Bak’s Book: Island of Memory


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The adventurous graphic novelist T. Edward Bak is coming to Kutztown University to speak about another adventurous explorer from the 18th century.  Bak’s ‘Wild Man’ tour includes stops at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, SAW in Gainesville as well as KU. The KU event is Free. Boehm, Lecture Room 261, Tues. Nov. 19 at 7:00 pm.

Letterpress print of Stellar Sea Lion © T Edward Bak
Letterpress print of Stellar Sea Lion © T Edward Bak

Bak, who now calls Portland, Oregon home traveled to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands to research “Island of Memory.” The 72-page graphic novel is based on the adventures of the German naturalist  Georg Wilhelm Steller.

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Steller worked on the ill-fated Russian expedition led by Vitus Bering that explored Alaska in 1741. Steller discovered a number of species of birds and animals unknown to Europeans. The Steller Sea Cow became extinct within a 25 years of his initial description of the docile beast. The Steller Jay, though, is still common on the Pacific coast. It’s similarity to the American Blue Jay led Steller to rightly conclude Alaska was not an island, but part of the North American continent.

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Bak’s publisher, Floating World, puts it this way, “Steller’s first-hand descriptions of the natural and human worlds at this crossroads of continents illuminate the unique confluence of culture and ecology binding North America to Asia via the North Pacific.” Island of Memory is “Part natural history, part adventure yarn and part experimental narrative, this …fever dream is the artistic realization of Bak’s inquiry into the socio-ecological consequences of empire.”

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Bak’s Island of Memory is a labor of love, and only the first installment of a planned four-volume epic work on Steller. In an interview with designer Francois Vigneault, Bak recalled when he first visited to Alaska to work on a ship, “I flew to Sitka, and the minute I stepped off the plane, I realized ‘I’ve been headed here my whole life. I’ve been on a trajectory my entire life to come here.’

detail from  Bak's Alaska sketchbook/
Steller Sea Lions detail from Bak’s Alaska sketchbook

I got on the ship, and the first morning I woke up to the announcement: “We’ve got humpbacks starboard!” and there were humpback whales breaching beside the boat. I ran to the window and flipped out. So there are humpbacks every day. Constantly around the boat, breaching around the boat. There were sea lions constantly. Sea otters! We saw sea otters, like rafts of sea otters, floating out in the passage. And of course there are bears everywhere on the shore, and moose everywhere, wolves and orcas and Dalles porpoises, so many crazy birds. Anyhow, all of this was completely overwhelming for me. I had no idea what to expect. I expected to see wildlife, but not anything like this.”

Bak’s Island of Memory presentation touches on art, ecology, geography and the humanities. The event is co-sponsored by Kutztown’s Modern Language, Geography, and Communication Design Depts. A book signing will follow his illustrated presentation.MemoryZ