Cartoonist: Jeff Lemire
Soundtrack: Gord Downie
WHAT IS IT?
A tale of a boy who escaped a terrible residential school in Canada and wandered the train tracks in search of his home.
Because it follows one boy who's meant to represent the likely thousands of children who lost their lives as part of this school system, it puts me in mind of Into the Wild meets The Flivver King.
The comic comes with a soundtrack, with one song setting the theme for the next few pages. There's no dialogue – just Lemire's watercolor images and the lyrics whenever it's time to listen to the next song.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
One day, a boy named Chanie Wenjack escapes the hell of a residential school he was forced to attend (linked to the Wikipedia article if you're like me and had no knowledge of them prior to this comic).
Chanie had no idea where his home was or how far he had to walk. He just kept walking, in the hope that he'd be able to see his family again.
This is his story. There are many others like it.
Overall, the timing of song to art is well done, allowing you plenty of time to follow along with the lyrics and then take in the music during each song's instrumental parts.
Gord Downie's music captures the comic very well. It’s more than mood music. It captures the themes and tone and tells you how you need to read each section. Try to listen to it while reading the comic if at all possible.
The typeface for the lyrics feels classic, like from an old typewriter. Like someone writing their memoir to be recorded forever.
Lemire relies on Downie's music and his own art to tell the story. There are no captions, no dialogue. Readers have to use context clues to understand what's going on, but Lemire finds a good balance in making those clues obvious without going over the top.
Jeff Lemire's watercolors in this are gorgeous and heartfelt. Without words, he does a fantastic job of using contextual transitions. Lemire know how the mind and memory works, how quickly we think about our own pasts with tangential stimuli.
The huge establishing shot of Chanie walking down the tracks feels so cinematic as he walks toward the camera. You feel it. A steady, deliberate pace. It's only a few panels, but you feel his determination.
The representation of thinking about a bad memory that happened when you were thinking about a better memory proves how many words a picture’s worth. Also, the blueish-gray lack of color in the more miserable parts of his present and past contrast with the warmth his full color memory of better days reinforces Chanie's personal hell and the cold of his surroundings, and how he feels emotionally being so far from home.
The comic sets its own pace against the music with panels of the boys swinging back and forth juxtaposed with the rhythm of walking down the tracks or days of misery at the school. Then, when they stop all together, we know the boring day-to-day is over and this particular moment is important. You almost don’t know what’s happening until it's already happened.
As much as I want to go into depth in each section and the brilliant things Lemire does with art and Downie does with his voice to illustrate Chanie's story, I don't want to spoil things for you, dear reader. But suffice to say, Lemire's art bends the comic book medium, using art and panels and perspective in such unusual and artistic ways, it will render fans of unique and disruptive comics breathless.
Spotify has the Secret Path album if you want to listen to it. You can also listen to it and read more about it at the Secret Path website.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
Secret Path is heavy and will weigh on your heart. Just know that before going into it.
Nudity and cruelty may make it not for young kids.
Early on, one upbeat song juxtaposed with the more serious subject matter can be a little jarring or strange.
A lot of Lemire's characters, especially the men, look very similar across his numerous titles. While everyone’s style is different, Lemire just seems to have a thing for dark-haired men with bags under their eyes and thin mustaches, and it can be distracting for people who have read many of his titles.
WHY SHOULD I READ IT?
Jeff Lemire and The Tragically Hip's Gord Downie created a multimedia experience that will break your heart.
Secret Path was published almost one year (to the day) before Gord Downie's death. It's story is based on the real story of thousands of kids who wanted to leave their horrible conditions and see their families again. Kids who were forcibly separated from their parents in order for them to be more assimilated into Canadian culture than the First People culture they were born a part of.
Chanie's story comes to us from 1966, but it mirrors events happening to this day.
Secret Path is beautiful, raw, emotional, and chilling. It may take you a while to recover from it.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
If you like the writing:
Gideon Falls, Vol. 1 by Jeff Lemire & Andrea Sorrentino
Instrumental by Dave Chisholm
Little Bird by Darcy Van Poelgeest & Ian Bertram
If you like the art:
Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire
Dept. H by Matt Kindt
Harrow County, Vol. 1 by Cullen Bunn & Tyler Crook
ABOUT THE CREATORS
Jeff Lemire – Cartoonist, Co-creator
Prolific: Has released a truly stunning number of quality comics in a fairly short amount of time
Multitalented: Often both writes and does art for his comics using his signature watercolor style
Outlander: Lives in Canada
Gord Downie – Singer/Songwriter, Co-creator
Name Recognition: Was the lead singer and lyricist for the wildly popular Canadian rock band, The Tragically Hip
From Wikipedia: "On October 13, 2016, Downie and his brother Mike, along with the Wenjack family, announced the founding of the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund to support reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples."
Award Winner: Also from Wikipedia: "Downie posthumously won two Canadian Screen Awards for the television version of Secret Path. The program won the Donald Brittain Award for Best Political or Social Documentary Program and Best Music in a Non-Fiction Program. At the 7th Canadian Screen Awards in 2019, two additional awards were won by Gord Downie's Secret Path in Concert, the CBC Television broadcast of Downie's 2016 Roy Thomson Hall performance of the album."
HOW DO I BUY IT?
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