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Anatomy and evolution of a story

It's been over a year now that I started to work on a graphic novel, based on the story of my great-uncle geologist, who joined the French expeditions to Makalu in 1954 and 1955. Even though the story is based on real fact, there is still a lot of work to be done to create an engaging plot for you, the reader. Here is part of my process of story telling.

At the origin

Initially, I thought of using the journaling notes of Pierre Bordet, related in his book "Mémoires de mon marteau" ("Memories of my hammer"), as a framework for the graphic novel script. In the book, Pierre explains the reasons for his participation to the two French expeditions to Makalu, the lengthy travels from Europe to Nepal, and his many adventures on the way to and around Base Camp. He also shares about his limited interactions with the eight alpinists part of the expedition, and lays out some of his geological conclusions.

"Mémoires de mon Marteau" in front of Makalu, April 2019 (Photo: Esther Bordet)

Pierre's written memories are supported by hundreds of photographs he captured during his trips to Nepal. These photos, shot with an Exakta camera, are of excellent quality. The films were originally converted to slides, which were later digitized.

A snapshot of some of the hundreds photographs taken by Pierre during his trip to Makalu

Another reference is "Makalu", written by expedition lead Jean Franco. In this book, he describes the 1955 ascent expedition, including many details about the logistics, transportation, gear, use of oxygen bottles, food, effects of the altitude, interactions with the Sherpas... He also tells many anecdotes which highlight the unique personalities of the alpinists. Pierre didn't speak much about the alpinists in his book, in fact he spent very little time with them. So the two books are very complementary sources of information.

"Makalu", by Jean Franco

Finally, an important reference to build my story is the documentary movie created by Guido Magnone and Lionel Terray during the 1955 expedition.

When I traveled to Makalu in 2019, I spent 3 weeks hiking the trail between Num and Makalu base camp. This trek was a full on adventure, for my standards anyways. However, Pierre Bordet and Jean Franco barely mention about this section of the trail in their books. I imagine it felt insignificant compared to the 3 weeks-long walk they had already achieved, coming all the way from the Nepal-India border to the south, and what was awaiting them in the following weeks to reach Makalu summit...

The Makalu Trail: it takes about 8 days to reach Makalu Base Camp from Num (sketch by Esther Bordet)

So, I had the idea to complete Pierre and Franco's account of the Makalu journey using my own experience in 2019. I decided to use two different colored inks to represent the two different times of the story: sepia walnut ink for the fifties, black India ink for the 21st century.

The alpinists having a picnic in 1955 (walnut ink, drawing by E.Bordet)
Tashigaon, April 2019 (ink drawing by E.Bordet)

Mixing times

I thought it would be fun to mix up the different time periods, by playing with the different colors of inks to create a not so linear narrative thread. I also realized that no matter how close I tried to stick to the historic facts, there were still a lot of missing pieces, which I would likely never resolve. In fact, all the actors of the 54 and 55 expeditions passed away, so I can only rely on the written or visual testimonies they left behind. So in the end, I knew I would have to take some freedoms and invent parts of the story.

My first attempt at mixing times came in the form of an imaginary dialogue between my great-uncle and I, also joined by Jean Franco. This dialogue was a way to establish the historical context of the Makalu expeditions, and how and why all these men ended up being part of this adventure.

An original page extracted from the first version of the graphic novel

Story modeling

Lately, I've been rethinking the entire structure of the story. I wanted to achieve a more flowy narrative frame between time periods, rather than a juxtaposition of events taking place either in the past or present. So I modeled the elements of the story in various layouts, and came up with a few possible representations of the narration. I wrote all the story events and facts on cards. I mapped the story using a time vs place, or a character vs place matrix.

People and Places threads

I came up with one satisfying theoretical representation of the story. Imagine a mesh: the horizontal threads are people, the vertical ones are places. Each of these people have different drives and objectives, and play a role in the story.

Adding a time thread to the mix

Their destinies may intersect at specific locations, but also at different time periods. So there is a third level of threads interweaved with the place and people threads. Two of these time threads are real, but there is a third one that's imaginary, allowing people who never coexisted to meet and interact.

Finally, I identified "spatial knots" which were common to all characters and time periods. The most important of these "knots" is Makalu Base Camp. At distinct time periods, the different characters of the story spend extended periods of time there. Also, the location of base camp, at the foot of the giant Makalu, has a huge graphic potential: moraines, steep cliff faces, glaciers.

Makalu Base Camp, April 2019 (ink drawing by E.Bordet)

More Information?

I gave a presentation about this story and my creative process in December 2020. Check out the PowerPoint presentation below or the video recording here.

Makalu_Dec2020 -PDF version
Download PDF • 21.00MB

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