Northwest Passage Vol. 1

By Scott Chantler
72 pages, black and white
Published by Oni Press

I’m always a little embarrassed about some of my gaps of knowledge when it comes to history. Every time I think I’ve got a pretty good grasp of all the important events that I should know about, someone will mention one that I realize I really know nothing about. When Scott Chantler’s Northwest Passage was announced, I found myself more than a bit relieved. Other than the fact that the passage exists, I really knew nothing about its discovery. Fortunately, Chantler’s managed to both educate and entertain me at the same time; what more can I ask for?

Governor Charles Lord is preparing to step down from his position in Rupert’s Land, a well-earned retirement just around the corner. Then a Cree shaman by the name of Eagle Eye arrives at the fort with an ominous news of a massacre at the hands of a group of Frenchmen, and with warnings of more dangerous things to come. And all the while, the long-awaited ship from England draws closer and closer.

For someone who’s fairly ignorant about the history of the part of Canada then called Rupert’s Land, Chantler did a good job of keeping me both informed and interested, while avoiding historical lectures being aimed at the audience. It’s pretty easy to understand Charles Lord’s poor relationship with his son thanks to several scenes with the two of them, for instance, or to see the affection that Charles has for his former adventuring partner Eagle Eye. Every once in a while a scene feels a little awkward as Chantler tries a little too hard to explain people’s motivations, like when Templeton Fletcher and the new Governor Hargrove have their discussion about why Fletcher’s coming to the New World, but they’re fortunately few and far between. More importantly, Chantler is able to slowly build up the level of menace lurking on the horizon as Northwest Passage unfolds. The 72-page installment format works perfectly, giving us just enough story to develop what’s going on and give you a good feel for the series, but still has you wanting to see more.

What I really loved about Northwest Passage, though, was the art. When I first saw Chantler’s art for Northwest Passage it was unlettered pages of the book, and I was amazed at how well each page held up without dialogue; even though you didn’t know the actual words being spoken, you still understood exactly what was going on thanks to the character’s expressions and body language. It’s not an easy feat to pull off, doubly so when you were planning on there being dialogue added in later on, but Chantler pulls it off. It also helps a great deal that Chantler’s got a wonderful way of illustrating characters, almost like a cross between animation and a New Yorker illustration. It’s a very classic, clean sort of look and I’ve got no complaints with it of any sort.

The first of several volumes to come, Northwest Passage Vol. 1 is a solid start to the story of the discovery of the waterway that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. At the end, the big question is, “When do we get to see what happens next?” and that’s exactly the sort of feeling you should have when you hit a cliffhanger. Here’s hoping we find out soon. The real northwest passage may already be discovered, but there’s still lots of discoveries about it that I hope to make later this year thanks to Chantler and Oni Press.

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