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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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Clearing the Brush in Northwest Passage

Northwest Passage is a comic saga by Scott Chantler, published in 2005-06 and then collected in 2007. It seems to be an attempt to create the Great Canadian Graphic Novel, or at least to rival Seth’s Clyde Fans for that honor.

The story starts in 1755, at a Hudson’s Bay Company fort and trading post in Canada. Can you see what’s wrong with this picture?

This gentleman is far from “neat in appearance” by eighteenth-century British standards. He’s wearing a bushy beard of a sort acceptable in the 1700s only if he’d just been rescued from the wilderness or a shipwreck.

And this isn’t the only character in Northwest Passage to sport facial hair that would be more appropriate for an early silent-movie comedian. It’s part of several character designs.
I’d like to see more graphic storytelling about the past, but I don’t recognize this eighteenth century. Different periods had different fashions and etiquette, and Chantler is basically drawing men from nineteenth-century North America dressed up in the previous century’s clothing.


Robert S. Paul said...

If I had to shave for reenactment, these comic book characters should, too!

Also, I'm curious about beards and sailors. It seems like they had some looser facial hair rules, at least while out on sea, but you'd know better than I would.

Personally, I don't think I'd want to use a razor on a rocking, bouncing ship.

J. L. Bell said...

Probably the rules were looser for sailors at sea, but there’s evidence for barbering at sea in this time: Olaudah Equiano started to learn the trade while he was a sailor on board ship. And as soon as sailors reached port, they probably groomed themselves according to the prevailing style.

Rob Velella said...

Typically, these sorts of representations aren't based on real research but on what a person (be it the creator or the intended audience) expects the period to look like.

I firmly believe a history of facial hair on the United States should be written!

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, but it’s not as if we lack portraits of eighteenth-century British gentlemen in North America to guide us. We even have portraits of men who managed frontier trading posts, such as Sir William Johnson.

It’s notable that all American Presidents born before the Revolution were clean-shaven. (John Quincy Adams’s sideburns grew prominent after he had left the presidency.)

Robert S. Paul said...

Rob -

I actually wrote a piece on the history of beards, although it's mostly just a summary.

It's not just America, but it does explain why they're not popular now.

Pvt.Bill said...

Given the large number of hairy-faced reenactors out there,can we assume that this comic series was very popular during the Bicentennial era as well ?
This needs to be seriously addressed within the "historical"community.

J. L. Bell said...

This comic is much younger than the Bicentennial, so I think the influence went the other way, if anything. But since it's Canadian, the blame may lie with their own mountain-man reenactors.

As someone with nineteenth-century facial hair myself, I can't blame people for being attached to it. But that doesn't mean it's appropriate for reenacting the eighteenth.

Bostonian said...

Ah,yes,Canadians.......that explains it...