Welcome back to our countdown to the annual Small Press Expo (SPX), where we talk with creators whose work will be featured at the show – including many premieres. This time out, we’re taking a trip back in time for the tale of a real historical figure in Wild Man: Island of Memory.
Described as a “fever dream” by creator T Edward Bak, the book looks at the life of Georg Wilhelm Steller, a scientist and explorer whose work helped provide many of the first descriptions of Alaska’s flora and fauna. Bak did a lot of research to put this story together, and he’ll tell us about Steller’s incredible journeys – and his own – in the interview below.
Newsarama: So tell us a little bit about Island of Memory.
T Edward Bak: The work is the first volume of Wild Man - The Natural History of Georg Wilhelm Steller, and introduces the reader to Georg Steller (1709-1746), his wife Brigitta, his Cossack hunter Thomas Lepekhin, and Steller's friend, the artist/draughtsman Friedrich Plenisner, as well as various members of the Second Kamchatka Expedition Steller participated in, and which provides the essential context for the narrative.
The story moves back and forth through time, but is anchored on a small subarctic North Pacific island (now known as Bering Island) where Mr. Steller was marooned with the expedition crew of The St. Peter in 1741-1742.
There is also a brief illustrated natural history section featuring the sea otter and the introduction of a Nivkh folk tale about the origin of the shaman, serving as an analog to Steller's emergence as a bona fide man of science (and a healer).
Nrama: What got you interested in Georg Wilhelm Steller's life and work?
Bak: At the age of 38, I was one year older than Georg Steller was when he died in Tiumen, Siberia in 1746. I was working in Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage, which was a pivotal moment I had been unconsciously anticipating all my life.
The story of Georg Steller and the discoveries he made as a naturalist with the imperial Second Kamchatka Expedition awakened within me a long-dormant interest in history, ecology, science and natural history. I had been wasting my life and talent, and was at a crossroads in Alaska. Everything in my world changed.
Nrama: And what type of research did you have to do for this project?
Bak: Immediately following a six-month stint working in Alaska I began researching this new project, an illustrated narrative about Steller, who had traveled across the North Pacific with the Second Kamchatka Expedition to Alaska, and Georg Steller, the first “man of science” to arrive in western North America.
Later, I returned to school for the first time in over 15 years, and enrolled in a local community college’s Environmental Studies program. Over the next two years, I was introduced to basics of environmental science, anthropology, climate science, geography/GIS, as well as forest, freshwater and marine ecology, studying habitat phenomena primarily related to the Pacific Northwest.
In 2010, a successful Kickstarter campaign enabled me to return to Alaska for research, resulting in a visit to Juneau and the Alaska state archives. I flew to Dutch Harbor-Unalaska, and then traveled back through the Aleutians along the Alaskan peninsula to Homer aboard a state ferry whose course roughly follows the same track as the vessels of the Second Kamchatka Expedition.
In 2011, a US State Department grant enabled me to visit the Russian Federation as a guest of the Russian consulate, and I spent time in St-Petersburg at the State Ethnographic Museum and the Kunstkamera, the location of the original Imperial Academy of Sciences where Steller had been an adjunct professor of natural history.
The work I was creating was new and exciting to me, and evolved as my understanding of history, anthropology, geography and ecology deepened.
Nrama: This is the first volume -- how many volumes do you project this story running?
Bak: I am anticipating four volumes before the work is collected and published as a single work. The last five years have been a kind of research and development process; now that I understand how the story works, who all the characters are, and the basic scientific, geographic and historical information I intend to convey, there is only writing and drawing to do.
I plan to release an average of one volume per year. Wild Man had originally been produced as a serial for the Fantagraphics MOME anthology, but is now basically an entirely different animal; there is no “narrative exposition,” and the style of the work has developed to accomplish what I would like it to do.
Nrama: What are some surprising things you learned from your research for this story?
Bak: Well, there are a lot of surprises. I think most of the really interesting ideas I've come across are more peripheral than related directly to the narrative, although there are lots of great things.
One of the most fascinating things has been in observing the ways Steller was able to learn from the native peoples he encountered, recognizing their cultural complexities and abundance of traditional ecological knowledge.
He had explicit instructions from his superiors about conducting ethnographic research and despite his “scientific acumen” was (at first) steadfast in his determination that the natives ought to be converted to Christianity. He considered them childish in their beliefs, and regarded them through a prism of colonialism and colonization with which native peoples have been viewed (by Europe) for centuries.
Some of the things Steller learned from the natives were/are surprising. For instance, he successfully employed a native cure for scurvy, with which he was able to rescue the lives of many Russian officers and sailors in 1741, several years before James Lind recognized the onset of scurvy as the result of Vitamin C deficiency.
Another interesting thing was a portrait that has always been historically associated with expedition commander Vitus Bering (for whom Bering Island, the Bering Strait and Bering Sea are named for). This portrait was recently discovered to be misidentified when Bering's remains were exhumed from the island where he died, and geneticists reconstructed his appearance.
There are really too many weird little details and things to get into, lots of fascinating surprises.
Nrama: So this is coming out of Floating World Comics, which is well respected as a comic shop in Portland. How did this collaboration come about, and what's it been like working with them?
Bak: Technically, it's a Floating World Comics/Press Gang book, which is collaborative between Jason Leivian, Francois Vigneult and Zack Soto, and all of them had a hand in the development of this work.
We are all good friends. Jason Leivian and I were introduced by Dylan Williams several years ago when I moved to Portland in 2005. Zack and I have known each other since the late ‘90s. Jason has just published so many great books and comics, but Floating World is more than a comics store, it's an awesome place for art and it's a hub for the arts community in Portland. The work Floating World publishes is always really top-notch and interesting. It's an honor for me to be published alongside Floating World artists Julia Gfrorer and Aidan Koch.
Anyhow, Jason is a friend first and foremost, we hang out and shoot the shit or shoot pool. He's just an awesome, smart, infinitely patient dude who believes in my work, and I am really pleased and grateful to be working with him.
Francois lent his expertise and critical eye to the design of the book and has been extremely supportive. Zack has been reading this story as it has developed over the past few years, he has watched it evolve and his is one of the “critical eyes” I consider when I am working, his input has been essential.
Nrama: I'm also curious about the community of comics creators in Portland. It sort of seems like Seattle for comics these days.
Bak: So many phenomenal artists work here. There is actually a lot of kinship with Seattle, but I think the communities are quite different. I mentioned Julia (who is hands-down one of my favorite artists working in any medium) and Aidan (who is now in California) but there are also people here like Lori Damiano, an animator who is just beginning to get involved in comics-making.
I recently had the privilege of mentoring a phenomenally talented artist named Pamela Cameron-Snyder. Sam Alden and Alex Chiu are creating awesome new works here, and we are fortunate to have Farel Dalrymple around, because he is always creating fantastic stuff. Periscope Studios is a solid, diverse hub of local talent, while galleries like Pony Club and publishers like Top Shelf, Teenage Dinosaur, Tugboat Press, and Sparkplug Comic Books are also incredibly supportive of the community. Lots of great shops, lots of great people, lots of great local events.
Like any good community, there are many different niches for artists to explore and find their place.
Nrama: Are there any other historical figures you'd like to explore in comics form, and if so, could you tell us a little about them?
Bak: I am not considering another historical biography after Steller. But next year I will be working on a project based on academic research of Latina gang girls in northern Califonia. I can't talk much about it at the moment, mostly because there are still many details to hammer out.
But I am interested in examining North American history in comics format, especially the concept of Mexican-American history and places where contact narratives between native peoples and Europeans converge in western North America. I am also fascinated with coastal migration theory and ecology, I may find ways to explore those concepts in comics.
Nrama: Something we're asking everyone in this: What are some of the other creators and books you're looking forward to seeing at SPX?
Bak: Mostly I'm looking forward to seeing people I haven't seen in many years and catching up. But there are a few people with new work I'm interested in. I'm stoked to see Domitille Collardey and Lisa Hanawalt, Nick Abadzis, Roman Muradov (his new book looks fantastic), my old housemates Chuck Forsman and Sean Ford (both have new work), Denver pals Noah Van Sciver and Sam Spina, and good friends Gabrielle Bell, Dan Zettwoch, Austin English and Bald Eagles (Victor Cayro).
I don't know who else, there are really too many people. I am really looking forward to meeting Carol Tyler, whom I've never met so I hope she's there. Ooof, you can get overwhelmed thinking about all of the people at these shows.
Nrama: And what's fun about a show like SPX?
Bak: SPX was my first convention, so it's fun to see how it changes over time. I miss the old Holiday Inn, but whatever. Exposure to new artists and new work and catching up with everyone you haven't seen is really exciting for everyone, I think. Definitely for me.
Nrama: What's next for you?
Bak: An East Coast tour this fall, then West Coast next spring/summer. Wild Man Volume 2: Sea of Time. More school. More work on other neglected projects. More commissions and art and opportunities for new comics projects.
I want to travel to Europe and return to Russia to visit Siberia and Lake Baikal. I want to put a copy of my work into President Putin's hands and say, “Look, we have a shared history, let's work together to learn from the past, to learn from our native people, to respect human rights and to solve our problems together.”
Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?
Bak: My awesome mother, Annette Garcia Bak, was the first artist in my life. Thanks, Mom.
To me, this work is comics, but I also consider it a kind of illustrated narrative informed by the works of Frans Masereel, Otto Nuckel and Lynd Ward; to me, it has almost been like ret-conning and/or maybe re-booting picture novels with the influence of comics, if that makes sense.
I want to say that comics serve an essential function in society and the world, and I am so proud to be involved in this kind of work. I am so fortunate and grateful to be able to pursue this type of creative endeavor, and to know the people I know, and in a way I feel that it is my responsibility as an artist to help make the world a better place. That probably sounds absurd, but the world is an absurd place.
I am also grateful to Amy Jean Bailey, who has always taught me so much, and without whom this work would be impossible.
Next: It’s another historical tale when SPX Guest of Honor Gene Luen Yang talks Boxers & Saints, his two-volume look at the Boxer Rebellion from both sides. And coming up: Talks with Farel Dalrymple, Lisa Hanawalt and Brian Ralph, and many more!