Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are an ingrained part of American lore, explorers traversing the untamed, unknown frontier, bringing back catalogs of material on native Indian tribes, plant and animal life, and maps of the expanded American frontier.
Nick Bertozzi comes to comics with the same dedication to exploration, seeking out engaging and dynamic stories, and bringing them back to readers with clever insights into his characters and sharply drawn, well-designed comics pages. The results frequently charm comics readers (of all ages) in the same way Lewis and Clark’s journey awes schoolchildren.
Bertozzi’s latest book, Lewis & Clark, tracks the Corps of Discovery’s twenty-five month journey from Lewis’s friendship with President Thomas Jefferson to the team’s meeting and recruiting of Sacagawea and her husband, French-Canadian trapper Toussaint Charbonneau. Along the way, Bertozzi shows readers meetings with various Indian tribes, the first sightings of many American landmarks (by those of European descent anyway), and the dozens of hardships, daily stresses and anxieties faced by the troop.
Lewis & Clark arrives in stores in February 2011 from First Second books, but we caught up with Bertozzi to ask him about the creation process and the appeal of the near-mythic story in American lore.
Newsarama: Nick, I love this type of historical narrative, but what attracted you to the story of Lewis and Clark, and what makes it work as a graphic novel?
Nick Bertozzi: Back in the Nineties I wanted to do a mini-comic based on Lewis & Clark’s expedition. My plan was to divide every page of the comic in half with a line running horizontally across the middle of each page. On the top of each page would be the Corps of Discovery’s journey west to the Pacific. The reader would then reach the end of the mini comic, flip it over and read the panels that had formerly been on the bottom of each page, and this would be the return journey to St. Louis. I got bogged down in the story; it just seemed like one event after another with little dramatic flair. So I put the idea aside and it wasn’t until ten years later, when I realized the dramatic entry into the story: Lewis’s desire to please Thomas Jefferson, his mentor and stand-in father, by finding a water-route to the West. I hope that it makes the reading experience more personal and more vivid for the reader rather than a simple recitation of the facts.
Nrama: The Lewis and Clark expedition is to many American kids (me, anyway) a very mythic moment in the discovery and development of America. Did you have any thoughts on the myth of their legend, and the contrast of depicting a more realistic representation of how the journey unfolded?
Bertozzi: If you were to read the entry about D-Day in a standard American high-school history textbook, you'd be told how many casualties were suffered, how many people took part, what kind of coordination was used, and that it was a grisly battle. Compare that to the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan. Whether you love or hate that movie, you grasp the consequences of fighting over one beach and you understand how an American soldier, in the heat of battle, could shoot a surrendering Nazi with his hands over his head. I love legends and myths, but they’ve already been well-articulated and I want my readers to feel weight of portaging canoes around waterfalls, become exasperated at the difficulties in communication, and curse the endless rains of the Pacific Northwest along with Lewis and Clark in order to understand how frigging crazy their achievement was.
Nrama: How much of the book is based in documented history and how much in speculative history?
Bertozzi: I gave Lewis’s depression physical shape in the book, which is certainly an invention, but one that I hope makes his mental illness more apparent for the reader rather than adding a caption in the book that says: “Capt. Lewis suffered from depression.” It’s a visual medium: show, don’t tell.
There are a couple of other inventions and historical smudgings, but it’s only to serve the dramatic tension of the story. I tried very hard to keep the book planted in a believable and historically accurate reality.
Nrama: The scenes where the expedition meet the Indian tribes and ask passage up the river were very well done. What type of documents were you able to find about those meetings? Your treatment of the Indian perspective was very nuanced and unlike the usual “friendly savages” notion that schools seem to inadvertently suggest.
Bertozzi: The best book on the subject is Lewis and Clark: Across the Divide by Carolyn Gilman from Smithsonian/Missouri Historical Society. And I used the paintings and drawings of George Catlin who travelled in the West thirty years after Lewis and Clark. If you ever find yourself at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, make sure you take the time to see the Catlin rooms; it’s as though Gilbert Stuart and Matisse had a baby and that baby grew up to be a badass Explorer/ Painter.
And I’m very pleased that you found the depictions of the tribes to be “nuanced”. Someone once asked Jaime Hernandez how as a man, he was able to write believable female characters, to which he replied (paraphrasing), “I don't write them like women, I just make them speak like I do.” I tried to follow this advice as much as possible, to write a person, not “Noble Sioux Tribesman #2”. Nrama: Were you able to find images of many of the people involved, or did you simply have to trust your instincts?
Bertozzi: I’ve never been able to draw likenesses well, and I prefer a cartoony look anyhow. But I did try to capture the spirit of the characters in drawing them. Most unfortunately, there was no portrait ever recorded of Sacagawea or York.
Nrama: Along a similar tangent, did you visit any of the locations, such as the Great Falls of the Missouri (ironically in Montana!), to get a feel for them?
Bertozzi: I dipped my fingers in the Mississippi once almost twenty years ago, so technically I was across the river from where Lewis and Clark pulled together the crew for their journey, but otherwise I hadn’t had the chance to go anywhere near their route and now that’s the only vacation I want to take.
Nrama: There’s a sharp divide between the popular image of these selfless explorers, documenting everything they find with awe. Many of Lewis’ quotes talk at length about the beauty of the country, but your retelling feels very authentic. Deprived of home and facing incredible hardships, these men were frequently angry and frustrated, weren’t they?
Bertozzi: I went camping out on the state park at the end of Fire Island many years ago and we didn’t get to our campsite until dusk at which point we were engulfed in a swarm of mosquitoes so vicious I thought I was going to choke on them. The Corps of Discovery spent a good amount of time covered in mud to keep off the clouds of “skeeters” that followed them everywhere. That to me is the kind of human experience that often gets glossed over in the Historical Record, which is a shame because it’s exactly the kind of detail that connects us to the past. And that’s just the least of the adversities they faced: they hauled their 10-ton boat hundreds of miles upriver; they wintered in a part of the country as cold as the North Pole; and they nearly starved crossing the Rockies to name a few others.
Nrama: You used a few design elements that I liked a lot. First, big moments during the trip, first meetings with tribes or first encounters with major landmarks, were marked with two-page spreads. Another one was using hand-shaped word balloons for dialogue with Chopunnish, with whom they had to communicate with hand signals. You don’t see that level of thought given to many comics; how much consideration do you give to such design elements when creating a comic? Bertozzi: I’m glad that you thought the design elements were thoughtful; I certainly worked hard on them. However, the fact that you have noticed them at all means that I failed in providing readers with a seamless reading experience. That is, one in which the format of the page layout never calls attention to itself. Nrama: That’s probably a harsh take on it, Nick – I look for things like that, especially when I’m trying to figure out what to ask during an interview! Given the technology and communications (or lack thereof) at the time, it’s pretty amazing that this group of people accomplished their goal, isn’t it? The section where they discover the Rockies and can’t find passage through reminds you how large the country is and how inhospitable it can be.
Bertozzi: I think it was Stephen Ambrose who found it absolutely remarkable that a small army of young men, many of the them former soldiers in the Ohio Indian Wars, who were armed to the teeth and “medicating” themselves with tinctures of mercury wound up coming back alive and causing only a handful of deaths.
Nrama: What other surprises about Lewis & Clark came up while researching this book?
Bertozzi: I didn’t get to elaborate on this in the book, but I hadn’t known the difference between Virginian slash-and-burn tobacco farming and Northern food-crop farming and how that caused North and South to have divergent land-use culture. That might sound dry, but it’s one of the threads that led to the Civil War.
Nrama: What’s next for you?
Bertozzi: Maybe a book about early U.S. farming differences!!! My next comic that I’m writing and drawing is a biography of the explorer Ernest Shackleton for First Second. At the same time I’m drawing the 380-page Jerusalem from a script by director Boaz Yakin also for First Second. I’m hoping someday soon to get back to my online sci-fi strip Persimmon Cup.Lewis & Clark arrives in comic shops in February from First Second. Will you take the journey again?