Originally issued by Fantagraphics four years ago, Drew Weing’s Set to Sea remains a wonderful pocket-sized seafaring adventure. Now released in paperback, the graphic novel provides an immersive, harrowing experience, following the transition from innocence to experience for an aspiring poet kidnapped and forced into sailor life. A sort of Ferdinand figure (huge but gentle), the unnamed protagonist discovers his inner tough guy as he encounters pirates, hardship and the dangers of the sea throughout his involuntary adventure. Writer, artist and generally thoughtful dude Drew Weing, now working on the web serial, The Creepy Casefiles of Margo Maloo, carefully researched the piece, and it shows in every line of dialogue and intricate illustration. On the occasion of Set to Sea’s reprinting, Weing took some time to exchange emails with Paste and answer our (sometimes long-winded) questions with intelligence and insight.
Paste: Why did you decide to go with the one-panel-per-page format?
Drew Weing: It was a purposeful limitation at first! When I started Set to Sea, it was completely with the intention that it’d be a small, experimental side project — I’d just draw a single panel every day, quick and improvised. But when single panels started taking me multiple days to complete, I realized that it turned into a different animal.
Plus, I started to like the idea of Set to Sea being a turn-of-the-century illustrated sea adventure, except all the text has been left out and only the illustrations are left to tell the story.
Paste: Talk to me about noses. In some ways, I feel like this book could serve as a taxonomy of cartoon schnozzes. Do you just really like drawing them or what?
Weing: Ha, I don’t know. Maybe Set to Sea is a compendium of all the various classic comic strip noses I’ve seen over the years! One thing that I don’t know if anyone notices is that one of the sailors gets his nose broken in the pirate fight, and it’s a different shape for the rest of the story.
Paste: One of the things I notice in your work is the care you take with continuity. Different perspectives on the same set-up correlate exactly as far as what is where (blood splatters, a hand straying into the panel, etc.). Do you think you focus on that more than other artists? Why?
Weing: I do put a ton of time into things like that, counting ropes and portholes and the like — which I’m not sure is a wise investment. I really like the idea of creating as consistent and complete a little world as possible for the characters to inhabit. Scott McCloud has a theory that detailed backgrounds and cartoony characters let the reader project themselves into the story and let them explore it in an immersive way, which I can buy. Also, I’m kind of just obsessive in that way. Anyway, I’m just glad somebody noticed!
Paste: I’ve seen Set to Sea compared to E.C. Segar’s work on Popeye, but your panels are considerably more detailed. Do you think there are better comparisons?
Weing: I think that Popeye is definitely in it, along with other turn-of-the-century strips like (Billy) DeBeck’s Barney Google. I also have been enamored for years with classic pen-and-ink illustration. I have this big book of pen and ink techniques and examples I’ve been poring over since high school, that’s full of samples by guys like Harry Clarke, who illustrated a lot of Edgar Allen Poe stories, and John R. Neill, who did the Oz series. I also was extremely influenced by the comics of Chris Wright, who I went to (Savannah College of Art and Design) with.
Paste: Oh yeah. The big hands, for one thing. That leads me into a question I’ve had trouble formulating. If I had to pull out my English major skills, I’d say Set to Sea is about the intersection between storytelling and reality. Our hero begins with a very romantic notion about seafaring, before he experiences it. Then there’s that violent interlude you mention, and a lot of disillusionment, which is where most people would end the story, arc-wise. But you don’t discount the actual romance of the sailor’s life as he gains experience and becomes better at his daily tasks. And yet, he returns to a quiet, cozy existence at the end. Does that reflect anything in your philosophy about life? Or did it just make for a neat narrative, his returning to his original chair?
Weing: Ah, I wish I had a clear philosophy I could sum up in this. In some ways I guess I’m reacting to the sort of ivory-towerism art school students — very much myself included — can find themselves after they get out into the world and it doesn’t shower their efforts with praise and dollars. After getting some day jobs under my belt, I don’t think art is a higher calling than most careers, and certainly lower than others. And of course, there’s a lot of wish-fulfillment in Set to Sea! I do appreciate the irony of making a book about a writer over-romanticizing the sea without actually having stepped foot on a ship myself.
Moby Dick: yea or nay? Its combination of gritty realism with romanticism (and obsessive details, like Melville’s focus on different kinds of knots) seems relevant.
Weing: I loved Moby Dick, but I’d only read pieces before I finished Set to Sea. I finally read it cover to cover over our trip to France in 2012. One thing I didn’t expect were parts to be actually funny! Not nearly the dry slog I’d been lead to expect.
Paste: Can you talk about how mini-comics have influenced your work from a design standpoint?
Weing: One of my earlier mini-comics was an improvisatory one-panel-per-page comic, so that was sort of a direct model of how I thought it was going to go. That was a shorter, simpler story about me and my girlfriend (now wife) getting mysteriously separated, and me having to look for her. I definitely had the idea when I started Set to Sea that it’d be collected in a mini like that one.
Paste: Both you and your wife (Eleanor Davis) seem very invested in the process of book-making (graphic design, printing techniques, assembly), which I suspect partially comes from doing mini-comics, but there has to be something else as an influence, doesn’t there? General print nerditude? Some teacher at SCAD?
Weing: I think just a general love of beautiful physical objects. It didn’t hurt that the comics environment we were coming into right out of school was exploding with elaborate and beautiful examples of minicomics-making, with a rash of cartoonists trying out new printing media like silkscreening. When you’re looking at things like Dan Zettwoch’s Iron-Clad or Jordan Crane’s Non #5, it was hard not to bring your A game. But that kind of elaborate, time-consuming assembly is definitely a young person’s game! I don’t think either of us has it in us anymore to hand cut elaborate shapes out of several hundred minicomic covers anymore.
Paste: What’s it like being married to a fellow cartoonist? What do you learn from each other? What’s your daily routine like?
Weing: I guess we’re a fairly odd pair in that we’re really up in each other’s business, art-wise. Most of the cartoonist couples I know of keep a pretty big separation there, for the relationship’s sake. With us, I think it’s fair to say Eleanor’s my primary editor and audience, and vice versa (I think). One thing we do have, though, is separate work spaces, since we’ll both distract each other. Eleanor works from the corner room in our house with the big windows, and I head out to a studio across town. She’s usually up first thing in the morning, and I tend to sleep as late as I can get away with. We meet back up in the evening, make dinner and show each other whatever we’ve been up to all day. She goes to bed really early, and I’ll tend to stay up late doing computer work.
Paste: Is working in webcomics different from working for print (for you, that is)?
Weing: You know, basically my entire comics career has involved the web in some way or the other. I serialized Set to Sea online when I was making it, although I knew fairly soon that it was going to be a book eventually. I know there must be a huge difference in the reading experience—webcomics being such a serial experience. Eleanor and I have talked about how when you have to read a comic slowly — a couple pages a week — it wraps your life up with the characters. So I enjoy the serialization aspect.
Paste: It would be easy to mistake Set to Sea for a children’s story, with its cartoony characters and pirate setting, but the story turns unexpectedly violent halfway through. Did you have the whole narrative plotted out before you started, or did your perspective on it change as you worked through the drawings?
Weing: No, it was improvised until about a third of the way through the story. I never really intended it as a children’s story, though, seeing as it begins with a guy passed out in a bar. I never really took the cartoony style into account as an age signifier. This might be endemic to modern cartooning, actually — cartoony art and decidedly un-kid-friendly stories. Like the journal comic I’d been working on just previously to Set to Sea was both cartoony and pretty foul-mouthed.
I figured out fairly early on that there was going to be a fairly violent scene — maybe as a shorthand for harsh reality intruding — and the main character would be forced to deal with it. I actually went in later and edited down some of the more violent panels. It’s so easy to get carried away when it’s just ink on paper.
Paste: Talk to me about Athens, where we both live. How did you end up here? Do you think it’s a sort of center for comics by this point, despite not having a comics program at the University of Georgia?
Weing: We moved here kind of on a whim. Eleanor and I had both visited town for the Fluke minicomic festival, and we liked how it was really a very small town, but it had so many weird corners, and a cool music scene, and it was cheap. Anyway, my dream is to have the comics scene gradually overshadow the music scene.
Paste: You also teach, right? What do you want young cartoonists to learn about their field? Is there anything you’re trying to convey to them that you feel like isn’t getting through?
Weing: Ha, sort of. We’ve done a comics camp for 11-17 year olds for the last five years (this was probably our last year). We had a lot of grand ideas before we taught that very first camp, but quickly realized the best thing was basically to keep out of the kids’ way and let them have fun. There’s a certain inevitable age when the kids realize other people will be looking at what they’re drawing and start getting self-conscious, and it’s always painful. Then we try to step in and help them learn how to draw the way they want to, without imposing too much of our personal philosophy on them. If it were a camp for college students, our approach would probably be a lot different.