« 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).
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…