Lost at Sea
Created by: Bryan Lee O'Malley
Published by: Oni Press
ISBN: 1932664165 (Amazon)
It’s been awhile. Ten years, give or take. I first read Lost at Sea in 2002, or thereabouts. I was, what, twenty-eight? Twenty-nine? Maybe I was in its target demographic or maybe I was just at that right crossroads of life experiences, dashed hopes, fear of future, and qualified loneliness that Bryan Lee O’Malley’s little book hit me just right. After all, it was one of my favourite comics at the time. I… I really liked it.
Of course, a decade has intervened and O’Malley’s world has exploded into a torrent of Scott Pilgrim-related hootenanny. And due the ubiquity of the internet and the fact that everyone now has a voice with the advent and proliferation of blogs, livejournals, facebooks, tumblrs, ad nauseum, it’s very easy to get a sense of what the vocal world out there thinks of Lost at Sea. “Emo bullshit” seems to be the lowest common denominator. There is a wave of unhappiness directed at this slender day-in-the-life recountment of a teenage girl’s struggle to grasp the cruelness of a world she is yet to be prepared to understand. People don’t like it and are happy to talk about how little they care for O’Malley’s artistic vision in this case.
I generally like to reread books I’ve enjoyed every several years or so. (It’s easier with comics than with prose fiction, obviously.) But with buckets of Lost-at-Sea-related negativity sloshing viscerally from one end of the internet to the other, my anticipation for the book began to wane. I chalked it up to my having first read the book in a vulnerable emotional state—despite not actually remembering what state I had been in when I had read Lost at Sea (but I mean, I had to be in some sort of unreasonable condition to have enjoyed so much a book that everyone seems to hate). I put off reading O’Malley’s earlier work and contented myself with perusing the gradual release of new volumes of Scott Pilgrim. After a while, I wasn’t even sure whether I had liked the book in the first place. Maybe I hadn’t? Stupid book. Why did I even spend the money on it? So embarrassed that it was even taking up space on my shelf.
(I’m not usually one to be driven by the opinion of others. Look, I still don’t think Watchmen is among the greatest comics of all time.11Truth is, I think Watchmen is expertly crafted so far as formalism is concerned, but the book strikes me as ultimately soulless. Additionally, Alan Moore is often praised for applying a quasi-realistic (or at least a pessimistic) lens to the question of the superhero story. I will grant that he was one of the first to do so, but I’m not sure how novel the idea was—seeing as how the same framework had developed decades earlier in every other narrative medium. It’s nice that someone finally thought to expand the scope of the genre, but the idea stopped being fresh by the 1950s at least, as the noir cinema drew its curtain closed. I read superhero books, manga, independents, and books from Europe. I’m not usually the kind to allow my enjoyment of a book to be coloured by any hue developed by someone else’s tastes. But the lesson here is that even those vigilant against ad-populum persuasion will occasionally fall to the pressure of peers.)
So here, thinking I needed to review something less than grand in order to keep up the illusion that I don’t only review books that I think are good, I thought I’d reread Lost at Sea and garner myself a nice one- or two-star review—the better to pad those woefully22It’s actually ludicrous for me to say “woefully” here. In my opinion, the more three-star reviews I can give, the better. I like comics to be good; I don’t like them to be bad. I’m happy to be able to recommend a book as Good if it really is good. And I’m glad that there exist as many worthwhile books as I’ve been so far able to catalogue on this site. slim segments of the site. And here, in the reading of Lost at Sea is where my plan fell apart completely.
Because this is a good book.
Lost at Sea covers the space of three days and three nights—long enough to be stuck either in the belly of a whale or in the heart of the earth. Or in Raleigh’s case, stuck in a car with three near-strangers, some kids from her high school whom she knew of but didn’t quite know. She’s just left the love of her young, young life33I know what you’re thinking, because I thought it too. Or at least I thought I should think it, which may be the same thing. Come on, Raleigh. You’re what, eighteen? It’s not like this is the end of the world. There are a million trillion fish in the sea and this guy was probably not even all that great. And what do you know about love and heartbreak anyway? You’re just a kid! And maybe we’re right to think that, but maybe we’re wrong too. After all, what the hell do we know about someone else’s heart? Maybe they’re different than we are and experience things differently than we do? After all, I can bet almost anything that I experience things differently than you do, so maybe I (and we) should just give poor Raleigh the benefit of the doubt and at least recognize that hurt is hurt is hurt, no matter how “real” that hurt is. behind in California where she was visiting him for the first time. (Internet relationships, ho!) She hugged him and left to go back home and then found a letter in her duffle and just fell apart. The pregnant potential of that letter sends Raleigh into a spiral of despair and doubt and questioning life and its meaning and everything.
And then she ends up, insanely enough, in the car of some road-tripping kids from her hometown in Canada. The reason for this is thin and stretched and implausible and exactly the way these things sometimes happen. At the end of the day, whether you call Lost at Sea a road-trip story or a coming-of-age/bildungsroman or something else—at its most basic and pared-down, Lost at Sea is a book about going home.
I can’t begin to suspect why those who write the book off as “emo bullshit” do so, nor would it be very much a fruitful endeavor to try. Everyone’s got their reasons, their biases, their preconceived notions. Maybe mine are why I enjoyed the book.
At any rate, the four kids dialogue in a cadence unknown in everyday teen conversation. While they speak in that arbitrary selection of rejoinders that don’t really say much but fill up space nicely (though not unique to teens, this repartee was certainly a large part of my own teen years), their speech flits back and forth with a fluidity possible only by following a practiced script. It’s fun, winsome, entertaining, and not remotely realistic. Lost at Sea, in this way, seems to have been the proving ground for Scott Pilgrim's later enjoyment of the dialogical style.
This one goes out to Doug Wilson
At the other end of the spectrum, Raleigh’s narration is hyper-uncomical and over-earnest—and for that reason really does seem like it could be the work of a genuine teenager (who journals!). She says things like “Soon we’ll be home. We’ll be home sweet home sweet home sweet home. And now I want to cry again.” And “I get thoughts like: I look in the mirror and I don’t belong there. I see myself and I look all wrong. Stephanie looks bold and bouncy and fresh and normal, and I look like something else. Too long, too stringy, too pasty, too squarish, kind of inhuman.” All that sounds dead-on like something a kid in high school might write if he or she were of the particular kind of disposition possessed by Raleigh.
From that I guess you might be able to see where the “too dang emo” criticism comes from. From another perspective, however, we have Blankets' Craig Thompson saying that Lost at Sea “captures the clumsiness, isolation, and aimlessness of adolescence.” So, whiny emo whininess or accurate portrayal of the teenage experience. Choose your own adventure.
I enjoyed Lost at Sea for what I perceived to be a kind of fantastic (as in fantasy) verisimilitude, a portrait of what young life and young love look like. Even if Lost at Sea's version of those things is too magical to ever actually exist, the tone rings true. Raleigh’s friends were my friends or maybe idealized versions of my friends. Their problems and reactions may be heightened, but the kernels are the same as mine were; the seeds from which their apocalypsis germinates are probably common to us all. Lost at Sea isn’t as madcap as Scott Pilgrim. It’s got its own rhythm—and taken from the right vantage and in the right mood, Raleigh’s three-day pericope in the tapestry of life can spur a kind of thoughtfulness on which solid self-reflection might stand.
Plus, if you like cats, Lost at Sea has tons. Like, at least twenty cats.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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