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Review: ‘Wildheart: The Daring Adventures of John Muir’

Wildheart: The Daring Adventures of John Muir
Writer: Julie Bertagna
Artist: William Goldsmith
Yosemite Conservancy; $17.99

One of the most challenging aspects of writing a biography must be deciding what to leave out. It must be doubly so when the subject has had a particularly long, full and influential life, one replete with compelling, must-tell anecdotes and an amazing array of accomplishments, as John Muir had. And it must be more challenging still when that life story must be reduced still further, in order to fit inside an all-ages graphic novel, wherein there’s only so much room for words per page, as much of each page is devoted to the artwork.

Writer Julie Bertagna and artist William Goldsmith’s Wildheart is, therefore, something of a feat, in addition to being a pretty great comic about a pretty great man.

Goldsmith’s art is distinct, Bertagna’s script is succinct, and the overall approach is unique: This is the writer, philosopher, naturalist, environmentalist, and all-around hyphenate John Muir telling his own story directly to the reader, mostly within his own carefully edited words, from within the precisely constructed panels of loose, energetic and highly stylized cartooning.

The book is divided into nine chapters depicting various aspects of Muir’s 76-year life, from 1838-1914. Each opens with a two-page spread and a title, with Goldmsith’s simple palette changing from scene to scene, with particular colors dominating particular chapters. For example, one set upon an icy glacier is mostly gray and blue over the black and white of the art, while another set on the American frontier is mostly green, gold and brown.

Of those nine chapters, the first three cover Muir’s childhood and young adulthood; in fact, his trademark beard doesn’t even appear to the final pages of the third chapter.

So in the first we meet the dreamy little boy in Dunbar, Scotland, who would jump out the window in the middle of his studies to run around outside and play with his little brother on the shore, their favorite game being “scoochers,”  in which they would dare one another to do something dangerous. In the second, John, his brother, his sister and his father sail to America, take an ox cart to Wisconsin, and begin to build a home and farm, and suddenly “outside”  has become far bigger and wilder than it was in Scotland. In the third, comics Muir details how hard he toiled as he grew to manhood, waking up at 1 a.m. every morning so that he would have five uninterrupted hours of reading before he would have to start working at dawn. It’s by the end of this chapter that he has taken up inventing, and gained some small amount of fame for his inventions, like the “wake-you-up bed” that throws you out at the appointed time.

I am reluctant to guess at the pair’s motivation for spending so much time on Muir’s childhood, which necessarily means there will be less time spent on his career as a writer, philosopher, lecturer and nature advocate—the entire book is but 120 pages long—but it seems like it might have been their intention to offer a more direct connection between an audience of young readers and the subject. After all, it seems telling that the Muir that appears so prominently on the cover is a very young, pre-beard John Muir.

Another effect, however, is that it demonstrates how important childhood is to one’s life, and the ways in which who we are as children can inform who we are as adults. After all, the man that Muir grew up to be is one who combines the young boy Muir’s fascination with nature and play with the sense of scholarship that his father and teachers tried to imbue him with, even if they went about it in a way out of tune with his own interests.

After the successful unveiling of Muir’s inventions at the Wisconsin State Fair, Bertagna and Goldsmith take up and tackle the more familiar parts of his life, the stuff that made him famous and influential.

There’s his blinding in a factory accident which plunged him into a world of darkness until what seemed a miraculous recovery, leading to the epiphany that he wanted to spend the rest of his life outside in the wonder of nature. There’s his 1,000-mile walk from Indiana to Florida, followed by boat trips to Cuba, and then to New York, and then to California. There’s his discovery of the Yosemite Valley, and his time spent exploring its wilderness. There’s his exploration of glaciers in Alaska, attempting to prove his theory about how they carved valleys into the land.

And, in the final chapters, they condense his writing and lecturing career, as they have Muir explain his founding of the Sierra Club, his work establishing national parks, and the days he spent camping with President Theodore Roosevelt. Much of this is done in passing, as he lists the things he did, all of his accomplishments used as examples of his pursuit of his dream of preserving the wild world and encouraging others to appreciate it.

The ending is quite elegant, recalling one of his most perilous adventures, which itself had recalled the most dangerous and memorable “scoocher” he and his brother embarked upon in childhood.

While the story is, of course, all true, Bertagna and Goldsmith use the comics format as something of a license to depict Muir’s life as somewhat cartoonish at time.

For example, there’s a famous incident in his life where Muir climbed a tree in a thunderstorm so that he could experience it as the tree did; here Goldsmith draws the tree bending, almost as if it were made of rubber, while Muir hangs from it with his hands, his body extending horizontally in the wind and his legs dangling in the air, while his speech bubbles contain condensed passages from John of The Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir.

Animals will occasionally talk to one another, as a pair of bears who regard the sign to Yosemite and discuss how to pronounce it, or to Muir, who obviously can’t hear them, as when a bird in the storm-shaken tree looks angrily at Muir and says “Twit!” or when his dog Stickeen, stuck on an Alaskan glacier with him, calls him a crazy human.

As the life story of Muir wraps up, these cute little fourth-wall punctures come to the fore, as the elderly, bearded Muir starts to talk to the readers more directly about events that occurred after his death. “My legacy would live on long after I was gone,” he starts a two-page sequence of listing various things that came after him, ending with a surprise: A millipede. In a panel in which the bearded Muir holds a little millipede in the palm of his hand, it stands up and introduces itself to him, “Hello, I’m John Muir!”

There’s a sense of urgency and advocacy in the final lines of the comic, and one can’t help but wonder what Muir would make of the nigh-apocalyptic climate crisis we find ourselves in a little over a century after his death. I mean, he was concerned about the damage sheep were doing to the fields in Yosemite, which seems an awfully quaint problem compared to forest fires raging all over the world, including in a less-frozen Alaska and in the Amazon rain forest. 

But it’s just one sense. Overall, the book is inspiring, both in what Muir was able to accomplish in his life and in the way he talked about the natural world, and, more important still, it’s fun. With the sometimes crazy-looking stuff Muir does, the silly asides of the animals looking on, and even the curlicued lines Goldsmith uses to draw Muir’s beard or Stickeen’s fur, Wildheart is as fun and playful as little kids who have escaped their studies to jump around the rocks at the beach.

 

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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