Lewis & Clark by Nick Bertozzi. First Second, 2011. 9781596434509. 144pp.
Gene: This is the Lewis & Clark graphic novel by Nick Bertozzi, who is amazing. His Shackleton graphic novel is also famous among librarians. I really like his books. I have some of the original art from the Shackelton graphic novel on my wall. I’m a huge fan of his work. And I’m happy to report he seems super cool — I met him at SPX a few years ago.
I love this one even though I don’t enjoy nonfiction graphic novels much. I read it again recently because I wanted to have a sense of Lewis and Clark’s journey after seeing so many places they stopped on my drive from Seattle to North Dakota and back last summer.
Bertozzi’s art gives a great sense of being on the plains. And I’m sending it to my library school advisor Carol Doll (who I visited in North Dakota) because I’ve been looking for graphic novels she’d like. (I also sent her Marzi, about a girl growing up in Poland behind the Iron Curtain, and 3 volumes of Northlanders, and Brian Wood’s comic series about Vikings, which she said was a little too violent.) So I’m sending this, Sharon Shinn’s graphic novel from First Second (she’s a fan), and, because she’s interested in the history of the west, the Audubon graphic novel as well, which is my go-to gift of the year along with F*ck That’s Delicious.
But back to this book. I really like how episodic it is. Every page or two is a beat. Here’s Jefferson telling Captain Lewis he’s going to hire him. It’s a giant two-page spread that makes use of the entire oversized area, and it’s Jefferson looking at a globe with a close-up of North America as it was in 1803 next to him….
Sarah: It shows what was French territory and so on, with the U.S. only east of the Mississippi river.
G: And the Louisiana Territory, and the Oregon Territory, and all of the territory that belonged to the Spanish, which included Florida.
Jefferson is sending Lewis overland to find a water route to the West Coast. And across the bottom are six panels of Lewis writing to Clark, asking him to accompany him, and Clark writing back.
S: And the font looks sort of handwriting-y.
G: Isn’t that nice? It’s a slightly different font. Beautiful.
(turns the page) And again, going across both pages, Lewis is getting schooled about science in Philadelphia. He was taught a little botany, medicine, geology, and navigation, which he needed for the trip. I thought to myself, This is Sarah’s page.
S: That’s my page!
G: “And Sarah, here is Lewis being taught SCIENCE!”
G: And it pokes a bit of fun at Lewis’s knowledge of geology — he mistakes a piece of cow manure for rock.
This is Clark getting the men ready. Lewis finally joins them. There’s a constant back and forth between the two about leadership styles and who is doing what, which is informative.
Here’s their departure, and Lewis rising to the occasion of having to address the men. Look at the layout, it’s great: the crowd in the background, Lewis in front of the panels addressing the crowd. I love the art but the panels and the layout are the stars for me. It’s not an easy book to read in some ways, because the panels sometimes but not always need to be read across the two-page spreads, and other times each page is a unit. (Maybe the difficulty in finding one’s path is supposed to mirror their journey somehow? )
Here’s a two page spread of the wilderness.
S: And the story continues in panels placed in and around the wider two-page images most of the time.
G: Here’s Lewis is collecting scientific specimens. (turns the page)
S: Woah! Buffalo thundering across the plains!
G: There are a lot of wow moments that give a sense of the unspoiled plains and wilderness.
The funniest moments in this are when their party interacts with the Native American tribes. All of these bits emphasize ridiculous misunderstandings, even when they have a translator. On one page a few Native men are talking, they know Lewis and Clark are trying to distract them with beads and they’re kind of insulted. But then one of the men says that his girlfriend kind of likes beads…
S: And on this page, what Lewis and Clark are saying is kind of nonsense syllables because no one understands it. And the word balloons are different because it’s a different language. There are pages and images where the point of view is really far back to give a sense of the space, and others that are close in to show the interactions.
Oh, and here are the word balloons for a guy giving hand signals.
G: The Native Americans used sign language, which I saw books on in Montana and North Dakota, and these are some of them. Here’s the signs for, “These gifts are junk. We need guns.”
S: Bertozzi is really making use of the size and scale of everything, including the word balloons. I think when I first tried to read this I got bogged down in their preparation for the trip. I should have kept going.
G: This book really holds up. It let me experience their trip. I tried to read their journals before, but no dice, I couldn’t sustain an interest.
Here’s one of my favorite pages, when Lewis goes off by himself and gets chased by a bear. So much black on the page. And here are the men carrying their boats from one river to the next. The things they had to do were crazy. Here’s another bear incident, where a guy ends up under a dead bear that’s been shot.
And of course Sacagawea and her idiot of a husband are in here, too.