Historical fiction, because of its innate subjectivity and its frequently stodgy presentation, can be a thorny proposition, no less so when the work in question is a comic book. But two new historically themed graphic novels – White Rapids and The Annotated Northwest Passage – hold themselves to the highest standards in every category.
For its breathtaking art alone, Quebec cartoonist Pascal Blanchet’s White Rapids (Rapide Blanc in its original French format, published last year by Editions de La Pastèque) is a flawless masterpiece. In this true story of the rise and fall of a Quebec town established solely to support a hydroelectric dam, Blanchet channels the architectural iconography of Darwyn Cooke as well as the nostalgic fascination of Seth – fellow award-winning Canucks both – but his visual style is entirely his own. Originality bleeds off of every gorgeous, pastel-tinged page, even when the majestic double-page spreads that comprise the majority of the book reference mundane real-life imagery such as office building directories, relief maps, or vintage transportation posters. Beautiful and unique flourishes, such as having a telephone pole stand in as the “T” in a word, are found throughout.
The story begins with the boardroom birth of the titular town in the 1920s and ends wistfully when 1970s automation forces its desertion. White Rapids itself is the main character; the town brims with people – all familiar types, but also anonymous. Effectively so: in the final pages, one father’s tearful bridge-side farewell becomes the reader’s.If Blanchet’s historical fiction bears witness to the death of a town, Ontario cartoonist Scott Chantler’s ongoing series Northwest Passage considers the birth of a nation. Set in 1755 in Rupert’s Land – the original area of monopoly granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company – the comic’s first three volumes, collected here along with annotations (or rather, casual endnotes from the author), tell a self-contained, albeit open-ended, story. A black-and-white tale whose visual palette perfectly suits the heroes-and-villains approach, the book follows the siege and retaking of a pivotal fort on the fur-trade route. Chantler’s style is deceptively simple: he draws his fictitious frontier characters as broadly as he writes them, with big shoulders to match their big hearts (those of the good guys, anyhow). “Two-fisted historical adventure” is winkingly promised on the first issue’s cover and is delivered throughout.
While Chantler’s candid back-of-book notes are far from essential reading, they are certainly entertaining. He acknowledges historical source material, notably the work of Peter C. Newman. He critiques himself frequently, and he makes an important point about Northwest Passage: though it’s an easy read that is suggested for all ages, it’s also a mature one, with a high body count and purposely disorienting flashbacks.