July 19, 2010

That Salty Air - A Review

So I had a chance to catch up on my graphic novel reading recently (I also discovered why so many people around me are starting sentences with 'so' nowadays). One thing I will truly miss about New York is being able to buy amazing comics from Top Shelf for dirt cheap+shipping. Unlike my usual book purchases, which are at least moderately researched (by which I mean at least 1 referring article+a bunch of amazon reviews deep) I essentially jump off the cliff with Top Shelf, doing no more than reading the blurb, checking out the price and then jumping into the sale. This is mainly because these people believe that comics dont have to be about underwearsofacushion people, pseudo-surreal absurdism (though that's mostly pretty ok with me) or slapstick humour to be an art form. Top Shelf publishes comics written by people who want to tell stories. Timeless stories about aspects of the human condition which ring true (which I miss reading because so many people are writing Human-Condition Porn for Booker Prize lists and other such junk that its so hard to sort through the dross).

So one such story was That Salty Air (If my opinion means anything to you, I would seriously encourage you to buy this book. If you're in the US, please buy direct from TopShelf. You'd be helping a wonderful publisher to grow. If you're in India, Flipkart amazingly has it. I love you Flipkart).

I dont know how many themes this story covers for me. Its a story about loss, irrationality, anthromorphism and the sea. Anyway, I was pretty moved by it, and I should issue a disclaimer at the outset: This is probably because I love the sea and most of my internal metaphors work water or the sea in somewhere. That said, I did have some thoughts on this story. They're pretty raw, as I typed them out on my qwertyphone while I was killing time waiting for something specific to happen, but I think they pretty accurately reflect what I think about the story, so here they are:

What is 'That Salty Air' about?

Its a modern day, magic-realist parable about the capacity of a man's hatred, and of the acceptance of change. its also a revenge story about a man who tries to rape/murder/defile the sea (the verb that actually flashed through my mind while I was reading it was 'to fuck' though not in the sexual sense rather than in the sense of defiling). The protoganist, Hugh, is a fisherman in love with the sea. The book tracks the souring of that relationship, its zenith and subsequent redemption.

Why was That Salty Air a beautiful work?

It immersed me emotionally. Granted, a kinship with the sea may be required to feel the same level of immersion, or, alternatively, some equivalent feeling of connection with your surroundings (I think the city lends itself to anthropomorphism as well as the sea).

Despite asking this premise of you, however, I still feel that the pace and story are beautifully proportioned and calculated to immerse you in its reality. Each portion of the book featuring Hugh and the sea strikes the exact note it seeks, and in doing so, adds to the poignancy of the others. For example, the simple love and reverence he shows to the ocean serves to enhance the horror and revulsion evoked by his subsequent hatred.

GYAAN ALERT - Was there a message?

At least, I thought there was. Besides the moderately obvious ones concerning loss and our relationship with the Fates, there was something in there about our relationship with our world which made me think. Watching Hughe's carnage, in the midst of the horror and revulsion, I couldn't help but think - man is the only creature capable of such wholesale destruction and brutality. All animals are capable of brutality, but only man can convert this into the urge to destroy his world. Our current attitude towards nature arises from our seeing it as an adversary; a jungle to be tamed, an ocean to be overcome; a river to be harnessed - one of the reasons we never think about our present relationship with Nature in this manner is because of our veils of perception, refusing to believe in that which does not conform to the established dogma and canon of reality. To that extent, this book is clearly a work of surrealism and magic realism, intertwining simple, mundane situations with the fantastic so that, in the midst of your emotional connection with the story, the veils are, for a time, drawn. And when they are drawn, I saw in Hugh a reflection of the present state of modern humankind, an adversarial, pugnacious creature, embittered by his dance with his environment, and seeking no more than to subjugate it entirely, to exact blind revenge for past wrongs. Hugh embittered is man at his ugliest.

Wait, isn't this a comic - why haven't you discussed the drawing yet?

For a number of reasons. Mainly, because I think that this is one of the rare stories where the story tells itself through the art. There's no need for evocative metaphors and photo-realistic adjectives because the artwork takes care of that, in spades. In that way, this is probably a bit like a Cormac McCarthy story in terms of its sparseness of dialogue, except without the need for abovementioned verbal cues. To put it another way, my entire rant so far has been about the artwork, because the artwork is the story. If you have to know about the artwork independent from the story, I think it covers some incredibly inked panels, with incredibly beautiful and surreal seascapes.

So should you buy this?

If you're reading this, you just managed to trudge through about 800 words of me gushing all over it, with an introduction encouraging you to buy it. You're probably at least moderately curious. If you like stories about the human condition, and you aren't averse to moderate quantities of magic realism, and are not automatically biased against comics because they are 'for kids', please buy this book (in fact, please buy it even if you're in the last of these categories, because you need to understand now).