Three lines of visual information, a family man, a big city, horrific violence. Three colours; red, white and black. Three acts; The Sailor, Old Jack and Lost Dogs. The last is the most important, because it encompasses the first two and links to them in a way which drops the reader back out at the exact same point they come in. This is narrative as knot, each thread neatly parallel, each thread twisted and each thread building on those around it to create a story with a simple scope and a devastating impact.
The Sailor is huge, a man straining at the borders of the page. He’s also the only figure given a third colour, red, as well as black and white. Lumpen, hulking and gentle he looks carved as much as grown,a man whose nose alone fills a quarter of a panel and who’s presence evokes every classic doomed big man in comics. He’s Lil Abner with a family, Bluto home from the sea and reformed from his old ways. Lon Chaney dressed as Ben Grimm. Boris Karloff dressed as Rocky. The iconography and symbolism is stacked high on his massive shoulders and all of it points to two things; power and fragility. This is a massive human being, with a massive capacity for violence who has chosen to put his back to war. There’s something of the cowboy to the Sailor, a naïve belief that he can put down his guns, open his fists, and life wil simply let him go on as he always has. It won’t, and can’t and that inevitability, coupled wth the Sailor’s size, pushes him out of the fictional and into the real. He embodies, albeit in the most extreme way, the assumption that’s made about everyone, man and woman above a certain size. If you’re tall, if you’re broad, if you’re strong, then that’s all you’re expected to be, all you’re viewed as capable of. A cage of bone and muscle closes around you that can either condemn you to a lifetime of physical assumptions you don’t want or eventually drags you to something like peace with your frame and how it fits into the world. I’ve got some experience of this. The Sailor’s experience is far more raw. Tragedy strikes, arbitrarily and callously, and Lemire casts the Sailor adrift literally as well as figuratively. He’s big, but the world is bigger and crueler and is far more prepared to be in the fight. The outcome is never in any doubt, just how long it takes to get there.
The Sailor is trapped inside both his body and the expectations that come with it. Old Jack is trapped within nothing but the city, the place where his wife died, and the common ground he shares with The Sailor. Jack, ironically, is a two colour character with far more shades than the Sailor, a man who passionately believes in God and fate and explains this to a man he’s just bought, stitched up the wounds of, and chained to a radiator. Old Jack is the Sailor with none of the physical advantages and decades more time in the City under his belt. He isn’t a contender, and never was, but he’s smart enough to see an opportunity when it comes by and ruthless enough to ensure that the Sailor has no option but to act for him. Jack isn’t a bad man by any stretch of the imagination, just an old, desperate one. He wants his shot, he wants his brass ring, and he’s quite prepared to keep the Sailor from the last tatters of his old life to ensure he gets that. Jack is trapped in the potential, in the almost, just as the Sailor is trapped in a frame that’s almost impervious to damage and the one thing that Jack can’t take into account is the one thing that he craves; winning, and what happens next.
Two lost dogs, one huge and grief stricken, one small and frail and mean. They do the only thing they know how to do; run headlong at the Alpha and try and take their place. The entire book is built around the bare-knuckle boxing match between The Sailor and three-year champion Walleye Thompson and Lemire uses the fight, when it comes, as an axis to spin the entire book, and reader, around. Walleye is as ludicrous as his name, a bald, handlebar moustache strong man who dwarfs everyone but the Sailor, who in turn dwarfs him. He’s the epitome of turn of the century masculinity, one striped bathing suit away from a Monty Python sketch and yet he’s aso a very clear, raw danger. Just like the Sailor extrudes into real life, the fight moves from something we see at range to something we experience. Lemire crams the pages with tiny panels, alternating between Walleye landing unopposed punches on the Sailor and the Sailor’s head snapping back and forth, blood flying as it goes. It isn’t a fight, it’s a beating, and it tells us a lot about both men. Walleye is flashy, brutal and terrified of losing his title. The Sailor chooses physical pain over emotional pain, diving towards unconsciousness because maybe then he’ll see his Daughter again. That idea, and the simple, ghastly image of his daughter with a neck wound, his wife being held down in the distance, that wakes him up. He throws one punch. He wins. The moment means nothing because his daughter’s still dead.
In a kind world, this is where the story ends. Old Jake gets his moment of glory by proxy, The Sailor is reunited with his wife and the credits roll. But this is a world where actions have consequences and the callous, impersonal violence of the big city doesn’t know how to stop. The Sailor’s reunion is a pyrhhic one and Lemire shows us grief draining the life out of this huge man in a series of three panels that repeat an image and replace detail with white, numbing grief.
That white field is contrasted with more red as the book draws to a close. The city, and the House, always wins and as the book draws to a close, the Sailor and Old Jake find out exactly what the price is for victory, and exactly how long glory lasts. The book’s last pages see the Sailor robbed of physical prowess and turning to verbal, comforting Old Jake as the world closes in around them. It’s one of several stark, hard scenes in the book, the Sailor still barely fitting on the page as Old Jake’s puckered, wrinkled face slowly fades, because of the message underneath it; these men didn’t matter, they never did, the City has already forgotten them. The only difference between them and Walleye Thompson is that today, it wasn’t his turn. Lost dogs, fighting in the street because it’s all they know how to do. But lost dogs can sometimes find their way to where they’re needed, and the book closes with a moment of balletic grace that catches in your throat because it’s incredibly well executed and desperately needed. the emotional punch of those final pages exceeds anything the Sailor can throw and the realization encoded into the book’s story and it’s return to print is a single point of light in a story etched in black, white and grey; Not all dogs are lost forever, and this one has finally come home.
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