A return to Summit of the Gods. Epic only starts to describe it….
By Yumemakura Baku and Jirô Taniguchi
Again, to quote the famous words of George Herbert Leigh Mallory – “Because It’s There“.
This was his response to why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest. And although it’s Mallory and Irvine’s famous disappearance in June 1924 that gives The Summit Of The Gods it’s story, it’s the spirit of the words that propels this graphic novel series into the realms of incredible, truly epic graphic fiction.
Because make no mistake about it, The Summit Of The Gods is epic by any definition you care to choose, a perfect distillation of the madness and determination that made men like Mallory and Irvine risk all in their quest to climb.
Back in 2010, the first volume of Baku and Taniguchi’s 5-part series easily made it onto my best of year list. I opened that review with my usual reticence about Manga, especially authentic back to front, right to left reading Manga. But this time I had no time for that…. I already knew The Summit Of The Gods was essential, incredible reading, and I simply accepted the authentic formatting, as I should have all along, and read on.
Within just a few pages, Summit Volume 2 delivered everything that had made Volume 1 a best of year book and simply eclipsed it.
Epic simply isn’t descriptive enough for the feeling you get turning each page, in the grip of an excitement, transported to the utter wilderness of the mountains, sharing in the experiences of these climbers.
The first 112 pages are possibly the finest, most thrilling work of comics I may have seen, dealing with climber Jouji Habu attempting a solo winter climb of the Grandes Jorasses of the Mont Blanc range. It is simply incredible work:
(Breathtaking artwork and epic adventure as we see Jouji Habu attempt a solo ascent of the Grandes Jorasses in The Summit Of The Gods Volume 2, bu Baku and Taniguchi, published by Fanfare/Ponent Mon – remember, read right to left)
Perhaps one indication of how good it really is is that it feels more like the most enthralling documentary, a real exploration of the edges of endurance. This fictional work feels like the greatest mountaineering documentary I’ve ever had the pleasure to view.
We’re following on here directly from events in Volume 1. A quck recap….
In 1993, Makato Fukamachi, photographer for a failed Japanese expedition to climb Everest, discovers an old camera – a Vest Pocket Autographic, exactly the model carried by George Mallory on that fateful 1924 expedition. Fukumachi is filled with a burning curiosity – what if the camera’s film could finally reveal the mystery that mountaineers have pondered for decades – could it possibly show Mallory and Irvine atop Everest, three decades before Hilary and Tensing?
His search for the truth takes him through Kathmandu, … His attention soon turns to Jouji Habu, legendary Japanese climber, who’s somehow connected to the camera’s discovery. The majority of Volume 1 is given over to Fukamachi interviewing Habu’s former colleagues, who paint a universally damning portrait of a driven, single-minded man, whose life and thoughts revolved around climbing, whose coldness and demanding manner drove away climbing partner after climbing partner. But as the interviewees speak we realise that this man must have been amazing to watch ascending a rock face, seemingly invincible, sheer grace and determination rolled into one.
One thing I didn’t mention in the review of Volume 1 was the increasing rivalry between Habu and fellow genius climber Tsuneo Hase. And it’s Habu’s insecurity, his determination to be first or nothing that sends him onwards, to ever more dangerous peaks.
(Hase conquers the Grande Jorasses, where Habu had failed, a desire to be first that would either drive both men to attempt more and more dangerous climbs. Again, remember to read right to left)
Initially the rivalry seems one sided, the driven and selfish Habu the darkness to the light of jovial, easy-going Hase. But the desire in them both to climb, to be first to conquer unscaled heights, ever more dangerous ascents, that’s the same in both men, and their passions may lead to their deaths. They both know that, but it’s almost immaterial, they need to climb, but more than that, each of them needs to be the first to climb.
We track the careers of both Habu and Hase throughout Volume 2. We see Habu’s failed Everest attempt that led to his self-imposed exile in Kathmandu, where Fukamachi will meet him years later, and eventually begin to wonder whether Habu is the one who discovered Mallory’s famous camera as he attempted something simply impossible… a solo, oxygen-less climb of Everest’s south-west face in Winter. We see Hase’s failed attempt to conquer K2 solo and without oxygen. Each mountaineering sequence is breathtaking, majestic and utterly thrilling.
(Habu on the climb to Everest’s summit. Might this ultimately unsuccessful attempt spur him on, years later to something incredible, the climb that brings back Mallory’s camera? One last time – remember to read right to left)
In between the mountaineering sequences, we return to Fukimachi’s search for the truth for the camera in between the mountaineering stories he’s collecting. Which can, at times, feel like something of the only weak link in this truly brilliant comic. The mountaineering sequences are so strong, so vital, that the quieter moments of the search for the truth behind the camera become almost distractions.
But it’s Fukimachi’s investigations that give the mountaineering sequences their power, as he puts them into perspective and adds a sense of intrigue and mystery to them, his obsessive desire to uncover the truth equal to the climbers need to scale the peaks. Frankly, nothing in Summit Of The Gods is below sublime. The story is simple electrifying. It’s something I dare you to put down once you start.
And Taniguchi’s artwork really is the next best thing to being there. He expertly reveals all the grandeur of the mountains, perfectly captures the steely determination and superhuman feats of the mountaineers. When Taniguchi draws Habu climbing it’s as if you’re there with him, you can practically feel the cold of the unforgiving peak eating into your bones, you can feel the fear and the adrenalin rush the climber feels. You are one with them, and it’s Taniguchi’s perfect vision, his realistic, artwork of intense beauty that makes this possible.
The Summit Of The Gods Volume 3 is (hopefully) released from Fanfare/Ponent Mon in November. I’m relishing it already.