I’ve enjoyed many of the books in writer/graphic novelist Nathan Hale’s series about history, told with historical precision but balanced with a light humorous touch (and plenty of meta moments that break the fourth wall as if it wasn’t there). I found the latest book — Major Impossible — about the soldier/explorer Major John Wesley Powell … to be good but maybe not quite as good as the others in the series.
I’m trying to put my finger on why, and I think it because I had trouble keeping track of the many members of Powell’s crew in this story of exploring the Colorado River/Grand Canyon, and there was much repetition in story — boats in the water, boats out of the water, repeat — although you could argue that is what the crew did for much of the exploration of the unknown (unless you were native, then it was already well-known terrain, something Hale definitely acknowledges).
Still, even with that complaint, I found the story interesting, well-researched, human-focused (we learn about Powell himself, and his brother, through flashbacks) and full of dangerous moments. Powell’s passion for charting the territory and using scientific equipment of the time — while searching for mollusks, his passion — gave him a real dimension. And he did it all with just one arm, as he lost the other in a battle during the Civil War.
If you know this series, you know the overall storytelling device hinges on the hanging of the historical Nathan Hale, who stalls his own execution by telling stories of the past. This has been going on for about nine books now. The executioner, with mask and all, is a funny foil to Hale, and other characters at the scene of the impending execution inject humor and asides into the historical stories, sometimes even butting into the story in the comic itself. The panels are dense with text at times, potentially making this a bit difficult for younger readers. But middle and high school readers would enjoy the story.
Two other things to note: a short bonus comic at the end, based on the letters an even earlier explorer, James White, is hilarious. And the last few pages show the writer/cartoonist in his own sketches, sitting by the Grand Canyon as inspiration, and I found that really sweet and moving, a way to connect the writer to the story.
Peace (down river),