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Review time! with First Man: Reimagining Matthew Henson

by  in Comic News Comment
Review time! with <i>First Man: Reimagining Matthew Henson</i>

“There must be one place left in the world where the water’s real and clean”

First Man is by Simon Schwartz, a German comics creator who decided to write about Matthew Henson after a newspaper hired him to illustrate an article on polar expeditions. In the course of researching it, he discovered Henson and found out that not much had been written about him, as he was considered “just” a servant to Robert Peary, who is credited with being the first man at the North Pole.

So Schwartz decided to write about Henson, but in German! I mean, the nerve of him! So Laura Watkinson has translated his comic, and Graphic Universe has published it (and charged a mere $14.99 for it), so now all of us Philistines who don’t know German (I still retain ein bisschen from my youth, but not much, as my attempts to translate my old Playmobil comic on this blog prove) can read it. Yay, Philistines!

This is a fascinating comic, because Schwartz is uninterested in doing a straight biography of Henson’s life (as the timeline in the back of the book shows, he deliberately changes plenty of actual events from Henson’s life to better fit his narrative). Schwartz mentions in his introduction that he was fascinated by the fact that Henson has entered Inuit mythology, which made him consider not the basic facts of Henson’s life, but how we remember history. So the book is more about the way Henson bridged two cultures and how the dominant one in his own country treated him rather than just a recitation of the facts of his life (Schwartz is the tiniest bit dismissive of “real” history, but he doesn’t seem to understand it clearly, either).

Schwartz links Henson’s story to the myths of the Inuit, which tell of Tahnusuk, the devil, who lives in the far north.

A group of people – the Oopernadeet – come to their land, obsessed with finding Tahnusuk, and Mahri Pahluk – Henson – is among them. The interesting thing about the myth is that, while it’s clear that the Oopernadeet aren’t really welcome in their land, the Inuit have a grudging respect for them, too, because they want to “conquer” the devil by reaching the pole. So it’s not as clear-cut as we might expect, and it adds some nice nuance to the story, as Henson is not completely heroic as he fights against the racism he had to deal with every day. He’s far more noble than the white people in this story, which isn’t too surprising, but he’s not completely saintly, and that’s a smart choice by Schwartz.

Schwartz tells a somewhat straightforward “biography,” although he begins in 1945, when Henson is working as a janitor at the Museum of Natural History in New York, and he moves back and forth between that Henson and the events of his life leading up to that day.

Schwartz shows him going to sea when he was 12 and the captain who told him how to fit into society without making too many waves. Henson takes this advice to heart, and he spends his life trying not to stand out until he’s pushed too far, and Schwartz does a good job showing how even a mild-mannered man like Henson can finally decide he’s had enough. Schwartz does a nice job with the overt racism Henson has to face, but also the more subtle kind, all of which he takes without complaint. Schwartz does a very good job showing that despite Henson giving years of service to Peary and Peary even almost treating him like an equal on several occasions, when push comes to shove, Peary is a product of his times and, because of his racist attitudes and his massive ego, can’t even contemplate giving Henson any credit for discovering the pole. Henson is complicit in some of Peary’s more horrible schemes – he foolishly tells him about the Inuit’s sacred stones, which leads to Peary stealing them, and he says nothing when Peary decides to take several natives back to New York with him (all but one died of tuberculosis). Peary comes off poorly in this comic, but Henson isn’t completely without blame, either. Schwartz also does a nice job showing that people can be gracious when things are looking up, but when their livelihoods are on the line, things are much different. The first white man to treat Henson with any respect, Dr. Cook, later turns viciously on him when Henson sides with Peary when Cook claims he reached the pole first.

Peary cheats on his wife, which drives her into the arms of another man, but years later, they’re still together, as they recognize that they need each other more than they need to give into their passion. Schwartz isn’t too obvious about it, but it’s still clever.

The interesting thing about Henson’s relationship with the Inuit and why he eventually enters their mythology is that it’s not because he shows the natives any more kindness than Peary does, although he doesn’t actively abuse them. They respect him because he conquered the devil in the north and survived – they give him the credit that Peary did not, and Schwartz gives no indication that they have any warm feelings for Henson beyond this respect. An old shaman shows him the sacred stones, which turns out to be a mistake, and late in the book, an Inuit tells of Henson to his nieces and nephews and has a much better feel for Henson’s life than the white people who surround him, possibly because the native understands the struggles Henson had to go through. Schwartz does a good job showing the complexity of Henson’s life and how he constantly had to navigate through problems that white people wouldn’t even think about, and it gets to the tragedy of his situation quite well. He doesn’t quite do the same with the Inuit, but he does show how much worse their lives became once the whites showed up, and therefore they at least have that in common with Henson.

Schwartz’s art is fascinating, as well. He uses thick, bold lines for most of the characters and their clothing, making them a bit simplistic looking, but I wonder how much of it is deliberate, because he shows in the amazing backgrounds that he can be very precise, and even with some of the clothing and later, when the men are scruffy from being in the Arctic for so long, their faces, so it seems like he’s showing the bold Manichean worldview of young America – a country that thought it was great simply because it said it was.

Peary, Cook, and the others have little nuance in the way Schwartz draws them (but not necessarily in the way he writes them) because they simply don’t think they could ever be wrong. I, certainly, could be wrong, but it’s still interesting to think about. Schwartz does a wonderful job with Henson, making him stoop just subtly to show his position in society – he’s not exactly obsequious, but Schwartz draws him so he keeps himself out of the limelight. Over the course of the book, Henson walks a bit taller, as he slowly decides that he doesn’t care about his position in society, and it’s fascinating how, in the Arctic, he can hold his head up higher because he knows he’s indispensable, while back in the States he fades a bit more into the background. Schwartz does amazing work with the Inuit mythology – instead of using bold, black lines, he uses thinner, gray or blue lines that don’t form powerful borders between waves, whales, masks, and ships, so that the world looks a bit softer and far more mysterious than the world of Peary and his ilk. Schwartz blends these two worlds beautifully a few times, especially when Henson and Peary reach the pole, and it’s quite clever. He uses white ink very well to show the screeching blizzards that almost kill the Americans, and he does marvelous work with the backgrounds, drawing in rivets on steel machines and every brick in New York buildings. His inking is quite nice, too, as he uses thick, viscous strokes to show the Nicaraguan mud and dabbed blotches to create the thick fur coats the Inuit and the explorers wear. The blue foundation for the palette is interesting, keeping the book “cool” even when Henson and Peary aren’t in the Arctic – it’s a good choice, as Henson doesn’t face the “hot” violence of some racists – one panel alludes to his family’s death by lynching, but that’s it – but the more subtle racism of snide asides and deliberate ignoring of his achievements.

It’s a neat-looking book, and it helps bring home Schwartz’s points well.

It’s interesting to compare Henson’s life with that of the one he leads in Schwartz’s book, because they diverge so often, but as Schwartz points out, he’s writing fiction, and he does it quite well in First Man. This is a neat comic about driven people and what they’ll do to achieve their goals, while it’s also a cautionary tale about those people. Henson is a good character to focus on, because he had ambitions but was thwarted not because of anything in him, but because of external forces. Did this allow him to be more sympathetic to the Inuit? Perhaps, and Schwartz does a good job bringing up some questions about Henson and not giving us easy answers. Henson lived in a world that refused to recognize his achievements, and this comic is well done because it shows that he deserved better even though he was still, after all, just a man. Maybe it’s time to re-assess what happened on the top of the world a century ago!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

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