Thoreau – A Sublime Life


By A.Dan & Maximilien Le Roy, translated by Peter Russella (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-025-6

We don’t get nearly enough access to philosophy or big thinkers in comics, but whenever some creator or other does set out to explore deeper issues regarding formative moments in human culture, the results are more often than not splendidly successful.

Author (and colourist of this book) Maximilien Le Roy has clearly given the genre much thought. He was born in Paris in 1985 and, after the usual education and socialisation, he studied Applied Art. Done with that, he began travelling the world, making socially-aware and incisively politicised comics…

His works challenging the situation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Hosni, Gaza; a Stone in the Sea, Make the Wall) got him banned from entering any Israeli territory for ten years – from October 2015 onwards. He kept on examining those issues, drawing in other concerned creators to help tell stories and depict issues authorities would rather nobody saw, and ask questions members of the global public would love to have finally addressed…

His other apparent preoccupation is great artists and thinkers, resulting in comics volumes encapsulating the lives and achievements of Nietzche (To Create Freedom in collaboration with Michel Onfray), Gauguin – Far from the road, (with Christophe Gauthier) and, from 2012, this superbly haunting examination of Henry David Thoreau’s thoughts and influence upon the world.

Le Roy’s co-conspirator on La Vie sublime – Thoreau is Daniel Alexandre who prefers the pen-name A. Dan. A self-taught artist, his first work was seen on his blog in 2005. He then began to specialise in animal illustration and naturalistic subjects before working for Joker Editions in 2008 on heroic fantasy Jo-Bo, which he had created with scripter Benjamin Leduc.

A.Dan developed a more humanistic style for Algerian War tale Tahya El-Djazaï and WWI saga Pour un peu de bonheur (both with Laurent Galandon, in 2009 and 2012-2013) and recent historical epic La Faute au Midi with writer Jean-Yves La Nour.

The deliciously oversized (284 x 224 mm) full-colour hardback under review here is not a history or biography text. You won’t learn much about Thoreau’s formative experiences in New England or time at Harvard – although the comprehensive essay and appreciation ‘Thoreau, a Philosopher for Today’ by scholar Professor Michael Granger at the back of the book might fill a few gaps whilst clarifying the American intellectual icon’s place in history and legacy for the modern world.

Briefly then: Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1817. The son of a pencil-maker, he studied at Harvard from 1833 and 1837. He left after refusing to pay a post-hoc fee to receive the Masters degree he had already earned (anybody believe the monetisation of education is a recent thing?).

Thoreau was an author, poet, philosopher, political thinker, working surveyor, historian and development critic who would have loved to have been best remembered today for his writings on nature and ecological systems. He was also an ardent abolitionist and opposed to unaccountable or over-intrusive government – especially ones driven by a profit-motive.

He refused to pay taxes to a government which fought wars of colonialism and supported slavery whilst publicly and hypocritically decrying it. He is now regarded as the father of Civil Disobedience, with Tolstoy, Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., and many elements of the Occupy Movement amongst so many other non-violent resistors all citing his writings as the major influence on their actions.

Anything more you need can be gleaned from dozens of books or via the search engine of your choice…

Following Le Roy’s emphatic Foreword, the beguiling glimpse into the writer’s most productive period begins one day in March 1845 as the wanderer returns to Concord, borrows an axe from a blacksmith and wanders off into the woods.

Over the coming months he becomes a virtual recluse, building a cabin home beside a small lake; observes nature in all its wonder and begins collecting his thoughts for the book which will one day become Walden (his immortal treatise on simple living) and the essay Resistance to Civil Government

Through solitary, bucolic months he toils, writes or reads of other philosophers and foreign belief systems; learning more and more about the natural world by essentially becoming part of it. Eventually he is quietly arrested and graciously submits to prison for refusing to pay taxes to a government he does not approve of.

Determined and unrepentant he stays there uncomplaining until his jailers throw him out. They are uncaring that he has refused liberty. All they know or care about is that is that the principled prisoner’s humiliated relatives have paid the outstanding amount… over Thoreau’s strident protests…

Back at his Walden cabin, he opens his home to abolitionists and continues his studies. In 1849 he begins publicly speaking out across the region against the shameful practice and his slowly-coalescing beliefs on the nature and failings of Government. His works are published but sell slowly as he gradually takes a more active part in anti-slavery organisations…

In 1853 his travels bring him to an Indian enclave and he meets an entire people who are his spiritual and ethical brothers. His pronouncements on business and industry destroying nature begin to make some little headway in a young nation seemingly obsessed with exploitative money-making, and whenever he feels deflated or defeated a return to the woods rekindles his spirits…

Sadly his world is not isolated and many of his like-minded contemporaries do not share all his views. In 1853 militant Abolitionist John Brown begins a campaign of bloody terrorism against slave-owners and their supporters which will culminate on the attack on the Federal Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry (now regarded as the spark which ignited the War Between the States). Despite ardently disagreeing with the zealot’s methods, Thoreau mounts a spirited courtroom defence of Brown…

And so this glorious montage of preciously stockpiled little moments proceeds: revealing telling incidents of quiet intensity – all suitably garnished with appropriate quotes from the great individualist’s writings – which paint his character in ways dry facts just can’t equal, taking the reader through those final critical years until his death in 1862…

As you’d expect and hope, Thoreau- A Sublime Life is naturalistically lovely, lyrically composed and sweetly sensible: highlighting key moments of introspection, inspiration and revelation from one of the world’s earliest ecologists and most-revered rebel rationalists.

Clever, wise and passionate, this is a fabulous and welcoming treatment of a forward-looking individual increasingly in tune with the times and the people.
© 2012 A.Dan/Le Roy/Editions du Lombard (Dargaud-Lombard S.A.). © 2016 NBM for the English translation.