August 7, 2019

A Thousand Thousand Slimy Things: Rob Clough reviews THE SEA by Rikke Villadsen

The vast sea is still a potent go-to metaphor for any number of things: mystery, death, eternity, etc. For Rikke Villadsen, it's also an opportunity to explore toxic masculinity, the erosion of ego, and desire. In The Sea, Villadsen eschews inks and colors, and, instead, the pages are shot directly from her thick, scribbly pencils. This gives the book a rough and slightly distorted quality that adds to the heightened sense of strangeness throughout. From the very beginning of the book, Villadsen puts "reality" on rocky ground by way of a series of narrative techniques that turn in on themselves halfway through the book. 
The first few pages are crucial to understanding the rest of the action. Three pages of watching an old salt tie knots on his little fishing dinghy are followed by him suddenly turning toward the reader (or no one in particular) and narrating his story. What story is happening? Who is telling it, and to whom? He is insistent on being called a sailor, not just a fisherman, oddly narrating his story through a series of tattoos, most of which are of naked women. Indeed, he speaks of being unable to choose between "whores in harbor and spices in cargo," but, in this, he indicates his superficial level of engagement with anyone and his understanding of the world as a series of commodities. 
His nemesis at sea is the fog, an apt metaphor for a character who professes that all he has left are his memories. When those are fogged up, he feels that his doom is at hand. Through the first twenty pages of the book, this is still just a story of a fisherman lost at sea, until he pulls in his net and finds a baby and a talking fish. What follows is a hilarious, bizarre series of arguments between the sailor, the fish, and the baby. The fish relentlessly insults the sailor, including scolding him for his use of the word "fuck" instead of something like "chowderhead." Worse, he calls the fisherman an amateur, taunting him that he'll never find shore in order to sell them at auction. The fish mocks him for being afraid of the seagulls as well.
This is an insult at an existential level. The fisherman has no identity outside of seeing himself as a sailor. That kind of insult is a total negation of self, and the fisherman undermines himself further by not swearing as a sailor should. The fisherman delays further self-examination by questioning the baby on its origins, which leads to a segue to the sea and then to a woman on an island. After pouring a cup of what appears to be her own menstrual blood in the ocean, she "nurses" the pot she poured it out of and calls it her child. Villadsen then flips this maternal scene on its ear as she starts goofing around with the pot and transitions from silliness to pure desire. The woman strips, and, for lack of a better way to describe it, she fucks the lighthouse on her island. This is an eight-page segment, four panels to a page, and the way Villadsen draws the woman drawing pleasure and fulfilling her desire with her "partner" is not played for laughs at all. This is not to say that it isn't absurd, with the final panel of the top of the lighthouse lighting up, as if it were experiencing an orgasm. 
As strange as the whole experience seems, Villadsen grounds it in an almost visceral sense of reality. The woman's body language, her facial expressions, and the way she touches herself and the lighthouse are sensuous in a way that most sex scenes in comics aren't. The nearest comparison I can think of for that kind of in-the-moment rawness is Julia Gfrörer, who also uses the gritty quality of fine pencil work to achieve that stark, unadorned sexuality stripped of fantasy and pretense. This is why that scene has such a charge: it's a fantasy sequence, depicting something impossible, yet in a way that feels authentic and lived-in. There's no deception at work here.
On the other hand, the story the fisherman spins about his mother is told with words as well as images. However, the text serves to frequently undermine the pictures, as the fisherman is an unreliable narrator. As his memory falters, the words serve only to obfuscate meaning and memory. He conflates dreams, fantasies, and actual events, unable to remember if the branches he recalled were really scraping the window of his nursery or if his mother's breast was brittle and wooden. He's inadvertently fooling himself as well as the reader. It's all in line with the narrative slowly dismantling his inflated sense of ego.
If the first part of the book is introductions and the second part is origins, then the final section is all about exits. A storm picks up, the fisherman panics and gets seasick as the fish continues to berate him. It's another attack on not only his identity but his masculinity as well. For this character, being a sailor is the same thing as being a man -- being a "fisherman" is nothing if not emasculating. Being a sailor implies bravery, bold narratives, steely nerves, and unshakable courage. Being a fisherman means physical weakness, fragility, literally diminished status (with regard to the size of his boat), and cowardice. When the baby then disappears, and the fisherman questions why, the fish says, "What baby?" Then the fish says maybe he's imagining the baby and that there's a talking fish there. The waves break on his boat, finally removing all illusions of control at last, and he winds up on a shore, face down, being picked at by the gulls that he despised. The last thing to go for the fisherman is his grip on reality itself. 
The final image is of the woman from the baby's story, who looks at the fisherman, the bones of the fish, and the pot, and remarks "Then the child will come soon and the tale will end." Whose tale is it? Hers? The baby's? Or is the title of the book more than just a setting, and is this a story about the sea itself (or is it herself)? 
What we learn is that it's not the fisherman's story, not really. He's only a small part of it, even though his ego demands that he's a great sailor, a master of the sea. The reality is that he's a man in a tiny dinghy, afraid of gulls and prone to seasickness. His identity, wrapped in the masculine ideal of the sailor, is a sham. The sea -- both mother and father -- is the true force here. Respect it, as the woman does, and you will find yourself a part of its great mystery. If you earn its scorn, you will wind up like the fisherman: dead, stripped of identity, and forgotten. 
The Sea, despite its seemingly simple veneer, is deeply rich in imagery and symbology and can be interpreted as a feminist text, an ecological text, and a detailed account of one man's descent into existential terror. 
Rob Clough has written about comics for Cicada, the Comics Journal, Sequential,,, Savant, Foxing Quarterly, Studygroup Magazine, as well as for his own blog, High-Low (

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