Irish cartoonist, 2014 MoCCA Award of Excellence recipient and 2016 Ignatz Award nominee Luke Healy’s first graphic novel is a nostalgic, time-hopping narrative that weaves together nonfiction and fiction, historical events with a contemporary tale of forbidden love. The common thread that runs between the three timelines is Canadian Arctic explorer and ethnologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who led the doomed 1912 and 1916 Wrangel Island expeditions. Stefansson’s first trip to the Arctic via the 1912 Karluk Expedition ended in tragedy when the ship was trapped by ice and drifted westward until it was crushed. Stefansson abandoned the ship and left Captain Robert Bartlett and the ship’s crew to deal with the aftermath. Bartlett managed to get most of the survivors to safety on the ice, but they were stranded for several months before Bartlett and Inuk hunter Kataktovik undertook a 700-journey across the ice to seek help for the shipwrecked crew. At the same time, Healy narrates the story of Stefansson’s 1916 journey to Wrangel Island headed by a new captain and Fred Maurer, a Karluk Expedition survivor and former first mate of Bartlett. They recruit a poor Inuk seamstress with an ailing son named Ada Blackjack in Nome, Alaska to help care for the crews’ needs. Once again, poor planning by the expedition’s scientists leads the ship into dangerous territory as history repeats itself with more devastating consequences. The last story involves a university professor (Sully) experiencing a mid-life crisis. He is placed on administrative leave after the discovery of a homosexual tryst involving a student. While cleaning out his office, Sully finds Stefansson’s nameplate behind a filing cabinet. It turns out that Sully’s office once belonged to Stefansson. This piques Sully’s curiosity and he researches Stefansson’s treacherous past, which also forces him to consider the lecherous role he plays in the shipwreck of a doomed affair.
Healy’s narrative of love, loss and the strength needed to survive in the harshest conditions unfolds as slow-moving cinema, with the pastel hues lending its historical parts an eerily silent movie quality, a visual deceptiveness rooted in the calming influence of color and in the simplicity and clean lines of Healy’s art. It lulls readers into a false sense of security which turns to dread once historical fact is finally revealed.
How to Survive in the North is exceptional storytelling by a fresh, new talent. And it certainly ranks as one of the best graphic novel reads for 2016.
How to Survive in the North, Nobrow Press, 9781910620069, $22.95 hardcover, http://amzn.to/2ngHNBB