Keeping Cool in Grønland: Racontars arctiques

« There are two kinds of Arctic problems, the imaginary and the real. Of the two, the imaginary are the most real. » — Vilhjalmur Stefansson

As it’s been a record-shattering scorcher of a week over much of North America, I’ve been daydreaming of cooler, much cooler climes whilst simmering at my desk. And why not make a post of it? A couple of years ago, I picked up one of the finest comics I’ve ever encountered, Racontars arctiques: l’intégrale (2018, Sarbacane). Its myriad of virtues, subtle and obvious, made it easy to enjoy, but a challenging work to dissect and properly discuss. But here we are — hope I did it justice!

Danish writer Jørn Riel (b. 1931 in Odense) spent the better part of his twenties and thirties in Greenland as part of a scientific expedition. This sojourn in turn inspired a successful series of tall tales set in the Arctic, fanciful accounts of the lives of hardy explorers, hunters and Inuit natives. His works have been translated into fifteen languages, and in an unusual twist, English isn’t among these.

French cartoonist-illustrator Hervé Tanquerelle (b. 1972 in Nantes) might be termed a cartoonist’s cartoonist, with all that entails: he hasn’t achieved superstar status, but it’s not through any lack of talent or toil. While I’ve often lamented the rather banal tragedy of great North-American artists who can (and do) cruise through decades-long careers without ever coming within hailing distance of a decent script, Hervé Tanquerelle’s path has been paved with glorious scenarios, most of them provided by writer-artist compères: Professeur Bell (with Joann Sfar, 2002-06, which I’ve featured here); Le legs de l’alchimiste (with Hubert Boulard, 2002-07); Les faux visages (with David B., 2012), and his most commercially successful opus thus far, Racontars arctiques (with Gwen De Bonneval, 2009-13). He has just completed work on the ambitious Le dernier Atlas (with De Bonneval and Fabien Vehlmann, 2018-2021), nothing less than a gritty, SF-infused alternate version of the Algerian War.

For Racontars, Tanquerelle even travelled to Greenland with a group of scientists and artists, with Jørn Riel among them, which added layers of authenticity and personality to what was already an undeniable labour of love. Try to envision your average US cartoonist putting out this kind of effort and commitment (one notable exception being, of course, the prodigious William Stout)! Anyway, Tanquerelle made fruitful use of this experience and its attendant documentation with a semi-autobiographical ligne claire account (fittingly published by Casterman, Tintin’s forever home), Groenland Vertigo (2017).

Despite essaying the thankless role of the invisible middleman, Gwen De Bonneval (Tanquerelle’s fellow Nantois, né Gwénaël de Bonneva in 1973), deserves full marks for admirably condensing Riel’s tales without sacrificing their appeal, not to mention cherry-picking the ones most ripe for adaptation (confirmed by co-admin ds, who’s read both the prose and the comics versions).

The majority of our esteemed cast: Anton, Museau, Lodvig, Le Comte, Herbert (cradling Alexandre), Mads Madsen, William le Noir, Bjørken, Lasselille, Lieutenant Hansen; and Valfred providing the beefcake in front.
The climatic extremes of the Great North aren’t for everyone, to put it mildly. Anton sinks deep into melancholy.
With its unusual day/night cycle, Greenland is no place for a normal rooster, as we learn from the woeful tale of Alexandre.
« Museau was a first-rate hunter… until he lost his glasses », explains his companion, Bjørken. While treating the puppies to some jam, a freeloader comes along.
What do you do when someone kicks the bucket during the long winter? The ground being frozen solid, he can’t be buried. And if you leave him outside, foxes or other rascals are liable to carry off the corpse. In this case, you give him a proper send-off — by dropping his coffin into the sea, but first gathering everyone for a boozy feast, with the stiff in the place of honour. Oops, he’s thawing out.
In the darkest of these tales, Le Roi Oscar (that’s the hog), Halvor loses his mind (what his companion calls “the Great Vertigo”), with dire consequences.
Callow youth Anton Pedersen arrives with a baggage of illusions and misconceptions about the trapper’s life. Reality nearly does him in.
His spirit is saved in extremis by the song of Spring’s first snow bunting, a sweet little guy.
In the set’s wildest and most epic tale, Valfred and Hansen… take a little detour.
The series’ centrepiece is probably La vierge froide (“The Cold Virgin”), in which the men share a useful delusion of Emma, an ideal woman they barter back and forth. Note how Emma’s appearance shifts according to the proclivities of each current companion.
Of this adaptation, Jørn Riel said: « Opening this book is like opening the door to the arctic world as I knew it so many years ago. The trappers in these drawings are exactly as I discovered them then, and to meet them anew this way was both a surprise and a source of great joy. I thank with all my heart the authors and publisher. The trappers of Northeastern Greenland have been resurrected. » Let’s not underestimate the resilience and backbone of such men: after all, the vaunted Vikings gave up living there… because conditions were too harsh for their tender hides.

Jørn Riel defines a racontar (rumours or gossip don’t quite convey the meaning), as “a true story that could pass for a lie. Unless it’s the other way round“. I hope the language barrier doesn’t prove too much of a hurdle. These marvels truly offer a fantastic opportunity for the discerning publisher… and, unless I missed something, the overdue scoop of Riel’s first English-language publication. Hello, Fantagraphics, D&Q…

-RG

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