In 1928, the Italian airship Italia embarked on an expedition to the North Pole and never returned home. Crashed in the arctic climate, the surviving crew of the Italia were up against a ticking clock to survive and reach help. That "help" was a Russian icebreaker, with an unfeeling American reporter aboard who could think of a million things he'd rather be doing.
Although this true story was in the headlines of all major newspapers while it unfolded, little historical documentation exists on the story of the Italia. SLG Publishing is releasing a graphic novel, Midnight Sun, which seeks to document the Italia's story for current audiences.
Scheduled for release on December 19, Midnight Sun is the second major work from cartoonist Ben Towle. Debuting in 2003 with the one-shot Farewell, Georgia, Towle is also the founder of the National Association of Comics Art Educators, a nonprofit comics-in-education advocacy organization. Midnight Sun joins the growing field of historical fiction in comics, this time examining a little remembered story from the 20th century that has all the potential for an exciting and riveting story.
PW Comics Week: Midnight Sun is a tale of man versus nature, with the crewmembers of airship Italia trying to survive in the arctic after their airship crashed. What prompted you to do a story about these events?
Ben Towle: Certainly the half of the story of Midnight Sun that deals directly with the men trapped on the ice has a lot of the trappings of the classic "man versus nature" narrative as far as the long-term survival of those characters is concerned. In the short-term, though—and this is a large part of what attracted me to this story in particular from among the many other "survival" stories out there—is that what both the real-life crewmen and the fictional characters of Midnight Sun are really up against are the indifferent bumblings of (mostly bad) luck.
PWCW: The de facto lead character in this story is a reporter named H.R., who is chronicling the recovery efforts as they unfold. The first thing readers see of him is his editor finding him proverbially at the bottom of a glass of alcohol. Who is H.R.?
BT: The character H.R. is a reporter who works for a major newspaper in an unnamed American city in the 1920s. As with the other portion of the story that runs parallel to his—that of the men on the ice—H.R.’s struggles are primarily with luck... the sort of luck that often casts people into the most unlikely of intrapersonal relationships and forces us to hash them out somehow.
External to the narrative world of Midnight Sun, H.R. was a character that I had been messing around with in some other contexts, generally as just a Depression-era reporter at a big paper working there for practical reasons, but not necessarily devoted to journalistic pursuits. When I started machinating on a new project after Farewell, Georgia, it occurred to me that the two might be combined into a single story. I’d abandoned [an earlier version of the story called] Lighter than Air in part because I’d had a hard time portraying the story effectively from an omniscient third-person viewpoint, but with H.R. in the mix I could have a sort of “outsider proxy” both for the reader and for myself, the author. This gave rise to the parallel narrative structure in Midnight Sun, where there are two main characters: H.R. and Biagi. If you read any of those books on screenwriting, that’s a total no-no, but I thought it’d be an interesting way to approach the story.
PWCW: Although based on a true story, you note in your afterword that you changed some things for the graphic novel. Why did you decide to do this?
BT: As mentioned above, my first pass at doing something related to the Italia disaster was an attempt at doing an as-accurate-as-possible retelling of the historical events in comics form. I remember, though, at a very specific point working on a scene (that didn't make it into the final book) where the airship, en route to Norway, deliberately passes over the home of one of the crewmen, so he can drop a ring to his mother who's watching them pass from the ground below. I thought: given that we're going to be rooting for this guy to survive a trek across the ice many pages later, wouldn't it really be better storywise to have him drop the ring to his fiancée?
For various reasons, I put the project aside, but when I returned to it I knew I had to make a decision as to what my primary mission was going to be—tell the real story or tell the best story I can—and ultimately I decided on the latter.
Purely on the practical side of things as well, a historically accurate and all-inclusive retelling of the Italia disaster and rescue would really be well beyond the scope of a few-hundred-page graphic novel, and would involve a cast of characters that would be quite daunting for a reader to try to keep track of. Beyond that, I think that doing a truly historically accurate retelling of anything in comics format is pretty much a fool's errand. Unlike with prose, the visual component of the art form demands that something be put on the page. If I'm writing a scene in prose and all I know for sure from the historical record is the type of dresser that's in some room, I can write, "He walked into the room and there was a so-and-so type of dresser there." If I'm doing that in comics I can't just draw a picture of a dresser and nothing else. The visual component requires mise-en-scène of some sort and if you don't know it, you've got to come up with it.
I've been pretty explicit about not making any claim to historical truth with the book, and no one therein is really portrayed unfavorably, but nonetheless, I'm sure I'll catch some flack from the historically minded. Such is life.
PWCW: Whatever the critics may say, you put a lot of time and effort into translating this historical account into a cohesive and enthralling story. What made this piece of history something you wanted to tackle in the first place?
BT: I was attracted to this aspect of the true-life story of the Italia rescue and made it one of the thematic focuses of the book precisely because it didn't involve one of those "epic struggles to survive," where ultimately our hero saves the day through some fit of derring-do, the sort of thing that goes down well with a big box of popcorn and a Coke. Usually when a survival story is done in film or television, the focus is on if and how the characters will survive. What I found truly fascinating about the real-life Italia incident, though, were the telling personal dynamics that developed among the individuals who were stranded. As I investigated the historical events, I became attracted to the idea that I could really focus on and play up those conflicts and their eventual resolutions and develop a highly fictionalized story from them that would (hopefully) work as a sort of exploration of some general worldviews which were embodied in the specific by the various characters. Developing the "on the ice" portion of the narrative as a sort of controlled experiment in personal dynamics seemed to be to be just the sort of thing that's well suited for the intimacy and pace that the comics art form can really excel at.