Tag Archives: spare lines

The Deckhand Tragedy: Sammy Harkham’s Poor Sailor

review by Joseph Frank

The ocean has been on my mind. Melville’s Moby-Dick, of course; also Billy Budd. But I’ve been reading short fiction by Guy De Maupassant, as well. So it was a pleasure to discover his story, “At Sea,” which shares moral and thematic elements with Melville: an intense interest in the ill-fated curiosity of humans to find profit in the ocean; the ocean’s intolerance of humankind’s lice-like presence; among humans, a compassionless leader more concerned with his mission than his crew; a lonely conclusion, emphatically silent, focused on the protagonist’s orphanlike existence, which, upon reflection, is logical, unavoidable, but no less tragic.

Maupassant’s “At Sea” is about a young man called Javel Jr. onboard a trawling smack captained by his older brother, Javel Sr.. When Javel Jr.’s arm becomes tangled in the rope pulling a net filled with fish, Javel Sr. refuses to cut the rope, which would cost him the net and catch. When they finally drop anchor and slacken the net, Javel Jr.’s arm is gristle. For days he ladles sea water over the wound, but gangrene sets in and he finally amputates his own arm. The fishermen examine it. They preserve it in salt. Once home, Javel Jr.’s family examine it. The carpenter builds a small coffin and a funeral is held. Javel Jr. gives up the sea and recalls the incident as the day his brother chose profit over blood.

Of the many stories Maupassant penned, “At Sea” is, perhaps, not counted among his most well-known.

Along comes American comic creator Sammy Harkham, maker of the esteemed avant-garde comics anthology Kramer’s Ergot, who adapts “At Sea” to comic form. That Harkham’s Poor Sailor (the title of his adaptation) can be read in less than fifteen minutes speaks nothing to the time it requires. It is a taciturn but deeply multilayered story. It maintains the concision of Maupassant’s original, in its parts and as a whole. The motivating hopes of the characters leads to brutalities that recall Melville. And something of Harkham’s decision to expose the story in reticent and ostensibly uncomplicated illustrations summons the sentences of Chekhov and Hemingway. It would be apt to use Poor Sailor to coin the term “graphic short story,” as opposed to the ever popular “graphic novel,” but that’s not my concern. What strikes me is how Harkham’s visual style and panel pacing unite traditional slapstick cartoon aesthetics with a deeply realist moral universe laden with ambivalence and tragedy.

Poor Sailor opens on pastoral domesticity. The main character, Thomas, lives in Edenic seclusion with his wife, Rachel. They are completing or repairing the thatch roof of their small house. They work, flirt, stroll, and skinny-dip. One day, Thomas’s older brother, Jacob, arrives. He encourages Thomas to join the crew of his trawling smack. Rachel refuses: Thomas has domestic responsibilities and her wellbeing to care for. As days pass, Thomas and Rachel grow distant, preoccupied by differing opinions of Jacob’s offer. One night, Thomas rises and says Rachel’s name – to wake her or to make sure she’s asleep, it’s unclear – but she sleeps and he leaves to join Jacob. One day, in particularly rough water, Jacob insists they drop the nets. Here, Harkham remains close to Maupassant: Thomas’s arm is caught and then crushed when Jacob refuses to cut the nets. Where Maupassant details the process of pouring salt water on the wounds, Harkham skips to the moment when they decide the arm must go. Jacob advises the amputation. It is unclear who performs the deed. Less an arm, Thomas remains with the ship, unable to work, dreaming of Rachel. One night, they are ambushed by pirates who slaughter everyone. The ship sinks. Thomas clings to debris. A rowboat filled with missionaries saves him. By foot and train, through valleys and forests, as snow begins to fall, Thomas returns home. When he arrives, he discovers a burial mound marked with a cross. He falls on his face. Five empty panels progress like weeks of silence. Finally, one-armed Thomas continues repairing the roof alone.

Harkham’s illustrations are darkly juvenile, and yet they recall well-established, indeed even watershed events in comic history. The aesthetics of his characters and scenes recall the stark monochromatic worlds of early Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks cartoons like Oswald the rabbit (Trolley Troubles 1927) and Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie (1928), as well as the Little Orphan Annie comics of Harold Gray (including unnervingly empty circles for eyes), and, more recently, Harkham’s Drawn & Quarterly colleague, Chester Brown, who cites Gray as an influence (Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography, “Forward”). Brown also cites Hergé, creator of Tintin; Harkham’s style equally references the French method ligne claire: clear line. But Harkham’s illustrations succinctly elaborate the oddly grotesque morphology of styles like those listed. Such characters usually exist according to the nonsensical, slapstick physics of hokey cartoon universes, but Harkham’s style asks what if the universe of such weird looking figures was ruled by moral ambiguities like our own? What if their strange bodies stood for something more than cutesiness? What if their look was the product of personifying how fucked up life is? With crisp precision, the weak shoulders, crudely large hands, dullard expressions, and hollow eyes of his characters transform the substances of their psychological lives and the unsympathetic fates into correspondingly ill-proportioned bodies.

Unlike the early Disney/Iwerks characters, who easily recover from myriad physical brutalities, Harkham’s characters are not so invulnerable. The story hinges on the event of mutilation and amputation. When Thomas loses his arm, our presuppositions of the traditional conventions of this illustration style are attacked. As Leonard Michaels argues about the goring of Hernandorena in Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon (1932), Thomas – and, by extension, the graphic narrative tradition after which his aesthetic follows –  is more essentially himself with a stump where his arm once was (“What’s a Story”): no character who is worth caring for, worth investing in, worth feeling pathos toward, is invincible.  Pathos requires ambivalence, inarticulateness (depicted both literally and illustratively in Poor Sailor), and a sense that good intentions of best laid plans are in direct conflict with cruel fates against which we are helpless. The loss of Thomas’ arm represents the magnitude of what’s at stake. The stoicism of the characters and the narrative, especially when it is decided that Thomas’ arm must be severed, represents the only logical response to such an existence: ambivalence, bewilderment. And they foreshadow an even greater loss awaiting Thomas, one which serves to further expand the tragedy of his choice to leave Rachel: her death.

Another feature of Harkham’s style that brings the cartoonish aesthetic into our moral universe is his penchant for eliding decisive scenes, for letting them occur between panels; the audience gets a picture of the instant before a major event and the fallout thereafter. The event itself – Thomas’s departure, the moment of his injury, the amputation, his escape from the pirates, Rachel’s death – are suggested as though glimpsed by way of events signal them, rather than illuminating them in full. Lacunae like this bear the mark of Old Testament realism and, on Harkham’s behalf, are an ingenious exploitation of the ‘gutters’ between panels, or perhaps an ingenious investment into the gutter’s potential to host moments of unsayable and unseeable importance. Events so important they oppose articulation.

Early in the book, we glimpse one such event, after which all comparable events are omitted. Concluding the pastoral introduction, Hakham illustrates Thomas and Rachel standing naked in water, holding hands in silence, looking at one another with uncertain expressions. It is a definitive moment in the text – the height of what six panels preceding it worked toward: laying bare the couple’s love, simple though it may seem. It haunts the remainder of the story. It infuses the maiming of Thomas with the sense that he is not the only one injured – to return home with only one arm means he must forever bear the wound of betraying Rachel as well as the myriad ways it would impose upon Rachel. But that scenario, no matter how humbling and inconvenient, is no match for how the story actually ends, with Thomas returning to find that Rachel has died in his absence.

As I try to conclude this review of Poor Sailor, I’m burdened by the feeling that I’ve barely articulated the story’s power to evoke unplumbed and unplumbable depths, which is achieved, in large part, by Harkham’s mastery of storytelling and illustration. Indeed, his revision of classically cartoonish iconography and his brilliant exploitation of gutter silences make for a taciturn tragedy that increases the scope of his imaginary, expanding it through the abovementioned cartoon traditions, while also gesturing toward Melville, Chekhov, Hemingway, and the Old Testament. (Thomas’s lone survival following the massacre by pirates echoes Ishmael floating on Queequeg’s coffin after Moby-Dick sinks the Pequod; his single-panel train journey home recalls Hemingway.)

Poor Sailor is a beautiful book. A heartbreaking story. An expert instance of narration by sequential pictures. An impressive example of the potential of the comic form for artful adaptation and, in this case, improvement of already impressive source material – though this last point has much to do with Harkham’s genius. It exhibits the power of pictures to tell a story with heavy emotional impact, without resorting to graphic gratuitousness or melodrama. Harkham disarms us with cartoonishness, draws us in with darkness, involves us by requiring interpretation between panels, and creates characters whose outer appearances reflect how feeble humans are, how grotesque our betrayals, failures, and fates.

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From here to there and back: James Sturm’s Market Day

review by Matthew Zantingh

James Sturm’s Market Day is about a journey that occurs on two levels: an exterior or surface level relating to the events of the protagonist Mendleman’s market day, and on a second interior level as a sort of ongoing interior monologue. Mendleman, travels from his small rural village somewhere in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century to the market to sell his rugs, but discovers, on arrival, that he no longer has a buyer for his highly crafted wares. Mendleman must now find a new buyer for his rugs, an experience that induces a deep crisis of identity and faith in him. Surrounding and complicating this plot is his wife’s pregnancy and the imminent arrival of their child, a fact which Mendleman himself struggles with throughout the narrative.

At the core of the novel is Mendleman’s crisis of identity. The loss of his purchaser who, in Mendleman’s words “encouraged [him] to build a house of cards” becomes a catalyst for the gradual unveiling of the world as a shifting and precarious place. This crisis is beautifully illustrated by Sturm’s pictorial narrative style. This novel is heavily introspective as Mendleman engages in relatively little dialogue with other characters, but is constantly narrating his life to himself, and the reader. Early on in the narrative, as he journeys to the market, he imagines how he might create a rug from the first hints of dawn.

He does this again in the market, creating visually simple panels that mimic a rug’s aesthetic. At the same time, the process of refining or removing extraneous bits doesn’t dilute the scene’s meaning but amplifies it instead.

These two panels become a wealth of symbolic meaning with the market-goers becoming animated and mysterious figures in an epic drama of life and death.

Moreover, in this panel and others, readers sense a deep sense of the divine or spiritual animating Mendleman’s world. The hooded figures in the bottom left panel suggest hooded monks, ascetics walking towards a lone lighted door. Mendleman’s Jewish faith is part and parcel of his worldview. A fortune teller later tells Mendleman “God will reveal himself to you through your work.” Mendleman’s response is to state “For one who believes it is possible to weave the nuances of man and nature into a rug, accepting that God etches one’s future into the palm of your hand seems reasonable.” While Mendleman is able to entertain these thoughts in the first portion of the narrative, his dismay at the changing dynamics of the marketplace cause an abrupt change in his beliefs. Sturm illustrates how larger cultural forces like faith, art, and industry collide in the marketplace, producing a liminal space where Mendleman`s crisis begins.

Throughout, Sturm’s book itself operates as a Dante-esque journey into the underworld or purgatory. Mendleman’s trip to the market is revealed not as a saving journey but as one which forces him into humiliation and shame at the hands of the encroaching capitalist marketplace. Mendleman imagines Suzkin’s Emporium as a heavenly place that will free him of his burden of rugs after hearing of it from a friend, but when he arrives he is struck speechless by its vastness and variety of items. He is astounded by the ability of an industrialising world to produce vast amounts of goods at such a low cost that his own work is devalued. It acts a surreal space for Mendleman’s final epiphany concerning his trade. Afterwards, he literally enters the dark night of the soul as the panels become empty of people and coloured with a very dark palette of greys, browns and black.

I believe it is in these visually spare panels that Sturm really excels.The picture itself does not do justice to Sturm’s subtle work with such a dark palette.

Mendleman’s story on a narrative level is not the most engaging material for 21st century readers nor is it that original. In fact, from a certain remove the story itself leans toward a fatalistic view of capitalism, and while the story`s ending offers at least a glimpse of hope for Mendleman, it does not do so for readers. Yet there is real strength in Sturm’s artistry as gives Mendleman a surprising depth and complexity of character. The interspersed portraits and picturesque panels force readers to slow down and really take in the fullness of Mendleman’s journey. They are pauses in the narrative momentum that cause readers to read significance into the minutea of each picture.

In this panel, for instance, Mendleman is not the focus at all, but the two wood cutters in the foreground are. We realize that Mendleman’s problem is not a unique problem for the people of this novel. Instead, it is a problem that all of the sellers, merchants, and artisans of the marketplace face. This is where Sturm’s book is a timely publication in our own moment when our world seems to have sunk deeper into the myriad problems of capitalistic production. Sturm’s narrative points to the human and human communities as an alternative place or lens through which address such problems.

Looking at the story visually, Sturm’s spare lines belie the complexity of the narrative itself. Using clean lines and a realist style, Sturm’s narrative is easy to follow and visually appealing in a way that easily obscures the twists and turns of the narrative. This is not a graphic novel to read in a hurry, but one which should be read slowly and with care. On subsequent re-reads, I found myself taken by Sturm’s ability to keep the narrative moving while also offering absorbing images in the process. Mendleman’s journey to the market, an event that could be achieved in one panel, instead takes 11 panels. Yet, I never felt like Sturm was simply stretching out the narrative, but rather modelling the narrative pace on the length of Mendleman’s journey. The entire novel conveys a sense of the everyday rhythms of life for Mendleman, even though this journey is not a usual day for him, we get a sense of lower-class life in this novel.

If you enjoy meditative or introspective narratives, then I would recommend this graphic novel. However, if you enjoy fast paced, action-filled narratives, this may not suit your taste. To a certain degree, Sturm’s work is a realist production: it is interested in the everyday realities of the common person yet also interested in the larger social forces which structure their lives. Yet the synergy between text and image produces a multi-layered narrative that is compelling and moving.Part of Market Day’s appeal is its ability to return us at the end of the story, to the place where we began. However, we return with a very different view than when we left, one that is altered and shaped by Mendleman’s experience. Like a prodigal child, we return and find the place we left comfortable, but above all, homely and welcoming.