What would happen in the future if, after centuries of warming, the climate suddenly shifted to the opposite extreme? Could humanity survive in an icy wasteland? That’s the premise of Above the Timberline, a fantasy adventure written and illustrated by Gregory Manchess. In a conversation with Nexus Media, Manchess revealed what inspired the story and shared lessons for preventing climate change from irreparably harming the planet. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you thrust your characters onto a frozen Earth?
Because in such a complete reversal of what’s expected, such as an over-heated planet, humans would be caught even more unprepared. In a situation like that, it’s a true test of character to survive and surmount those conditions. Great for storytelling.
I’m a huge fan of survival stories from history. As a kid growing up in Kentucky, I read about guys that got in canvas airplanes to fly up to the Arctic. Not only were they going to attempt something daring, but they threw themselves into a situation that was going to test them in every way, cold being merely one side of it.
And when you have relentless cold, things go wrong. Basically, in my story, every time something goes right, something else goes wrong. That creates conflict and curiosity about how to solve it.
After 1,500 years, the people in my novel are still trying to survive this freeze-over. They’re trying to regain what they’ve lost. I wanted to explore what that might be like in a story format.
You have explorers flying in airships over ice and dealing with polar bears, woolly rhinos and predatory snow leopards. What inspired the concepts in your book?
The inspiration came from doing a painting for an instructional video about how I work as an oil painter. Called Above the Timberline, it depicted polar bears as an explorer’s pack animals. I was interested in pushing these two disparaging elements together.
The character is turned away from the audience, creating more interest in just who he is. People were curious — Why is he out there? How come those bears aren’t eating him alive? Those questions got me thinking more in-depth about the background story.
I knew if I painted it so that I was intrigued, then the viewer would be intrigued in the same way. So, then it became a search for the character. I started to sketch and write about what type of person he was, and it dictated the kind of journey that he would want to go on — a test of character.
Around the late 1800s, explorers were going up to the Arctic because they didn’t know what was up there. I didn’t feel like that was enough, so I had to have my character go after something. At an early age, I lost my dad, and I kind of felt that I was left behind. The loss of my dad was sitting back there in my mind, and I realized if I had a young man trying to connect with his father, that would be enough of a start. From there, I drew and wrote dialogue and listened to them talk in my mind.
Wildlife is almost like a character in the novel, how did you pull that off?
I’ve always had an interest in animals, and in art school I started painting polar bears. It was mostly because of their shape, and their anatomy, and the way the color and the light would strike their fur. It was fascinating, because they were so subtle. That’s when I learned that polar bears aren’t white, their fur is actually tubes — isn’t that wild? And then their skin is jet black underneath, because the tubes transmit the light down, and it heats up the skin. I was fascinated by it.
Animals have personalities. We know this from our pets. When dogs and cats look at you, you can almost understand what they’re thinking. It almost seems as if they understand more about what you’re thinking than you know about what they’re thinking.
I wanted to portray this polar bear as a vicious, wild animal — vicious, but on that edge of communication. That edge is the edge of curiosity, and curiosity keeps driving through this story and through this book. Those facial expressions identify the personalities of the bears. I tried not only to write that in the prose, I tried to show that in the paintings. I wanted a wild animal that was on that edge of communicating with humans.
How did you convey the same elements of character for the novel’s environment?
The format of the book is landscape because I wanted the viewer to feel that this landscape is bigger than they are. It’s much more overwhelming. When viewers feel that overwhelming sense, they pick up on where my character is. Landscape can look mean. It can also look serene, or friendly, or troublesome.
In the book, the landscape is nearly the same as the landscape of a bear’s face. We read character into landscape. We’re brilliant at pattern recognition. We go into a forest and our antique brains, our primitive brains, need to identify the bush to find out whether or not it’s an animal staring back that could harm us, or if it’s a friend, or if it’s just a calm, serene area.
The visuals give you composition, and composition gives you content — not the other way around. Understanding the differences in blacks and whites and grays help you understand color even better, and then you’ll understand depth — foreground, middle ground, background. You’re not only designing side-to-side and top-to-bottom, you’re designing front-to-back, front-to-background. You have to learn how to place elements in the scene, like people or bears or landscape. And once you use that, you start to see storytelling, and then you’re in control of the picture.
Plus, and I’ll make this really simple, it’s so fun to paint snow and ice. The colors are amazing, the shapes are amazing — so it was just fun.
How does thinking about the harsh environment in your novel influence how we might think about the current changing environment?
I thought about the novel as humans stuck in a world that got away from them. In reading This Changes Everything, I’ve been nervous, because author Naomi Klein lays out a scenario where we may have a few years, but after that, our climate is going to get away from us. It’s really convincing people to get on board.
With my story, there would be very few people to get on board, because it’s already happened. Once it’s already happened, then it’s back into survival mode. I think with what’s happening now — we are going to be, if not already, in survival mode again.
The story reflects my life as an artist, and the lesson that there’s just no time to waste. There’s no hesitating anymore. There can’t be. Because the longer we hesitate, the worse it’s going to be for us to climb back.