Shipwreck Vol. 1
Warren Ellis (creator and writer), Phil Hester (artist), Eric Gapstur (inker), Mark Englert (colorist), Marshall Dillon (letterer)
July 18, 2018
In his glowing introduction to this volume, Jeff Lemire refers to Shipwreck as a mystery, but that isn’t entirely accurate. A mysterious atmosphere permeates this comic, but it isn’t the kind of “mystery” in which a murder is discovered, investigated, and then solved; instead, it is a high-anxiety psychological horror story.
Don’t read Shipwreck if you are afraid of knives, spiders, birds, paranoid delusions, pale brunette women, eyeballs, or, like, the unknown. All of these threaten the protagonist in the pages of this book.
As the story begins, we are presented with a haunted and haggard looking man, staggering around a swirling Old West-style landscape. There are many wordless pages, but we learn from Warren Ellis’s dialogue that this character’s name is Jonathan Shipwright, and that he landed in this world (which does not seem to be our own) with a technology enabling him to travel instantly from one spot to another. Though the landscape seems deserted, he encounters a variety of shady characters who seem calm in their violence, who know who he is and where he comes from—and wish to use him in some way.
Who are they? Where is he? Who is he? Is he a reliable narrator? What happened to his hand? Are the spiders symbolic or indicative that this is a nightmare? What’s with all the eyeballs, anyway?
I’ll tell you right now that not all these questions are definitively answered, but the ending of the story is still satisfying, as long as you are willing to take all the characters at their word. In his introduction, Lemire says he is putting off reading the end of the book because he doesn’t want the story to be over, and I can understand that. I, too, have been burned by serialized fiction that revels in a mysterious atmosphere. But this story does, in fact, conclude. Just don’t ask too many questions about the birds. Or, you know, physics or character motivations.
The most impressive thing about this book, in my opinion, is how well the visuals and text work together to create atmosphere. Ellis’s dialogue is enjoyable, with a laconic protagonist matched by comparatively chatty denizens of a strange world; the information given by the words and the pictures dovetails without redundancy. Phil Hester’s bold lines and Eric Gapstur’s high-contrast ink work are set off by Mark Englert’s wonderful coloring, which suggests the desert. The palette and texture choices work as images of sand and rocks, faded as though on newsprint. The people’s faces tend to look overexposed, as if someone had cranked up the highlights and shadows on a photo filter: confusing, unexpected planes alternate between clarity and opaque blackness. The effect works well for this plot of seemingly straightforward statements that don’t necessarily mean what they say they do.
The page layouts, too, are atmospherically appropriate. While there are some splash pages, especially at the beginning of chapters, the standard page layout for this book presents panels overlaying a larger image, so the gutter is never white space, but rather the continuation of one whole picture. This means two things: one, that the only white space on most pages is the background for the text balloons, which really sets off speech in this world and makes the text seem incongruous. The other is that the chronology does not feel linear. There’s no clearly defined progression of incidents in a row; instead, one overall impression colors an entire scene, literally intruding between other moments.
By the end of the story, I felt immersed in Shipwreck’s unsettling alien world, and I had a lot of questions about just how reliable any of the characters’ explanations of their experiences were. The mysterious and anxiety-producing atmosphere was successful, but not necessarily enjoyable. Shipwreck is a wonderful example of how to achieve an effect, but I am not sure the effect itself is one I’d recommend for a good time.