“Painted Smiles; Written Words” was not made for ‘comics’ in the most typical sense of the word. It was made specifically for one shots or miniseries, for stories that break the mold of what you typically think comics to be. Nevertheless, I recognize that lately the posts have been Marvel and Superheroes and everything you immediately think of when you think ‘comics’. And I’ll tell you right now that the next three updates are likely to be Batman story arcs, because I just read them and I am incredibly impressed with them. But they’re not really why I created “Painted Smiles; Written Words”.
“Midnight Sun” is.
Ben Towle’s “Midnight Sun” is a small, short graphic novel. It is centered around the airship Italia which attempts a trek to the North Pole from Italy. Once reaching the pole, however, the ship crashes, stranding its crew on the ice. Once their home country, among others, receives news of the crash via radio, a rescue mission is sent out on board a Russian ice breaker— that though there was only one Russian aboard the airship, their rescue team is made up primarily of Russians is interesting and worth noting. The story takes place in the year 1928. Prohibition is in force in the States, Mussolini is in power in Italy, and the Soviet Union’s communist ideals are clashing with the capitalist ways of the United States. Thus, when the alcoholic reporter known only as H.R. boards the Russian icebreaker the Krassin in an attempt to save a crew of Italians, a Czech, a Swede and a Russian, led by an Italian who’s ideals and very mission disobey the fascist government itself, the story begins to speak volumes about political and social interactions.
Like many books that capture my heart, however, this is not a story that blatantly points these issues out. Despite fear of sounding like a broken record, this bears repeating: “Midnight Sun’s” strength lies in its simplicity.
The story is not a mystery, though that’s not to say it isn’t suspenseful. There is no espionage, nor backstabbing, or double-crossing. There is no sex, or gunfights, or shoot-outs. There are only two groups—a group of men trying to stay alive, and a group of people trying to save them—and the story centers around how the people in these groups interact with one another, and what happens when the groups finally cross paths.
The art is beautiful but simple, done with black and gray ink, the pages reflect the bright, vast nothingness of the snowy desert beneath a gray and foreboding sky. The characters are easily identified, detailed just enough so that they are distinguishable from one another, but not too much—though they all come from a variety of very different backgrounds, you never forget that they are all united.
I read the story in a little over fifteen minutes- that is to say, it wasn’t a long read. I picked it up on my break at work, and when my break was over… Well, I couldn’t get it out of my head. It was a struggle, if not nearly impossible, to put the book away in my backpack, knowing there were so few pages left, that I was so close to reaching the end. I was so anxious to finish it, I felt as I imagined the crew of the Italia must have felt, just as they saw the Krassin approaching on the horizon. So close, out of reach, the end…
Needless to say I finished the book as soon as I possibly could, eating up those last few pages with excitement.
In the end, Ben Towle gives a short epilogue on the difference between “fact” and “truth”. “Midnight Sun” is based on true events, and many of the major details are true to life. However, he admits that, for the sake of the art form, other details were given creative license. But for that reason, he says (and I agree), perhaps it lends a bit more truth to the story. It is just a story, yes, but if they facts had been given to you straight, if you knew every little detail, if everything had happened in this story the way it happened in real life, would you really care as much as you did? I have to be honest; I don’t think I would. Ben Towle did a terrific job of making me care for these characters in a way that made this a powerful story.
The book is short, but strong. I’d recommend checking for it at your library before buying it, simply because of its brevity. I got it at my library, and the verdict is still out on whether this will be in my next amazon.com cart. Check it out.
“Midnight Sun” by Ben Towle
(Edit: With a “Used” price at $0.85, it is definitely worth picking up)