You are about to take part in an odd bit of critical analysis even by the ‘soft’ standards of this particular website. Odd because the reviewer, Keith Silva, speaking of ‘soft,’ not to mention, pathetic and clearly a bit of a showoff, perhaps all three, has taken it upon himself to write, at least the first part of this review in the second person. So there’s that. Settle down. Pay attention. The review is lengthy, but not by much, four stout paragraphs of exactly two-hundred-and-fifty words per paragraph. You read at least as many words, if not more, while you skim the recap to a TV show you don’t watch because incest and the seeing children crippled holds little interest for you, but you feel the need to ‘stay current’ and so you diligently soldier on. If you’re reading this at home, find a quiet place, make coffee or pour yourself something a bit stronger like Kentucky bourbon. If you’re trying to relax after a long day, a cold beer would be the perfect companion. You deserve it. If you’re in transit, on your commute, on a bus or a train on your way somewhere else from where you are now there are worse ways to pass the time. Perhaps you’re waiting on a child, a friend, a lover, perhaps, and you have ‘time to kill.’ If you’re at work, by all means, read on. You are about to read a review of Worse Things Happen At Sea by Kellie Strøm.
Here’s what you need to know Worse Things Happen At Sea, see, it isn’t a comic or a book or for that matter, a comic book, sorry to be so pedantic, what it is is a single, double-sided illustration presented in a format the jacket copy calls ‘concertina’ meaning it folds up (or plays) like an accordion. This design works well for the reader in transit (see above). As complicated as its arrangement of folds are, you find reading it in a confined space, such as a crowded subway car, to be no more difficult than turning the pages of a paperback book or your favorite four color pamphlet. If you are fortunate enough to find yourself in more spacious environs, than by all means, open it out to its full one-hundred-and-thirty-six centimeters; that’s almost four-and-a half feet, the height of a tall-for-her-age-five-and-half-year-old child. Think of it like this: Worse Things Happen At Sea converts to 0.000734341 of one nautical mile. See, it gets more manageable the more you think about it. When you do open it up you are immediately hit with a blast of nostalgia so strong it feels like someone has thrown cold sea water in your face. You are instantly transported back in time, back before you could read, to when you would open the Sunday funnies and lose yourself in the adventures of a six-year-old boy and his stuffed tiger or of a valiant prince or the one about the worrywart penguin and drug-addicted cat.
You have now made it halfway through this review. Because you pride yourself on your acute awareness of such details, you have, already, no doubt, also noted that the reviewer has yet to explain what sort of nautical story (or series of stories) Worse Things Happen At Sea entails as it (ahem) unfolds. The use of the word ‘illustration’ in the rather drawn out opening sentence in the previous paragraph has led you
to believe Strøm provides neither narration nor dialogue in his work, in other words, no words. Correct on all accounts and ‘good on you’ save for this one detail, Silva, did not disclose as he went on and on about the overall presentation: Strøm (or his editor) includes a wraparound cover of thick cardboard to protect the work itself. On the inside, one finds the sheet music and lyrics to ‘The Mermaid,’ one of the Child Ballads (number 289, to be exact) which take their name from the folklorist who first collected, cataloged and published them in the 1880’s and ’90’s, Francis James Child. You’re right, of course, these type of songs, if you will, are often what are referred to as ‘sea shanties’ — sometimes spelled ‘chantey’ depending on your place of origin — so ‘Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum’ i.e. ‘Dead Man’s Chest’ and all that jazz, which, technically, isn’t a shanty, but a song Robert Louis Stevenson borrowed or made up for the express purpose of Treasure Island, either way, singing is encouraged.
[Singing] and you may ask yourself: MY GOD … WHAT IS THIS 136 centimeter FRIEZE ABOUT? Fair enough. You have shown the patience often required of Catholic saints. Strøm ships the fantastical alongside the historical in magnificent and microscopic detail. Junk, drakkar and even a sea plane flying a zero (to name only a few) battle (and lose) to nine briny beasts. Fabled Scylla, a six-eyed sea serpent and a pair of oversized narwhals are among the real and legendary terrors that Strøm illustrates to show man’s folly when he goes beyond those rude Portolan charts to ply more watery depths. The devilish detail in Strøm’s illustration rivals artists with similar fanciful letters in their surnames like Dürer and Doré. Strøm imagines barrels, shipboard goats and ancient mariners as all plummet ass-over-tea-kettle to the same salty grave. Read this illustration like you did the funny papers as a child. Stare at it for hours if you like; your eyes will give out long before Worse Things Happen At Sea surrenders all of its delightful secrets. Capital ‘A’ Art like this transcends words. There is little in the poor power of this review or this reviewer that lives up to the creativity, beauty and grace of such a rare and sublime object as a masterpiece like Worse Things Happen At Sea. No matter. Perhaps, if you believe, dear reader, it’s true that a picture is worth a thousand words than, at least, this review holds to that accurate albeit colloquial metric.
Keith Silva writes for Comics Bulletin and has clearly been reading Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. He also writes for Twitter: @keithpmsilva and a blog, Interested in Sophisticated Fun?, which he should update more than the 3rd of never.