“Yet slowly, surely, steadily, in the course of my fifteen visits, the proportions adjusted themselves to the facts, and I came at last to realize that a waterfall a hundred and sixty-five feet high and a quarter of a mile wide was an impressive thing. It was not a dipperful to my vanished great vision, but it would answer.”Mark Twain, “Niagara” from Sketches, New and Old (1875)
This Friday, September 20th, 2019, there will be a talk near a statue of a famous American author. The talk will be with storyteller Zachary Schwartz. The statue is of literary great Mark Twain. The subject will be the newest graphic novel from Canada’s Alternate History Comics (AH Comics) titled Mark Twain’s Niagara, Book 1.
The question that Dr. Joseph Lemak, Director for the Center for Mark Twain Studies asked when first hearing about the new graphic novel, was “Why Mark Twain?“. A legitimate question for a Canadian Small Press publishing company. After all, Twain is one of America’s greatest storytellers. Indeed, he would seem an unintuitive figure of choice for Canadians to highlight in a book. To answer the question of ‘why’, we go back to the beginning, with the original author. No, we don’t mean Samuel Langhorne Clemens.
Zachary Schwartz is a storyteller, author and actor. Born and raised in Niagara Falls, Canada, Schwartz has a long resume in film, television and stage production. By the time he was 21 he already had 28 film roles, including cult favorites like Bride of Chucky and Boondock Saints. His television appearances include Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Clear Water,” and “Kids in the Hall”. On stage, Zach has performed in Sweeney Todd, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Crazy For You, Oliver, Jesus Christ Superstar, Little Shop of Horrors, Grease and most recently as ‘The Beast’ in Beauty & The Beast.
When he was younger he would immerse himself in media, performance, music and reading. As a young fan of Mark Twain, he read a short story titled “Niagara” – originally written in the 1860’s, yet not published until 1875 in a collection of works called Sketches, New & Old. Schwartz was immediately captivated by Twain’s personal account of traveling to Niagara Falls, Canada for the first time in his life. Twain would go on to write about his changing impression of the Falls through subsequent visits, and as time went by, Schwartz as both a Twain fan – and now an adult – was surprised at how few other Mark Twain enthusiasts knew about this original short story.
Then, on a chance visit to a historic site in Niagara, a weathered plaque affixed to what was once the exterior wall of the old Museum of History is what gave Schwartz inspiration to bring this story to life.
As a performer Schwartz has travelled across Canada and the US, and became connected to the way Mark Twain himself travelled, talked and entertained. With this, Zachary spent years crafting a feature length screenplay based on Twain’s own experiences in the Niagara Region, set to the backdrop of the thundering Falls. The screenplay Schwartz wrote, titled “Mark Twain’s Niagara” is not just a literal adaptation of Twain’s original “Niagara” story. It features events and accounts recorded by Twain later in life, peppered with historical easter eggs, figures and fantasies found in some of Twain’s other works.
When Schwartz presented the screenplay to AH Comics, we knew this was something special. This is just the type of story that AH Comics was created to publish – stories that pull in the reader, entertains and empowers us to question the incredible. How do we know if the events illustrated here did – or did not – happen? Are the most incredible parts of the story made up, or are they real, with answers hidden among the backdrop of the roaring waters?
Without having the benefit of hearing Twain’s own voice (of which Schwartz does an incredible version of, heard on a narrated GPS tour app you can download), we decided that the graphic novel version of “Mark Twain’s Niagara” should then be told through Twain’s eyes. In this way, the 100 page fully illustrated story immerses the reader in the 1860’s, following a version of Twain in his 30’s as he crosses borders into Niagara for the first time in his lifetime. There he – and we – experience amazing events and run with figures from history; some living, and some long since passed.
The goal of the Mark Twain’s Niagara graphic novel is to take the world at large on an adventure of a lifetime, and experience the Niagara Region in a never-before-seen way. Presented in chapters, each one as engaging as the last, we also find hints of where the truth lies. Much like Schwartz, and Twain himself, AH Comics strives to be an educator as well as an entertainer. Each chapter contains an introduction that speaks about the history of the Niagara Region related specifically to the incredible events being witnessed by our protagonist.
In the same vein, the “MacGuffin” object that is the common thread through the story is a pipe that Twain presents to one of his oldest living friends. This pipe, in the context of the story, was originally presented to Twain by an Indigenous Elder during one of his trips to the Region. Schwartz’s screenplay description of the pipe was one that was decorative with various adornments and embellishments. When adapting the screenplay into a graphic novel narrative, AH Comics worked closely with an Indigenous scholar and author who researched historically-accurate pipes of the tribes who lived in that portion of the Great Lakes, and who were still present in the Niagara Region during the mid-late 1800s. This is the time period that Twain would have visited. The pipe design that you see illustrated in the graphic novel is the most historically accurate and representative of the actual style that would have been used.
AH Comics as a publisher produces graphic novels and collections focusing on history, fantasy, art and culture. This includes the multiple award-winning MOONSHOT The Indigenous Comics Collection series. So even though the story within the pages of the “Mark Twain’s Niagara” graphic novel is – first and foremost – entertaining, engaging and fantastical, we also wanted to ensure that representations of any group were vetted by group members, to be made accurately and respectfully.
Published last Spring, Mark Twain’s Niagara was recently awarded the Gold Medal for “Best Graphic Novel” at the US 23rd Annual Independent Publisher Awards. You can get a copy of this award-winning book on Amazon right now, and see Zachary Schwartz this Friday, September 20th at Elmira College for autographs and to hear more about the amazing story.
Sadly, the museum plaque in Niagara Falls that started this journey no longer exists – the original building was retrofitted with a modern addition an exhibit. While the historic exterior walls are still standing, they are now interior-facing, and the plaque has been removed. But that memory of inspiration and adventure remains. From cover to cover, the aim of this book is to keep the adventure alive – for graphic novel readers, for Mark Twain fans, for the Niagara Region in the US and Canada, its history, and for the spirit of storytelling.