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October 22, 2010

comics and spaces

(in which I actually talk about an upcoming book for once)

So I was rereading Nick Bertozzi's Lewis and Clark (February 2011) and was struck by how interestingly it conveyed a sense of place. 


(This book is a book about Lewis and Clark and their expedition to the Pacific Ocean, so the plot basically goes like this: Lewis and Clark try to get from the east coast to the Pacific Ocean.  And then they do.  In the middle [two years of middle], there is hardship.)

I don't personally have a lot of referents for walking across the United States.  Sometimes I walk a few blocks downtown?  And as a kid sometimes I did some hiking and we'd camp out in the woods?  But those things are all very structured and did not really include 'discovery of unknown lands!' or 'will we be able to get to the store because perhaps today someone will have put the Rocky Mountains between us and it as a well-meant suprise!' sort of excitement. 

But Lewis and Clark had to deal with that sort of thing all the time, it turns out.  And while I understood that intellectually, one of the things that's really great about Nick's book is that with pacing, panel layout, and just excellent use of art, he's able to depict how weird and puzzling and labor intensive it was for them -- and get a real, visceral sense of how they just didn't know what was ahead for them. 

Two sequences in particular I want to talk about. 

There's this one great scene where the expedition comes across a waterfall.  And Lewis is like, 'hah, I will climb up the side of this cliff and see what it up with this waterfall, it cannot be all that bad.'  Actually it turns out to be horrendous, and five waterfalls in a row, so that's pretty traumatizing for him (but then he is almost eaten by a bear, so his day is not wasted!).  But can you imagine how that would be depicted in a history book?  'On the day of June 13th, 1805, Lewis and Clark spent the entire day getting the expedition's canoes up five waterfalls before they were again in clear water."  Now in the comic, you see Lewis climbing up one waterfall . . . only to discover the next beyond it (he has a very dejected tilt of his head).  And then the next waterfall . . . only to discover yet another waterfall.  And so on. 

Nick's pacing is masterful, and it actually allows you as a reader to have some visual idea of what the process of the discovery of America was actually like. 

May 26th, 1805 was Lewis and Clark's first view of the Rocky Mountains.  So they're purposefully striding about in mid-America, and accidentally come upon them, and they look like the Rocky Mountains do, which is like this.


(I have ganked this photo from the US National Archives.)

Upon first coming across them, everyone's hoping against hope that they're actually just very small hills that are close by.  And Nick depicts this by having one of the characters find a stone and throw it at the mountains to gauge how close they are.

It turns out the Rocky Mountains are actually huge.  But in that moment before you know for sure, you have your heart in your mouth for the expeditionary team; maybe they can get to the Pacific in a few days and not have to endure another year of hardship! 

This isn't something I've really seen done in a lot of other nonfiction comics, and I've come to the conclusion that this is because most nonfiction in comics format is about people, rather than places.  But think what an interesting medium is comics is to talk about place, and depict the physical differences between places!  Maybe we should do it more. 


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