This month Top Shelf Productions is putting out new books from two Minneapolis-based cartoonists, Lars Martinson and Tim Sievert. The two artists recently appeared together at a book launch party at Minneapolis’ Big Brain Comics and have promoted each other on their respective blogs.
This is interesting because Martinson’s book, Tōnoharu: Part One, and Sievert’s, That Salty Air, though similar in size and heft, differ drastically in tone, narrative technique, and style. With that caveat in mind, what follows are twinned reviews of these Twin Cities comics:
Tōnoharu: Part One. Self-published under the Pliant Press imprint; distributed by Top Shelf. 128 pages. $19.95.
Martinson’s Tōnoharu: Part One (I gather there will eventually be four parts) is a work of minute observation and small graces. A 5.5 x 8ish hardcover funded by a 2007 Xeric Grant award, the book is handsome, in a decorous, contained way. It’s also very ambitious. I wish I liked it more.
For my taste, Tōnoharu is too decorous for its own good; the story’s potential is hemmed in by a distancing, almost suffocating, formalism. Martinson plainly cleaves to Dan Clowes’ aesthetic of pictorial stillness and to the studied remoteness and formal evenness of Chris Ware, and he seems to be aiming for something like the feeling of helplessness that Clowes and Ware are so expert at evoking; it looks, though, as if he doesn’t have the stomach for the kind of terror they conjure in the process. True, unease is Tōnoharu’s prevailing mood, but the tone is so anomic and the overall mood of loneliness and torpor so enervating that the work cannot capture that sense of otherness that would seem vital to stories of cultural displacement. Craft-wise, Tōnoharu is very nice, crystalline in fact, but Martinson’s arm’s-length approach is visually deadening and the story accomplishes so little in this first volume that I have to question, regretfully, the wisdom of releasing Part One as a $20 hardcover.
An ostensibly semi-autobiographical novel-by-parts, Tōnoharu aims to recount a year in the life of a lone American, one Daniel Wells, working as an assistant teacher in the rural Japanese town of Tōnoharu, where he is overtaken by feelings of homesickness, loneliness, and alienation:
It's a brave effort insofar as it has the nerve to acknowledge just how difficult it can be to work so far from home and familiar cultural landmarks. Martinson’s meticulousness, though, tends to flatten the story out, and his Jimmy Corrigan-like protagonist, Dan, sadly does not exhibit Jimmy Corrigan’s depth and history. Dan does similar things -- standing at the margins of life, nervously hemming and hawing, getting by on small lies and evasions, steeping in his loneliness -- but making him the odd man out in a Japanese village robs him of much-needed familial and biographical context. By the same token, it robs the village, Tōnoharu, of its distinctness; the archetypical alt-comix schlemiel does not make for a very good lens on an unfamiliar place. We've seen this kind of character again and again, usually without any thought to geographical or cultural particulars.
Perhaps that’s part of Martinson’s point: his protagonist’s failure to truly take in his new surroundings. (Why, apart from autobiographical truth, is this story set in Japan?) Maybe Tōnoharu is meant to be the very opposite of a travel narrative. But, if so, there’s no contrasting element in the book to bring the point forward. The story focuses solely on Dan, and he’s so nervous, hedgy, and bewildered from the very start that you either want to take him in or kick him in the slats, straight off.
It doesn’t help that Martinson makes Dan’s halting, unrequited and indeed unexpressed sexual desire (another page from the Corrigan portfolio) the mainspring of the story: Dan wants to get close to another American, living in a neighboring town, but of course he cannot. Part One’s climax, such as it is, depends on this. Insert prolonged Schulzian sigh here…
This isn’t simply a matter of “attitude.” It’s a matter of artistic choices deliberately taken and doggedly, at times expertly, carried out. Martinson arrives at his story’s flatness -- or, to put it less pejoratively, understatement -- by dint of strategy. Most of its 100-plus pages, all but seven in fact, are regular four-panel grids (2 x 2). The only exceptions are mild ones, tweaking rather than departing from the grid. The panels, each roughly the size of a playing card, are borderless but nonetheless discrete, partly because Martinson washes each panel in a second color: a very pale gray-blue, so pale in fact as to be invisible if you’re reading the book by indifferent lighting, but enough to underscore the distinct shape of the panel (click the thumbnail for a closer view):
This second color, neatly applied against the book’s heavy, cream-colored pages, is a muted echo of Clowes’ Ghost World, but here the technique feels a tad affected. Another technique that gives shape to the borderless panels is Martinson’s compulsive hatching, which is dominated by patterns of neat horizontal strokes. Perhaps Kim Deitch is a reference point here? There’s an airless formality to the technique that recalls other cartoon formalists, say Tom Gauld or John Hankiewicz, but without their daring.
More than anything else, though, it’s Martinson’s approach to character that accounts for the flatness. Martinson offsets his obsessive rendering with rounded, childish-looking, neotenous characters whose blank, glassily smooth features provide some respite from all those little lines. The characters’ faces are smartly designed, in that they are easy to tell apart, but their bodies lack articulation and are, for the most part, physically inert. In contrast to Ware or Clowes, Martinson denies himself recourse to expressive body language of any type other than the nervously stiff:
Typical poses include hands on chins, hands in pockets, and arms folded. Action is framed in medium (waist-up) and long (full-body or scenic) shots, perpetually distancing us from the action. Many scenes are drawn as if from fixed, unvarying points of view (Ivan Brunetti might approve). Compounding the trouble are certain off-putting habits in the drawing: characters stand straight upright almost all the time; no-one seems to lean into anyone else; everyone walks without bending. Their arms are usually rigid and often too short. Martinson’s studied lack of dynamism seems designed to turn these habits to advantage, but I found the effect numbing.
I feel bad dumping so relentlessly on a work of such obvious care, and, to be fair, this is, technically, an exceptionally accomplished book for someone so fresh out the gate (Martinson’s only previously published work being a 44-page minicomic, Young Men of a Certain Mind , another semi-autobiographical tale). Martinson's blog shows the great care that went into crafting the book, and what he tells us about his process is very interesting. If certain elements in Tōnoharu are overplayed, others are lightly, deftly, handled, and Martinson frames the story in an intelligent, intriguing way, starting with a prologue narrated by Dan’s successor, another would-be teacher. Dan appears in this prologue as a minor but telling presence, sparking questions in the reader’s mind. There are well-observed moments throughout: I like, for example, how an officemate of Dan’s uses the books piled on his desk like a shield against human contact. Moments like these show considerable narrative cunning.
But precisely because Tōnoharu is such an intelligent project -- not slapdash and unconsidered, nor merely a piece of promising juvenilia -- it seems to invite criticism. This is a delicately crafted work-in-the-making, defined by considered aesthetic strategies. I happen to think that some of those strategies are mistakes, because they swaddle and smother the story’s potential energy and drama. I admit I’m curious to see future chapters, but I hope Martinson shakes up Dan and his world, and his own artistic techniques, as the story evolves. The work needs to escape the orbit of Martinson’s obvious influences and find its own sphere.
That Salty Air. Top Shelf, publisher. 120 pages. $10.00.
Tim Sievert's That Salty Air is by far the more robust work, and, for me, the more engaging. Though a fable, and on the fantastical side, it too seems to be semi-autobiographical; reportedly it arose from the artist's grief over his mother's sudden death in 2004 (the book is dedicated to her). Clearly, the book is a testimony to grief and a way of trying to take perspective on loss. At the same time, That Salty Air has the look of something carefully worked over and refined, not blurted out suddenly in the grip of overwhelming feeling. This, I suppose, is because the book is a revised and entirely redrawn second version of what was originally Sievert's senior BFA thesis in the Comic Art program at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Sievert has said in interviews (look here, and here) that it took the better part of two years to redo the story, and that he believes the new version represents a huge leap forward from the original. The book's design, an affordable 6 x 9ish paperback with a striking, minimalist cover, shows great care.
In terms of visual storytelling and sheer drawing chops, That Salty Air is a surging, energetic book. Its rhythm derives from its visuals, not its text: much of the book is wordless. Of its 100-plus pages, fully forty of them have no intelligible dialogue, and many pages have only short blips of text. Silent panels are on almost every page. In fact That Salty Air has the look of a drawing challenge taken up on a dare. Sievert has picked the right context for it: the silences suit the setting, the wide-open sea, through which monsters swim and against the scale of which the human characters are dwarfed (click the thumbnail):
Moby Dick-like, this is a story of people in perpetual conflict with the sea and what it represents; the ocean is the story's existential ground. The book's back cover and indicia identify its genre as "nautical" literature, which is fair enough -- but it's not nautical literature based on an acquaintance with the facts of maritime living. It's make-believe. The book reflects, rather obviously, a lifelong Midwesterner's fascination with the faraway sea, a sea more fantasy than fact. Sievert's inky ocean is a successor to Craig Thompson's, in Good-bye, Chunky Rice, likewise a make-believe ocean whose attraction for the artist, presumably, had something to do with the fact that it's so very dark, so metaphorically (and mystically) deep, and such a pleasure to draw.
Clearly Sievert is drawn to the sea, or drawn to draw the sea, which he imagines as both blessing and bane. His protagonist, Hugh the fisherman, draws his livelihood from the water, but also end up attacking the sea in his grief, like Cúchulainn of Irish myth attacking the waves ("the invulnerable tide," as Yeats put it). In That Salty Air, the sea is that godlike thing which gives, and takes away.
That's the story in a clamshell: Hugh's mother dies, and so he turns from delighting in the sea to raging at it, stabbing at it, slaughtering its creatures, and daring it to destroy him (g'wan, click the thumbnail!):
His wife Maryanne, who is pregnant, tries to calm him and to save him. The whole family ends up at risk on the storm-wracked sea, where Hugh must choose between vengefulness and sacrifice in order to save Maryanne. The climax, at which Hugh almost drowns, aims to bring Hugh face to face with what he has lost and, if not to exorcise his grief, then to reconcile him to it. More than that I ain't saying.
That Salty Air may be no less beholden to its influences (Thompson certainly, Jeff Smith maybe, and, in the brush-inking department, Charles Burns) than Tōnoharu is, but it certainly seems less boxed in by them. Sievert revels in the sea and throws in several transporting wordless sequences down in the ocean depths. There's a sense of awe and terror here, evoking Pip's vision in Moby DIck of the "wondrous depths" and "strange shapes of the unwarped primal world" at ocean's bottom (a vision which drives Pip mad). There's also the curious, almost Lovecraftian sight of an enormous octopus, a figure of the ineffable but also a very real physical threat:
All this is obvious, but that doesn't make Sievert's treatment of it any less delightful.
That Salty Air is not pitch-perfect. As spare as the dialogue is, it's often unwelcome. The characters' words are awkward, their attitudes forced, so that the rigging of the fable stands out too clearly. Also, the pacing of the story, even at 100-plus pages, seems rushed; Hugh's transformations are too abrupt, I think. In any case, the predestinate nature of the story is always obvious. What's more, there are some visual weaknesses; the character designs seem a bit flaccid, Maryanne's in particular (too often her arms are rubbery hoses, limp and dangling). But the work gains in confidence and power as it goes, and the story's resolution, for all its obviousness, is touching (with a vibe similar to that of Three Shadows). It's touching even on re-reading, and the rewards of the work are ample enough that, yes, I imagine re-reading it once in a while. Sievert's a cartoonist to follow.
(Complimentary review copies of both books were provided by Top Shelf.)