Lyrical Ballad: Set To Sea

Posted by on September 6th, 2010 at 5:12 AM

Rob reviews Drew Weing’s debut graphic novel, Set To Sea (Fantagraphics).

It’s odd to think of Drew Weing’s Set To Sea as his debut graphic novel, given that he’s been steadily cartooning for nearly a decade.  His The Journal Comic was one of the early web diary comics and is still one of the best.  His Pup series revealed that he has more in common with classic cartoonists than contemporary alt-cartoonists.  That’s both in terms of his cartoony character design and the lush quality of his line.  The promotion for the book described it as a cross between Elzie Segar’s Popeye (there’s a little nod to the Goon in one character’s design) and the engravings of Gustave Dore’, and the clever design made the reader feel as though this was a book published long ago.  The book’s dimensions (6 x 5″) were all part of the project’s nature as an art object in addition to being a narrative.

Set To Sea‘s goals are quite modest in many respects.  It’s the story of an aimless young man claiming to be a poet who gets forcibly conscripted to become a member of a clipper ship.  He begins the story trying to write a poem about the ways in which the sea inspire him, finds himself faced with tedium, hard work and the occasional life-or-death struggle and winds up with an unexpected career.  The character progression is simple but satisfying.  While there aren’t necessarily many surprises in the story, Set To Sea is more about the savoring of a series of vivid moments (both for the lead character and the reader) than any sort of narrative complexity.

With each page acting as a single panel, the true joy of reading Set To Sea is luxuriating in Weing’s intense crosshatching and detail.  This detail serves to create a presence for both the hulking protagonist and the world in which he lives.  His sheer massiveness fills up each panel, his bulk belying his gentle spirit.  He’s a funny character to look at, especially when he holds a tiny pencil in his hands and tries to write a poem.  Weing’s quirky character design contrasts nicely with the gritty nature of life at sea, as the captain is a tiny, egg-shaped man who rules with an iron fist.  The bulk of the story concerns our poet’s kidnapping, initial adjustment period, and surprising reaction during a pirate attack.

It’s a testament to Weing’s skill as a storyteller that there’s a remarkable page-to-page fluidity in the long pirate attack sequence.  The loose and rubbery nature of his characters makes that sort of transition possible, giving the sequence a real sense of excitement and danger.  At the same time, Weing’s fidelity to drawing ships, ropes, weapons and other items (down to the wood grain) grounds the characters and gives the reader something to hold on to.

Weing deftly switches from using the one-page, one panel approach as a way of showing a number of events over a short period of time to portraying snapshots of many events over a long period of time.  As the poet becomes an accepted and valued member of the crew, he finds himself unwilling to give up the life of a sailor, even as the experience finally enables him to write about maritime life with a real degree of authority.  Weing uses the single page to great effect here, as we are snapped from incident to incident, as the crew battles a great whale, fights through vicious storms, and sails to exotic destinations.  Weing even subtly informs the reader that a particular age of sailing is over when we see steam vessels alongside the clipper ship.  The way Weing cycled through these adventures so quickly is the ultimate “show, don’t tell” move, making the reader long for more instead of piling on.  Indeed, in a book whose visuals have such a powerful impact, Weing’s decision not to overwrite (and especially not to over-narrate) was his wisest.  With nearly 70 of the book’s pages appearing as silent, the result was a book that understood and maximized its charms.

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One Response to “Lyrical Ballad: Set To Sea

  1. […] Over at the Comics Journal, Rob Clough had some kind words for Set to Sea. One thing he noted: “It’s odd to think of Drew Weing’s Set To Sea as his […]