The Speed Abater
By Christophe Blain
Published by NBM/ComicsLit
A study in claustrophobia, The Speed Abater mixes the breezy narrative confidence of Herge's Tintin with the hopeless, bleak despair of David Fincher's Seven.
It's a gripping maritime adventure story with no real adventure, one that depicts the boredom and drudgery of military duty convincingly and never once allows the boredom of the ship's crew to be transferred to the reader.
George is the new helmsman on the Bellicose, "an old tub that's always broken down." In the novel's opening sequence, an experienced sailor warns George that "shipping out is bullshit," but George loves the sea and goes ahead and boards the vessel. The grim shipyards, reminiscent of the wonky architectural style of German expressionist fims or bad dreams (is there a difference?), set an uneasy tone -- a foreshadowing of life at sea, where the world is constantly lurching, never to be trusted, and no refuge stays motionless for long.
Blain's style is ideally suited for the oversized NBM graphic novel format, its generous dimensions giving ample room to depict the hugeness of the ship, which is in stark contrast to the tight spaces and tiny quarters of the ship. George's shipmates are by turns friendly and off-putting, each and every one of them working their own private agendas, even when seemingly working together as a team to meet a common goal. This creates a disorienting environment that is exacerbated by the never-ending motion of the sea, keeping George and some of his shipmates perpetually ill and desperate for relief. Relief from the nausea, relief from the boredom, and eventually relief from the danger posed by a submarine rumoured to be in the vicinity of their vessel.
The most striking visual elements of The Speed Abater are the convincingly drawn pipes, decks and bulkheads -- Blain joined the French navy at the age of 21 and his life experience lends the book an easy verisimilitude. The reader can't help but be drawn into this alien environment, and Blain's dramatic use of colour serves to reinforce the sense of dread and the certain knowledge that there's simply no place left to run. I recently read James Sturm's Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight, a period piece set in a remote mining community, and I felt the same uneasy resignation then that I got from The Speed Abater -- that if something goes really wrong, here, no one is coming to help -- not in time for it to matter, anyway.
So of course George and a couple of his fellow crew members get themselves into even more jeopardy than you might expect from shipping out on a creaky old hulk being threatened by a submarine -- the key element of drama being a tiny, everyday object that you would never suspect could cause the disaster that becomes imminent because of its momentary mishandling. Of such small, unexpected crises are genuine human dramas generated, and Blain succeeds magnificently in conveying just that very real sort of circumstance.
Despite the claustrophobic setting and the limited number of characters Blain really focuses on, The Speed Abater feels like a sprawling epic, and its generous attention to detail and terrific linework and use of colour make it a pleasure to immerse one's self in. Along with Paul Has A Summer Job, The Speed Abater is one of the best and most entertaining graphic novels I've yet read this year and is highly recommended. Grade: 4.5/5.
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