Sunday, January 20, 2008

Midnight Sun by Ben Towle

Ben Towle, self-described "cartoonist, educator, hobo," both teaches comics and creates them. Isaac got in touch with him a while back and invited him to join us for a shuffleupagus page (he drew panels 5 & 6) and to contribute to ____ Are Always Fun to Draw (Ben's contribution just might be my favorite one to look at in that volume). Here on the website, Ben provided us with a great set of constraints for our Elfworld submission, offering a series of nods to other cartoonists, from classics like Segar and Ditko to contemporaries like Stephan Pastis (whose Pearls Before Swine gets a shout-out in one of Ben's recent blog entries). His constraints worked well for us in a crucial stage of figuring out our plot and the stakes of our story, and I've really appreciated Ben's feedback in the comments, too.

This is a long preamble to a tale. Basically, I wanted to reintroduce you to Ben Towle as a sort of SatCom fellow traveler before admitting that he is in fact much more of an explorer and pioneer, one who has blazed a trail far ahead of us by completing and publishing a fine graphic novel with SLG called Midnight Sun, just out in December and just read by me Friday night. (Check out SLG's product page--with preview trailer!--here.)

It's the story of a 1928 Italian airship expedition to the Arctic that goes awry, and Ben succeeds very well in mapping this narrative terrain. A prose note at the end describes the factual basis for the story and the various narrative tweaks that Ben introduced: some streamlining of characters here, conflating of events there, with some invented characters and scenes for good measure. The story is well-paced, well-imagined, and well-designed (Ben has some thoughtful words about its nearly square format in another recent blog post); what I like best about the book, though, is the drawing.

Much of the story takes place in the Arctic, which allows for great expanses of white space on the page and effective use of perspective to convey distance. Here's a panel where three members of the stranded party of airship crewmen decide to strike out for solid land they've spotted in the distance; they are watched by one of the remaining three crewmen who stay behind on the ice floe where their dirigible crash-landed:

But white space isn't all that works effectively in these polar scenes. Ben also makes good use of graytones throughout the comic to sculpt shapes and to alter the mood. Here's a later look at two of those crewmen who left in search of land:

What first impressed me in Ben's drawings for shuffleupagus and the Fun to Draw project was his eye for arresting black-and-white contrasts. They're in evidence in Midnight Sun, too, and one of my favorites is this image of a Swedish Air Force plane, whose pilot swoops in to rescue some of the stranded airship crew, only to end up in need of rescue himself later on:

Finally, I'd like to note that Ben draws great boots. Boots may not be the first thing to come to mind when you think of great drawing--they weren't even on the extended list of over 130 "Fun to Draw" items--but Van Gogh produced a terrific painting of boots early in his career, and Ben has a couple of panels that showcase boots as visually interesting elements that flatter the inker. Here's my favorite pair, in a panel of increasing tension for the stranded airmen:

There's lots more fun stuff to look at in this book--planes wheeling, ships steaming, a bear attacking--and I'm really pleased to see such a fine book from the pen of a fellow who not only did some inking at my dining room table once, but brought along a few beers to inspire his fellow cartoonists to loosen up and enjoy the playful part of their work. I'm glad that Midnight Sun is attracting positive notices, too, and I wish Ben lots of success with it!


Bob Andelman said...

You might enjoy this audio interview with “Pearls Before Swine” cartoonist Stephan Pastis.

Mike said...

Thanks for the link, Mr. Media! (PS: I remember your presentation on the Eisner biography from ICAF a few years ago; nice to see you again, even if only virtually!)