Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Lost at Sea (Oni) is one of those books that I’m almost afraid to review. This is going to sound like coffee house blather, but the work has a weird kind of purity that makes me reluctant to dissect it. O’Malley so perfectly and seemingly effortlessly captures a certain state of mind that it seems nitpicky to try and figure out how he’s managed it.
But it’s also one of those books where just saying that it’s a wonderful comic and I loved it doesn’t feel inadequate. It’s exactly the kind of graphic novel I want to read: smart, funny, observant, expressive, driven by character, and making fluid use of a distinct visual style.
Lost at Sea doesn’t so much tell a story as it follows a train of thought. Eighteen-year-old Raleigh has caught a ride home to Canada from California with three of her high-school classmates. The trio is close in a cantankerous, shorthand way that manages to accentuate Raleigh’s feelings of isolation and disconnectedness. And she really doesn’t need much help in that area.
Raleigh suspects that she doesn’t have a soul, and she ponders that a lot. As her fellow passengers tease each other in spiky, familiar ways, Raleigh looks inward. Her mind wanders to moments of connection in her own life, but she can’t seem to draw any comfort from them, because they all have accompanying moments of loss: her parents divorcing, her best friend moving away, being moved to a gifted class only to resent the fact that she isn’t special any more.
She tries to pinpoint the moment when her soul went missing, but she’s smart enough to know that life isn’t that linear, that what seems like a pattern may just be coincidence and that memory is at least partly, if not mostly, perception. Perception plays a big role in Lost at Sea. Raleigh seems to assume that her dilemma is obvious, and that the people around her must know on some level that she’s missing something. It makes her reluctant to connect with the people around her, even as their perceptions of her draw them closer.
Raleigh is so eighteen. A million thoughts swirl through her head, and she’s determined to make sense of them. At the same time, she recognizes the virtual impossibility of that aim. She can’t quite allow herself to articulate what she wants or what she feels, because the possibility of rejection or misunderstanding is always looming. She thinks she’s the weirdest person in the world.
It’s a fairly universal state of mind, but O’Malley portrays it articulate, sensitive ways that are entirely specific to his protagonist. He gives Raleigh a barbed, revealing stream-of-consciousness narration that never becomes tiresome. It’s not some dreary poetry journal; it’s the often jumbled thinking of a smart young woman who doesn’t know if she’s actually in crisis or is really just like everyone else, or which of those states would be less comforting.
O’Malley has given Raleigh the perfect companions for both the road trip and the head trip. Short-tempered Ian, above-it-all Dave, and blunt, funny Steph are all outgoing in ways Raleigh finds both baffling and attractive. I’m very impressed with O’Malley’s skill at portraying the kind of warm, casual friendship on display here and in Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life. It’s almost more effective here, as the threesome’s rapport has to be convincing to shake Raleigh out of her mental loop.
I can’t help but think of Lost at Sea and Scott Pilgrim together, if only because they’re so distinctly accomplished. While Scott Pilgrim is dizzily entertaining and surprising, Lost at Sea offers quieter, more contemplative pleasures. O’Malley has real emotional range, but his work seems effortless. It’s seamless, like it just arrived whole on the page. But it doesn’t have any slickness to it. Everything seems connected, part of a warm, organic whole.
I wish I were better at talking about the visual elements of comic storytelling, because I feel like I end up using the same, limited vocabulary over and over. For lack of my own words, I’ll just have to lift something Bill Randall said about Osamu Tezuka in The Comics Journal Special Edition 5: “The unique vocabulary of cartooning, with its exaggerations and simplifications, its playful lines and caricature, can embrace the whole of human experience.” That sums up my aesthetic response to O’Malley’s visuals much better than anything I could come up with, so we’ll leave it there.
Lost at Sea is a wonderful comic. I loved it.