I See Cats

Lost at Sea was the debut work of Brian Lee O’Malley who is best known as the artist behind the Scott Pilgrim series. Nominated for several awards before the film adaptation (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, 2010) pushed his graphic novels into wider public consciousness, O’Malley has a recognised ability to speak to young people as one of the crowd. Not in a detached or reminiscing way (cf. Daniel Clowes and his Ghost World or The Death-Ray) but more like a classmate you had not seen for a while, and now the two of you are developing a new bond over the shitty gas station coffee neither of you really wanted.

Lost at Sea came out in 2003 when O’Malley was working as an illustrator at Oni Press, his subsequent publisher. In 2014 they issued a hardback ‘10-year anniversary edition’ of the book, and that is the copy I currently have before me.

Lost at Sea
LOST AT SEA, COVER OF THE 10-YEAR ANNIVERSARY EDITION. 2014. BRIAN LEE O’MALLEY / COMIXOLOGY

The Scott Pilgrim series (to be revisited) was a cornerstone for me as a reader: although I knew and loved my graphic novels, I was wary of serialised stories and had no experience with manga. Not that O’Malley draws manga, but he certainly makes similar creative choices, resulting in ‘a very strange, neither American nor Japanese atmosphere’ (Kentaro Takekuma on the panel structure of the Scott Pilgrim books). The series was my gateway drug to Death Note and Fullmetal Alchemist, much like a Quarter Pounder with Cheese inevitably leads to violence and Bible quotes.

On a more personal level, Scott Pilgrim was something Sam used as bait during the early days of our dating. He would loan me a single book from the series, and then I would have to come and visit him again in order to get the next volume. Clever, Sam. Very clever.

After Scott Pilgrim (2004–2010) O’Malley published Seconds (2014). Seconds shows the author’s development as an artist, but it does not dazzle or cause uncontrollable laughter the way Scott’s precious little life did. It is a very well-structured work that deals with sulking fairies, infinite possibilities, and human mistakes, and I happen to own a nice copy of Seconds, too. That means, in due course, the novel will be reviewed on this website, but for now we are not concerned with what happened afterwards. We are concerned with what happened before.

Bryan Lee O'Malley (2014)
BRYAN LEE O’MALLEY. 2014. PAUL HILLIER / DRAWN & QUARTERLY

Lost at Sea is a road-movie kind of a book, with us following high-school graduate Raleigh and her accidental companions on their trip from California back to Toronto. By the end of the novel we are still on the road, maybe in Oregon (no one has been reading the map), and that is one of those stark illustrations to McLuhan’s ‘medium is the message’. As suggested by the title, the lack of direction is something that is acutely felt by Raleigh in regards to her life and can be recognised by anyone who managed to survive adolescence.

In preparation for this review I reread Lost at Sea, and the graphic novel certainly works better the second time around. Most of the work is spent on a build-up that amounts to very, very little; once you know not to expect a final revelation of epic proportions, you can enjoy the (literal) ride better.

Lost at Sea opens with ‘I have a lot on my mind and not a lot to do so it’s going to come out, all of it, and then, it may begin to make a sort of sense.’ On page 14 we get a glimpse of the mysterious and tragic relationship that our heroine had been involved in. By page 150 we learn the precise circumstances of that relationship and are astounded by the lack of inherent tragedy. At least, I was.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a teenager must be in a love and, most probably, unhappily so, but there are normally tangible, unavoidable and very real circumstances which make the feelings a source of grief. In Raleigh’s case, her relationship is sharing a box with Schrödinger’s cat: is it dead? Is it alive? How come no one is trying to determine the answer? You have that answer on a piece of paper put in an envelope, Raleigh. Open it! Are you human or what?! …Oh yeah. I forgot:

Lost at Sea (Page 11)
LOST AT SEA, PAGE 11 OF THE 10-YEAR ANNIVERSARY EDITION. 2014. BRIAN LEE O’MALLEY / COMIXOLOGY

The novel is written from the first point of view in a meandering and dramatic fashion that is largely contained to the thoughts in one’s head. It is emotionally accurate if not entirely relatable, as the protagonist manages to combine a very low self-esteem with a low esteem for everyone else (hello, Daria). The latter does not seem to be justified by the narrative and does not really make Raleigh the kind of person you want to be stuck in a car with.

A pleasant enough book, Lost at Sea lacks the maturity of sustained narrative that O’Malley is going to exhibit in Seconds, and the lightness that is the crucial trait of the Scott Pilgrim series. There is not enough plot. The emotional build-up receives no equal resolution and, although echoing itself on purpose, the storyline remains a confused mess. The protagonist’s emotional development is contained to the very last pages of the book, and two of the supporting characters remain underdeveloped to the point of being interchangeable.

That said, I — as always — enjoyed O’Malley’s artwork and sense of humour. There are a few scenes within Lost at Sea that rang true, and the faithfully portrayed sense of aimless longing is very much the essence of adolescence. Ultimately, this graphic novel would be a better read if it knew what it was doing, and yet that is just the question at heart of things.

Bibliography: Brian Lee O’Malley, Lost at Sea. United States, first published in 2003. My copy published by Oni Press, Inc. in Portland, Oregon, United States in 2014. ISBN 9781620101131. (On Goodreads)

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Not a Day Without an Adventure. June 22nd, Day Twenty-Two: The Darkness Under the Rainbow.

The Darkness Under the Rainbow is a science fiction novel that Sam self-published in 2013. At the time he just graduated from Southampton Solent (Creative Writing) and was about to start studying at Oxford (Creative Writing). We met shortly afterwards, and Sam was very careful to not give me a copy of his book. Although he praised the cover design that was the work of illustrator Mitchell Nelson (MJN Creative), Sam’s friend, I was told that the book is full of faults and, at this point, is an immature treatment of an interesting idea.

Once we moved in together, a copy of the novel got its place among other fantasy and science fiction titles (left side of the shelves, alphabetically by author). The hardback winked at me from its spot whenever I sat down on the sofa. Tonight I decided enough was enough. Decisively, I took the novel from the shelf, carried it upstairs and snuggled with it in bed. I also read the preface and the first chapter.

Despite the author’s warnings, The Darkness Under the Rainbow does not seem bad. It reads easily and the concept is worthy of attention. The dialogue is not imitating real-life speech, but that is common for fiction in general and the character’s opinions (Jenna Mckay) impress as her own. On the other hand, Sam’s metaphors are faulty at times, and the prose could be less flowery.

I have got some three hundred and fifty more pages to cover. I shall keep you updated.


Current album: Sia, This Is Acting
Current book: Don DeLillo, Zero K
Current TV series: Scream Queens, Series 1 (2015)

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