Kimble Bent: Malcontent
Random House, $24.99,
Recent claims of a resurgence in New Zealand historical fiction might seem forcefully underlined by the appearance of local cartoonist and designer Chris Grosz’s Kimble Bent: Malcontent. This graphic novel revisits an absorbing chapter in New Zealand history. Grosz retells the story of the historical Kimble Bent, the Maine-born soldier who deserted from the British army in 1860s New Zealand to live with the enemy Hauhau. Grosz’s subject matter is doubly intriguing for its peculiar literary pedigree: the graphic novel itself is heavily based on James Cowan’s once hugely popular non-fiction book of 1911, The Adventures of Kimble Bent: A Story of Wild Life in the New Zealand Bush, while Maurice Shadbolt also made use of the Kimble Bent story in The Lovelock Version (1980) and Monday’s Warriors (1990). How far Grosz manages to really advance the respective claims of either the historical or the graphic novel might be debatable, yet his novel’s appearance as both registers an important crossover between the historical and the popular.
A finalist in this year’s New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards, to a degree the novel feels tailored to meet educative ends, perhaps even specifically designed to overhaul engagements with local history in the classroom. Often, for instance, the main narrative of the novel is momentarily suspended while purely factual interjections, cannily illustrated, are allowed to float upon, or nestle within, the main thread of the surrounding story. When the story is laid aside to supply such historical or factual information, the reading experience almost evokes a drift around a museum. As in all the best graphic novels and cartoons, some of the spreads are ingeniously organised to meet the particular demands of the narrative – or to convey the factual accoutrement – delivering compellingly wrought arrangements to be savoured and pored over.
Unfortunately, however, there are too many instances when the story-telling sense goes awol: the logic between frames is too often unclear, leaving the reader to stumble through narrative sequences, taking wrong turns before working out the correct order. This is a fundamental problem for the graphic novel. As off-putting as a narrator whose voice or syntax jars with the reader, such clumsiness draws attention unhappily to the surface of the narrative at the expense of the content.
The novel has also been criticised for a heavy-handed aesthetic. And yet, in its uncompromisingly dark evocation of the Taranaki bush, the novel’s pervasive gloom seems, quite purposefully, to create the same atmosphere as aspects of Shadbolt’s masterful Season of the Jew. The darkness of Grosz’s drawings is heavy, but it’s a heaviness resonant with associations. Its apparent crudeness suggests the hardness of the times, while Grosz’s chosen technique – the scraperboard method, by which ink is removed with a nib, not applied – is at times especially suited to rendering the patterns of ta moko, whakairo, or tukutuku panels.
On a more abstract or symbolic tangent, figures often seem only half-emerged from the darkness; most are shadowy and potentially hostile to Bent. So the pervasive darkness also reminds us, it seems, of the precariousness of his perpetually liminal position as a Pakeha Maori. On the one hand, Bent lived as a Maori, speaking and thinking in Maori, and was fully indoctrinated into Hauhau ways; on the other, he was kept as a slave, threatened repeatedly with death, and never completely trusted by his Maori superiors. Nor was he able to slip easily back into the culture which he’d abandoned. There he was reviled as a traitor, and at the end of the Land Wars the New Zealand Government placed a price on his head.
Belonging to neither chosen nor abandoned worlds, his curious suspension between Maori and Pakeha cultures underlines Bent’s claim as a recurrent character in our literature. If none in this country can wholly identify any more with either the colonial oppressors (with whom many share ancestry but not nationality) or with the societies of the colonised whose traditions have been so thoroughly displaced, then perhaps liminal figures like Bent represent something of New Zealand’s postcolonial politics of place. So while this may not be an historical graphic novel whose form and content are galvanised by one another, pushing the boundaries of the medium to new expressive insights, it is one likely to reach and benefit an audience now remote from the earlier more literary versions of Bent’s story.
Hamish Clayton’s MA thesis was on Dylan Horrocks’s graphic novel Hicksville.