Midnight Sun (SLG Publishing)

A reporter documents the quest to retrieve the survivors of a disaster in the Arctic Circle in this Prohibition era story.

 

 

144 pgs. B&W; $14.95

(W / A: Ben Towle)

 

Ben Towle’s graphic novel Midnight Sun is a work of historical fiction set in the Prohibition era that tells the true story of the ill-fated airship the Italia‘s Arctic expedition. The book focuses on the rescue efforts of a Russian icebreaker called the Krassin, searching for survivors after the blimp crashes near the North Pole.

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. | Steve Higgins

Click here to read the entire first issue of Midnight Sun for free, courtesy of SLG Publishing!

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