There are times when a terrific idea for a graphic novel doesn’t result in a terrific comic. I think Journey into Mohawk Country (First Second Books) is one of those instances, though the book has a lot going for it.
George O’Connor has illustrated a journal written by Harmen Meyndertsz Van den Bogaert, a Dutch trader setting off from Fort Orange (now Albany, N.Y.) into Iroquois territory. Van den Bogaert and his two companions are on something of a goodwill mission, hoping to expand fur trade with the Iroquois and gather information on French expansion into the region.
I love the concept behind the book – translating a primary historical source into a contemporary visual format. Obviously it’s not the only current project to take this approach, and it certainly isn’t the one with the highest profile. But it is an intriguing addition to the roster of ways graphic novel creators are re-conceiving non-fiction content.
I’m a big fan of books in this category. I love the energy and goofy wit of the Action Philosophers books (Evil Twin). The morbid precision of Rick Geary’s Treasury of Victorian Murder series is always good, shivery company. Ande Parks and Chris Samnee were audacious with Capote in Kansas, their graphic novelization of the creation of a non-fiction novel. And Jim Ottaviani assembled a who’s who of creators for Dignifying Science to tell the stories of groundbreaking women scientists.
But with Journey into Mohawk Country, my interest in the concept outweighs my interest in the content. Van de Bogaert did not seem to be writing for posterity, providing instead a somewhat dry recounting of the events of his travels. Pieces like this – letters, legers, maps, journals – contribute to the tapestry of history, but the interest for me is their context, or what they say about a point in time.
O’Connor resists the urge to contextualize Van de Bogaert’s experiences, which is both admirable and problematic. He’s respecting his source material, contributing only slight embroideries to Van de Bogaert’s account in the form of little grace notes of feeling. But that respect also leaves the narrative shapeless. It’s odd to be levying criticisms at a writer who never intended for his words to be purposed in this particular way, but that’s the conundrum of the book.
I like O’Connor’s illustrations, which are generally lively and expressive. They’re not so exaggerated or stylized that they contradict the source material, nor are they so static that they seem like illustrations accompanying a text. They create a solid sense of place, and O’Connor doesn’t entirely resist the urge to indulge in some visual flights of fancy. (I did find myself distracted by one bit character design, though it could just be me. I think the illustrated Van de Bogaert bears an uncanny resemblance to Zonker Harris.)
Colors by Hilary Sycamore serve the book well. She captures the wintry palette of the countryside and the fireside glow of the Mohawk communities. It runs towards the monochromatic at times, but that might reflect the reluctance to embroider on the reality being portrayed. As with all First Second books, Journey into Mohawk Country is beautifully designed.
In the final analysis, I’m of two minds about the book. The narrative doesn’t really engage me, but I want to see more books in this vein based on more gripping source material. As an individual graphic novel, I think Journey into Mohawk Country has tremendous potential value as an educational tool. Not only does it provide a specific and personal window into a period of history, it’s an exciting example of imaginative ways to communicate history.
(This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)