That Salty Air Review
The beauty of art is that sometimes you stumble across something that makes sense to you in ways that little else can. Reading Craig Thompson’s phone book sized Blankets a few years ago I was instantly seduced with its tale of a young man struggling with love and faith. I could easily identify with it and it will always hold a prized place in my heart. It showed me what comics could achieve in a way no other artform could. Opening my eyes to the world beyond superheroes, Top Shelf has been my indie publisher of choice ever since. They know how to make compelling comics and aren’t afraid of creating unique tales.
That Salty Air is another proud string to their bow. The debut work from Tim Sievert, it’s a haunting piece of fiction with a power that echoes beyond its 110 story pages. Hugh is a fisherman who works alone in an unnamed seaside town, and lives with his wife Maryanne. All seems well in the first few pages in Hugh’s world until the postman brings news of his mother’s drowning. Hugh’s love for the sea immediately becomes disdain and utter hatred. After going on a drinking binge, he decides to take revenge. Of course spewing vengeance upon a body of water is not something easily achievable, but Hugh has chosen his target and his beloved wife can’t scream any sense into him. When Hugh takes a tiny seahorse and uses it as bait, after previously finding it and returning it to water, his change in attitude becomes drastically clear. In the book’s standout scene, this fragile creature becomes the first in a brutal game of ‘up the ante’ in which Hugh gets increasingly larger bait, eventually surrounding his boat with a variety of dead sea dwellers. The provider of his income has seemingly turned and transformed into the taker of joy. Hugh’s shift in perspective is a sudden one, but it’s obvious that the depth of his grief is equal to the depth of love for his mother.
Coupled with the news of his wife’s pregnancy and his landlord’s desperation for payment doesn’t help Hugh ease his way into less erratic behaviour. Throughout the tale, apart from the postman, only Hugh and Maryanne have any weight, but Sievert has done well to give a subdued personality to the sea itself, personified in the haunting eyes of a giant octopus.
That Salty Air is partly autobiographical, but is more of a metaphor for loss and the anger and confusion it brings, rather than a strictly realistic story. Never does it wander too far into fairytale land (though it does have abstract moments) and Sievert confines his two main characters into their house, the shore, the boat and the sea with great restraint. It’s themes are grander than its events, but for anyone who has known the heartache of a loved one’s death, this will resonate. However, it goes beyond that. That Salty Air is simply a well told tale, especially for a new creator. Sievert could easily have gone to an extreme by enveloping it in too much fantasy, or too much harsh reality. Either approach would have created distance for the reader, but Sievert has crafted a well balanced tale that is easily approachable. It’s also beautifully presented. Crisp lines make the black and white art enticing, coated with a graceful beauty. You can almost smell the seaweed and hear the waves break against the rocks. It’s not easy to give life to the inanimate in any media, but Sievert makes the sea and its inhabitants quiet observers, brutalised victims, and finally wise redeemers with great care.
I also noticed the lettering, which is a rarity in itself. Here, Sievert makes dialogue and sound effects ebb and flow like the ocean, with balloons that overlap and even meander through panels, like banners caught in the wind.
Sievert will be a creator to keep an eye, or even two, on. That Salty Air is a boundless presentation that mixes unescapable truth with the realisation of letting go.