Those that have followed Top Shelf Productions in its decade-plus career have seen it become a bit like Miramax was in the 1990s: offering stories that, while frequently very different from one another, had a similar sort of tonal quality that matched the aesthetic of Warnock and Staros. There have been a few exceptions (the science fiction of “The Surrogates” jumps out, for instance) but for the most part, Top Shelf has lived up to its name by putting out premium comics that are aiming for a specific subsection of the non-superhero market. “That Salty Air” feels like a very Top Shelf kind of book.
Tim Sievert’s first graphic novel isn’t an ambitious opus, really; just a relatively simple tale of a fisherman feeling the ultimate betrayal by the sea, but his self-assured storytelling makes it work from the very start. This is achieved mostly through a plaintive tone that gives the dramatic (Hugh receiving word of his mother’s death) and surreal (an octopus serves as an silent observer and redeemer) moments room to breathe.
One sequence in particular stands out: Hugh goes out to fish again after receiving word about his mother’s drowning. Where he once gently placed a seahorse back in the ocean, he instead gores the thing he once treated lovingly onto a hook for bait and begins to work his way up the food chain, generating chum for sharks while silently challenging the ocean to a final duel. There’s no dramatic camera angles or overwrought narration, just a simple sequence of events that builds into an almost Kubrickian finale that’s unlike anything else I’ve seen in comics.
From its languid opening that lulls readers into a false sense of serenity to the surreal and emotional confrontation that wraps the story up, there’s a sense of quality applied to the project that reminds me why I’m glad Top Shelf is out there, doing something distinctly different from Fantagraphics and pushing the medium forward in ways not as traveled by the other independent presses. It’d be easy to do much, much worse than using “That Salty Air” as an example of comics at their most literate and intelligent.