From "Maus" to "Blankets," independent comic books have long been a personal, emotional outlet for creative minds. The latest offering in that tradition is April's "That Salty Air" by Tim Sievert, an ugly yet reaffirming grieving process played out in comics form. Though it goes unmentioned in the Top Shelf book, Sievert undertook the project after the death of his mother in 2004. He transformed his sorrow and anguish into the story of Hugh, a poor fisherman who unleashes his anger on the sea after his mother drowns.
"In the fall of 2004, my mother died very suddenly," Tim Sievert told CBR News. "Making 'That Salty Air' was my way of trying to deal with that. The ocean has always offered an incredible mental escape to for me, being such a powerful and mysterious force that we know so little about, housing life forms too numerous and bizarre to understand, and ultimately for me being a midwesterner, it has always seemed so foreign and far away. I think I chose the ocean for the setting because it offered that mental retreat that I was looking for at the time."
In the book, Hugh learns of his mother's death just as Hugh's wife, Maryanne, learns that she's pregnant. The conflicting emotions send Hugh into a confused fury. He first drinks himself into a stupor, then goes out in his boat and kills as much marine life as he can, eventually drawing the ire of a giant octopus. Those scenes - of Hugh fighting the ugliness of life by unleashing his own ugliness - served as a cathartic release for Sievert.
The depiction of Hugh makes the book a challenging read, as the protagonist is rather unlikeable through most of the book, at least until he makes peace with his grief. But Sievert said it was right for the story. "I never really saw a decision to make Hugh a more likable character," he said. "Making this book was how I dealt with my own grief at the time. Hugh was how I grieved. I couldn't allow myself to collapse in self-pity so I made him do that. I couldn't try to enact revenge on the universe so I made him try that too."
Ultimately, Sievert said, "That Salty Air" is about the balance of life and death, and coming to terms with it. "In the undersea world we have a balancing act or life and death, of eating and being eaten," he said. "We're governed by the same forces on land, though we often believe that we aren't or at least shouldn't be. That's Hugh's mistake."
While "That Salty Air" defies archetypal roles, Hugh's "antagonist" is a massive octopus that acts as a violent agent of balance in the undersea world. As with the rest of the sea life in the book, the octopus is depicted in a stylized, high-contrast blacks and whites. "I struggled with it a little earlier on in the development process," Sievert said. "I would try to depict the octopus as accurately as possible, but like you said, I lost a lot of personality that I felt it needed to have. Not that octopus' don't have personality, anyone who's experienced them up close will tell you that they really do, I just couldn't portray it they way I thought it needed to be done. So ultimately I had to let go of what I thought an octopus needed to look like and allowed it be more of how I feel about them. As part of the creative process I spent some time with the octopus handlers at the Mall of America aquarium after hours and assisted in feeding and observing them."
Sievert grew up in Davenport, Iowa, which is squarely in Middle America and hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean. He later moved to Minneapolis, where he studied in the comics art program at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. And while he said he spent very little time near the ocean, he's always been fascinated by it and the creatures living in it.
"Sea life is totally more fun to illustrate than things on land," he said. "Everything is really weird looking down there. At the Mall of America here in Minnesota they have a pretty remarkable aquarium for being in mall. I spent a lot of time there getting acquainted with underwater life."
The choice of octopus came after spending time at the aquarium and finding a connection with the creatures, Sievert said. "I originally wanted the creature to be a giant squid. I felt that the giant squid offered a mythic and mysterious creature, that as in the story, could really work 'behind the scenes' underwater to maintain the balance that nature requires. But as I said before, being more familiar with, and spending time with octopus, I really felt a stronger connection to these highly intelligent animals. They seemed to know things, and have personalities that I wanted to try to portray. As I read more and more about giant squids in legend and reality I stumbled upon a few references to 'colossal octopus' so I thought that would work better."
Sievert has plans for his next book, but it isn't official yet. With one now finished, Sievert says he fully appreciates the difficulty of creating a graphic novel. "Yeah, it was super hard," he said. "Everyone says it and I didn't believe it until I tried it myself, but making comics is extremely hard work. It's also very fun."
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