Written and Illustrated by Ben Towle
Midnight Sun is two parts drama; one part adventure story. Ostensibly, it’s about the real-life disappearance of the airship Italia shortly after its successful arrival at the North Pole, but it goes deeper than that. Ben Towle has fictionalized most of the crew, condensed events, and freely speculated to fill in holes, but the gist of the incident is intact. In May 1928, the Italia sent a message home saying that it had reached its destination; then went abruptly silent. A massive, multi-national rescue operation ensued and eventually ended almost two months later. I’ll leave it for you to discover how successful it was.
Most survival dramas focus on the attempts of the survivors to stay alive. And most survival dramas are boring as hell. Ice, wind, freezing, frostbite, hunger, do we eat the dead or don’t we? Seen it all a billion times. Towle does something different though.
About half the story focuses on the survivors and the politics of trying to stay alive long enough for help to come. This part’s fairly typical survivor stuff, but it’s made more interesting by a) Towle’s beautifully gentle drawings that make the artic ice floes actually seem like kind of a serenely pleasant place to be (if you weren’t stuck there involuntarily) and b) polar bear attacks. Actually, there’s only one polar bear attack, but it’s a good example of the kind of thing Towle throws in to keep things moving.
The other thing he does is to cut in and out with the other half of his story, which is about a reporter sent to cover the rescue operation. H.R. is pretty much a butthole. He’s got his good qualities, but you have to spend some time with him to see them. He doesn’t care about the Italia, it’s just an assignment he’s been given and doesn’t feel able to refuse. He’d much rather spend his days holed away in the local speakeasy.
Most of his story takes place on a Russian rescue ship with only a couple of other people who speak English. One is a pleasant, but slightly annoying fellow who wants H.R. to call him “Babe;” the other is a Russian reporter who’s engaged to one of the Italia’s crewmen and takes an immediate dislike for H.R.
As the Russian ship gets closer to the stranded airmen, we start to see a parallel between the rescue of the Italians and H.R.’s own potential liberation from the misery his life has become. He doesn’t care for Babe at first, but since that’s the only person who’ll talk to him, H.R. starts to relax around him a little and we see what just might be the possibility of a friendship. H.R.’s far more interested in the pretty reporter and as the journey continues, she starts to warm up to him as well. I won’t spoil the end, but the connection between the successes (or failures) of the two rescue operations holds together until the quietly haunting end. It’s a lovely device that elevates Midnight Sun way above just another survival/adventure story.