Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Around the World by Matt Phelan

Ever see or read Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days? It tells the story of a gentleman named Phileas Fogg who accepts a wager requiring him to circumnavigate the earth in 80 days' time or forfeit quite a lot of money (£20,000, which, accounting for inflation and all, would be a bit more than $1 million dollars (US) these days). It's a great story, and one I highly recommend for its character development, adventure, and derring-do. But that is not precisely what I'm here to talk about today.

Today, I'm talking about three real-life people who were inspired by Jules Verne's story to travel around the world themselves: Thomas Stevens, who made the trip by bicycle, Nellie Bly, one of the first American reporters to become a celebrity, and Joshua Slocum, a retired sea captain who sailed solo around the world. Specifically, I'm talking about Matt Phelan's remarkable graphic novel about those three individuals, each of whom had their own reasons for their journeys.

Thomas Stevens, 1884

Thomas Stevens decided to leave his job in the mines to seek fame and (hopefully) fortune by riding first across the U.S., then around the world. After traveling from San Francisco to Boston, Stevens secured a sort of sponsorship from the Pope Manufacturing Company. The owner of the company didn't believe that cyclists ought to be paid professionals (hear that, Lance Armstrong?), but he agreed to pay Stevens for his written accounts of his journey.

Nellie Bly, 1889

Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, known by her pen name, Nellie Bly, a "girl reporter" known for her stunts (on whom the character of Maggie DuBois in the movie, The Great Race is EXTREMELY loosely based), undertook to travel around the world in less than 80 days. She specifically proposed 74 days, in fact. She packed incredibly lightly: one dress to wear pretty much constantly, one lighter-weight version of the same dress, and a checkered overcoat, plus one small bag to hold her toiletries and change of underwear, as well as a hat.

The men at the newspaper where she worked were mostly betting against her, though they were happy to sell huge quantities of papers to an American public eager to trace her journey. She beat her own goal, making it in under 72 days, for which she received neither raise nor promotion. She resigned from the paper and wrote a book detailing her travels, making her wealthy.

Joshua Slocum, 1895

A retired captain of a sailing ship, Joshua Slocum set out to be the first person to sail around the world solo. He did so for professional reasons - he'd sold book rights to his account of his journey before he even left, and hoped to lecture - and for personal ones. Essentially, he was haunted by memories of his first wife, who had accompanied him on his earlier voyages when he worked as a sea captain for a living. She had died of fever while they were in Argentina, and was buried there.

Slocum's journey took him three years. Phelan does well at capturing the hallucinations or departures from reality that Slocum suffered from (or in some cases, enjoyed) while sailing alone. The book suggests that Slocum may have suffered from mental illness. In 1909, Slocum boarded his ship one last time . . . and disappeared.

Phelan's decision to tell the stories of three people from approximately the same era who set out to circle the globe - and succeeded - is a success in its own right. While none of the three stories are linked by anything other than a journey around the earth, they are united in a sense by the tremendous spirit and determination exhibited by the intrepid travelers. In addition, the drawings (more than the text) manage to convey the sorts of challenges each individual faced - unfamiliarity with bicycles, say, or sexism, or memory that verges on madness.

A fabulous examination of the personalities and motivations of people who chose to make a solo trip around the world, and one that's not to be missed by history fans and graphic novel fans alike.

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