Review: ‘Bourbon Island 1730’ by Appollo & Lewis Trondheim
Bourbon Island 1730
By Appollo and Lewis Trondheim; Art by Lewis Trondheim
First Second, October 2008, $17.95
Bourbon Island is a small but real place – it’s called Réunion these days, but it’s there, hanging near the east coast of Madagascar – and several of the characters in this graphic novel either carry the names of real people or are very similar to real people. But [[[Bourbon Island 1730]]] is a work of fiction – it’s primarily about people who never were real and about events that never happened.
It’s a looser and less tightly defined story than the reader expects at first: it begins with young Raphael Pommery, the assistant to ornithologist Dr. Despentes, traveling with his boss to Bourbon, hoping to find one last dodo. But Raphael is more interested in stories of pirates than in birds, living or possibly extinct. Raphael looks like our protagonist – young and more than a little romantic, just ripe for learning about the real world.
But Raphael doesn’t stay at the center of this story: in fact, no one that we see is really the protagonist. Bourbon Island instead centers on a character who never appears: the pirate Buzzard, the last great captain of a now-vanished age, imprisoned and facing a death sentence in Bourbon’s governor’s jail. Many of the settlers on Bourbon are reformed pirates, men who took an amnesty and laid down their arms – and it’s quite possible that a few or a lot of them may take up arms to free Buzzard.
The other major group on Bourbon – besides the respectable French settlers, comprising a thin upper class of gentleman landowners – is the Maroons, escaped slaves who live in semi-permanent encampments high up on the volcanic mountains in the center of the island. The Maroons live by a little bit of trapping and a lot of kidnapping and banditry, but they’re already being pressed hard by French “Maroon-hunters.” They, too, are poised on the verge of mass violence: they strike plantations regularly, stealing, murdering and raping quickly and then melting back into the dense jungles of the hill country.
That’s a dangerous place for a romantic young man, but it’s a worse one for a romantic young woman. Virginia is the daughter of a rich French planter with dangerously overheated notions of being abducted by Maroons – notions her maid Neneh tries strenuously to destroy, without much luck.
The plot of Bourbon Island starts with Raphael and Dr. Despentes, but then skips around the island – introducing us to Virginia and Neneh; to the governor and the sycophantic and scheming planters who surround him; to Rapier, an ex-pirate and Maroon leader fomenting a bloodbath as the only chance the Maroons have; to many other inhabitants of Bourbon, black and white, slave and free and escaped, Maroon and pirate and ex-.
But, for a story about an island on the verge of massive unrest, Bourbon Island is a notably quiet and undramatic book. There are scenes of action, but they don’t dominate. No one expected Appollo and Trondheim to take a sensationalistic tone, but, when Bourbon Island is over, there’s a sense that not all that much happened – and much of what did happen took place offstage.
There’s also an unfortunate aspect to Trondheim’s art that becomes very evident during Bourbon Island: he draws humans as anthropomorphic animals. (His signature ducks, usually for major viewpoint characters, and dogs, cats, rats and less identifiable creatures to fill up the rest of the world.) But in a story that’s in large part about race and cultures – about escaped African slaves and straight-from-France landowners – it’s a problem that the reader can’t easily tell what race or group the characters are supposed to belong to.
(Trondheim didn’t need to go to a full Maus-style allegory; if he’d just made all of the Europeans birds and all of the Africans mammals, for example, it would have worked well enough. As it is, most of the characters – black and white alike – are common mammals, except for the few, like Raphael and Virginia, who are ducks for no obvious reason.)
As long as Trondheim isn’t directly telling a story about race, his style is useful and flexible: it allows him to make his characters individuals. But when those individuals also need to be part of specific groups for the plot to make sense, it’s a less helpful style.
Bourbon Island is a thoughtful and well-crafted story of cultural clash and changing times; it’s not quite as successful as it could have been, but it’s still a strong and worthy graphic novel by two of the premier creators on the European scene today.
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.