J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Illustrating Mohawk Country

Yesterday I started to describe my approval of Journey into Mohawk Country, a comics adaptation of Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert’s report on a trading trip from Holland’s small colony in North America to several Mohawk towns in 1634.

George O’Connor’s illustrations of that text have little in common with the art in other nonfiction historical comics I discussed earlier: no painterly renditions of famous faces, no traditional comic-book action. And I think that style adds greatly to the book.

O’Connor’s sketchbook pages, shared on his publisher’s website, show how he started drawing the Dutchmen in a more realistic comics form, but came around to a “cartoony” image of the characters. Here’s one resulting page, as Van den Bogaert’s insist he accompany them to a religious ceremony:
The publisher offers more sample pages on its website. (A page spread late in the book is in a slightly different style, representing Van den Bogaert’s hopeful vision of a prosperous future through simpler drawings and a pastel palette.)

O’Connor’s chosen style fits the many visual jokes that he’s created to build off of, run parallel to, or even undercut Van den Bogaert’s serious text. The combination of jokes and cartoony art means we can’t forget that O’Connor isn’t providing a “you are there” peek at historical events. Rather, he’s offering his artistic interpretation of Van den Bogaert’s document, informed by research but not claiming to be authoritative. The illustrations force us to think about the relationship between what happened and what got written down, between historical events and historical sources. And that’s a vital part of the study of history.

In the lower left panel above, Van den Bogaert’s companions are playing rock-paper-scissors to decide who has to go with him to the Mohawks’ ceremony. I have no idea if seventeenth-century Dutchmen played this game (and neither does the Straight Dope). In reality, Van den Bogaert might have simply ordered one man to come along; all he says is, “I took Jeronimus with me.” Had O’Connor showed that bit of business in a realistic visual style, like other comics, he would have implied that these Dutchmen definitely played rock-paper-scissors. But when we see the men are cartoons, we understand that O’Connor is offering us an entertaining notion of what those men might have done and can ourselves entertain other possibilities.

One potentially problematic element of Journey into Mohawk Country is its depiction of the Mohawks. O’Connor’s sketchbooks show how he researched the visual elements of seventeenth-century Iroquois culture. He depicts some customs, such as lacrosse and the snake game, that Van den Bogaert’s report doesn’t mention. O’Connor also worked to create a variety of faces for the main Mohawk actors and the many “extras.”

Nonetheless, we mostly see the Mohawks as Van den Bogaert and his fellow Dutchmen did: they’re foreign, often intimidating, hard to interpret, insistent on their customs. (And why not? Their villages were a lot better off than the Dutch settlements.) I wrote before about how a comics biography of Washington portrayed Native Americans as violent stereotypes. The Natives in Journey into Mohawk Country are much more varied: different characters are friendly, amorous, suspicious, angry, insistent, standoffish, &c.

Still, we don’t hear the Mohawks’ voices or see their actions except through Van den Bogaert’s words—just as in the historical document. The Natives remain largely mystifying and unpredictable to the Dutchmen, even though one brings back a new girlfriend. And while it’s possible that some readers might come away from Journey into Mohawk Country thinking of the Mohawks as mystifying and unpredictable, I hope that O’Connor’s method of playing art against text will remind most of us about what doesn’t get into the written record—about how there were thousands of individuals in Mohawk Country in 1634 whom Van den Bogaert never got to know and whom we can no longer know.

In the end, O’Connor’s story is not about the Mohawks. It’s about how journeying to them might have changed Van den Bogaert and his companions, as summed up in these drawings before and after the trip. Van den Bogaert has lost his hat, Jeronimus has traded away his coat, the men’s shoes are scuffed—but the real change is that they’ve lost some complacency about their familiar way of life. And that’s what good historical interpretations can also do.

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