Comics described as “two-fisted” don’t usually pique my interest. I associate the descriptor with crooked cops, reluctantly heroic lowlifes, and dead hookers. Over time, “two-fisted” has acquired a kind of musky hyper-masculinity that sends me scurrying in the opposite direction.
The book’s billing as a “two-fisted historical adventure” may sound ironic, but it isn’t. The comic is precisely that, though without either the soaking of testosterone or the museum-piece stuffiness the term might suggest.
Northwest Passage opens with the efforts of Eagle Eye, a Cree shaman, to reunite with his old friend and partner in exploration Charles Lord. Disturbing events and visions have led Eagle Eye to fear for Lord’s safety. As Eagle Eye encounters some deadly obstacles along his way, Lord is celebrating his retirement. He’s completing a stint as governor for a trading company outpost on the Hudson Bay in the heart of Rupert’s Land in 1750s Canada.
Lord’s efforts as an explorer have given him a legendary status in his native England, and his years as a bureaucrat haven’t quenched his thirst for adventure and discovery. In fact, he sees his retirement as an opportunity to resume his search for the Northwest Passage, an Atlantic-to-Pacific water route through the Arctic Circle. But before he can pursue that long-held dream, he must deal with the threat to the outpost that Eagle Eye has foretold.
The situation is complicated by the presence of Lord’s half-Cree son, Simon. There’s an unexplained emotional distance between the two, contrasted with the frank hero-worship of Lord’s nephew, Templeton Fletcher. An “Oxford dandy,” Fletcher is headed toward the outpost on the same ship as Lord’s replacement, Walter Hargrove. Fletcher is rebelling against the complacency of his businessman father in favor of an uncle he knows only by reputation.
All of this father-son, making-of-a-man stuff could get queasy, but Chantler resists the urge to overstate it. It’s an element of the larger adventure, not its heart. His restraint is best demonstrated in a terrific scene between Hargrove and Fletcher, where Hargrove takes a moment to shatter some of Fletcher’s more romantic illusions about outpost life and urge Fletcher to rein in some of his natural elitism. It reflects what I see as Chantler’s unwillingness to either romanticize or grub up the period he’s portraying.
And he really doesn’t need to do either. It’s a fascinating point in history where opportunity, adventure, and the unknown intersect. Embellishment isn’t really required when a creative assembly of mostly credible elements will do just fine. While that may lead to a story that isn’t uniquely imaginative, it’s still exciting and, for comics, unusual.
Chantler has done two other titles for Oni, Days Like This and Scandalous, working from scripts by J. Torres. He’s a marvelous illustrator with a fluid, friendly style. His work here picks up traits he’s demonstrated previously – a great sense of design, affecting facial expressions, strong layouts – and adds a real facility for action and suspense. Eagle Eye’s race to the outpost is imaginatively rendered, as is a grisly turn of events on Hargrove’s ship.
Northwest Passage is Chantler’s comics writing debut, and it’s nice to see that his strengths as a visual storyteller translate. He’s clever in establishing enough of the period and its circumstances without it ever seeming like a history lesson. The exposition is handled conversationally, and it almost never overwhelms the characters who deliver it. The cast is a consistently interesting group, each viewing the outpost experience through their own lens. And the plot has nice momentum and complexity.
I don’t know if I can say that Northwest Passage is a great comic. There isn’t that gasp of surprise that comes from something truly original. But I can say without hesitation that it’s a very, very good comic, carefully crafted and artistically accomplished. It’s a two-fisted historical adventure in ways that really, really work.