I really should start paying more attention to online comics. Last fall I picked up the 2007 French book edition of Christopher Hittinger’s Jamestown because I found the drawings thrilling at first leaf-through. I’ve only now managed to read it, and I enjoyed it immensely. Turns out, of course, that it’s been available online since 2006. I’m sure I’ve even seen it linked to in several places, without taking notice. Lesson learned for this paper generation relic, I guess…

Anyway, I found this comic exciting on several levels. It’s a retelling of the first English colony in Virginia in the early 17th Century, the people involved and conflicts both internal and external, with the native Americans on whom the colony was dependent — complete with the Pocahontas story and all. Superficially it’s pretty straightforward, narrating the facts almost like a school textbook, but even if the prose is mostly utilitarian, Hittinger manages beautifully to make history come alive.

While obviously still learning his craft, Hittinger’s visual imagination is remarkable, and most of the time he hits just the right balance between evocative naturalism and iconically striking cartoon shorthand. When he draws a forest, for example, he adorns the trees with just enough organic marks to stoke our sensory memory, while at the same time repeating same across the screen-wide canvas in stylized repetition to make for a memorable design, distilling the idea of the place for us. And Hittinger’s inventiveness in this regard brings to the pages a sense of adventure, inviting the reader along on a voyage of discovery appropriately analogous to that experienced by the colonists in the story.

His other remarkable invention here is to draw each individual colonist in the initial expedition, of which there are more than sixty, as a distinctive, utterly stylized — think Larry Marder’s Beanworld meets Mat Brinkman — cartoon character. The book is introduced by a character gallery identifying each of them, allowing the reader to pick out exactly who is doing what in each of the wide-screen panoramic views that form the basic storytelling unit of the comic.

Most of the time this exercise is unimportant for the plot, and I am not sure to which extent Hittinger uses it to make more subtle, character-oriented story points — that will have to wait until a second, closer reading — but the idea has strong potential. And it certainly makes for a rather stirring sequence when large parts of the colony is succumbing to “malaria, scuruy and dysentery,” and the decimation is shown by three, almost identically drawn brothers reduced to one, and two graves (and three crows) over the course of three pages.

Works such as Jamestown and Dash Shaw’s amazing Bodyworld, which I’ve written more about here, seem to be part of what I regard as a very promising tendency in comics right now of exploring and harnessing the expanded pictorial field opened by the slightly older generation of freeform artistic pioneers — from Gary Panter through the 90s Montréal scene and Fort Thunder to Dernier Cri and Paperrad — for strong storytelling purposes. A real discovery.