Artist Jennifer Morgan’s comic book hero isn’t a muscular guy in tights. He has no cape or mask, and isn’t leaping tall buildings in a single bound.
“He’s a roly-poly grandpa,” she explains.
Morgan, of St. John’s, has recently produced “Almost Home: The Sinking of the SS Caribou.” Published by Breakwater Books, the book is a work of non-fiction for young readers, presented comic-book style.
The Caribou, built in Holland in the mid-1920s for the Newfoundland Railway, was a passenger ferry travelling between Port aux Basques and North Sydney, N.S.
The night of Oct. 14, 1942, while carrying almost 200 passengers and 46 crew members, the Caribou was torpedoed by German submarine U-69, its captain mistaking it for a passenger freighter and its escort, the Grandmere, as a two-stack destroyer. The Caribou sank about 60 kilometres off the coast of Newfoundland.
One hundred and thirty-eight people died, including Capt. Benjamin Tavenor, who went down with the ship. Most of the bodies were not found.
Morgan’s great-grandfather, Thomas Moyst, was the second engineer on the Caribou. It was his 66th birthday and he was working his last shift before retirement when he was killed.
“He wasn’t killed by the explosion. We know that he made it to the deck, and we even know that he made it to one of the lifeboats, because it’s reported in the Newfoundland Railway report on the story,” Morgan explains.
“The really sad thing was that it was his birthday. His birthday cake was waiting for him, and he’d bought prizes and little presents for his guests. This was the heartbreaking thing that my Uncle Ralph remembered: showing up at his house to pick up his father’s body, and there was this cake and these gifts. It made a historical, factual story into a story of family and loss. He’s not a statistic. He’s a real person.”
Morgan grew up hearing stories about her great-grandfather from her grandmother, who would take his photo down from the top of the piano and show it to Morgan and her siblings as she spoke.
The bulk of the story was never about the war or the tragedy, but about what a kind-hearted man he was, Morgan says.
There was also the story about Morgan’s Aunt Vi, age 11 at the time of her grandfather’s death. The night the Caribou sank, Vi woke up, screaming.
“To this day she swears there was actually a man in her room,” Morgan says. “She said he came in her room and he was sitting on her bed, looking at her. The direction he came from was actually the neighbour’s wall.
“She saw a light source and he had this long, silver flashlight, which she said her grandpa had just bought. She said he was swinging the torch and the first thing she saw was his sleeve. The way my nanny would tell it, she would say Vi saw her grandpa.”
Morgan, a lover of independent comic books, wanted to tell the tale of her grandfather and his death on the Caribou as she heard it from her grandmother.
She supplemented her nanny’s stories and filled in the holes with research, much of it at the Newfoundland Railway Museum, which allowed her to take photographs of a model of the Caribou on site, in an effort to make her drawings accurate.
A depiction of the deck of the ship in the book is historically correct, down to the style of railing.
Telling her great-grandfather’s story visually was often an emotional challenge for Morgan, particularly the scene where the torpedo hits.
She shows Moyst being thrown through the air, his hat flying off his head. On the next page, he’s shown, a look of worried exhaustion on his face, clinging to a lifeboat.
“From Captain M.G. Dalton’s report on the sinking of the Caribou: second engineer Moyst was last seen hanging onto a boat, but pretty well exhausted,” Morgan writes.
Conscious of her audience, Morgan uses metaphors to depict the deaths.
“I didn’t show them drowning. I showed a watch sinking below the water. That tells you enough,” she says. “(Moyst) was not a survivor, so we do see his casket brought home and see the funeral and the family mourn him. In many ways, I went more in-depth than my nanny did when she was telling the story, but I tried to respect the way she told the story to a small child. Without glossing over the facts, I could still say I’m not trying to dwell or stay too much on the death side of it.”
Morgan doesn’t see her great-grandpa as any kind of superhero — just a regular man. She has a poster which was made to commemorate the ship and crew, with photos of the sailors. The headline is “Remembering the Caribou and her Gallant Crew.”
Morgan is pretty sure her great-grandpa wasn’t gallant.
“I always think about that. He was funny, he was kind, he was considerate, but I’m sure he was scared. I’m sure they all were scared,” she says.
Morgan would like to develop a series of comics about the Caribou, telling the story from different perspectives. She’d like to tell the story of Tavenor, who also lost two sons that night, as well as some of the survivors and the captain of the German U-Boat.
“It was a significant event. It was the first time we lost civilians,” she says. “The title ‘Almost Home’ is very resonant, because the war came home with the Caribou.”
Morgan will participate in an interactive storytelling event at the Johnson Geo Centre today from 1-2 p.m. Along with a reading from her book, she’ll talk about the story of the Caribou and about making comic books, and will include colouring sheets for kids.