Lewis & Clark (First Second)

 Biographical cartoonist Nick Bertozzi (Houdini: The Handcuff King) explores the adventures of Meriweather Lewis and William Clark across the Louisiana territory.


138 pgs., B&W; $16.99
(W / A: Nick Bertozzi)
Among his many ventures, Nick Bertozzi has developed an area of excellence, shall we say, in historical comics. Ernest Shackleton, Harry Houdini and a whole salon full of artists and patrons (Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas among them) have gotten the Bertozzi treatment, and his latest subject is one which should strike a sympathetic chord with St. Louisans: Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their great expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific coast of the United States.
Bertozzi begins his tale in January 1803, when Congress approved the appropriations for the expedition, and carries through to September 1806, when the Corps of Discovery arrived back in St. Louis. The major events of the journey are highlighted and dated (in a manner reminiscent of title cards in film) which would make this volume a useful adjunct to an elementary school class in American history: it’s sure to spark the interest of the students, but so much information is presented so rapidly that a more conventional textbook would be a good adjunct to fill in the details. A brief epilogue deals with Lewis’ appointment as governor of the Louisiana Territory (including his subsequent mental illness and suicide) and speculation about the later history of Sacagawea.
The basic storytelling style of Lewis & Clark is reminiscent of the best qualities of the old Classics Illustrated volumes—lots of information conveyed painlessly through vivid characterizations and illustrative incidents while always keeping the story moving forward. There’s lots of lively action in a Boys Own Adventure style (Charging buffalo! Hungry bears! Treacherous river rapids!) but also recognition of the more mundane hardships of the journey (they were searching for a water route to the Pacific, but ended up doing quite a few portages). There’s some attention paid to the non-white characters in the story: Bertozzi sets some scenes among the various Indian tribes through whose territory the Corps journeyed and York (Clark’s slave) also gets a few moments in the spotlight. I’m not enough of an expert to comment on how realistic these sections are, but at least they raise issues for further investigation. Lewis, Clark and the other members of the Corps are not presented in an entirely glorified manner, but get more of a warts-and-all treatment which makes it clear that they were human beings with their share of faults. In Bertozzi’s treatment, it’s also clear that luck played a significant role in the success of their mission. None of this takes anything away from their accomplishments, but instead emphasizes that things could very easily have turned out differently.
Bertozzi’s art is straightforward and fairly realistic, not surprising given that this is a story-driven comic based on historical events, but he achieves a lot of variety within those boundaries. I particularly like the way he manipulates the number of frames per line to establish a slower or faster rhythm within an episode and throws in the occasional page-height or page-width frame to emphasize a geographical feature or dramatic situation. You can check out a preview here: http://graphicnovelreporter.com/content/lewis-clark. | Sarah Boslaugh


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