Ben Towle's latest graphic novel, Midnight Sun, is historic fiction based on the crash of the dirigible Italia, north of Svalbard in 1928. Because I'm a total polar geek I was quite interested in Ben's work on this gn and how he did his research and how and why he came to create his fictional characters. As he points out in this interview, Midnight Sun is no more nonfiction than the movie Titanic was - the tragedy is certainly true, but the author has added a lot to make this story the great read that it is. Anyone interested in exploration history is going to enjoy Midnight Sun but I think it's an excellent book for teenage boys in particular - it has high drama, great doses of humor and no small amount of consideration as to just what bravery means. The lit blogosphere misses a lot when it overlooks graphic novels; Midnight Sun is just one more example of the outstanding works being created in that field.
I've read some of the interviews you have done online and I think I have a decent understanding of how you found out about the Italia (via a personal curiosity/interest in dirigibles) and why you decided the book really only worked as historical fiction, not nonfiction. (And I completely understand what you were saying there.) I do wonder though why you didn't completely fictionalize it - why not just make up a dirigible and give it a different reason for being up there and not even consider the facts of this particular disaster? (The Andree flight was in 1897 so balloons and dirigibles were not unknown in the polar regions for several decades.) Why did you decide to keep your downed craft the Italia?
This was something I wrestled with quite a bit. I think if the event in question were something more commonplace, like a ship sinking or a plane crash, I could have much more easily done exactly what you've suggested above: remove the relevant names and identifying events and peg the work as 100% fiction.
There was, as you mention, certainly a precedent for airship exploration of the Arctic, a number of them unsuccessful; however, I think if I'd kept in place even just the core elements that I think really drive the storyâ€”the elements which attracted me to the historical crash in the first placeâ€”it'd be pretty obvious that the Italia disaster was being used derivatively. Even taking the approach I did, where there's a lot of fictionalization going on, I felt (and hope) was ultimately more respectful to the individuals involved that what I thought would amount to essentially "stealing" the story, swapping out a few names, and calling it my own.
I do think, though, that I'd have taken a very different course regarding this issue if the story in Midnight Sun were one which sought to place blame, or really had any characters who were portrayed unfavorably. If I'd been chosen to vilify someone who really existed, I'd certainly have felt compelled, as a result, to have the story back this up factually. One of the elements of the whole story of the Italia that appealed to me most, though, was its very lack of a scapegoat. The Italian government made an attempt shortly after the rescue to cast Nobile as being at fault, but this was pretty clearly politically motivated and the facts certainly don't agree with that assessment.
H.R. is a great character - a nice way to introduce a broader picture of history then just the arctic rescue mission. But why did you decide to send him up north on a Russian ship - was that part of a history or your own addition? And what about Zowie? Is she based on any sort of Russian female reporter from history or was she created to show a more emotional connection to the missing crew?
The Russian ship, the Krassin, is a real ship with a long history aside from its role in the Italia rescue, but H.R. himself is entirely fictional. There were a number of journalists who were onboard the Krassin on its journey to the crash site, including a female Russian journalist whose last name, Worontzowa, is the origin of the character Zowie's name. I first read mention of her (Worontzowa) in a long out-of-print book, "The Tragedy of the Italia," written by an Italian reporter, Davide Giudici, who was also onboard the Krassin.
He doesn't say a whole lot about her, but mention of a female reporter on a dangerous rescue mission to the North Pole struck me as odd. And then it struck me as odd that I found it odd. It made me ruminate a bit on gender roles historically in America and conversely in places like the Soviet Union and Europe, and I just made a note to myself that that'd be something to consider touching on in the story. Fleshing her out into a main character, though, really occurred only once H.R. was in place.
I'd done an initial pass at the first chapter of Midnight Sun years ago that was pretty much a straight dramatization of the Italia disaster as close to the real events as I thought I could getâ€¦ and I scrapped it after some consideration largely because there didn't seem to be a good place for the reader to really "grab on" to any of the charactersâ€”it read almost as if you were seeing the whole thing happen in a little diorama, but not really caring what the outcome was. I also felt a little, I guess, presumptuous (if that makes sense) as an outsider, both temporally and nationality-wise, to be portraying these events with the implied authority of a storyteller.
The character of H.R. developed as a result of these concerns. I'd already had him semi-developed just as a character in a setting (prohibition-era U.S.A.) independent of the Italia story, but putting him into the mix of the developing Midnight Sun seemed like a good way to get around some of the problems I was having with the initial draft.
Like me, (and probably like most of the book's readers) he was an American and an outsider that was learning about the these events that were literally and figuratively foreign to him. Additionally, having him as one of the two main characters moved the tone of the book away from the implied omniscience of the early draft and set the Krassin portion of the story more in terms of H.R.'s perceptions of things. (In fact, there are very few scenes in the book that occur without either H.R. or Biagi presentâ€”and in a perfect world, I'd have figured out a way to bring those into the fold as well.)
I'm sure there was some significance to the bird that H.R. rescued - can you elaborate on that a bit?
Hmmmâ€¦ I'll preface this by saying that in trying to answer questions like this you're in danger (even, and perhaps especially, where the "you" in question is the author) of attributing a more cohesive and thought-through rationale to story elements than may really be the case. What some story element means is really a function of some combination of what I intended it to mean and what actual meaning the reader derives from itâ€”these two things being not necessarily one and the same. As far as the former goes, I think to get to the core of that, you'd have to somehow look back at the whole process and how I made what decisions I did to get to the point where that whole bird bit wound up being in the story. And that's not really possible to do.
Without being too evasive, I'll say simply: H.R. saves, cares for, and then releases that bird because it seemed like something H.R. would do. It's a really human action, I think. Even a person who's generally a jerk to other people sometimes will exhibit a strange compassion for animals for some reason. I know I'm often pretty unsympathetic to people who've wound up in some pretty bad situations, but I'll sometimes be wracked with guilt for days if I encounter a stray dog and am not able to do anything to help. There's a lot of baggage that goes along with being self-aware, with being responsible for your own actions.
Also, the bird's release works well as a visual analog and reference to the release of the airship's envelope with the other crewmen onboard. Birds come sort of pre-packaged with a lot of symbolic weight also, which worked in well in the story with H.R.'s development as a character in a way that it wouldn't have if he'd taken care of a wounded chinchilla or something.
I know that's all kind of rambling, but I'm not a big fan of that Robert McKee sort of narrative methodology where you should be able to cite some sort of diagrammatic "proof" for everything you've got on the page.
I have to tell you, the bird thing stuck with me because it seeemed out of place - there just aren't a ton of birds flying around up there and to suddenly see it and then have HR care for it seemed like it had to carry some sort of message from the author. I did not mean to read too much into your text or over analyze....I just thought I must have missed something by seeing it only as a bird.
No, no, I certainly didnâ€™t think you were reading too much into things at all. That whole bird bit is there for a reason. But, I do think that it can be tempting after the fact to try to fit story elements in a one-to-one â€œstory element A = authorâ€™s idea Bâ€� paradigmâ€”which isnâ€™t really reflective of the organic way a story sometimes gets put together. Or, at least itâ€™s not how I put things together.
Iâ€™m not a big fan of allegory in storytelling and I find it really unappealing when elements or characters in a story have obviously been conceived of from the get-go as simple analogs for some particular idea or philosophy that the author either likes or dislikesâ€¦ and then gets dealt with accordingly within the narrative. I canâ€™t think of many examples where an author manages to pull this off without it being really ham-handed.
So, to bring things back to the bird, if in my wrestling with that part of the story it ever seemed that something really transparent was developing like â€œthe bird represents so-and-so,â€� Iâ€™d rework thingsâ€”which is why I canâ€™t really give you a quick answer for â€œwhat does that bird mean?â€� It strikes me as really unsubtle when I encounter that sort of thing in, for example, those Ayn Rand books where each character represents some sort of really obvious trait or belief and the story then gives us the author's "message" via what happens to those characters within the narrative. I know some people really enjoy those sorts of things, but perhaps it's my background as an undergrad philosophy major that makes that a turn-off for me: if you have some particular philosophical point you want to make, then state it clearly and be done with it. This isn't really what narrative is good at.
Aaah - now I understand (and appreciate) the bird much better!
Were there any parts of the Italia disaster that you really wanted to include but couldn't? I was surprised not to see Amundsen here as his death was so huge -even eclipsing the deaths of the Italia crew. (Although maybe that's why you would want to leave him out.)
I don't know that there were really any parts that I wanted to but couldn't, but there were certainly tons of things I could have included but didn't.
I think that it's a mistake generally, and one that's particularly easy to fall into when dealing with anything "real life," to try to include each and every bit of information from beginning to end about your subject and characters. That's why the vast majority of those "biopic" movies are so terrible. The people who put those things together seem compelled to begin with the subject's birth, end with his or her death, and pack stuff in-between that they consider to be of enough biographic importance to merit mention. That kind of presentation of information makes for a good Wikipedia entry, but it does a terrible job of doing what a story needs to do, which is to reveal character, and hopefully in doing so reveal something about the human condition that your reader will connect with and find nourishing. The sorts of stories that I find most compelling are ones that take a set of characters and isolate some pivotal time period or a few very specific events and focus on that as a way to get at what makes those characters tick.
With Midnight Sun, the big items that I could have gotten into but didn't were the political back-story of Nobile as it relates to the rise of Fascism, the national rivalry back-story as it relates to the earlier Amundsen/Nobile airship expedition, and any number of other rescue groups that were trying to locate the downed men besides the Krassin. Some of this stuff was in that early draft, but ultimately I felt like what would make the best story was just to take a few of what I thought were the most engaging character-driven threads to this whole tale and use them as a launch-point, then let the story go from there.
The difficulty you had in finding the research you needed sounds rather daunting. (I got that info from an interview you did with the Pulse.) Was there any point where you thought maybe it was just too hard to nail down all the facts of the crash? And what in particular were you trying to find - what do you think you really needed to learn in order to maintain the book's aura of authenticity?
I don't think anyone's nailed down all the facts of the crash. At this point I don't think the even the true cause of the crash is definitively agreed upon. So, certainly I wasn't going to find out this stuffâ€”especially with access only to the small minority of works written in English on the subject.
The real point, though, is that all the facts about any event are never going to be known, and this presents a particular problem for visual media like comics. If you're writing a prose book about the Civil War and you know that on such-and-such a date Abraham Lincoln, wearing a stovepipe hat, walked into a room, you can simply write, "on such-and-such a date Abraham Lincoln, wearing a stovepipe hat, walked into a room." What did the room look like? What else was Lincoln wearing? What was the expression on his face? Was there furniture in the room? You don't need to address any of this. With comics, though, you've got to draw somethingâ€”you've got to put something on the page, and when you do, you're making things up. You can try to get the veneer of authenticity by doing a lot of research and you can populate that room with "correct" period furniture, dress Lincoln in something that makes sense, etc., but ultimately you're just fabricating.
Now, of course, it doesn't make sense to therefore just say: Since I can't know for sure, I can just do what I want. If you give Lincoln a cell phone and park a Cadillac on the street out front, you're creating real problems with the reading experience. For me, that's what I keep in mind as my arbiter in these situations: the reader experience. The world in which your characters operate needs to seem authentic. The reader shouldn't be drawn out of the story by some obvious gaff. On the other hand, (and this is a highly debatable point) when it comes to total authenticity vs. effectively communicating to the reader, I'll often favor things that communicate better. In Midnight Sun there are several instances of minor visual anachronisms that I utilized because I thought they communicated what I wanted to communicate to the reader more effectively than the 100% accurate version would have.
It seems like you have had to reiterate again and again that Midnight Sun is fiction and you wrote a rather lengthy endnote to the trade to this effect. I know I sent you some questions when I read the first issue and I assume I was not the only one. Why do you think the immediate assumption is that the book is nonfiction? I'm interested in how you crossed boundaries with Midnight Sun and I'd like to know your thoughts on how it met readers' expectations.
Certainly, when dealing with anything that's historically-based, one is inevitably going to be asked what's true-to-life and what's not, so I thought that two-page essay at the end of the book should be included to preemptively address that to anyone who read the book. I'd like to think that people unfamiliar with the historical events would become curious about them after having read the book and so it also seemed prudent to make a couple of reading recommendations.
I'm not sure that there is an immediate assumption that the book is nonfiction. By that, I don't mean to argue, but rather just point out that I don't really know what people's assumptions have been about the book. If there is such an assumption with some readers, I'd probably look to the relative paucity of historical fiction in the comics art form as a possible culprit. While there isnâ€™t a huge history of nonfiction historical comics out there, there's at least the precedent of Classics Illustrated and the like to maybe set up historical nonfiction in people's minds as an existent category for comics people. I certainly don't see this thing going on with prose readers, though. I don't think that anyone who picks up The Voyage of the Narwhal or Killer Angels assumes right off the bat that these works are nonfiction.
As far as how the book has met readers' expectations, I guess all I can say is that hope what readers expected was a good story, and I hope those expectations were met.
I initially thought the book was history from the Diamond description: "In 1928 an Italian airship expedition to the North Pole mysteriously disappears..." Because of my academic background on this very narrow field of study (northern exploration) I knew it was the Italia you were writing about.
And thatâ€™s precisely the reason I mention in my reply to one of your initial questions that I didnâ€™t just rename everybody and call it 100% fiction. Itâ€™s not like thereâ€™ve been hundreds of airship disasters at the North Pole.
I do wonder, though (as mentioned before), if the relative paucity of historical fiction in the comics art form plays some role in this. It's my perception that a work's being fiction is the assumed "default" for most narrative. I'm loathe to site the dopey "Titanic" film from the '90s here, but I will; that movie works similarly to the way Midnight Sun does. You've got some entirely fictional characters operating against a backdrop of an actual historical eventâ€”albeit one that the filmmakers have taken some real liberties withâ€”yet, I don't think it was generally assumed by the audience to be 100% true simply because of its historical underpinnings.
You raise a point with your response that perhaps there is too little historical fiction in comics - that it is a genre that has been ignored in this medium for awhile. Clearly with books like yours and Nat Turner, Northwest Passage and the recent Incognegro historical fiction is gaining a steady audience among comics fans.
As far as recent things go (and touching again on the previous question as well), Nick Bertozziâ€™s recent book The Salon is a close analog to Midnight Sun just as far as its approach goes. Specifically, itâ€™s a book that starts with some real-life characters in a setting and situation thatâ€™s historically pretty legit, but then uses that setup as a springboard for a narrative thatâ€™s more of a character study than anything thatâ€™s making a claim to historical accuracy.
Thereâ€™ve been some great historical fiction comics through the years, but as you point out, itâ€™s not as rich a genre as some others are within the comics art form. I wrote my graduate thesis at art school on historical comics and youâ€™d probably get a kick out of the fact that the basic conclusion of my paper was that folks making historical comics should absolutely, positively stick 100% to the facts! I guess, though, therein is revealed the difference between writing a paper about something and actually doing the thing itself.
As you said though, the research is a lot tougher because there is so much more you need to know then in a prose novel (as far as visually depicting the period accurately). After all the research with Midnight Sun, do you think you've learned some tangible things about crafting a historic fiction comic? It sounds like [your current project] Oyster War is going to entail a lot of reading on your part and Amelia Earhart - well it's Amelia Earhart! At least the sources will be much easier to come by on a book about her. I'm curious though as to whether there is anything you will do differently in terms of research and writing for your next projects - anything you learned in the Midnight Sun process that will carry over to other books of a similar nature. [For more on Oyster War & Amelia Earhart.]
Youâ€™ve packed a lot of questions in there! Iâ€™ll take them a project at a time:
Oyster War (or whatever the heck it winds up being called) will likely involve a lot of reading, just mainly because I enjoy reading about, and researching, thingsâ€”and that's partly how I get ideas for stories. Iâ€™ll definitely be moving far toward the fiction end of things for this project, though. Iâ€™ve got a historical setting that Iâ€™ll be using (Crisfield) and a particular time-period in mind, but beyond that Iâ€™m planning to have the story be pretty much my own.
There are one or two potential characters that Iâ€™m considering whether or not to use literally as themselves or not. Certainly my experiences wrestling with potential conflicts between real-life events and how I thought the narrative should progress is making me lean toward just making everything fiction if I can do it. One possible exception here is an ex-Confederate submariner and secret service officer named Hunter Davidson, who headed up Maryland's Oyster Navy for a while. I may throw him in as himself. And, of course the Chesapeake Bay's famed sea serpent "Chessie" will make an appearance as herself. I doubt she'll be offended.
Iâ€™m actually kind of surprised that my next two projects are historical in nature. I had initially considered another book of folk tales after my first SLG book, Farewell, Georgia, but I didnâ€™t want to be labeled as â€œthat folk tales comics guy,â€� and yet here I am with two more historical comics on my slate!
As far as Amelia goes, since thatâ€™s not being written by me, most of that is out of my hands. Interestingly, though, the book utilizes the same trope that Midnight Sun does: a fictional reporter reporting on events is the main character and we see Amelia's actions largely through her eyes.
Thanks Ben, for answering so many questions and explaining in such great detail how you wrote Midnight Sun. I appreciate all your candor - this was an excellent interview!
See the Master Schedule for an update on all other Summer Blog Blast Tour interviews today and yesterday!