FIRST MAN : REIMAGINING MATTHEW HENSON
FIRST MAN : REIMAGINING MATTHEW HENSON. Written by Simon Schwartz as PACKEIS, published by Avant-Verlag, 2012 ; translated by Laura Watkinson and published 2015 by Graphic Universe.
This is a fictionalized biography of the Arctic explorer, a member of Peary’s expeditions – more than any other single team member, it was he whose efforts ensured Peary’s eventual success. In fact, he was the first one to reach the North Pole in 1909, with Peary trailing behind, and while historical researchers now consider Peary’s own claim doubtful, they believe that Henson did make it to the Pole.
In any case, you’ve most likely heard of Peary, but you’ve probably never heard of Matthew Henson, not only because he was an African-American, but because some of the principals, abetted by the media of the time, minimized his contributions, portraying him as nothing more than Peary’s manservant. Henson’s own account of the journey, A NEGRO EXPLORER AT THE NORTH POLE, appeared in 1912. The following year, by order of President William Howard Taft, Henson was appointed a clerk in the U.S. Customs House in New York City, a post he held until his retirement in 1936. However, full recognition of Henson’s extraordinary contribution was slow in coming – he began to be accorded some honors beginning in the 1930’s, and he eventually received a Congressional medal in 1944, and received acknowledgment from the National Geographic Society posthumously in 2000 – this is the same NGS that declared Peary the sole discoverer of the North Pole in 1909, giving team member Capt. Robert Bartlett a medal while ignoring Henson.
The book is extremely well-written, both in presenting Henson’s explorations and in its narrative framing device, which tells the story from the perspective of the Inuit villagers so cruelly abused by the American explorers. In the framing tale, Matthew Henson is seen as by the Inuit as a prophesied god-like hero, with a place in the Inuit pantheon.
The art likewise uses totemic imagery, although Simon Schwartz is just as adept at precise draftsmanship ; FIRST MAN opens Matthew Henson’s story with splash pages showing astonishing urban landscapes, architectural drawings, and museum exhibits. In fact, I can’t remember ever seeing writing and art that felt so synchronized in service to the story.
All in all, then, this book is remarkable for the way it (literally) illustrates the systemic unfairness of society, even in modern times – an abomination found not only in the sharecroppers’ shacks and segregated facilities of the South, but reaching even into something as cut and dried as the ‘facts’ in record books, their assertions usually accepted without question by everyone.
I would recommend this book both as an account of an African-American hero and as good comics. For this reason, I think that most people who read comics regularly will like it. Naturally, I would also recommend it to anyone interested in Black history – and American history generally – even if they haven’t read a comic book since childhood. Speaking of which, it’s perfect for inclusion in school reading lists. In sum, everybody needs to know who Matthew Henson is – so read FIRST MAN.
Thanks to the Seattle Public Library, for providing me with the print edition of the title reviewed here.
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Here’s a small picture gallery, including representative examples of both the totemistic art from the framing narrative and the realistic art of the main story . It’s also got Simon Schwartz’s introduction, as well as an excerpt from Peter Freuchen’s astonishing true story about Matthew Henson’s legend among the Inuit.
I think that most people who read comics regularly will like it. Naturally, I would also recommend it to anyone interested in Black history – and American history generally – even if they haven’t read a comic book since childhood.