Midnight Sun by Ben Towle is a tale of survival based on a true story, where the crew of an Italian airship become stranded after the vessel crashes on its way to the North Pole in 1928. It’s told from the perspective of HR, an American reporter who spends his afternoons getting drunk. He’s given a last-chance choice: travel with the rescue party up north, or lose his job. His boss also tells him to dry out on the trip. Plus, he’s the only non-Russian on the expedition. (They were the only ones close enough to send a rescue vessel in time.)
Thankfully, there’s another reporter, a Russian named Zowie whose fiancé was part of the airship crew. The two spark, in part due to competing over the only radio they can use to report back to their editors.
Towle’s confident storytelling allows the visuals to tell the story as needed, without extraneous captions or narration. His figure-centered compositions capture the various kind of loneliness felt by the characters, whether HR’s solo journey or the crew’s struggle to survive. Some of them have tough choices to make, whether to stay put and hope for rescue or strike out across the ice in a direction that’s at best a guess.
Towle’s simple linework against detailed, time-proper backgrounds create the air of stepping back to another era. His approach, especially the use of sepia-like grey tones, reinforces the “historical” part of historical fiction. The story intercuts between the two voyages, HR’s and the crew’s, to create a mystery where anything can happen — at least from the reader’s perspective, who’s likely unfamiliar with the original case. A much-appreciated author’s note at the end discusses some of the events elided for storytelling purposes.
Views of desolate icy wastelands seem particularly suited to comics. When done right, the medium perfectly captures the silent cold… and this one is done right. Black, white, and grey tones show the speckled sky of falling snow over the shadows and crevasses of the endlessly stretching icepack and its drifts. It reinforces just how much the airship crew and their rescuers are intruders into this exotic landscape.
Plus, the package is well-chosen. It’s a squarer book than typical, making for a compact volume that feels great in the hand and suits the rectangular panels and straightforward presentation. No fancy layouts here, just good storytelling.
It’s a gripping invite to think about tough choices and the human drive to survive in the harshest of conditions. There’s also the more realistic take on how often those who do heroic things do so in spite of being jerks.