How to Survive in the North

A graphic novel that’s indeed novelistic, it follows three sets of characters whose stories reflect and at points even affect each other. The first two, that of Robert Bartlett and of Ada Blackjack start at the beginning of the XXth century, eight years apart and are based on historical events and figures, while the third is a fictional frame narrative following Sullivan Barnaby, a tenured professor from Hanover who’s suspended after having an affair with a male student. Barnaby learns of the others after finding out his former office was occupied by the Canadian explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson and starts to keep himself occupied by learning about the arctic expeditions he planned.

Drawn in a ligne claire style with sparse details and precise cartooning which endows the characters with evocative expressions and body language, it builds a solid graphic storytelling framework left to be filled and livened with bold color choices. Bright pinks, neon greens, strong yellows. Not only avoiding the monotony of a sea of white demanded by the setting, cold colors, that otherwise live close to warm ones on the color spectrum, help to convey the cold and psychologically tense situations the characters are place in.

While, by its setting and conceit, it might evoke the adventure novels of Jack London and by its graphical style it brings to mind, without being a pastiche, boy’s adventure BD like Tintin (even using the European square speech bubble), the graphic novel is anything but. Surviving in the frozen north is about waiting, suffering and being content to live with that suffering. Surviving, after a point is to accept to be broken, physically and mentally and to face the world as a new, stranger person.

At times it feels like an anti-adventure comic, looking at subjects otherwise ignored such as trauma, the role of natives and women, but without becoming a problem play or a deconstruction. Instead the point is made softly and constantly, with only a few moments when it’s stressed, such as when Bartlett acknowledges that he wasn’t the one actually crossing the frozen waste, that he was dragged and the blunt of the work was done by people unknown and uncelebrated.

It is an informative, beautiful (both as a comic and as an object, as Retrofit always produces) and tragic comic, with few, easy to overlook faults.

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