Set to Sea and “Simplicity”

I’ve been meaning to pick up Drew Weing’s Set to Sea since I read a glowing review of it in Time’s Comic Book Club last fall.  I finally got around to it in the last week and I’m very thankful I did.

When I was purchasing it I thought, “seventeen bucks is pretty cheap for a hardcover graphic novel”.  Then I opened the box it was delivered in and saw why.  The book is very small and the story is told in a series of one-page panels.  I read it in ten minutes.  Then I read it again.  Then I picked it up again that night and read it again.  It’s safe to say I’ve read it ten times since plus I keep flipping through to look at favorite moments.

It’s the story of a big lug of a wannabe poet in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century struggling with writing a book of nautical poetry before finding himself on a real sailing vessel.  Despite his size, he’s borderline useless on the boat, struggling with his life at sea before they’re raided and he gets his eye shot out.  From there, he discovers what Joseph Campbell called his bliss as a sailor.  Through the hardships of this life he not only finds purpose but also his voice as a poet.

The legacy of E.C. Segar (creator of Popeye) hangs over the entire work.  I also thought a lot about Jeff Smith’s work on Bone.  The characters are drawn in a similar fashion which many people make the mistake of calling simple.  Their features may not be detailed but you know everything you need to at first glance.  Every emotion is on the surface and they’re powerful. 

And while the characters are “cartoony” the environment they’re in is anything but.  You can see details in the grain in every piece of wood and every ripple on the waves that surround them.  I could frame every panel in the book.  In fact, Weing could have a very interesting gallery showing of his work from this book, where attendees could see the story unfold as they moved through the panels.

The storytelling is also first rate.  In some sections of the book, the space between panels is mere seconds and elsewhere it’s months.  By capturing the most important moments and discarding everything in between, the book allows you to make the connections.  This is why the book gets more rewarding with every read-through.

The most powerful section of the book is where we’re taken through years of his experiences from the exotic locations he sees to a battle with a whale to the mourning of a friend.  The pages may be small but they don’t feel that way.

I think I’ll continue to thumb through this book for a long time.

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