“Just a drop of water in an endless sea”
Elaine M. Will adapted Dust-Ship Glory from the novel by Andreas Schroeder, which is itself based on the life of Tom Sukanen, a Finnish immigrant who really did build a ship in the middle of the Saskatchewan prairie (there’s a museum and everything!). This particular comic is published by Renegade Arts Entertainment and costs $19.99, although I am sure you can find it cheaper!
The plot of Dust-Ship Glory is easy to describe, because there’s not much to it. During the Great Depression, in the middle of a terrible drought, Tom Sukanen began building a boat in the Saskatchewan prairie, with the intent of sailing back to Finland (or, perhaps, elsewhere) once he could drag it to a river. He doesn’t quite make it to the river (he does try!), and some neighbors and a relatively kindly Mountie finally convince him to enter a mental institution, where he dies not long after (according to the comic, he checks in voluntarily in 1941; Sukanen died in 1943). So there’s not much of a plot, to be honest. Will does delve into Sukanen’s past and show us that he’s not a particularly good man, but he’s also not the worst dude around. She’s much more interested in showing us the way of life on the Canadian prairie during the Depression and why Sukanen upset so many people. It’s there where the book is most interesting.
Sukanen obviously had a lot of problems. He was married with two children in Minnesota, but he had a temper and he was smarter than most people around him, so he had the unshakeable belief that he was right all the time, and that caused problems in his marriage. In this book, at least, he seems to have a bit of a problem with women, embodied by his wife, but that might just be because she didn’t think he was right all the time, and for someone like Sukanen, that doesn’t sit well. An incident causes him to leave Minnesota, and years later, his wife having died, he tries to smuggle one of his sons in Canada, but he’s caught and told he can never return to the United States (not that he wanted to, but it was where his son was, so he could never see his son again). In the “present” sections of the book, he still hasn’t reined in his temper, and it gets him trouble a bit, but that’s not why the book is so tense. Will begins the book well into his ship-building, with a group of Sukanen’s neighbors showing up, insulting him, and strewing his materials around his yard. Sukanen gets worked up and chases them off. A reporter from the big city (Regina) shows up, wanting to get Sukanen’s story, but Sukanen is less than accommodating. Throughout the book, his neighbors, his brother, and the Mounties try to get him to give up his ship-building, but Sukanen soldiers on. He’s not unkind; at one point he shows a young boy around and tries to explain why he’s building a boat. and the boy leaves happy. But Sukanen, a foreigner, can’t speak English very well, and when he tries to talk, too often his temper begins to bubble up. So he’s left as the prairie madman, and eventually that’s his downfall.
While Sukanen dominates the book, Will’s focus is more on the townspeople, as they react very poorly to his ship-building. As I noted, the first scene in the comic is Sukanen’s neighbors coming onto his property and kicking things around, and when the reporter shows up, they are less than kind in their assessment of Sukanen. Even the local minister gets in on the action, taking some kids out to Sukanen’s farm and telling them they should pray for him. Will lets the characters speak for themselves, and they call Sukanen a Commie, while one woman is angry because he didn’t appreciate the pie she made for him. One admits that he’s a good inventor, but everyone agrees that he’s crazy. The reactions are fascinating, because it boils down to the townspeople being scared of something they don’t understand and not being able to leave well enough alone. The men, mostly, call him a Communist, even though we know that Sukanen is angrily opposed to government hand-outs of any kind. Building a ship on your own land isn’t really Communist, either, but the men – farmers and laborers – can’t understand what he’s doing, and they fall back on the most heinous insult they can think of, even if it makes no sense. The clergyman obviously thinks Sukanen is somehow challenging God, and Will subtly suggests that Sukanen, in his capacity as Christ figure (if you choose to read it that way), is challenging not God but the status quo, and the clergyman represents the Pharisees – remember, Jesus is portrayed in the Bible as a rebel. Sukanen even alludes to himself as Lot, claiming that those who stay in the blighted land of Canada will be turned to salt. The RCMP corporal who is very sympathetic to Sukanen has to do his job even though he tells his superior that Sukanen isn’t doing anything wrong – the neighbors complain, and the peace of society must be upheld. Sukanen is disturbing the status quo, and Will is able to show how upsetting that is even if it’s illogical. Sukanen isn’t an artist, but he is an artisan, and Will is making the point that true art shakes people because they can’t assimilate it easily. The people in Saskatchewan can’t fit Sukanen’s ship into their worldview, so instead of expanding that view, they try to destroy that which is intruding. That they’re successful is the tragedy of the book. Sukanen might not have been an admirable human being, but he was creating something bold and magnificent, and small minds could not allow that into their lives, even if their lives are limned by their own tragedies and horrific struggles. Sukanen gave himself hope, and he did it on his own, and the rest of the town felt hopeless and couldn’t conceive of such a way out, so they needed to keep Sukanen in.
Will’s art is solid and even utilitarian, as she has a nice clean line that fits well with the aesthetic of the age, but she’s also able to rough up the characters when she needs to, using thick hatching lines to do so. She has a decent sense of humor in her art, too, as the faces of the characters when Sukanen turns his wrath upon them are funny, mainly because the characters have no idea how to deal with this force of nature in their midst. As Sukanen begins to deteriorate, she does a good job making his face pinched and withdrawn, drifting further away from reality. In the present, everything is in stark black and white, but when she illustrates Sukanen’s past, she uses beautiful gray scales to add nuance to his relationship with his wife, as well as some haunting silhouette work. She uses looser panels borders and less rigid shapes for the panels, imbuing the flashbacks with a dreamy – or, in some cases, nightmarish – quality, which also adds to some of the fantasies Sukanen has in the book, when he’s imagining the decay of the world or, more triumphantly, his ship sailing free on the seas, taking him home. Will’s is deceptively simple art, but she shows through the course of the book that she is able to come up with many different visual styles to tell the story, and in a book that doesn’t have much of a plot, that’s fairly crucial.
Dust-Ship Glory is about a time that’s difficult to imagine but also hauntingly familiar, as people still struggle with poverty and the majority still regards the minority with some suspicion. In the 1930s they called Sukanen a Communist; today, they’d call him a terrorist. People still reject things they don’t understand, and they still think they’re entitled to pry into other people’s business even if that business is hurting no one. The allegorical aspects of Will’s comic are universal, even as it’s tough to comprehend the horrors of the Depression and the drought in the Midwest (of both Canada and the United States). Dust-Ship Glory is a fascinating book, because Will doesn’t overdo the messages in it, just allows us to come to them slowly and organically. Give it a look!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ★ ★