It’s been so long since I’ve been surprised by the existence of a graphic novel that I think that was part of the appeal of reading British Ice, which came out earlier this year from Top Shelf. I hadn’t previously heard of the book, but I came across an old promo email and it sounded interesting, particularly since I’d just been telling someone else about Whiteout. The two have some situations in common.
Although author Owen D. Pomery makes clear that this is a fictional story, it feels authentic. In the mid-1980s, a career diplomat, Harrison Fleet, is sent to an Arctic island still controlled by the British. The native inhabitants don’t want him there, and the previous commissioner in charge has disappeared. While trying to determine what happened, Harrison struggles with living up to the reputation of his father, a noted ambassador who put British interests above those of whatever colony he was responsible for. There’s also the legacy of the man who settled the island for Britain one hundred years ago and some mysterious discovery he made and actions he took.
As you might imagine, the subtext and theme involves colonialism and living under the heritage of the past. Harrison is not a strong personality, but he is someone trying to chart his own way without any idea of how to or what he should be doing, and no support either from his previous background nor the members of his new community. I found that sympathetic, as uncertainty is a common occurrence these days. Particularly since a wrong decision could mean death from a variety of methods.
The style is simple, many panels of people talking with barren backgrounds. (Don’t like drawing them? Set a story amongst large expanses of frigid, sparse horizons.) The occasional wide shot, large panels of the setting, establish a remote feeling of abandonment well-suited to the material, particularly when it comes to a previous official’s ridiculously formal house in the middle of an ice plain. Harrison is given an insightful piece of guidance regarding the inhabitants that ignore him:
If they are useful, they will be exploited, if they are in the way, they will be disposed of.
It’s a difficult path to walk, to know what to do, and it leaves a lot of anger. It seems there’s no way to win, either for them or Harrison, which leads to tragedy, which evokes the events of the past.
The book is monochrome, blue-grey and icy feeling. There are notes at the top left corners of some pages that say how many days have gone by, but since they’re white on grey and small, I had trouble noticing them. The extreme weather is an external marker of how remote Harrison is, left on his own to be frozen out.
The eventual revelations are not surprising, but overall, this is a book to read for tone and to spark discussion. I found it unusually timely for it having such an eternal feel. This is a confrontation that has been and keeps happening as culture must change to incorporate more points of view.
There are preview pages at the publisher’s website.