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Midnight Sun Paperback – January 8, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
At first the facts sound like an alternative history concept, but the basics are true: in May 1928, an Italian airship on its way back from exploring the North Pole (where the crew had dropped an Italian flag and a cross blessed by the pope) crashed before lifting off again with part of its crew. The ship disappeared forever, leaving nine crewmen stranded on the ice. Weeks later, after a massive international search followed intently by world newspapers, eight of the men were rescued by a Russian icebreaker. Towle's cleanly illustrated tale adds impact to these events first by inventing a gin-soaked New York reporter (was there any other kind?) with a need to prove himself and sticking him on the icebreaker heading north. More intriguing, though, is Towle's imagining of what the airship's crew goes through on the ice, arguing over whether to search for land (drifting ever further away) or stay still and wait for rescue, though the ice appears to be cracking. Somewhat too brief but vividly imagined, this is high-quality graphic historical fiction, bringing an obscure but colorful page of history to dramatic life. Suitable for young teens. (Dec.)
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His sparse linework does wonders in portraying stark, arctic climes, and his use of grays gels flawlessly to transform his otherwise barren outlines into smoggy, urban settings. The dialogue is spot-on and the characters expressions are gleefully readable ... a masterful work of historical fiction by a soon to be established champion of the field. --Dave Baxter, Broken Frontier
At first the facts sound like an alternative history concept, but the basics are true: in May 1928, an Italian airship on its way back from exploring the North Pole (where the crew had dropped an Italian flag and a cross blessed by the pope) crashed before lifting off again with part of its crew. The ship disappeared forever, leaving nine crewmen stranded on the ice. Weeks later, after a massive international search followed intently by world newspapers, eight of the men were rescued by a Russian icebreaker. Towle's cleanly illustrated tale adds impact to these events first by inventing a gin-soaked New York reporter (was there any other kind?) with a need to prove himself and sticking him on the icebreaker heading north. More intriguing, though, is Towle s imagining of what the airship s crew goes through on the ice, arguing over whether to search for land (drifting ever further away) or stay still and wait for rescue, though the ice appears to be cracking. Somewhat too brief but vividly imagined, this is high-quality graphic historical fiction, bringing an obscure but colorful page of history to dramatic life. Suitable for young teens. --Publishers Weekly, 12/24/07
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Thankfully, there’s another reporter, a Russian named Zowie whose fiancé was part of the airship crew. The two spark, in part due to competing over the only radio they can use to report back to their editors.
Towle’s confident storytelling allows the visuals to tell the story as needed, without extraneous captions or narration. His figure-centered compositions capture the various kind of loneliness felt by the characters, whether HR’s solo journey or the crew’s struggle to survive. Some of them have tough choices to make, whether to stay put and hope for rescue or strike out across the ice in a direction that’s at best a guess.
Towle’s simple linework against detailed, time-proper backgrounds create the air of stepping back to another era. His approach, especially the use of sepia-like grey tones, reinforces the “historical” part of historical fiction. The story intercuts between the two voyages, HR’s and the crew’s, to create a mystery where anything can happen — at least from the reader’s perspective, who’s likely unfamiliar with the original case. A much-appreciated author’s note at the end discusses some of the events elided for storytelling purposes.
Views of desolate icy wastelands seem particularly suited to comics. When done right, the medium perfectly captures the silent cold… and this one is done right. Black, white, and grey tones show the speckled sky of falling snow over the shadows and crevasses of the endlessly stretching icepack and its drifts. It reinforces just how much the airship crew and their rescuers are intruders into this exotic landscape.
It’s a gripping invite to think about tough choices and the human drive to survive in the harshest of conditions. There’s also the more realistic take on how often those who do heroic things do so in spite of being jerks. (Review originally posted at ComicsWorthReading.com.)
The aforementioned events are factual, and Towle documents the painstaking research he did into the story in an afterword. But in that brief essay, he also freely admits that the book blurs fiction with reality in that the story's main character, an American reporter named H.R. who is placed onboard the Krassin to get the scoop on what happened, never actually existed. This character simply serves as a narrative device to draw us into the story.
Still, despite his role in the story being entirely made up, H.R. still feels real to us because Towle does his best to show us the personal drama in this tragedy. On the ship, H.R. is often left helpless due to the language barrier between himself and the ship's Russian crew. He does make a few friends, however, including another journalist, a Russian woman whose fiancé was one of the Italia's missing crew. H.R. is drawn to comfort her in her time of hardship, and gradually he finds himself more and more attracted to her. All of these emotions are conveyed beautifully by Towle in the merest of moments and glances, and these events help us to fully comprehend the cost of this accident.
As the events on the ship slowly unfold, Towle cuts back and forth between those scenes and scenes that show the fate of the Italia's crew, trapped on the ice for weeks without food or water. He wisely chooses to begin the story in medias res, with the men already crashed on the ice, so that we can see the interpersonal dynamics between these crew members fighting to survive from the first page on. Several of the men are injured, and each of them has their own conflicting ideas for how to deal with the harsh conditions and how best to seek rescue. Again, these character moments allow us to truly feel how they must have as they fought to survive.
Towle then slowly reveals the incidents of the crash through a variety of flashbacks, deftly handling these jumps back and forth in the timeline of events as well as between the two locations. One scene in particular wonderfully juxtaposes H.R. preparing to depart on the Krassin with scenes of the men on the ice combing through the wreckage in search of supplies.
Towle's art is relatively uncomplicated, but it is also beautiful in its simplicity. The facial expressions of the characters are conveyed through minimal lines, and despite the fact that the characters' eyes are mere dots, even these are incredibly expressive. Towle's overhead images of the Arctic landscape skillfully convey the sense of scale of their surroundings and the hardships the crew are confronted with. The men on the ice are gray shadows on a white background, with just a few black lines to delineate the horizon or various ridges in the ice.
At other times Towle's art can be extraordinarily detailed, especially in its depiction of the icebreaker or the dirigible. These details illustrate the efforts Towle took to accurately portray the time period, paying special attention to how these ships look in an attempt to draw us into the narrative and make it feel real to us. Through this same imagery, Towle also conveys the sharp contrast between the comfortably sheltered, slow-paced voyage of the icebreaker and the stark reality, fraught with tension, of the men on the ice waiting nervously for rescue.
Originally, SLG began publishing Midnight Sun as a five-part miniseries, but only three issues were released before the company's move from single issue comics to digital serialization, releasing the final chapters as downloads on the website EyeMelt.com. Now that the full story has been collected in print for the first time, it is definitely worth seeking out. The rich storytelling found in this story make it resonate despite any minor historical inaccuracies, and the creative liberties Towle takes with the story only serve to help the reader understand the circumstances better.