Places tell stories. It’s something rarely explored, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Stories today, more often than not, focus on people. We fall in love with our favorite comics because of the characters in them, their histories, and their feelings. We often see worlds built for these characters, but on their own, they’d feel somewhat empty. In British Ice, however, Owen D. Pomery builds his narrative around the setting, and it makes for a fresh perspective.
The story takes place in an imagined British Overseas Territory, but its “realness” makes no difference. Writers make up characters all the time. They imagine these intricate personalities and bring them to life. Pomery does the same with these territories. His drawings and imagination are enough to make these territories and their history a character on their own. They have their own personality and history independent of the people inhabiting them. After all, people come and go, but the land always remains. The idea of building a story around a manufactured place or object is called an architectural narrative, and it’s somewhat of a specialty for Owen D. Pomery. Here, Pomery takes one of the simplest locations, the Arctic, and reveals a fascinating mystery beneath the ice.
If you think about some of the simplest natural locations in existence, deserts and tundras are the first that come to mind. There isn’t much life that can inhabit those conditions and the terrain tends to be relatively barren. Pomery is able to use the simplicity to his advantage and only show readers what really matters. Pomery is able to communicate mystery, suspense, and pride through his cleanliness. His line work is some of the cleanest, thinnest, and most defined you’ll see in any comic, and Pomery uses that and the monochromatic color pallete to his advantage. You’ll see panels rendered with efficiency and personality in mind. Medium shots inside a house may only feature the characters and a few pieces of furniture. Close-up shots will feature empty backgrounds and wide shots may only feature geographic definition on the sides or off in the distance where the mountains are used to convey a sense of entrapment. This sort of style is more reminiscent of manga these days than western comics, but it’s remarkably refreshing. Ultimately, Pomery’s goal appears to be about illuminating the cracks beneath the surface, which he is able to accomplish time and time again through his well-crafted narrative.
Narratively, Pomery is able to establish the British empire’s colonial elitism from the beginning through relations between Harrison Fleet’s supervisor’s attitudes and opinions. The attitude is clear and apparent from the beginning. Then, through various threats and attacks on Fleet by the indigenous populations Pomery exposes these offensive colonialist views that are doing more harm than good. Additionally, he starts to show us visual cracks in the ice by slowly increasing the average panels per page and exposing more of the wide gutters used in this book as well as showing various crack windows, glasses, and windshields throughout the story. Pomery starts with a simple clean and setting and slowly expands the story into a compelling commentary on expanding governments and marginalized citizens. His drawings are very sharp and geometric. I can envision every line being carefully planned out with a set of tools even to the smallest detail, and it gives the book a very distinct look and feel. Even though the setting depicted doesn’t exist, there are numerous populations around the globe that this could be applied to whether it be Puerto Rico, Guam, Cayman Islands, or many others. This is a straightforward narrative that has a point and clearly addresses it.
Unfortunately, the clean, methodical, and efficient style of storytelling that British Ice employs also works to its disadvantage. The character writing does not hold up to the rest of the narrative, and it’s definitely a fault, especially when it comes to establishing an emotional argument for the indigenous population and for the character of Ana. Through the threats that Harrison Fleet receives, we understand how much the citizens of Reliance Island care about their home and history. It’s worth noting that almost all of these threats are visual. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t really get invested in constructing or building a soul behind Reliance Island. We don’t understand why Reliance Island is so important beyond it being a home for these people, only that it is important. We also don’t really see much when it comes to Ana’s personality, so we don’t have the same level of care for her that Fleet does at the time of her death. In fact, it kind of feels weird when Fleet has a picture of her at his desk at the end, because we only experience a small handful of interactions between the two of them. In that regard, British Ice feels too clean and two economic. It feels like all of the unnecessary emotions were removed from the story, when, in fact, all emotions are necessary. The clean lines and monochrome visuals also do very little in contributing towards emotional storytelling. The mysterious doesn’t feel gripping, it simply feels interesting. The British empire doesn’t come across as sick, ruthless, or unfeeling, merely, elite, and brutish. There is a lack of extremes that is really felt once you turn the final page.
Overall, British Ice is a book that exemplifies how a location and mindset are just as essential to storytelling as plot or characters through its elegantly simple design-work, interesting mystery, and thoughtful commentary on colonialism.
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