Dig Comics: Underwater
Columnist Miguel Cima, director/host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics, looks at what makes comics so great, and what’s holding them back.
With so many great artists taking me in so many directions to new worlds and places, often so far from the mundane scenarios which can readily make it seem to the casual outsider that there is but one reason comics are made, I find myself bumping into unintended genres. In recent months and years, I have unwittingly been subject to a variety of stories by very different and distinct artists who have led me into universes beneath the oceans and rivers of the world. And while fantasy is key in these tales, the tenor of these works are anything but children’s tales. They navigate from the deeply self-reflective, to dangerous psychedelic tides and onto the very abyss of desire. Yet I will group these comics here today, and others too, as perhaps examples of Subaquatic Sequentials.
Most recently, I doused myself in Sailor Twain, or The Mermaid in the Hudson, which I believe is the first major comics work by artist Mark Siegel. When not serving as editorial director of the graphic novel publisher First Second Books, he has worked largely illustrating and writing children’s books. But don’t let your kids read this one! An absolutely charming tale of a late 19th century river boat captain who runs pleasure steamboats up and down the Hudson River from New York City to Albany, and his entanglement with a mermaid. Far from a Little Mermaid princess piece, this book is about desire, lust, selfishness and the mermaid involved is a scary monster straight from the original mythology. Illicit affairs, intrigue, mysterious figures, feverish lust, and restless drowned souls are interwoven in this lurid tale with more twists and turns than a school of guppies running from trout. Siegel’s art blends atmospheric brooding expressionism with the simple lines and chalky finish of some antiquated children’s book, giving the protagonist outlandishly round eyes almost spinning with emotional emphasis. A real page-turner, Sailor Twain is equal parts horror, thriller, mystery and soap opera. See for yourself, you can read preview chapters at the Sailor Twain website.
The next seahorse in this trio of tub-dunkers comes from the far more established Jeff Lemire, an award-winning cartoonist known for the graphic novel Essex County and the graphic novel series Sweet Tooth. The Underwater Welder continues wading in Lemire’s preferred theme, that of human isolation. Ostensibly a ghost story with Twilight Zone type features, the heart of the tale is that of a man who actively seeks separation from his history and obligations, expressed graphically in his drive to dive, dive deep, and stay down there. It’s the perfect motif for those trying to escape the frightening responsibilities adulthood bestow upon people, albeit under the massive pressure of one’s own conscience. As always, Lemire’s moody lines populate landscapes, faces and even sea life with reflections of despair and world-weariness. While this keeps the whole tale painfully human, it is seamlessly blended with supernatural elements which sometimes make the parallel narratives purposefully blurred, like life as seen beneath the waves. A little on the bleak side, like most of Lemire’s work, any serious lover of serious drama will not be left wanting.
Finally, a book that’s a little older, but I think sailed under too many people’s radars. The Unsinkable Walker Bean by Aaron Renier seems in the title to buck the genre I am peddling here. And while it is true that of the three, this story spends the least time underwater, this one probably does the best job of filling my head with wonder, having my eyeballs ponder what may lie beneath. Considered a children’s comic, I think the book is kinda scary and harsh. Walker Bean is basically a nerdy pirate wannabe, inhabiting a quasi-Victorian world not quite like ours, where seemingly anachronistic technologies cohabitate with a rich world of witches, magical creatures and bizarre machines. Hurled into a plot to save his grandfather’s soul, Renier offers a vision that feels like a French ’60s children’s adventure comic with rich images bordering on the hallucinogenic and arcane. This isn’t a cutesy-fuzzy kids fest. The book is filled with real danger. Monsters really eat people, souls can really be lost to endless torment, villains play for keeps and most adults are creepy, stupid and treacherous. And yet the color palate is like Christmas tree lights in a foggy bog. Something warm and alluring cuts through the dark waters and wicked skies. Walker Bean is marvelous good fun, which not only will satisfy the fantasy fan, but stir something deep in the strongest hearts – the revived belief that we really don’t know what’s down there. Except now we do.
I think all three authors are acutely aware of their overarching metaphor. Some say that when you dream of being underwater, that it’s symbolic of immersing yourself in your emotions. Whether the effect is the sensation of drowning, of being overwhelmed, or of freedom and exploration, the evocation trickles throughout literature and art. I might put all three of these books in the fantasy section, but not wholeheartedly, as each occupies its own space on the shelf. Unless you are ready to file all three under the shelf, under the floorboards, down until they are wet and enveloped. Together they swim through my mind and if you’re going to dip your toes, I wager you can easily sail from one to the other without feeling the slightest disruption – and never get bored.
Argentinean-born New Yorker and NYU film school graduate Miguel Cima is a veteran of film, television and music. He has worked for such companies as Warner Bros., Dreamworks and MTV. An avid comic book collector since he could read, Miguel began writing stories in 4th grade and has not slowed down since. He is a world traveler, accomplished writer, filmmaker, and comics creator. He is the writer, director and host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics. Follow Dig Comics on Facebook. Read more of Miguel’s comic book recommendations.
Posted on November 26, 2012, in Columns, Dig Comics and tagged Aaron Renier, First Second Books, Jeff Lemire, Mark Siegel, Sailor Twain, Sailor Twain or the Mermaid in the Hudson, The Underwater Welder, The Unsinkable Walker Bean, Top Shelf Productions. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.