Rough & Tumble: Lewis and Clark

Posted by on March 2nd, 2011 at 6:05 AM

Rob reviews Nick Bertozzi’s historical fiction comic, Lewis and Clark (First Second).

Nick Bertozzi is an alt-cartoonist who’s never been easy to categorize. He comes from a mainstream tradition in some ways but has always had an interest in formalism, like with his map comic Boswash. His comics often touch on the grotesque while still fiddling with formal challenges, such as his comic The Masochists or his series Rubber Necker. At times, he even drifts into the surreal, as in his contribution for the anthology New Thing: Identity. Of late, he’s turning to historical fiction in places like Syncopated, using a simple and scratchy line that wouldn’t look out of place in mainstream B.D. His The Salon turns this historical fiction on its head by introducing a fantastical plotline to a story that is really more concerned with the birth of cubism. Bertozzi has never been published by one of the significant alt-publishers (although arguably Alternative Comics was close to holding that status) until he landed with First Second. Lewis and Clark is very much the model of what Kim Thompson refers to as “good crap”: a clever, well-crafted and exciting mainstream story with a number of deeper flourishes. This is very much by design, as Bertozzi aims this book at a somewhat Young Adult audience; what he comes up with is the model of what this sort of book should be.

It’s an interesting fit, since in many respects, First Second is best at producing and/or translating “new mainstream” books. That is, books that are either young adult-fiction or straightforward fiction. The art tends to have a very European sensibility to it, including the American artists who produce original work. Lewis and Clark is very much a mainstream comic designed for a wide audience, yet it capitalizes on the idiosyncrasies of Bertozzi’s style in the form of clever layouts, an attention to unusual detail and a certain focus on visceral and even scatological detail. Bertozzi goes out of his way to ground the legend of Lewis and Clark into a narrative that is as much about muck, hard-drinking and madness as it is about science and pioneering. Along the way, Bertozzi manages to avoid a number of storytelling traps that could
have made the story cliched, jingoistic or preachy. Indeed, the deftness with which he avoids these pitfalls rivals the skill of the intrepid explorers themselves.

Bertozzi makes the shrewd move of focusing on the expedition’s leader, Meriwether Lewis. He’s depicted as a combination of visionary explorer, upright patriot and total lunatic. Commissioned by president Thomas Jefferson to find a water passage to the Pacific Ocean, Lewis is shown as someone who gets things done in part because he’s so unforgiving and demanding. He’s a smart figure to hang the narrative around because of the way his life unfolds:
carrying out the mission despite great adversity on route to becoming an American hero, only to slowly go insane, become an alcoholic and eventually commit suicide. The way Bertozzi starts to poke hints of Lewis’ madness into the story (in the form of a dark, blurry homunculus of a figure) is a smart juxtaposition to both Lewis’ frequently cruel drive and gleeful, childlike
enthusiasm in pursuit of his goal. His madness, it is revealed, has much to do with a family history of insanity, but one can see the edge between that insanity and genius throughout the story. Bertozzi hints that Lewis being removed from the structure of his society during the course of the journey may well have begun the process that eventually unhinges his mind.

Bertozzi makes another smart move in the way he depicts the Indians that Lewis’ crew encounters. When the two groups speak, the reader “hears” the dialogue from the point of view of the Indians, as the white men were shown speaking haltingly. That move strips the narrative away from Lewis, putting the reader into a parallel narrative whose complexity is entirely lost on the white explorers. Lewis, accustomed to being the master of all he surveys, is very much a lost stranger in these sequences, often flying off the handle when he’s frustrated. At the same time, Bertozzi is quick not to depict the various Indian tribes as noble savages. Each tribe and each tribesman is different, with different means and goals. In dealing with the French, British and Americans, each tribe was quite adept at manipulating political ends and parlayed with that in mind. There are a few heartbreaking moments where Lewis promises some of the friendlier tribes that they would keep their land (Andrew Jackson was just a few years away). Other chiefs know better, understanding that Americans were settlers, not mere tradesmen.

Both groups are “savages” in their own way, as Bertozzi isn’t shy about injecting scatological humor into the proceedings. This is a shorthand method Bertozzi employs to forward the idea that both groups are more alike than different in a number of ways, including their senses of humor. It’s an entryway to demonstrate that both groups are flawed, ambitious, clever, funny,
playful and loyal to their own kind. Neither group can see this in the other, viewing each other as savages. Bertozzi doesn’t linger on this point for very long, instead letting this emerge as a series of humorous jabs that give way to the main narrative itself. Lewis himself emerges as a bundle of contradictions: he’s a Virginian and a gentleman, having little tolerance for the niceties of negotiation with the tribes (despite orders from the President), yet he develops great admiration for Indian maps, methods and even dress.

The other major character in the story, the young Indian guide Sacagawea, is depicted as being conflicted. She’s shrewd enough to be a great negotiator and guide but is uneasy both with the white men and her own tribe. Her relationship with French trapper and translator Charbonne is more akin to master-slave than husband-wife, a power relationship that’s compared to Clark’s own slave.  Slavery is discussed in a matter-of-fact way not to dismiss it, but to immediately alert the reader that the heroes of the story (even President Jefferson) were mostly slave-owners, with all that power that that relationship entailed. The reaction of Clark’s slave, York, not wishing to run off said a great deal about their relationship, but it also reflects a bit of what could be considered the 19th century version of Stockholm Syndrome. York considers himself to be a Virginian and wants to “earn” his freedom, even when offered a way out. Bertozzi prefers to let the reader sort out their own feelings about the matter, refusing to absolve or absolutely condemn any of these figures.

The big format of the book is instrumental in its success. Using an 8.5 x 11 page, Bertozzi employs a dizzying number of panel and page formats. He uses two page spreads, standard grids, pages with no panel borders, pages with decorative panel borders (the latter two seen for intra-tribe interaction), huge splash images with smaller panels dropped on top, zig-zagged light and dark panels that depict movement over time, insects buzzing outside of panels to indicate their omnipresence and many other tricks. What’s impressive is that these tricks help drive the narrative and never feel superfluous. The thickness and scratchiness of his line gives the reader something to hold onto even as the narrative itself flew by. These details add to the humor and irreverence of this comic while still allowing it to stand as a reasonably complete and accurate portrayal of the real historical events. Nick Bertozzi does a lot of work to keep things simple.

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One Response to “Rough & Tumble: Lewis and Clark

  1. says:

    this book rocks!