Posted by Don MacPherson on December 1st, 2008
The Annotated Northwest Passage hardcover collected edition
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Scott Chantler
Editors: Randal C. Jarrel, James Lucas Jones & Jill Beaton
Publisher: Oni Press
Price: $19.95 US
The theme here is history, and I’m not just talking about this collection but about this review as well. This hardcover collection of Scott Chantler’s series of Northwest Passage original graphic novellas was released last year, and I should have reviewed it some time ago. Sadly, I did have a review half-written a while back but then lost the thumb drive on which I’d saved it. I set the book aside for a while, but I happened upon it again recently. I gave it a second read, and I was reminded of the strength of the storytelling, the attractive simplicity of the artwork and the ambition behind the epic scope of the tale. I must also admit a certain fondness for the material stems from it being set in Canada (or least in locales that would eventually become Canada). Chantler’s proven his skill with historical fiction before with such books as Days Like This and Scandalous, but Northwest Passage is a cut above. Perhaps one might suggest it’s a more compelling story because it’s full of action and adventure, but really, the even stronger sense of history and larger-than-life qualities of the characters are what grabs the reader’s attention and never lets go.
Charles Lord’s tenure as the governor of Fort Newcastle in the mid 1700s is coming to an end, but as he’s about to embark on a new adventure, his deadliest enemy, Montglave, returns with his own personal army to invade and take the fort. With his son Simon still behind the fort’s walls, Lord sets out to recruit old friends to serve as his allies once again in his bid to retake the fort and to save his family.
In his notes in the back of the book, Chantler mentions that the greatest influence on his art and storytelling is the late Will Eisner, but given the backdrop for Passage, Eisner’s urban style isn’t as apparent. Instead, I was often reminded of Jeff Smith’s work on Bone, and there’s a clear touch of Archie house style in the mix as well. The character designs are striking, and despite the brighter tone of Chantler’s illustration, he instills power, mystery and malevolence in various key players with seeming ease.
One of the most interesting things about the story is how it really has nothing to do with the destination from which the book derives its title. The Northwest Passage that Charles Lord and others so desperately want to discover is nothing more than a footnote, rarely even coming into play as a motivating factor for the characters. But it is what keeps key players in the drama in “Rupert’s Land,” namely northern Ontario in pre-Confederation times. I like that disconnect between the title and plot, as it leads one to see the title as referencing something else, perhaps Lord’s emotional journey, as he endeavors to find a new path in his life after serving as governor.
The annotations that Chantler provides in the back of the book are a welcome look at his creative process, not only in terms of crafting the story, but also in pitching it. Chantler, like many artists, is doubtless his own worst critic. He points out what he doesn’t like about certain elements, for example, but the strength of the finished product eclipses any negative comment he might offer. Obviously, Chantler offers some context for the story, which will be especially helpful for those who aren’t that well versed in Canadian history.
However, one needn’t be a history buff to follow and appreciate the story and characters. There’s a classic enmity between Charles Lord and Montglave that not only motivates the characters but drives the story forward. Like Chantler’s artwork, there’s a certain simplicity to the good-guys-versus-bad-guys plot that’s appealing, but the creator uses that simple conflict as a foundation for a more complex structure. He divides the characters into smaller factions, making for multiple plotlines and character threads that only converge in a climactic battle scene. Chantler also offers up a couple of interesting twists that took me off guard. The snivelling nephew proves to be made of sterner stuff than the author led us to believe, and he also adds a new dynamic to the relationship between Charles Lord and Simon that really brings a thematic conflict to a brutal conclusion. 10/10