A multi-stranded tale that takes historical accounts of early 20th century arctic expeditions and interweaves them with a fictional account of an academic having a mid-life crisis may sound like a pretty weird mixture of stories for a comic, however Luke Healy’s How To Survive In The North from Nobrow Press is an utterly fascinating, meandering look at loneliness and survival in extraordinary circumstances, that expertly defies any initial concerns over it’s rather odd synopsis.
Publisher: Nqobrow Press
Writer: Luke Healy
Artist: Luke Healy
Price: £15.99 from NoBrow Press
Our rating: [star rating=”4″]
The book begins with three spreads, taken from later in the book, that nominally introduce us to our protagonists – sea captain Robert Bartlett, Eskimo seamstress Ada Blackjack and floundering academic Sully. After a stunning rendition of the northern lights, our story begins to reveal itself via a a three strand structure (with multiple time periods) which sees us follow each character’s story before they begin to interconnect and achieve a strange sense of synergy at the end, despite initially appearing completely unique from each other.
Robert Bartlett is a ship’s captain who is charged with taking an expedition of scientists out to the enigmatic Wrangel Island in 1913. Because the boat provided for him isn’t up to scratch he ends up trapped on the island and is forced to hike across the ice to an American listening station in Siberia in order to bring back help his stranded crew. The second story sees the action move forward to 1921 and Eskimo seamstress Ada Blackjack who leaves her son for a year to join another arctic expedition, only to be stranded on the same Wrangel Island. She is there with a survivor from Bartlett’s crew (who you’d think would know better!), a cantankerous sea dog, several hungry bears and her diary for company. Finally, both tales are brought together in the present day by struggling academic Sully who researches the events of both expeditions while on an enforced sabbatical after having an inappropriate relationship with a student.
Although the first two are based on historical events and so make for fascinating reads about survival against the odds, it is perhaps the third which is the most interesting, as well as being the one which feels the most out of place at first. Forced into taking a sabbatical after a relationship with a student becomes too public, Sully begins investigating both expeditions after a chance realisation that Bartlett’s crew member Svensson used to inhabit his office. He in turn finds connections to Ada Blackjack and begins to question Svensson’s heroic reputation which again puts him at odds with his academic colleagues.
Although his isolation is not quite as harsh as the explorers’, his ostracising from the academic community (and from his student lover’s life) mirror the isolation and feelings of loneliness that the explorers are going through and so has a similar, albeit very different, sense of sadness and tragedy. But perhaps one which is even more poignant as it feels the most recognisable for a modern reader.
It’s a pretty unconventional concept and one that can be disorientating on a first read – especially for those used to a more mainstream logic. Fortunately, Healy’s artwork expertly brings the story together, in particular with his lush use of colour. Using different hues for each character’s story (blue and yellow for Bartlett, reddy pink for Ada and spearmint green for Sully) Healy helps give each story a unique look and a distinctive voice that helps it stand out from the others – and his mirrored in the lights of the northern lights featured at the beginning and on the cover. His art work is delightfully simple, with a very minimalist use of line, which is counter balanced nicely with some very structured pages, with tight panel designs.
(The colours also stand out brilliantly on the wonderful paper stock on which the book is printed, but this is a Nobrow book, so what did you expect from the production values?!)
Although it’s a bit of a meandering read with a concept which is a bit left field, How To Survive In The North is an utterly compelling read and one which is so tense and filled with icy danger that you will want to make sure you have a rescue boat (and some fur lined gloves) on standby before you get past the first few pages.