Thursday, January 29, 2009

Journey Volume 2

(William Messner-Loebs)

This second volume completes the original run of William Messner-Loeb’s tales of Joshua ‘Wolverine’ MacAlistaire, a trapper and hunter in early 19th-century America. Back in volume one he was hired to deliver a package and volume two finds him still on that same Journey. As he’s travelled he’s had varied encounters – tangling with wolves and bears, getting caught up in history at Fort Miami, even meeting Bigfoot. Journey’s episodic structure and, in particular, the way it tries on different genres like an indecisive date goes through outfits, resembles Will Eisner’s work on The Spirit. The similarities with Eisner’s art accentuate that, especially the moment when Messner-Loeb kicks away the panel borders during a fight and uses the whole page, just like Eisner did in his Dropsie Avenue books.

Speaking of the art, Messner-Loeb’s faces sometimes look curiously off, as if the distance between features or the overall shape is somehow wrong. He has a neat trick of drawing innocent characters, usually children, in a more cartoony style, but he seems more at home drawing the wide open landscapes of the Michigan frontier than he does people.

Apart from Eisner, what Journey brings to mind are pulp fantasy writers who worked in the short-story form like Fritz Leiber. Journey is just another word for quest after all, and Wolverine MacAlistaire’s pastoral adventures, alternately dealing with nature, violent thugs, politics between urban folk and tribal folk, and bizarre random incursions of science fiction, could have easily slotted into the pages of Amazing Fantasy with the addition of a temple to the spider-god or some elves.

Those random incursions of sci-fi are toned down from the first volume, which contained some very odd crossovers with other characters being published by Aardvark-Vanaheim back in the day. Weird things happen in the wilderness though, and this volume isn’t without its share of strangeness. Two of the first volume’s odder characters reappear: Pere Winter, who talks to dead people, and Jemmy Acorn, a mad hermit who hears angels by channelling tunes from the future, including ad jingles. Acorn is a welcomely strange recurring character, helping to lighten the dour mood of straight-faced wilderness man MacAlistaire.

MacAlistaire may be a hardened and competent civilisation-hating woodsy hero, but Messner-Loebs isn’t afraid to let him look like an idiot, which humanises him greatly. He still fits the American archetype of the rough, unexpressive Man Who Is Always Right, but he’s occasionally foolish enough to be believable. His life of constant struggle against the random destructiveness of nature and the wanton stupidity of humankind is inspiring, a never-give-up story lightened with enough humour to keep it from getting grim.

The difference between Messner-Loebs and other tellers of pioneer tales is made plain when MacAlistaire talks to one of his many temporary travelling companions, Craft, who plans to write a book about their experiences. After telling Craft to make the native Huron out to be either “real stupid or real smart” and to dispense with the “sweat an’ crap an’ blood” he sums up Messner-Loebs’ attitude towards traditional frontier stories:

Journey does none of those things. There’s no sneering, just honest, straight-forward, and hardworking storytelling with added doses of well-researched authenticity that make even the most mundane activities – whether building a shelter for the winter or trekking across Michigan to deliver a parcel – into fascinating reading.


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