This volume comprises Volume 1 of the “Wild Man” saga, in which T Edward Bak chronicles the journey of Georg Wilhelm Steller, accompanying explorer Vitus Bering on the mid-1700s Kamchatka Expedition from St. Petersburg, through Siberia, and into Alaska. It’s an ambitious and unique choice of subject matter, probably a seldom studied slice of history to most of our western eyes. Internally, the narrative is thematically concerned with how humanity relates to the natural world, but I enjoyed it primarily for the genre real estate it occupies, the blend of speculative historical fiction, which is a space touched on by some of my other favorite indie comics. While reading Island of Memory, I reminisced about the time I spent with books such as Jordan Shiveley’s March 29, 1912, or Sammy Harkham’sPoor Sailor, or Ben Towle’s phenomenal Midnight Sun. There’s so much subtle drama to be gleaned by grounding semi-fictional accounts of folks in real world events, or points in time where there isn’t a plethora of recorded data, so that fictional interpretations sidle up easily to what’s actually known as fact.
There’s something about the way Bak can alter his art style to suit the mood of a particular sequence that’s so talented and blatantly versatile. The page compositions range from panels that almost look like the primal woodcut engravings of Lynd Ward (but then Bak inhabits them with more modern lively characters), to shamanic dream sequences with more variable line weights and representational qualities that might have you squinting your eyes to see Craig Thompson. At times, especially the final “island of memory” (more on that later), it feels not so much like sequential art, but narratively symbolic glyphs on the page that fuel the psychological drivers of the characters. Maybe the most striking aspect of Bak’s work, purely artistically, is the very purposeful use of color. Much of the time, it is absent completely, an effort to capture the essence of the frozen unknown. There’s just no warmth on the page, giving the reader a small taste of the environment being depicted. When color does make an entrance, it’s dramatic, be it mysterious swirls of purple when the expedition is being discussed, bursts of red for a passionate embrace, or the cacophony of aquamarines showing the bounty of wildlife under the sea.
Island of Memory is careful to occasionally show naturalist forces in quick repose, or quick glimpses of bold fire elementals almost taking on a pagan sense of wonder, and prompts the audience to ask how those can all be forced into concert or contention with people from “civilized” society. There’s the obvious question of what impact the relatively western world has had, currently has, and will have on this eastern indigenous population. It’s subtle, never really discussed directly, tucked away in just a few throwaway lines of dialogue, but from it all you can extrapolate the question of just who the “savages” truly are. In a place considered “absent of God,” it’s also easier to see the pragmatic connections between North Americans, Asians, and Europeans, if they can potentially all claim migratory ancestry stemming from this one geography.
The title is also an interesting choice for this project, multiple meanings for multi-layered work. Island of Memory can easily denote the physical island(s) that some of the action takes place on in this volume. That’s the easiest correlation to make. Slightly more challenging is the notion that it can also denote a mental plane. It’s Steller’s search for mental warmth in the absence of physical warmth out in the wild. By calling up memories from the past, perhaps those memories might fuel the spirit, which could in turn fuel the body to make this difficult journey. He calls up warm memories of St. Petersburg prior to the exploration, which are cleverly spliced into the middle of the journey, and finally grasps for more cryptic childhood imagery that predates even that. Stretching a bit further, “islands of memory” is actually a medical/psychological term that denotes post-traumatic amnesiacs being able to recall only select pockets of experiences, or isolatedislands of memory.
I’m eager to see more of this story. It wrestles with one big issue in particular that I find fascinating, namely man’s inherent need to explore. Island of Memory taps into this debate by examining if the needs comes from a desire to exert dominance in an effort to make order of chaos, if it springs from an existential crisis found in man’s attempt to find his place and purpose in the natural order, or if it’s simply because the great expanse is laid out before him drawing forward motion – man explores the unknown simply because it is there.