Tuesday, March 17, 2009

FYC #4: Scott Chantler's NORTHWEST PASSAGE

Originally published on 06/28/07

For Your Consideration: Scott Chantler’s Northwest Passage
By Chris Beckett

The 411:
Northwest Passage: The Annotated Edition
Story & Art Scott Chantler
272pp. b/w Hardcover
Oni Press
Volumes 1-3 also available.

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

The American West has been romanticized for over a century now, and in recent years there has been an attempt to reclaim the Old West for what it was – a grimy, harsh wilderness filled more with human characters than larger than life ones. But there is another frontier that often gets overlooked, one that, when illuminated, is shown to have been even harsher and more challenging than the American West. That frontier is found to our north, in the wilds of what is now Canada.

It is within this harsh northern climate that Scott Chantler places his historical adventure, Northwest Passage, titled after the fabled route that many explorers of the time were searching for in order to trade more easily with Asia. Set in 1775, Chantler’s tale takes place in Rupert’s Land, a large swath of land comprising the entire Hudson Bay drainage system, which includes northern Québec and Ontario north of the Laurentian watershed, all of Manitoba, most of Saskatchewan, southern Alberta and a portion of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. This land was granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was responsible for exploring most of the land and setting up trading posts throughout the wilderness. For years, the HBC had a monopoly within this territory.

As the story opens, Charles Lord, after nearly twenty years in service to the Hudson’s Bay Company, is stepping down as Governor of Fort Newcastle, preparing to return to England after too long away. The supply ship carrying the new Governor, Hargrove, entered the bay days ago and if the winds are good should be in dock the following day. Having spent more than half his years on this new continent, Lord is ready to step down and is looking forward to returning home, if only for a short time. Troubled by the fact that the company has been content to sit in their forts on Hudson’s Bay while the French pushed farther inland, Lord intends to speak with the shareholders, and the King if need be, in order to mount up a new expedition westward. The Northwest Passage still calls to him, for Charles Lord is not a businessman, he is an explorer.

But nothing comes easily in this new world. What nobody at the fort realizes is that the supply ship has been overrun by French mercenaries, and not just any mercenaries, but a band led by Guerin Montglave. This isn’t as simple as a dispute between two nations, for Montglave and Lord go way back, all the way to when they first arrived on this wild continent. Montglave hates Lord, and Lord returns this sentiment. This is far worse than an international dispute. This is personal. And if Montglave has his way, nobody will survive his siege of Fort Newcastle.

Scott Chantler is a first-rate storyteller and he demonstrates this with Northwest Passage. Initially released as three volumes, the complete first adventure of Charles Lord will soon be available as an annotated hardcover from Oni Press. Northwest Passage is a fast-paced thriller that feels completely genuine, a testament to the research Chantler did in preparation for this endeavor. He allows the realities of the 18th century wilderness to imbue his narrative with tension and conflict, while utilizing the confines of the comic page masterfully to keep readers on the edges of their seats through to the end.

Chantler need also be applauded for his well-developed characters. These are not stick figures thrown into an historical wilderness to be moved around like pieces on a chess board. All of the conflict stems from these fully realized people that Chantler has created. They are human. They make mistakes. And sometimes they do not treat one another as they ought to. Lord’s half-breed son, Simon, detests his father, blaming him for his mother’s death. Lord knows this and finds it difficult to relate to the boy, preferring to be the governor of the fort rather than the father to his son. Guerin Montglave, the villain of the piece, is utterly ruthless and deceptively clever, two traits that have kept him alive for so long in this wilderness. And in a terrible irony, Montglave manages to persuade the estranged young Lord that he is his friend and would enjoy Simon’s company on his voyage home. This, and other choices made by these characters, leads to a bloody climax from which none will be able to survive unscathed.

These and other character traits, as exemplified by a 3-page, 12-panel sequence in which Lord and his son have a stilted breakfast conversation punctuated by long silences, add much to Chantler’s tale. Chantler deftly weaves these quiet moments throughout the story, dropping these scenes in among the action sequences without slowing down the narrative. It is a difficult balance for any creator, and Chantler makes it look easy.

Chantler’s art style adds much to Northwest Passage as well. His work reminds me a lot of Jeff Smith’s work on Bone. A style that seems heavily influenced by animation – utilizing a minimal amount of lines to delineate his figures – this type of art can be disarming for readers. It draws readers in with its familiarity and simplicity, while accentuating the scenes of violence through a dichotomy set up by preconceptions formed with the audience’s initial response to the artwork. And make no mistake, Chantler does not water down his story, but conveys the random cruelty of the times and the hardness of these men honestly.

Chantler also understands comic art and how best to utilize the tools of his trade. He is able to vary styles when the story calls for it, while also utilizing the page structure of comics skillfully. Not unlike the small number of splash pages found in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Chantler saves those few full-page images found in Northwest Passage for important events that demand emphasis. He subtly reveals just enough in some panels to start readers down one path of thinking while turning things upside down with the turn of a page, a technique found in films such as Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Guy Ritchie’s Snatch.

This is a great book and if you’re still unsure whether it is for you, then head on over to the Oni Press website where they have a free preview of the first 50 pages available here. It’s like getting something for nothing (actually, it is getting something for nothing). Do yourself a favor, check out the preview and then go out and buy this book. It’ll be worth it.

An Interview with Scott Chantler:

Chris Beckett:
Why comics? What does this medium offer you as a storyteller that others might not?

Scott Chantler: I've always felt that comics are unique in that they offer the visceral experience of a film, but are also personal and intimate, like a book. It's a way for those of us who like to tell stories with pictures to be able to do so, and do it how we want, without putting together a multi-million dollar budget or dealing with Hollywood corporate politics, and without sacrificing a one-on-one relationship with the reader. Comics combine what's best in a lot of other mediums--film, literature, the visual arts, drama--into something that's potentially very powerful.

CB: Your artwork reminds me a lot of Jeff Smith – utilizing a minimal amount of strong, confident lines to delineate your panels. How did you develop your style and do you find it challenging to be so precise with your inking?

SC: No, I don't find it a challenge. I think the pages through pretty thoroughly, and pencil fairly tight. I learned long ago that if it isn't in the pencils, it's not going to be in the inks. So when the time comes, I can just relax and ink with real confidence. Which is the way it should be done. Inking is the fun part.

My style really came together from my experiences in commercial illustration and animation. I spent a lot of time in the early '90s breaking into comics, and part of the reason why I wasn't successful (other than it just being a really bad time to be trying to break in) was that I was trying to draw like everyone else who was doing comics. This is a common problem with young artists...they haven't got a style of their own yet, so they just ape the popular favourites. Years and years of doing editorial illustration broke me of that, and gave me a style that was appealing and decidedly less comic-book-like. And animation taught me how to really get characters to perform.

There are still plenty of comics artists who inspire me--Eisner, Jeff Smith (who you mentioned,) Chaland, Bruce Timm, Paul Grist, and Pierre Alary are some whose work just blows me away--but whatever I might take from their work now gets filtered through my own sensibilities and experience.

CB: Are the main characters of Northwest Passage based upon any actual historical figures or did you conceive of them whole cloth?

SC: The characters and events in NWP are fictional, but grounded strongly in real history. The annotated edition that's being released in July goes into detail about the historical underpinnings of the book.

CB: Northwest Passage was obviously a well-researched series, which translates on your part to a lot of time reading and absorbing the details of the period. What sort of compromises, if any, had to be made by you (whether it be the historical accuracy or the need for you to move past the research to the creation stage) and how were you able to reconcile these issues?

SC: I try not to let the history overwhelm the storytelling. You don't want it to come off as a history lesson--you want the story to be the main concern and let the setting be background and motivation. So if I need to sacrifice a little bit of accuracy to make the drama work as best it can, I will. There are lots of places in NWP where that happened--I raised the height of the ceiling in the ship, and extended the sailing season into Hudson's Bay, to name two that spring to mind. But you just have to hope that readers aren't going to notice or care, and that the things that you *are* accurate about combine in such a way to set a scene that's believable, if not 100% realistic.

CB: What advice might you share with aspiring artists looking to break into the field of comics? An aspiring writer?

SC: My best advice for aspiring comic book artists is to not draw sample pages. Draw your own stories. When you do "audition" pages you're trying to show how well you can draw, and from how many ridiculous angles, rather than concentrating on telling a story simply and efficiently. Do minicomics, start a Web strip, do your own stuff. If you're any good, people will notice and you'll be started on a career. Study good comics--Eisner, Kurtzman, all the masters, and all of the great people who are around today, like Jeff Smith and Paul Grist, two of the best storytellers the medium has ever produced. And study stuff outside of comics. Film directing, animation "acting," design. All of it will inform your work and make you better, and a more unique artist.

I have little advice for aspiring writers. If you can draw at all, draw your own stories. Even if they're pretty crude, it's still better than trying to get people to read scripts. If you can't, the best you can do is hook up with an artist who you trust, and hope they'll draw a few pages in exchange for a split of the rights. I really don't envy anyone trying to break in as a writer.

CB: What projects are you working on now and when can readers expect to see them?

SC: I'm going to be doing pencils and inks for the Hawaiian Dick relaunch at Image. Not sure when it'll be out, but we're hoping to have a handful of issues in the can prior to solicitation, to avoid the delays that plagued the two miniseries. And I'm writing vol.4 of Northwest Passage, so readers who are waiting for more Canadian frontier adventure will get it, eventually.

No comments: