PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Books

Rikke Villadsen's Idiosyncratic 'The Sea' Sets the Imagination Adrift

Danish artist Rikke Villadsen appears to be spinning a circular tale-within-a-tale with no origin or end points and only tragic escapes in his graphic fiction work, The Sea.

The Sea
Rikke Villadsen

Fantagraphics

Jan 2019

Other

As much as I enjoy US and UK comics, some of the best English-language work is coming from other countries right now. Certainly Drawn & Quarterly and Koyama Press have proven Canada's oversized presence, and though Fantagraphics is stationed in Seattle (which is sort of Canada?), some of their most exciting releases feature international authors. This month Fantagraphics debuted Danish artist Rikke Villadsen's first English-language comic, The Sea.

Though I would be content to read a translation of a work previously published in Denmark, The Sea is significantly more than that. Many comics develop their text and images independently, with artists leaving talk bubbles and caption boxes empty for letterers to fill with mechanical fonts digitally. While this is a reasonable division of production labor -- one that also allows for textual revision until pages head for the printer -- it can create a visual discord between the pleasant imperfections of hand-drawn artwork and the rigid reproduction of identical letters in identically spaced rows. Too often comics creators ignore the visual fact that words are images too.

Not Villadsen. All of her words are hand-drawn in an idiosyncratic style, merging script and font and bold flourishes in curving rows that echo the shapes of the talk bubbles that contain them. Translating The Sea into another language would require not simply rewriting text, but redrawing it and so altering all of her original artboards. While a loss for non-English readers, the result is a comic that fully exploits the visual potential of its text. Because Villadsen uses no exterior narration, all of those hand-drawn words also evoke the spoken sound of the characters who voice them, further deepening their visual characterization.

Villadsen's words, like the rest of the art they appear in, are drawn with pencils. Comics artists typically produce penciled sketches, which they or collaborating artists ink over to create line art that is then colored or printed in black and white. For Villadsen, penciling is not a step in a production process. The penciled pages are her finished product. The Sea consists entirely of pencil marks, from delicate crosshatching to rulered frame lines to the smudged smears presumably produced by Villadsen's own thumb on the original art.

(courtesy of Fantagraphics)

While colorless comics are common, it's rare to find the kinds of gray gradations of The Sea—a style ideal for Villadsen's subject matter, since her main character is lost in the gray waters and gray fog of the North Sea. Though he partially escapes the monotony through what may (or may not?) be surreal fantasies, even the fisherman's imagination remains caught in the monotone pencils that literary shape him and his world.

The imprisoned effect is heightened by the full-page bleeds and the absence of a formal gutter. Villadsen draws to the page edge (and so necessarily beyond it on her artboards), and rather than framing each panel individually to produce an undrawn negative space between them, her panels share single frame lines. Because the panels are gridded—usually 2x2, with occasional 3x2 and other variants—the combined effects produce a net pattern continuing across pages, as if the story is caught in the same trap that the fisherman pulls from the sea.

Villadsen also draws her main character and his surroundings in a style that at first glance feels cartoonish, because his features are exaggerated and distorted, sometimes as if by the hand of a child, though there's nothing untrained about Villadsen's artistic choices. But cartoons are also typically simplified too, with only a minimum number of lines needed to define their most essential shapes. Villadsen instead crosshatches her world with a naturalistic level of detail, producing a visual surrealness that matches her story content when her sailor nets a talking fish and a talking baby.

The graphic novel leaves its watery setting for the first time when the baby begins to recount in image-only narration the circumstances of how he (or she—Villadsen always poses a bare leg in front of its genitals) ended up in the sea. We spend the next 16 pages on the shore where the child's mother, after scooping up water and boiling it and pouring it back blacker into the sea, removes her Puritan-modest dress and has intercourse with a lighthouse. Villadsen parallels the change in story topic and tone with a striking change in visual style, penciling the mother in naturalistic proportions nothing like the sailor's distorted features but everything like a pornographic supermodel's.

If the sane 19-image sequence were drawn by a male artist, I might lose trust in the project overall. But Villadsen knows what she's doing. Earlier in the novel, the fisherman breaks the page's fourth wall to address the reader and display his tattoos. They include a sailor meeting a prostitute, four female nudes, a fully-dressed nurse, and a sailor before a tomb marked "In Memory of Mom". These skin-deep drawings, what that fisherman appropriately calls "painful doodles", seem to encompass the world of tiny possibilities that he's able to picture for women. Though the sea is vast, his world, like his imagination, is hopelessly limited, as he sails alone on his small boat through identical gray waves.

It's no surprise that he refuses to take responsibility for catching the talking fish and baby, instead blaming them for swimming into his net. When they critique his language as insufficiently old-fashioned, he refuses to change, preferring "fuck" to "hornswoggle" or "grumbleguts". According to his tattoos, he also prefers "fuck" to "True Love". A tale of his origins follows with his unknown, kelp-smelling father and his shrimp-peeling mother whose breasts creak like tree trunks in a storm.

Though already thoroughly surreal, the story grows even stranger as each building wave threatens to capsize the tiny ship. Ultimately, Villadsen appears to be spinning a circular tale-within-a-tale with no origin or end points and only tragic escapes. What it all means in terms of narrative and the implied gender critique grows as murky as the thumb-smeared fog, but the trip itself is worth the cost of any cruise on Villadsen's idiosyncratic sea.

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.