Getting old comes with several features, some of them obvious but many of them not. One of the most alarming is the loss of identity in regard to other people. You might still know who you were, but the longer life lingers, the less the people around you have the wider scope of your vision of self. This is more important than it seems at first. You spend your life not just trying to understand who you are, but doing so with the hope that other people will see the same thing you do. In the traditional context of men, this has often been linked with a profession. It’s a cliche, sure, but very often in the past, and even still, men’s self-worth has often been linked with the work they do, whether by the man’s own choice or by the culture’s.
In The Sea, Danish cartoonist Rikke Villadsen presents this concept in the simplest, starkest terms. There’s a man on a boat and he’s talking. Talking and talking and talking. Mostly what he talks about is what he is. A sailor. It’s very important to him that he prove this to somebody outside the panel, outside the book even, when they call him a fisherman. It’s a tale told in bawdy tattoos meant to express memories that no one else can access but him, a tale of swagger that is supposed to somehow change the old man in our eyes from the scraggly, struggling one we see before us.
As any profession-obsessed man will tell you, there are hierarchies within any field of work, and it’s very important for some men to make sure you know that they are not part of the elite, while there are plenty more than want to make sure you don’t think their position is lowly. Somewhere in the hierarchies of seamen, in context of this story, sailor is above fisherman. It makes sense. The implication of a sailor is that he left home, saw things that no one else has seen, had adventures, sowed some wild oats. The implication of a fisherman is that he stayed at home, waited for things to come to him.
This rambling justification turns salty when he brings out of the sea a talking fish and talking baby, who settle into the boat enough to make him feel attacked about his sense of identity, mocked that they don’t quite accept that he is a sailor more than he is a fisherman, and too amused at the very serious business of being who he is and not who they say he is.
Villadsen acknowledges that there is a universe beyond this old man’s pride, and contrasts his claustrophobic with a very mysterious sex scene involving a woman walking a beach and then happening upon a lighthouse. This will all come into play at the end, following arguments on the boat where the old man defends the status of his past and slowly begins to fathom that his interaction with his mysterious visitors might be a sign of disintegration. As the seas themselves become tumultuous and threatening, the old man is challenged to keep ahold of himself and the image he has built up of himself.
But if the sea is about anything, it’s about rebirth, and Villadsen delivers a small story of intimate proportions about the burdens people carry, the ones they inflict upon themselves, and the breaks in that pain that can happen, but often through struggle. These things don’t have to go on forever.