Journey into Mohawk Country
By Messrs Van den Bogaert & O’Connor
First Second Books
Lots of comics are collaborations between artists and writers who never actually meet face to face, communicating instead via e-mail and telephone. Probably not many artists get as few notes to work with, however, as George O’Connor did on his collaboration with writer Harmen Meyndertsz Van den Bogaert, since Journey into Mohawk Country is, you see, the graphic novelization of the Dutchman’s actual journal, written in 1634-35. It seems unlikely he left O’Connor any rough layouts or character sketches.
Journey was clearly a labor of love for O’Connor, who dedicates the book to his father, “who loves the Mohawk.” It’s also a testament to First Second Books’ sticking to its mission of putting out quality books for readers of all ages and tastes. The question is, however, exactly who is Journey’s target reader? After all, it’s not often you hear someone in a comic-book store shout, “Sweet! A comic-book adaptation of an unabridged seventeenth-century travelogue! I’ve got to have this.”
Well, okay, I did–but then I’ve got a whole wall full of shelves crammed with seventeenth-century histories, diaries, and travelogues. I suspect that makes me slightly unusual. How many other comic readers are there out there like me?
O’Connor’s subject is ambitious–the diary of a young surgeon-barber’s trip from the Dutch colony at Fort Orange (which would later become the city of Albany), into the wilds of Iroquois county. His mission: to discover why the fur trade was failing, amid rumors of Mohawk treaty with the hated French. He sets out in the middle of the winter with just two companions, a small load of trade goods (awls, scissors and so on), and a few pistols. Modern readers will probably guess this leads to an adventure story along the lines of, say, Last of the Mohicans: skirmishes with the French, scalpings, forbidden love–You know, the usual. They’d be wrong.
Journey is, instead, a chunk of real period history. There’s plenty of hardship, but it mostly has to do with hiking through deep snow for days on end, fording freezing rivers on foot, getting sick, falling into campfires, and being caught outside at night. Apart from travel hazards, there’s little action. The only time the Van den Bogaert and his friends fire their guns is to entertain their hosts. Still, there are plenty of unusual occurrences (Bogaert witnesses two elaborate rituals that are bound to be as fascinating to modern readers as they were to him), and there are some hairy moments as the travelers reach new villages, unsure of the reception they’ll get.
Mostly, however, his journal is a typical, extremely dry 17th century narrative. While it’s sometimes detailed, it leaves out most of the emotions, reactions, and drama a modern reader wants. When Van den Bogaert is trapped outside alone at night and unable to make a fire, for instance, he simply tells us that he had to keep walking all night to stay warm and leaves it at that. Anyone who’s ever been to upstate New York in early January knows that spending a winter night there in forest there with no shelter is a terrifying proposition. But what about those who haven’t?
That’s where O’Connor comes in. He’s got a real talent for putting the juices of life back into this bone-dry narrative. The two sentences Van den Bogaert gives us about being his overnight adventure translate into seven of the best pages of the book—none of which have any narration or dialog. In fact, there’s virtually no other speaker in the book except for Van den Bogaert’s journal. I think there’s one word balloon in the whole book.
For the most part, however, O’Connor tells his story quickly and efficiently, matching the pace of the journal–which often covers whole days with a few sentences –with a multitude of quick, little panels that do a lot to fill in the story between the lines. There are entire bits, gags and storylines that O’Connor has cleverly extrapolated and interpolated with the original text, adding meat to the story without upstaging or cheapening it. One of the characters, for example, seems to acquires a Mohawk bride during the course of the story—she’s never mentioned in the text, but it’s this sort of believable addition to the story that O’Connor uses to make the story live.
My problem with the book, however, is the style O’Connor chose to tell it. While he clearly did a lot research for the book, his more realistic, detailed early sketches (shown on his First Second blog page), gave way to a very cartoony style that kind of makes me think of Asterix, the Smurfs, and similar European comic/animation art. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; O’Connor’s execution is fine, and this style probably makes the book more accessible to kids.
I’m afraid, however, that while school libraries will probably be eager to acquire the book, which sounds like it’s the perfect way to get young readers interested in history, the cartoony art may not be enough to sell Van den Bogaert’s spare story to young readers who don’t already have an unusual interest in history. Adult readers, on the other hand, may wish O’Connor had stuck to his more naturalistic, detailed sketches; it’s clear that he did a lot of research for the book, it seems a shame that a lot of it gets lost in the style he chose, which is so cartoony as to sometimes lose its sense of authority.
Still, while Journey into Mohawk Country, isn’t without problems, it’s an admirable accomplishment for O’Connor—an original and unusual comic that provides a couple hours of reading, packed into a manga-sized book. Finally, if Journey is an indication of the sort of eclectic stuff we can expect from First Second’s future catalog, the new company is well worth watching.