THE BETA CANON :: Poor Sailor, by Sammy Harkham

September 2, 2009 at 9:59 am By:

By the time Sammy Harkham‘s Poor Sailor book came out, he had already produced at least 4 volumes of his now-essential Kramer’s Ergot anthology, been featured in Drawn & Quarterly Showcase, and was about 25 years old. Whew! Humbling, no?

Poor Sailor reprints the story of the same name from the classic Kramer’s Ergot Volume Four; except, instead of printing on big pages, with multiple panels per page (or were they? I don’t have mine in front of me, and now can’t remember), the Poor Sailor hardcover is not even 6″ square, printing a single panel on each page. The little orange book was the first work by Harkham I’d seen, something I ordered for the store on a whim out of Previews, then bought on impulse once it showed up.


I don’t want to oversell this book–it’s a good book, even a great book, but I like to think Harkham has and will do better. But it’s hard to overstate what happened in my brain when I first read it, then immediately reread it, then left it by my bed for weeks, picking it up often and flipping through its strange silent pages. Poor Sailor was one of the books that made me want to start making my own comics–not that I hadn’t before, but something about Poor Sailor made me want to IMMEDIATELY START making comics. I suspect this would be similar to how a budding writer might read a certain short story and feel compelled to pick up their pen, or a painter with Picasso, or whatever… I have always been drawn to the kind of art that provokes a creative response.


One of the most distinguishing characteristics of Poor Sailor is the aforementioned format, which has two clear effects (for me). The first is to completely compartmentalize the passage of time, which is no different from “regular” comics, but since there is a single panel per page, each page is one “moment”, rather than a collection of them. The story follows the fortunes of a husband smitten with wanderlust, who leaves his wife and home for adventure on the high seas. The early pages are a scattered portrait of the man’s life, chopping wood, building his house, his wife hanging clothes in the wind. The strange meta-space between pages–a page turn can propel the story forward by months or seconds, you never know–adds a dreamlike, haiku quality to the storytelling. It’s almost like a folk tale, a cautionary tale–it’s at once mundane and terrible.

The second effect of the single panel format is harder to explain, especially since I’m only now realizing it, years later: without exception, each page is bounded by a thick black panel border. Yes I know that’s very normal, BUT: by containing each image in that big chunky border, Harkham delineates the space within that panel–in effect, he CREATES the space by placing it inside the box, each image static, a little portrait of time. When you flip through the book, there is often more SPACE than there is image, with a character’s head just popping into view at the bottom of the frame, or a tiny boat floating in an immense ocean. The characters in Poor Sailor are grappling with SPACE, often drowning in it: the space they live in, the space between them and where they’d like to be, the space between them and what they’ve left, and most of all the limitless SPACE that time and circumstance create, and into which any evil thing may insinuate itself.


It helps that Harkham’s style is a weird amalgam of the European ligne claire (“clear line”) style and that of old newspaper strip artists like E.C. Segar (Popeye) and Frank King (Gasoline Alley). His figures are lumpy and worn-in, regular schmoes who are trying to figure out what’s what. His steady line creates systems of forms on the page, just shapes and occasional dollops of black floating in all that SPACE. Oh, and speaking of space, the end of the story kills it, the last little coda emerging from 4 blank pages, each still with its panel border, containing just… SPACE!


For more Sammy Harkham, I heartily suggest Drawn & Quarterly Showcase volume 3, which he has a long story in, as well as any volume of Kramer’s Ergot, especially 4 and 5. Also Crickets, which is amazing and which is also now cancelled. Bummmmmmmer. You can check Sammy out (sort of) online at his store’s site (he runs a store in LA called “Family”), or just Google “sammy harkham” and start the fun! Below is an image I found via this aformentioned fun Googling, some more clear line magic courtesy of the Comic Art Collective.



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