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Shackleton Comic Brings Antarctica’s Heroic Age of Exploration to Life

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Cover art courtesy First Second Books

A century ago, Ernest Shackleton planned the first trek from shore to shore across Antarctica. During their journey, he and the crew aboard the Endurance became stranded in ice along the Antarctic coast and nearly perished.

Now their story is being told in a beautiful new graphic novel from artist Nick Bertozzi. The comic showcases their nearly-two-year struggle to survive the dangers of the southernmost continent and Shackleton’s daring bid to save his isolated crew.

We talked with Bertozzi about how he captured the drama of this classic tale of exploration.

Shackleton was part of a number of Antarctic expeditions. Why did you decide to highlight this journey in particular?

The publisher wanted an American explorer. I had to talk them into a British explorer so I had to go right for the big one. For me anyway, this is the ultimate story of Antarctic exploration.

Shackleton is part of what has been called the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. Are these explorers heroes in the comic book sense? Is that part of the draw for illustrating their stories in this format?

I would say as much as comics have unfortunately been labeled with the huge superhero paint brush, yes. It’s an aspirational story, a story that I would hope kids would read and get a little inspiration from. But on the other hand it’s not so heroic because it tells the story warts and all. You see the failures as well as the successes of Shackleton.

If you’re looking at modern day comics, let’s say Batman Returns, from Frank Miller in the mid-80s, which is sort of the turning point for where we now enter this age of very mature themed superheroes, then in that way I guess Shackleton is a bit like Frank Miller’s Batman, a little dark.

This story mixes bravado, science, and exploration. What do you think was the most important to Shackleton? Was he first and foremost an explorer, was he conscious of the scientific goals, or was he just trying to do something no one else had done before?

The latter, first and foremost. Not to say he was a glory hound—it was tempered by the science—but he wanted to push himself. The idea of going where no one has gone before, of going to this alien landscape really attracted him. That’s what my reading has suggested.

I think a lot of people would be insulted by my take on this. A lot of people were kind of insulted by my Lewis and Clark book because I mentioned Meriwether Lewis’s depression. But I think it’s very unfair to young people to suggest that heroes from the past were one dimensional superhuman characters without flaws. The more complex approach makes the stories from the past a lot more interesting. You can relate far more to a character when you see their flaws.

Have you ever been to Antarctica?

No, and I’m really really regretful of that. I hate that I’m an armchair traveler.

There was a recreation of the Shackleton trip from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island last year. One of the fellows who was on the expedition contacted me to use some of my art for marketing purposes. They never ended up using it, but I did ask if they needed a staff cartoonist to join them on the boat. They declined, and that was as close as I got to Antarctica.

So then how did you capture the look of the place? Did you rely on the art by George Marston or the photos by Frank Hurley, who were the staff artists on Shackleton’s crew in 1914?

Oh, it was invaluable to use Hurley’s photos. The cover is a rough amalgamation of a couple of photos. To get the angle was really difficult. I couldn’t have done it without the photos.

And there was one painting that I found really useful. After the ice floe they had been living on broke up they had to get into their 20-foot whaling boats, and that period that doesn’t have any photographic evidence or reference. There is one painting that Marston did, that showed the scale of the icebergs that they were rowing through. They are just terrifying. It really gives you a sense of how damn scary it was to do what they did.

You capture lots of details in your drawings: the rigging of the ship, how they cut the ice to move their ship forward, the rope line they created to lead back and forth from the latrine on the ice floe, and so on. What was the biggest challenge?

The hardest part of doing a historical book is finding a reference for the interior of a vehicle.  And that includes the interior of a ship. There’s just never—almost never—photographic evidence. There are several pictures, thankfully, that Frank Hurley took from the interior but its just so hard to find pictures of what the coal room looked like or the engine room, so I avoided the engine room specifically for that reason. I just couldn’t find a picture that would be honorable to that time period.

Did you make up the dialogue or did you pull from journals?

There are a couple of lines from Shackleton’s own book South, but I don’t like an omniscient narrator. It intrudes on the reality of the story, so a lot of exposition had to go into the dialogue. I knew I was going to have to make up a lot of that dialogue to fit that in so I figured I might as well make up most of it.

I will say I tried very, very, very hard to make sure the language was of the time. One thing that really bugs me is when people use language that people of that time period would never say. It’s like having George Washington saying, “groovy, man.”

Was there any one thing you were most excited about drawing from this expedition?

The boat journey—the James Caird voyage [where Shackleton is making a last ditch effort to reach South Georgia Island and get help for his crew]. I actually drew a 16-page version of that initially for an anthology. The story is incredible.

The boat journey seemed like the most powerful moment, the most scary point. One wave and it was all over, not just for the six men on the James Caird, but it would have been all over for everybody, the rest of the crew. They surely would have died on Elephant Island. I don’t think there’s a better story.  The whole thing from beginning to end just gets worse and worse up until they have to climb through the waterfall. It’s nonstop horrible; there were so many obstacles.

But also I was fascinated by the idea of people living on an ice floe. There’s one really fantastical, very surreal scene that I wanted to put in: Shackleton standing on his ice floe and feeling the ice rise up and down with the current of the sea. He said it felt like a giant beast was living right underneath him. I just thought that would be so fantastic to pull off graphically. So when I did it I drew in all sorts of fake sea creatures. I wish I could have made that larger, that it had been a two-page spread.

Whose story would you like to tell next?

I have a couple of ideas. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca had just a terrific story. He got shipwrecked, lived as a slave and a shaman. He walked across Mexico.

Or Zebulon Pike, in stark contrast to Lewis and Clark, which was the team he was going to follow after. He was going to take southern route to the West. He made a complete and utter mess of it. It would be the opposite of Lewis and Clark. It was such a Monty Pythonesque story. There was just some real buffoonery the whole way. I like the idea of a character whose bravado is so strong he can’t even see what an idiot he is. Although, I’m sure I’ll incur the wrath of plenty of his ancestors as well as a lot of other people. It might be worth it just to have a fun story.