There are a lot of things I like about Drew Weing’s Set to Sea. I really respect the way he’s manipulated the comic form, for one thing. The book is small—just 5 inches by 6.5—and each panel takes up a full page. As a result it can feel more like reading a children’s picture book than an adult graphic novel, and Weing uses that effect cunningly. The reader feels like he’s reading an innocent child’s story? Good, now let’s have the hero beat a man to death with his bare fists.
It’s a spare little story about a 19th-century lug of a struggling poet who gets knocked on the head and pressed into service aboard a merchant ship. The vessel is attacked by pirates and visits exotic ports, and the nameless hero comes to feel a part of the ship and its crew. All along he continues working on poetry in his little notebook, and in the end the authenticity reflected in his nautically themed work gets him published and appreciated.
There’s very little in the way of character development or plot. There’s very little dialogue. Weing’s strength is his art. His line drawings, shaded almost entirely with crosshatching, are something like old Gasoline Alley cartoons, although the exaggerated figures in them are more like the original Popeye. (The book’s jacket copy claims Popeye and Gustave Doré, which is a bit of a stretch.) The pages are incredibly expressive, able to convey longing, panic, rage, camaraderie, mourning, and ultimately peace. Weing manipulates whole compositions to achieve these effects, not merely the expressions on characters’ faces.
That compensates a lot for the lack of complex characterization through dialogue.
(It’s like the exact opposite of Peter Bagge, whose compositions are all flat and inexpressive but whose characters speak everything on their minds, or at least spell it out explicitly in thought bubbles.)
This is Weing’s first book. I’m intrigued to see if in future works he can put this considerable artistic talent to work in the service of more complex tales.
PDF preview here.