Lewis & Clark" to Comics

Nick Bertozzi has carved out a unique role in comics. He's illustrated books from Jason Lutes and Glenn Eichler, delivered a great M.O.D.O.K. story in Marvel's first "Strange Tales" anthology featuring indy creators and is one of the founding members of the online collective ACT-I-VATE. The artist/writer has received Xeric, Ignatz and Harvey Awards while being nominated for an Eisner.

In books like "The Salon" and numerous short stories, some which are available on the ACT-I-VATE website, Bertozzi displays his great skill at absorbing mass amounts of information and crafting a comics narrative, one that is not overwhelmed by text and captions and explanations. By distilling the essence of people, their ideas and the meaning of their experiences in a way that may not convey literal facts, Bertozzi conveys the truth of individuals and their situations.

His new comic is "Lewis and Clark," which has just been released by First Second Books and is the first volume of a series that will tackle the tales of various world explorers. If this volume is any indication, the books will not be dumbed down or made painfully dry and boring in order to fit in with a history class curriculum. Bertozzi spoke with CBR News about the book and his future projects.

CBR News: What made you interested in tackling the story of Lewis and Clark as your latest graphic novel?

Nick Bertozzi: I was initially attracted to the story just as a formal exercise. I'd wanted to draw a mini-comic of the journey, in which the Westward portion of the trip was drawn on the top half of the comics' pages, and when the reader came to the last page of the comic, they'd flip it over and read the Eastward, return trip printed on the bottom half of the pages. That led to some research and eventually to the book as it is now.

I've liked walking for long stretches since I was a little kid, hours at a time whenever I get the chance. I get to see parts of a city or country I'd only ever train or drive through. I pick up on the little details on buildings, strange street compositions of neighborhoods, and I'm always on the look out for water. I don't know why, but that's how it is. So, I'd initially thought that Lewis and Clark had walked the entire distance to the Pacific and back from Washington, DC. I was very wrong of course, but it was enough of a seed to get me to read more about the Journey and eventually expand it from a short story and into a graphic novel.

Without making the book drag, you give the reader a sense of just how long a journey this was. Today, it's possible to drive from the Mississippi to the West Coast in a couple of days, so the scale of travel can be hard to understand. What were the ways that you found were useful in conveying that passage of time?

I'm wicked happy that idea came across. The book doesn't drag because I reminded the reader of the physical danger they were in whenever I could. The scenes are rarely more than two pages long and there are several scenes in which I emphasized the undignified, "boring" physical trudge and toil.  

After illustrating "Houdini" and then "Stuffed," both stories written by someone else, has the experience of working on those books changed the way you work as a writer/artist?

I worked directly from Jason Lutes' layouts on "Houdini," and that experience has made my cartooning far clearer and easier to read. His pacing is the gold-standard of comics.

"Stuffed" was also published by First Second. What made them the right publisher for this book?

First Second often publishes books that tell the personal side of history ("Journey Into Mohawk Country," "Deogratias"), and that's the way I wanted to write "Lewis & Clark."

What went into the decision behind the books larger, black and white format?

There's a lot of information to get across to really understand and empathize with the Corps of Discovery's story and the pages ended up packed with panels that would've required a magnifying glass to read at the 6" x 8.5" First Second format.

The idea at first was to get the pages to look a bit like etchings. But I'm not sure that effect comes across since I ended up using brush for so much of it. Had I nibbed the entire book, I'd still be working on it in 2020.

The book is targeted at readers age 12 and up. Was there any thinking on your part in aiming the story at a younger age group or was this book pretty much done the same way you usually work?

I tried to use simple language and keep the story going at a fast clip so kids could grasp what was going on, but the reality is that the journey was incredibly dangerous and I did want to get that across. I wrote the book with my ten-year-old in mind, a kid who never cared that much about Lewis & Clark. Had this kid read a book about the nearly insurmountable hardships that the Corps overcame, it would have made their accomplishment far more real.

How much research was involved in producing the book?

For monetary reasons, I used Herge's research method: Lots and lots of pictures. I'd love to follow their route someday.

For many of the pages, you really seem to enjoy working with the two page spread as a single unit. What do you enjoy about that approach, and what does it provide you with the opportunity to do that you can't with two single pages?

Using the two-page spread came from working on "Houdini." Jason Lutes put together his page layouts as two page spreads. Knowing that the reader will scan the pages together whether you want to or not, to take advantage of formal design possibilities can infer or play with the content of the scene. And for "Lewis & Clark," I found two-page spreads to be very useful in suggesting the massive areas of space that the Corps was traveling through.

There are so many challenges in drawing a book like this, I'm curious: what was the hardest aspect of the book for you? Was it how to depict something, choosing what to leave out or something else?

Trying to keep the book under two-hundred pages was by far the hardest part of the job. Compressing scenes, balancing the emotional and historical parts of the story -- both kept me up for many nights. The hardest part of drawing the book was Thomas Jefferson, whose sphinx-like oddness I don't think I was able to capture at all in the drawing as I'd intended.

And what can you tell us about the mixture of fact and fiction with regards to dramatizing the events.

All I can say is that most people would rather watch Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" than Suetonius's history. I know I'm comparing myself to Shakespeare here, but the story has to move along while retaining the spirit of the source.

It's a very bittersweet tale, which is very different from how most people tell this story. How important was that aspect of telling the story to you?

For most people, history is bone-dry boring because figures of the past are so often presented as just that: figures. But give heroes dirty feet and people by the millions will go see a movie about a stuttering king. In my version, The Journey of the Corps of Discovery is about a personal achievement rather than a jingoistic fairy tale.

According to the blurb on the back of "Lewis & Clark," this is the first installment in a planned series of historical graphic novels. Who else are you planning to write about?

I'm working on a book with filmmaker Boaz Yakin right now about Jerusalem in the late 40s which I hope to wrap up soon, but Shackleton's next. If you've never heard the story, I guarantee that you'll be shouting, "No way!" multiple times by the end of it. I'd love to do Cabeza De Vaca, Zheng He, The Silk Road, Phoenicians.

You also have a book set in Jerusalem in the 40s that you're working on? What can you tell us about that project and why did you decide to work with a writer on it?

I'm drawing battle scenes, massacres, bombed-out buildings, riots and many other things that I had to research the hell out of. I took the job because the script was incredibly good and Boaz Yakin has made a bunch of great movies, most notable to me is "Fresh," sort of a proto-"The Wire," so I knew I could learn a lot from him, which I have. That being said, I hope I never have to draw a sten-gun again!

The last time we spoke, you had just posted a section of Kate Chopin's "The Awakening" on your blog. Is there any chance we'll be seeing a full adaptation of the book anytime soon?

I've put it aside to work on paying books, but that doesn't mean I won't get to it at some point. I gotta learn to draw with two hands...

Has anything happened with the Lenny Bruce biography that Harvey Pekar wrote that you were going to draw?

I penciled the whole book before Harvey passed away. I'm not sure what's going to happen next, but I'd love to finish it.

For people who read your new book and come to the inevitable conclusion that the story of Lewis and Clark is infinitely more interesting than what we were taught in history class, can you recommend anything after reading your book?

Try to find a copy of Richard Maguire's short comics-story "Here" from "RAW Magazine." It's a much cooler way to think about history in comics than I can muster. I love any of James Sturm's historical fiction comics collected in "James Sturm's America" and the recent "Market Day," George O'Connor's "Journey into Mohawk Country," Nick Abadzis's "Laika," Blutch's short stories about Jack Johnson (not sure if they're available much in English),  Jacques Tardi's WWI books, Josh Neufeld's "A.D.: When Katrian Came Calling," Lockpez and Haspiel's "Cuba: My Revolution,"  Dan Zettwoch's hands-down-amazing "Ironclad" comic about Civil War-Era, iron ships, Muñoz and Sampayo did a really good Billie Holiday comic, any of Joe Sacco's comics, R. Crumb's "Book of Genesis." There are many more, but I'll stop there.  

However, if you're asking about good books to read about Lewis and Clark, I'd get "Across the Divide" by Carolyn Gilman or "The Journals of Lewis and Clark" edited by Bernard DeVoto.

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