Comic book: Francis Bergése: Mystery in Antarctica (Cinebook, 2015)
Buck Danny is an American ace pilot and the hero of a long-running series of French comic books. Mystery in Antarctica is Buck Danny no. 51. Like with any pop culture phenomenon, once it runs long enough it acquires its own logic, leading to shifts in tone that may seem strange to newcomers. As a character created in the Forties, Buck Danny is a blonde, square-jawed hero type with a funny sidekick. Yet his adventures take place in the modern world. This album was originally published in French in 2005.
Buck Danny is all about flying airplanes, so his enemies need jets too. Thus in Mystery in Antarctica, common pirates are somewhat implausibly equipped with serious military hardware. It’s especially funny because Buck Danny is all about realism in its depiction of fighter jets and US Navy protocols.
The story itself features a couple of classic Antarctic subjects. Nazi expeditions to the south and a Sea Shepards style environmental organization appear. The main focus is still on what I suspect is the central theme of all Buck Danny stories: Modern fighter airplanes and how cool they are.
Comic book: Alejandro Jodorowsky & Georges Bess: Anibal 5 (Humanoids Publishing, 2015)
This is a collection of two Anibal 5 albums, published in English by Humanoids. I read the first one in Finnish translation as a child, and its mix of softcore sex and scifi weirdness made a big impression on me. I was at an age where stories don’t really leave lasting impressions, but the scenes and images do. Now that I read it again, I recognized much of it, but the context was new.
Anibal 5 is a sex-addicted super-agent cyborg who fights and fucks and complains his way through various predicaments. The first album is definitely the better one. The second follows Anibal to Antarctica, where crazed feminists have created the Republic of Clitoria and must be stopped.
So no, this won’t win any prizes for progressive values.
The fist half of the comic has that Jodorowsky energy, but the second half is running on empty. Cringe-worthy stereotypes of man-hating feminists are not its only problem. Still, the idea of an Antarctic republic of women is not without peer. Ursula Le Guin’s short story Sur imagines an early all-women Antarctic expedition, and books such as the novel The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica and DJ Spooky’s The Book of Ice have explored similar territory.
Whale Wars season 4
Tv series: Whale Wars, season 4: U.S.A.
Whale Wars is a documentary tv series following the anti-whaling campaigns of the environmental group The Sea Shepherds. Season one to three were pretty amazing stuff, with dangerous confrontations in the Antarctic Sea.
In season four, it feels as if the series is starting to lose steam. The Sea Shepherds seem equipped better than ever, with three ships and seemingly more competent personnel. However, it’s hard to make things exciting when the whaling fleet eludes their grasp for so long.
Up until this point, Whale Wars has been a wonderful series, but this season can safely be skipped.
Documentary: Luc Jacquet: Ice and the Sky (France, 2015)
Luc Jacquet is the director of the movie March of the Penguins, so this is not his first time with an Antarctic subject. Ice and the Sky is a documentary about the career of the French glaciologist Claude Lorius and also an impassioned plea to do something about global warming.
The traditional image of Antarctica is as an eternal realm of ice and cold. Climate developments in recent decades have challenged that idea, and increasingly cast Antarctica more as a melting ice cube. Lorius has been at the center of this change in perception, and you can see that for him, global warming is not abstract at all. In Antarctica, it’s a concrete reality.
The movie starts in 1957 with the beginning of Lorius’ career in Antarctica, and it’s wonderful to see all the old footage from various French and international expeditions. Other classic Antarctic locations are the South Pole and the Russian Vostok base.
Although Ice and the Sky is definitely a “great man” movie, it’s wealth of footage and the scope of its subject make it a first-class Antarctic film. Lorius’ career spans global warming, atmospheric nuclear testing and the insignificance of humanity’s time on Earth, and it’s easy to be swept away with the wonder and the terror.
Comic book: Alain Paris et al: Throne of Ice (Humanoids, 2014)
Right now, Antarctica is an arid continent of ice, but it hasn’t always been so. A long, long time ago the location of the continent was different, and so was its climate. This is borne out in the fossil record, and greatly perplexed early explorers before the idea of continental drift was conceived.
Throne of Ice, a comic book written by the French novelist Alain Paris, employs this idea to tell a fantasy story of a kingdom on the Antarctic continent, before the coming of the ice. Its fate mirrors that of Atlantis, which was submerged before the Antarctic kingdom was frozen.
For much of the story, Throne of Ice is pretty un-Antarctic. It’s a kind of deflated Jodorowsky narrative of kings and betrayals, fights of succession and reversals of fortune. The interesting stuff is in the margins, the larger framework the comic draws from.
In addition to Antarctic pre-history, Throne of Ice references (albeit lightly) classic notions of polar occultism, such as the Piri Reis map and precursor races.
Non-fiction: Joscelyn Godwin: Arktos: The Polar Myth in Science, Symbolism and Nazi Survival (Adventures Unlimited Press, 1996)
Arktos is a book about the idea of poles and polar regions in occultism. It goes through things like Nazi occult ideas related to the poles and the history of the concept of the polar shift. Sometimes its deep in the territory of Madam Blavatsky, and at other times it references Dungeons & Dragons.
From an Antarctic perspective, the book is quite unconcerned with the factual existence of the continent. It’s more of a history of ideas and concepts, written by a kind of half-believer.
For much of the book, Godwin’s own position on the subject matter is hard to pin down. He notes how the spritual nature of some of the Nazi officials destroys the idea that engaging with spiritual ideas necessarily leads to enlightenment and kindness. He criticizes many of his occult sources for being mentally unbalanced or otherwise unreliable.
At the end of the book, he attempts to position himself in the middle ground between two extreme positions: Science and the materialism of scientists, and the revelations of the individuals he terms “illuminates”. We need to listen to both to acquire a true understanding of the nature of phenomena such as polar shift!
Novel: Robert Masello: Blood and Ice (Bantam, 2009)
In one sense, Blood and Ice is a great Antarctic book. It’s clearly well researched, full of traditional modern Antarctic detail. Reading this, it feels like the author has gone through all the same books I have.
It’s the story of nature photographer Michael Wilde, who goes on assignment to an American base on Antarctica. While there, he discovers a slab of ice in which two British vampires have been preserved since the Crimean War. Indeed, Victorian England and Crimea are almost as important for the book as Antarctica.
Despite the vampire theme, the book proceeds in a very staid, detail-oriented fashion. The two lovers thawed from ice, the soldier Sinclair and the nurse Eleanor, are people, not monsters. The book’s idea of vampirism is almost like a medical condition, as befits its essentially rational worldview.
Despite its research and subject matter, there’s something in Blood and Ice that just fails to click. Near the end, the story is crumpled into less than the sum of its parts. The characters have been drawn according to the most rote, cliched understanding of humanity as seen in American popular entertainment.
Museum: Russian State Museum of Artic and Antarctic (St. Petersburg)
Russia and the Soviet Union have a long history of exploration in the Arctic and Antarctic. I visited the Russian State Museum of Arctic and Antarctic in St. Petersburg, and while the Artic section is bigger and better, there’s some cool Antarctic stuff as well. The above photo is from the Antarctic section, on an upper floor below the museum’s impressive cupola.
Underneath the cupola, they had this:
The museum dates back to Soviet times, and features some things that you probably won’t find in an average polar exhibition. One is the series of oil paintings depicting Antarctic and Arctic scenes. Another is this mural showing Lenin discussing the Arctic with scientists:
As to the Antarctic, the absolute highlight is the series of surgical tools used by the Soviet doctor Leonid Rogozov to perform an appendectomy on himself at the Vostok base in 1961. It’s an extremely famous piece of Antarctic lore.
Board game: Eldritch Horror: Mountains of Madness (Fantasy Flight Games, 2014)
Eldritch Horror is a follow-up to the successful H.P. Lovecraft -themed board game, Arkham Horror. In Arkham Horror, the action is limited to a small New England town, while in Eldritch Horror, the entire globe acts as the stage. Mountains of Madness is an expansion in which Antarctica is brought into the spotlight.
As can be seen in the above photo from when we played it, Eldritch Horror is a massive game, with or without the expansion. Its focused on story, exploration and ambiance, and while its mechanisms are more elegant than those in Arkham Horror, this still isn’t German board game design. The Byzantine sprawl is a part of the charm.
The expansion is based on the Lovecraft novella At the Mountains of Madness. A scientific expedition modeled after the explorers of Lovecraft’s time reaches Antarctica and discovers traces of ancient civilization.
In the expansion, Antarctica is represented by an extra game board, and two new threats, Ithaqua and Rise of the Elder Things, make cold-based Lovecraft stuff into the focus of the game. Based on one test game, the expansion works very well, and the Antarctic content integrates neatly into the wider experience.
The test game ended with our investigators at the Antarctic Lake Camp, trying to free people from the terrifying mind control of the elder things.
TV series: Whale Wars (season 3): U.S.A. 2010
Whale Wars is an American documentary tv series about the conservationist group Sea Shepards. Each season follows one Antarctic summer in which the Sea Shepards attempt to disrupt the operations of Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean.
Season 3 is quite amazing in the sheer amount of danger and derring do. This time, the Sea Shepards have three ships, the familiar Steve Irwin, and the new Bob Barker and Ady Gil. The Ady Gil is a speedboat captained by a New Zealander called Pete Bethune, who emerges as the star of the season.
Bethune ends up taking many of the risks that make following this season of the series so hair-raising. You guess that probably everyone survived from the fact that there’s six seasons of this series, but it doesn’t make it less exciting.
Video game: René Rother: Whiteout
Whiteout is a small game playable either in a browser or as a stand-alone installation. Made as part of a 48-hour game creation challenge, it distills a simple Antarctic experience. You’re an expeditioner, and your partner has disappeared. You’re in the middle of a white nothing. Using flags, the sun and the widn to navigate, you try to find your partner.
For such a small game, Whiteout is stylish, atmospheric, clever and true. It communicates wonderfully the desperation and peace of Antarctica’s empty whiteness. You can play it here.
Non-fiction: Alia Sorensen: Southern Exposure (AuthorHouse, 2005)
Southern Exposure documents writer a year of Alia Sorensen’s working life on Antarctica in the early 2000’s. It’s not an ambitious book, and perhaps that’s its strength. Sorensen worked both a summer and a winter at McMurdo station in the kitchen.
The book’s perspective is on describing the working culture and conditions of the people who make an Antarctic station run. I’ve always liked these blue collar accounts of life on Antarctica, and there are not too many of them around. Sorensen’s lack of artifice means that you get a clear idea of how everything is.
At the end of the book, there’s a pointless and overlong account of tourist activities in New Zealand and Australia. These can safely be skipped.
Tv series: Whale Wars: Seasons 1 & 2 (U.S.A., 2008-2009)
Whale Wars is a documentary tv series about the campaigns the environmental organization The Sea Shepherds conducts in the Southern Ocean. They disrupt Japanese whaling operations by harassing them in various ways.
In the first two seasons, we see The Sea Shepherds use the ship Steve Irwin, a helicopter and a couple of speedboats to do things like throw stink bombs onto the decks of the whaling ships, attempt to render their propellers useless with long ropes and even board the Japanese ships and forcing the whalers to take them prisoners.
In my particular social bubble, this is the great show nobody seems to be watching, although the number of seasons, special episodes and spin-offs suggests that it has been successful. Every episode features something insanely dangerous, from almost sinking in an icefield to ramming a whaling ship thousands of miles from possible rescue. Watching the show, half the time I’m thinking: “Christ, this can’t be happening!”
We’re used to seeing this kind of exciting documentary material from morally questionable things like American wars. It feels amazing that someone has made a similar tv show, but from the viewpoint of aggressive ecological activism.
Freeze ‘Em All is a concert given by Metallica at the Argentinean Carlini base on 8.12.2013. It’s part of an attempt to make a record by playing a gig on all seven continents within a year.
I’m an Antarctic geek and I like metal, but this doesn’t do much for me. The bludgeoning Metallica sound doesn’t really seem to be in any dialogue with the Antarctic environment, and the Cocal-Cola-related branding creates distance between the viewer and the show.
Non-fiction: James McClintock: Lost Antarctica (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)
James McClintock is an American scientist with a long career of work on Antarctica. His book Lost Antarctica is one of those that I can recommend with: “If you read one book about Antarctica…”
Lost Antarctica is part career retrospective, part adventure story, part popular science and part a heartfelt polemic about climate change. The stories of how science gets done on Antarctica are interesting, but McClintock’s real gifts seem to be in writing about the discoveries in an interesting manner. Often the adventures of king crabs carried the most meaningful scenes in the book.
One reason for this is that the science and the discoveries have a tendency to move towards the direction of global warming. The route from the adventures from the king crab to the challenges facing human civilization is surprisingly short, and McClintock is good at bringing the ways climate change has already impacted Antarctica into vivid focus.