Review: ‘Journey, Vol. 1’ by William Messner-Loebs
Journey: The Adventures of Wolverine MacAlistaire, Volume 1
By William Messner-Loebs
IDW, July 2008, $19.99
Historical fiction is the odd duck of literature; it inevitably ages twice – once just because it’s set in a past milieu that even the original audience will be unfamiliar with, and a second time because it was really written for that original audience…and their society and expectations and ideas will age and become unfamiliar as well. Today’s historical fiction shows us the past through a lens of today, but yesterday’s historical fiction has a double lens – the historical era it was set in, and the one it was written in.
Journey is set nearly two hundred years ago, on the old Northwestern frontier of Michigan, soon after the election of 1808. And these stories were created twenty-five years ago, in black-and-white comic books, as part of a burst of creativity and possibility in the comics industry, originally driven by a wide array of idiosyncratic creators each telling their own particular stories but eventually buried (within another three years) by piles of cheap knock-offs of “hot” ideas. (Some things never change.)
Messner-Loebs’s hero is a legendary trapper and outdoorsman, Joshua “Wolverine” MacAlistaire – and 1983 is about the last time any comics character could be named “Wolverine” completely independently – who doesn’t dislike people, though he does prefer his own company.
This volume collects the first sixteen issues of the Journey comic from 1983, roughly the first half of the stories Messner-Loebs created about MacAlistaire and his world. It starts out with a very tight focus on MacAlistaire and ends with a multi-issue story in which the trapper barely appears, but the storytelling is consistent and clear throughout – though Messner-Loebs never forgets this is the early nineteenth century, so his people’s dialogue and his occasional captions have the flavor of their time.
The book rambles as it follows MacAlistaire on his rambles – he’s vaguely heading west across Michigan through what I believe is the fall and winter of 1808-1809 – and the first few stories are each discrete adventures. (MacAlistaire flees a bear, lives briefly with a crazy widow, is swindled by some French-Canadian traders, meets with Mennonites on their own way to Canada, and so on.) But many of those characters will return, and their stories add up to a picture of the Michigan wilderness as a whole.
(There’s an odder aspect to this ramble – which also shows that unstoppable desire for comics creators to work with each other and do “crossovers,” even when they don’t make sense – in a story that briefly drops Jim Valentino’s normalman character in MacAlistaire’s world, and an even sillier short interpolated science-fictional story by Randy Zimmerman. They probably seemed like fun at the time, in the context of a single issue, but they stand out like sore thumbs in a longer, more immersive collection. Some things just read better in a stack of comics than in a book.)
As these stories go on, the focus shifts off MacAlistaire for longer and longer periods, to the Ft. Miami settlement (where MacAlistaire is more-or-less heading for) and their various troubles. Ft. Miami has a conflict between its military leader, Lt. Vanderpelt, and the head of the colony, Lenoire, and a worse coming conflict with the Indian tribes organizing and arming under Tecumseh. Messner-Loebs spends more and more time at Ft. Miami – and shows more and more obviously the effect of Will Eisner on his storytelling as well as his art – and MacAlistaire nearly disappears from this book for the last hundred pages.
That’s all right – MacAlistaire is a fine character, but he’s not so wonderful that we can’t check in on other people now and then. And the plight of Ft. Miami is more interesting at that point than MacAlistaire’s exploits with his new canoe.
Journey, Vol. 1 collects stories that weren’t meant as a cycle, but it works quite well as a collection. A major story ends at the close of this book, which is a good place to end. And the whole thing is over four hundred pages of fine historical fiction, which has been obscure, out of print, and hard to find for a long time. The only things I’d quibble about are the lack of the original comics covers – or any indication of where issues begin and end, and how the art runs a little too far too the edges of the pages. (The thin lettering can be difficult to read in the gutters.) Journey is a fine comic, and another great example of the general idea – which, to my mind, can never be said enough – that Comics Can Do Anything. It’s great to see this series back, and Volume Two can’t come along too soon for me.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.