Thursday, September 4, 2008

the last of the mohicans

Now we move to rival comics camp Marvel for a bit. My interest in this graphic novel was three-fold. First, my dad has always loved Classics Illustrated and even bought me a copy of their Jane Eyre (I remember the art wasn’t all that good). My mom has always been a big fan of The Leatherstocking Tales. The Michael Mann Last of the Mohicans is one of the first films I can remember seeing in the theatres and it has remained one of my favorites to this day. Mann’s film is based on an earlier adaptation and therefore differs a good deal from the Fenimore Cooper original, so I was curious to see how the graphic novel adaptation would hold up. With Washington Irving, Cooper is basically the forefather of American literature, and when I took a class in American literature in France, the French obsession with Puritanism in colonial America gave way slightly in order to accommodate the atypical adventure stories by Cooper.

Writer Roy Thomas has made a conscious effort not to stray far from Cooper’s original language though Thomas admits even in 1826 when the book was published, it was already archaic in style (then again, it is trying to recapture events from 70 years previous, in 1757). This means some of the speech bubbles are impossibly crowded, but since it’s consistent, you get used to the protracted linguistics quickly, which come in the form of the Munro girls’ and Major Duncan Heyward’s impossibly educated speech and the tortured syntax of the Delaware and Iroquois. I’ve always wondered how much research Cooper did into the Indian groups he portrays, as I surmise he gets the facts basically right.

The hero is Natty Bumppo (changed to Nathaniel Poe in the Mann film), also known as Hawkeye, La Longue Carabine (by the French-speaking Iroquois who fear his accurate rifle Killdeer), and the Deerslayer, plus some other epithets I’ve probably forgotten. Though he asserts he has “no cross”—ie, no Indian blood—he is between two worlds, “white and Christian-born,” but raised by the Mohican/Delaware chief Chingachgook. In the Mann film, of course, he is memorably played by Daniel Day-Lewis, and some of the art by Steve Kurth (in particular some cover art by Jo Chen and Gerald Patel) shows that influence, however unconscious. Nevertheless the real hunk of the graphic novel is young and ill-fated Uncas, Chingachgook’s biological son.

The story is full of adventure and violence, but more a series of escapes, skirmishes, recaptures, and bloodbaths—a bit like a Pertwee story but with more blood. The Mann film has a much more traditional three-act structure, but a good many of the elements of the original novel—beautifully illustrated here—have worked their way into that film. The waterfalls, Massacre Valley, Uncas and Cora’s ill-fated deaths at the hands of Magua, etc. The Munro girls, Cora and Alice, are much more non-entities than I remember from the film, with both of them making brave and erudite speeches. Of course, romance is much less the point of Cooper’s tale, with some of the roles being reversed: Uncas silently loves Cora and dies for her, Heyward loves Alice. There isn’t the pleasant tension of the Hawkeye/Cora/Heyward love triangle, but to make that work in the film, Heyward had to be something of a priggish, racist colonialist redeemed only by his brave sacrifice on Cora’s behalf. There was something so sweet, too, in the innocent Alice and Uncas relationship in the film.

There is less overt attention paid to the politics of the French and Indian War, but then Cooper only had less than a hundred years’ perspective whereas we have had more time to analyze. General Montcalm, the “Canada father,” makes a brief and satisfyingly crafty appearance. The white officers show themselves to be every bit as courageous as their Mohican/Delaware counterparts, and Magua remains a wonderfully multi-dimensional villain, explaining to Cora that the reason for wanting revenge on her father is a complex tale of shame and the drunkenness brought by the white man and his “fire water.” There is little insight into the settlers who would have been removed from their lands by the draft to fight with the British army; this was not Cooper’s axe to grind. A fascinating section of the narrative is when Hawkeye and Uncas try to persuade Tamenun, the great Huron/Iroquois Sachem, that Magua’s claim on the prisoners—Heyward, Cora, Alice, and a bizarre psalmodist character named David Gamut—is null. Some of the dialogue in this section made its way unaltered to the film.

In all of the media used to retell this story, much has been made of the “tortures” and atrocities committed by the various native American groups on each other and white prisoners. In the film, Munro’s heart is cut out of his still-breathing body by Magua and Duncan is crucified in flame. In this graphic novel, prisoners are tied to trees and woman’s baby is dashed against the rocks before someone puts a tomahawk through her head. The violence of the frontier no doubt occurred, but I can see where Europeans would get a very skewed idea of the American west from overlong exposure to some of Cooper’s imitators. I’m happy to say that Patrick O’Brian seems to have borrowed a cunning disguise perpetrated by Hawkeye here and given it to Jack Aubrey in Post Captain.

Kurth’s art is wholly impressive—a perfect example of how talk-heavy comics can accommodate truly great action scenes and close-ups. Inker Cam Smith and colorist June Chung should be acknowledged as well. The Delaware/Lenni Lenape are accurately drawn—no tiny breech cloths that so annoyed Russell Means in the Hollywoodization of Mohicans. Unlucky Cora and Alice have to wear bulky gowns whose historical accuracy is questionable.

The Italian artist Denis Medri tries his hand at illustrating “A Tale of Hawkeye’s Youth from The Deerslayer.” His style is too anime, too CGI for me. The tale itself is interesting, showing the young Natty’s personal honor as well as an ill-fated romance with a haughty settler’s daughter named Judith Hutter. Chingachgook’s courtship of Hist-oh-Hist, Uncas’ mother, is no less enjoyable. The tale is, as ever, bloody, but has moments of quiet contemplation lacking from Mohicans the graphic novel. “Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. But I do not feel toward you as I should; if I were to cleave unto you. Nor am I one to take advantage of a weak moment when you fancy that earth and all it holds are in this little canoe.”

Roy Thomas has won masses of awards, so maybe it’s worth trying to find more of his work.

No comments: