Being a longtime fan of sequential art, (my copy of the ginormous Little Nemo collection takes a place of pride in my studio,) it is with great pleasure that I have watched, over the past decade, the growth of longtime friend and collaborator Ben Towle into a top-notch comic artist. A bit of history: I first met Ben when we were bright-eyed independents (me a sophmore, he a freshman,) at Davidson College, quick friends due to our shared tastes in music and pop culture. I will never forget the first impression of his vintage-patch-fastooned denim jacket and his overall rock and roll style, a breath of fresh air from the general sense of preppiness that seeped into life at Davidson in the late eighties. Little surprise that we would find ourselves, but a few years later, touring and playing together as musicians in a true Rock n’ Roll combo called Come On Thunderchild (H.G. Wells fans, as well as fans of British late-70’s art rock, will likely get the reference.)
Never before has there been a truer bunch of rock and roll idealists, and a good deal of that idealism was thanks to Ben. As a musician, he has huge ears and a pure vision. We made a great record together, and played a ton of great shows all up-and-down the east coast. Nothing to be ashamed of, to say the least. I only hope that someday I can lure him back to the stage, to show the world what they might have missed the first time around.
Said return to the rockstage must not, however, keep Ben from his drafting table and postpone the inevitable: Ben Towle creates great visual stories. For the past couple of years, I have been following the serialized version of Midnight Sun, the historical fiction account of a 1928 Italian airship crash in the North Pole. At the time of its periodic release, I thought the comic was good, nearly great. I found the characters interesting, though occasionally flat, while I found the pace of the narrative intriguing. He told the story of survival and human comedy/drama slower than most contemporary comics storytellers might. My disdain for the pace of modern life (and art) immediately found a quiet little haven in this tale of pre-modern reporting, adverturing, and true-grit struggle. I felt like I was reading a sequential version of a Sergio Leone tale. Big, sometimes slow, but usually intriguing.
Now, with the release of the whole story digest-style by SLG Publishing, I withdraw any prior reservations– in its collected, compact digest form, Midnight Sun is brillant. The pace of the story, which might have felt slightly deliberate in the periodic version, now takes on a poignancy as a collected whole. The pace now feels deliberately palpable– you can feel the waiting involved in this lost expedition’s struggle to survive. The story delivers an emotional undercurrent, meanwhile, the likes of which I feel rarely in comics– Chris Ware comes to mind on this front. There is tension sustained throughout. Furthermore, there is a striking nobility to the characters: they sense that they are in an absurd struggle against circumstance, and they bear it with an amazing kind of quiet emotion. Towle seems to particularly avoid melodrama, in favor of quiet comic irony: witness the half-assed rescue attempts of the flamboyant aviator, who manages to show up to a dramatic ice-flow rescue three sheets to the wind. The muttered curses of the un-rescued make for poignant comedy, despite the bleakness of the occasion.
Hurry out to your local vendor and purchase Midnight Sun. With masterful storytelling and quiet dignity, it serves up like a welcome brandy on these chilly winter evenings.�