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Graphic Novel Review: Midnight Sun by Ben Towle

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This much is true.

On 25 May 1928, returning from her third expedition to the North Pole, the airship Italia crashed on the Arctic icepack, killing one crew member on impact and stranding nine more. The remaining six members of the crew were carried off in the envelope of the airship, never to be found. An international rescue effort ensued, but because of apathy and political considerations on the part of the Italian Fascist government, it took more than 49 days to find the survivors.

For whatever reasons, the crash of the Italia has become a footnote in history. Truth to tell, I was completely unfamiliar with the incident before happening, quite by happenstance, upon Ben Towle’s quietly brilliant graphic novel Midnight Sun. This is a work firmly entrenched with what makes historical fiction work when done properly, using the details of the event as a backdrop to tell a tale that touches the human condition.

History means precious little until it’s placed in the context of how its participants view it in their own lives. In Midnight Sun, we view the crash through the eyes of a reporter only identified as “A. J.”, an alcoholic whose last chance at redemption is covering the final fate of the Italia survivors. His paper books him passage aboard the Russian icebreaker Kasspin, headed to rescue the Italia survivors. Meanwhile, the survivors of the Italia grapple with survival on an ice flow moving inexorably north.

The ice flow is a metaphor for the story, to be sure—it represents salvation and death on several levels. And it works admirably, due in no small part to Towle’s storytelling gifts. What really hooked me on Midnight Sun, though, was the way he illustrated the story. His style is stark, simple, a bit reminiscent of Herge, but with atmospheric details that call to mind the detail work of Eisner. Towles refers to himself as a cartoonist—not an artist—and that modest attitude about himself leaves him free to concentrate on telling his story.

At its heart, Midnight Sun isn’t about a desperate rescue mission, or about coming to grips with one’s mortality or even about a final shot at redemption. It’s more about how events, seemingly unrelated, converge and influence each other, making for larger, equally unrelated events. Towle paints the story in stark lines, accentuated by minimal gray washes, creating an effect that reflects both the growing desperation of the stranded explorers and the edgy boredom of the rescuers and the reporter.

Midnight Sun isn’t a bombastic graphic novel—in fact, I’d liken it more to a cinema verite than a graphic novel. In the confines of a 6.5”X5.5” format and a mere 136 pages, Ben Towle has managed to bring a historical environ to life. His ear for dialogue and his eye for little details make Midnight Sun a rare treat not only for comics fans, but a remarkable little piece of storytelling.

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