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An expanded version of my Indian Comics Irregular essay A Fine NORTHWEST PASSAGE:

The setup:


Northwest Passage opens with the efforts of Eagle Eye, a Cree shaman, to reunite with his old friend and partner in exploration Charles Lord. Disturbing events and visions have led Eagle Eye to fear for Lord's safety. As Eagle Eye encounters some deadly obstacles along his way, Lord is celebrating his retirement. He's completing a stint as governor for a trading company outpost on the Hudson Bay in the heart of Rupert's Land in 1750s Canada.

Lord's efforts as an explorer have given him a legendary status in his native England, and his years as a bureaucrat haven't quenched his thirst for adventure and discovery. In fact, he sees his retirement as an opportunity to resume his search for the Northwest Passage, an Atlantic-to-Pacific water route through the Arctic Circle. But before he can pursue that long-held dream, he must deal with the threat to the outpost that Eagle Eye has foretold.

David Welsh's conclusion, which I agree with:

Northwest Passage is Chantler's comics writing debut, and it's nice to see that his strengths as a visual storyteller translate. He's clever in establishing enough of the period and its circumstances without it ever seeming like a history lesson. The exposition is handled conversationally, and it almost never overwhelms the characters who deliver it. The cast is a consistently interesting group, each viewing the outpost experience through their own lens. And the plot has nice momentum and complexity.

I don't know if I can say that Northwest Passage is a great comic. There isn't that gasp of surprise that comes from something truly original. But I can say without hesitation that it's a very, very good comic, carefully crafted and artistically accomplished. It's a two-fisted historical adventure in ways that really, really work.


Northwest Passage Book 1

Chantler's art combines the best of a simplified, cartoon-influenced style with historical research. His two previous works also were set in earlier decades, the 1950s and 60s, but here, he reaches further back to a more rural, macho time. As demonstrated in the opening chase scene, with a band of mercenaries running through a forest after the shaman, his sense of motion and panel-to-panel flow is quite impressive.

The characters are distinctive in design, with Lord, especially, giving the sense of a once-powerful man facing age and the constraints of civilization. It will be fascinating to see how he handles the coming crisis in future volumes.


Northwest Passage Vol. 1 Review

Chantler does a nice job of distinguishing the characters and making each feel distinctive. He gives historical context without bogging the reader down in exposition and does his best to revive the mystery and charm of the frontier days.

Chantler's tale has the makings of a gripping epic, but this first volume moves too slowly. Northwest Passage may prove to be better served as a larger collection, because the true drama of this piece does not unfold in this volume. This feels almost like set-up to the set-up.


INTERVIEW: Trailing The Northwest Passage
Interview Conducted by Jonathan Ellis

To order the comic, head to Oni Press.

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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