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December 5, 2020

British Ice (review)


Writer and artist: Owen D. Pomery

Top Shelf Productions, 2020

In this age of republics, the absolutism of “Empire” seems like an archaic concept. Empires involve conquest of territory and subjugation of peoples. The political order following World War Two has generally meant sovereign boundaries are respected. Overt colonial disregard for indigenous people fell away with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But there is in the Indian Ocean an island called Diego Garcia. This is a territory which was ceded by the French to the British upon the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars. Between 1968 to 1973, its inhabitants were shipped off, without their consent or any form of compensation, so that Diego Garcia was turned into a military base for both the United Kingdom and the United States. As acts of empire go, this might have been late in the British imperial story, but it reeks of colonial disdain as much as the quashing of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 or the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya in the 1950s.

In this story, British Ice, writer and artist Owen D. Pomery tells the story of a fictional overseas possession, the British Arctic Territory. Mr Pomery sets his tale in 1984, not long after the injustice of Diego Garcia. The timing suggests that the main character, Harrison Fleet, grew up watching the people of Diego Garcia being loaded onto freighters under the command of Fleet’s father. Sir Jonathan Fleet was a gunboat diplomat. Harrison Fleet is a more human and considered individual than his father. Mr Pomery draws Fleet as an unremarkable public servant: out of shape, with a mop of hair and with black glasses. Yet he is fresh out of the Congo, a tough assignment. Mr Pomery does a fantastic job with Fleet’s characterisation: Fleet is smart, inoffensive, and likeable. Fleet is not an heroic figure. He is instead a capable career public servant. 

Fleet is dispatched by his breezy superior to the British Arctic Territory. Mr Pomery tells us in his introduction that the British Arctic Territory is a remnant of axe-shaped ice which somehow did not end up with Canada upon its independence in 1867. (This is not some far-fetched imaginary happenstance: in the far east of the Canadian archipelago we can find the tiny islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelonwhich remain French overseas territories.) The snow and ice, together with the endless blue sea, make a barren canvas for Mr Pomery’s art. People and objects are frequently portrayed as specks in the endless landscape. The art is awash with shades of grey, even in the halls of power back in London.

Fleet is not a welcome addition to the very small population of the island. Most of the locals are Inuit hunters. There are a sinister collective called “the Shaman’s men”, and the female leader of the local people named Abel. There is a Canadian shopkeeper named Ana, and a New Zealand pilot named Jim Traylen. The two non-indigenous cast members are friendly towards Fleet.

But Fleet is otherwise most unwelcome. He is the British Commissioner, the ostensible ruler of the island, as the representative of the sovereign in the British Arctic Territory. No one wants to talk to him. Animals are left slain at his doorstep. They increase in size: Fleet is being given a stark message by the shaman’s men calculated to cause fear. 

The true villain of the story is long dead. Captain J.H. Netherton is the person who claimed the island for the Crown in 1882, and built an isolated mansion for himself on a plateau only accessible in later times by ski bike. It is a symbol of the British Crown’s authority over the ice and its people. Fleet is to live there, detached from the local community. The Commissioner’s residence is a big and lonely target, and looks like it had been picked up from Whitehall in London and dropped into the snow. Netherton is responsible for the disappearance of most of the male population back in the 1880s, and the local people have not forgotten it. Mr Pomery draws Netherton as an bearded Antarctic hero like Sir Charles Mawson. But Netherton was brutal, a butcher cut from the same cloth as Kurtz from Joseph Konrad’s Heart of Darkness. Kurtz became a lord of hell in the jungles of Africa, inspired by the Belgian occupation of the Congo. The British Arctic Territory as it evolves is a white hell, but, without wishing to out the ending, the source of Netherton’s evil is very colonially African. The horror of Netherton’s final acts are genuinely unexpected, and Mr Pomery skilfully sets it up so it is under our nose all along. (The judgment of Netherton’s legacy is very contemporary, in these months of Black Lives Matter protests: in the afterward, we learn that Netherton’s statue in London is removed.)

Finally, a note about the cover. The Union Jack is spelt out in cracked ice sheets, with a vessel in its centre. It is very striking. The symbolism of British imperialism, forcibly carved out of the environment, leaving shards in its wake, is distinct and compelling. We would happily pay for a poster of the cover.

Smart, suspenseful, and well-paced, this is almost certainly the best comic we have read so far this year.  British Ice is available on Comixology https://www.comixology.com/British-Ice/digital-comic/802319

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