Graphic Novel Review: Lost at Sea by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Bryan Lee O’Malley‘s first major graphic novel is decidedly different from his later works, both stylistically and storywise. It’s a coming-of-age story and the teenage viewpoint is helpful sometimes and hindering at others.

There’s a lot of existential rumination in this book. A lot. And unlike the deep lesson of Seconds or the (very) brief moments of introspection in the Scott Pilgrim series, all the ~very serious~ stuff here is approached without a wink and a grin. It’s for real. It’s sincere.

Lost at Sea came out during a period when there were still things like “geek culture” and the “indie scene”. The world of art hadn’t yet amalgamated into the monolithic beast it is today. It’s this quiet, earthbound atmosphere that permeates the book and shows a glimpse of a world just before mumblecore, social media, The O.C, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe changed media forever.

The conceit is simple: a girl named Raleigh is searching for a cat she believes houses her soul, which her mother sold to Satan in exchange for success. The conceit is also a feint. This isn’t a high-flying adventure with fantasy or sci-fi elements in it. There’s no epic showdown with Satan or risky climb across a temple bridge to find a glowing cat. This book is a realistic look at profound sadness and loneliness that doesn’t resolve itself with a MacGuffin.

Bryan Lee O’Malley has the gift of being able to translate the anxieties and experiences of a specific age into his stories. In Scott Pilgrim he explored the freewheeling, pleasantly chaotic nature of your early twenties, while Seconds looked at the entrepreneurial ambitions of most late-twenties millennials. Here it’s a very much teenage story. The profanity, the casual non sequiturs, the aimlessness- it’s all meant for those lost souls at the brink of post-secondary education.

Due to that, each reader’s experience with it will vary. It will resonate incredibly with those in their teens and those who had just finished high school in 2002; many others will find it slight and unresolved. It’s also incredibly emotional. This is a graphic novel that could only have been birthed in the northwest Pacific emo music scene. The soundtrack would be Death Cab for Cutie, Wilco, Built to Spill, and like ten Modest Mouse songs. There are a lot of long, poetic thoughts splayed out against a background of stars and destined to be quoted on tumblr.

No really, I wasn’t kidding about the existential rumination.

It’s quite blatantly O’Malley’s own fears channeled through Raleigh’s internal monologues, and those expecting ninjas, robots, irony or “awkwardness” will be disappointed. But those who want a simple, occasionally sombre snapshot of teenage life at the turn of the millennium will love it.

Final Grade: A-