Books

Book review: In ‘Wintermoot,’ a graphic novel that shape-shifts, disorients and challenges readers

“Wintermoot”

By Nathan Shafer. 2022. Łuk’ae Tse’ Tsass Shared Universe. 232 pages. $30 ($20 from the Fish Head Soup Comics website)

“Since Repocalypse,” Nathan Shafer writes in the voice of Aréte, one of the characters in his graphic novel “Wintermoot,” “there has been a sea change in how we approach the public usage of supernatural abilities. As a Dena’ina/Ahtna anthropologist, gifted with Cryoverse powers by Łi Dnay, I focus my energies on improving the greater good of my people and the world. That means working to fight global warming and working towards a more equitable world.”

This summarizes the spirit of this collection of the first four issues of Shafer’s comic book of the same name. The multitude of characters that come spinning off these pages are classified as superheroes, defending Alaska from intruders coming from varied dimensions, but they spend limited time doing what most superheroes do — beating up bad guys — and much of their time wandering and pondering their way through and beyond the realm they inhabit, known as the Berryverse.

“Wintermoot” is part of the Łuk’ae Tse’ Tsass Shared Universe that sprang from a short story Shafer wrote called “Ravenade,” which is included in this book. “Łuk’ae Tse’ Tsass is the Ahtna term for ‘fish head soup,’” Shafer explains in his introduction. A collective of artists and writers has gathered under the name to build a series of Alaska comics by Alaskan creators that include and honor Alaska’s Native cultures. Last year saw the publication of “Chickaloonies” by Dimi Macheras and Casey Silver, the first book to emerge from the joint effort. “Wintermoot” is the second, although the issues it contains began appearing in 2019.

The concept loosely underlying the series is based on an idea floated in the 1960s of building domed cities in Alaska that would have their own controlled climates and help colonize the new state. In the shared universe, they were actually built, but climate change has rendered their construction methods obsolete. The stories, however, mostly transpire in magical realms.

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“Chickaloonies,” which I reviewed last year, applied manga style to a story centered on two Alaska Native boys and included plenty of action. It was a relatively straightforward tale that incorporated Alaska Native storytelling and myths into comic book form in a fashion that would make them appealing to young readers. “Wintermoot” is an entirely different idea. It still features people with superpowers, many but not all of them Alaska Natives. But there the resemblance ends. Shafer says his books are intended for kids; he draws from the storytelling approach of Native mythology. But the surreality of the world he creates and the themes he explores will appeal to adult readers as well, and possibly more so.

This is in part because the stories follow nonlinear plot lines. Drawing from the style of Native mythology — but not from the myths themselves, which Shafer recognizes as belonging to the cultures they are embedded in — what readers will find in these pages are adventures that weave in and out of time, wandering into the deep past and far future, as well as the present, and shifting about without warning. Scenes and settings change abruptly, good and evil are not clearly defined, unexpected time jumps occur, monsters arrive, death is not a permanent state. This is the stuff of mythology in plenty of cultures, not just Alaska Native ones, and it provides the springboard for the tales found in the four issues contained in this book. There are also elements of cyberpunk and science fiction. And augmented reality that can be accessed with an app available through the Fish Head Comics website. It isn’t easy to summarize.

The convoluted storylines can be difficult to follow at times, but that’s part of the point. What the characters experience isn’t following a normal timeline, and the laying out of the story helps convey this. I found myself reminded, as I was reading, of the postmodernist author and visual artist William S. Burroughs, who could similarly confound his readers by refusing to play by the rules. Like Burroughs, Shafer can effortlessly blend weird science facts with macabre literary enhancements and mystical speculations that lead to curveball tangents, all of it riddled with humor and, somehow, all of it making sense. At least until you turn the page and Shafer has headed off in yet another direction. It’s a marvelous work of imagination without boundaries. But where Burroughs’ writing brimmed with dark cynicism, there’s mirth in Shafer’s style. Burroughs’ jokes were cutting and often cruel. Shafer’s are simply funny.

Another parallel is in Shafer’s use of gender fluidity, a topic Burroughs was the first major American author to explore, although it’s rampant in mythology. Anthrome, one of the primary characters here, is a Black trans man from Anchorage, in love with the Dena’ina/Ahtna superhero Aréte. It’s a sensitive portrait, and it shows love as something well beyond the parameters that human societies place around one of our most powerful emotions.

It also leads to a scene that evokes the glory days of Marvel Comics. Anthrome does battle with living glacial ice, but his inner dialogue is focused on his struggles with Aréte, as if the fight is just an inconvenience getting in the way of his real struggle. I kept thinking of Spider-Man obsessing over his latest misunderstanding with Gwen Stacy while he battled Doctor Doom for the umpteenth time.

Shafer’s artwork is starkly different from that found in “Chickaloonies,” and like the writing, this demonstrates how shared universes can share complete opposites. Where “Chickaloonies” exploded with manga-sized exaggeration, “Wintermoot” is muted and, like the writing, leaves readers space for their imaginations to roam. His style also shifts, abruptly at times, matching his writing. Perhaps that’s the magic of this book. Shafer doesn’t create clarity. He creates room for ideas, perfect for a shared universe that invites other creators and offers them spaces to explore. Where Shafer and his co-creators take it from here is anyone’s guess. But it’s going to be fun to watch.

"Wintermoot" by Nathan Shafer

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based critic and freelance writer. He can be reached at nobugsinak@gmail.com.

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