“Oh brave new world, that has such people in it”. That’s a famous line, right? Some people would recognize it as Shakespeare’s and not just the phrase that inspired the book title by Aldous Huxley. In fact, it comes from Shakespeare’s most exploration-based play, The Tempest, and one that culturally speaks to the wonder and concern for the elements of what’s known as the “Age of Exploration” in Europe in which old Will found himself.
And the most famous shipwreck in English literature is the wreck that sets the events of The Tempest in motion. So much so that when the film Shakespeare in Love was made, the creators opted to include a speculative actual shipwreck on the shores of the New World as an inspiration for the play.
Where does literary metaphor end and the danger of real exploration begin for Shakespeare? Maybe we don’t need to separate them. I don’t know if Warren Ellis and Phil Hester intended us to be thinking of The Tempest all along when reading their comic series Shipwreck, but if they did I am embarassingly late in realizing this. If they did not intend to mirror elements of the play, I’d argue that the play is embedded in culture now and has influenced a lot of sci-fi literature by this point, making it an underlying strata of exploration tales, so it still has bearing here.
I didn’t make the connection between the play and the comic until I saw the opening pages of issue #5, which came out last week, despite having found the comic very intriguing in its first four issues. They are striking pages that feel very different from previous issue artwork because we actually see the title’s shipwreck finally.
And it is far more fiery and terrifying than we might have been imagining, with inks by Eric Gapstur and colors by Mark Englert. But the inundation of flames, the chaos and “noise” even in the silence of the page felt loud, like a storm to me, and then in the back of my mind, I realized it felt like a tempest, no, THE Tempest.
Both the play and the comic are tales of stranded strangers who believe there is no way to return whence they came, and they find themselves among beings whose existence they don’t really comprehend but come to accept. And some of those odd people are previously shipwrecked folks who have “gone native”.
In the comic, it’s our protagonist, who’s been on this strange world for an indeterminate length of time that feels long, and in the play, it’s Prospero the Magician and his daughter Miranda. In the comic, the inhabitants of this odd world only vaguely understand the world our traveler comes from, and same for the play, where that place is a distant memory.
The true natives in both are duplicitous and hard to pin down. They seem alien, like Caliban, and like every being we encounter in Shipwreck. They are like us and yet not like us. Their communication holds strange truths, seemingly locked and buried, but taunting us to try to figure out the logic hidden inside them.
There’s a circular feeling in both the play and the comic, as if one step forward is two steps backward, and time doesn’t quite hold the same meaning for the characters as it does for us.
The comparison stands up to further scrutiny, but mainly it’s the atmosphere–a haunted feeling. In the play it’s magic, in the comic, an alien reality. What will be the outcome? Do these world have anything to say to each other?
[“The Tempest” by William Hogarth]
In this issue of the comic, #5, some very interesting conversations flare up that take Jonathan Shipwright back, in his mind, to the day of his wreck, giving us insights we haven’t had before. He’s accused, by the inhabitants of the world he chose to explore for the possibility of “forward escape” for humanity should Earth be destroyed, of being essentially a colonial oppressor. Someone ready to seize a land not his on behalf of another race.
He gives the stereotypical answers we will recognize, particularly from European behavior in the New World, that he thought the place was basically uninhabited, or sparsely inhabited enough not to matter. In other words, the place was ideal despite the fact it wasn’t up for grabs.
But he’s also now fully aware that a team-member saboteur, Isham, was responsible for his wreck and stranded state, someone who’s still out to get him. As readers, should we see this person as a kind of hero, destroying a colonial feeler that could corrupt Earth’s parallel world? Is Isham preventing a cyclical disasterous event in a new age of exploration?
Maybe Shipwright shouldn’t be our hero, or even anti-hero, as this issue explores, since our whole view of him as a kind of noble scientist and victim of Isham’s might not hold water. Shipwright is also pushed by his interrogators (who seem to have a working escape pod he could use) to explain why, if his goals are so scientifically-minded, he ended up working for the military-industrial complex. Pragmatic answers don’t ring too confidently as he keeps insisting his fear of disaster for humanity–like an asteroid strike–have driven his experiments in trans-dimensional travel.
Somewhere, deep down, there’s a lingering sense that Shipwright is doing things “because he can”, driven by curiosity and taking any route necessary to reach his goals. Which makes his current suffering a little more palatable. Maybe Isham is essentially punishing someone who has gone too far and protecting a strange new world from hostile outside forces? In that case, it’s Isham who’s more of a Prospero…
Future issues may clarify how the creators want us to feel about Isham, but they are leaving a laudable amount of room for readers to find their own interpretations and settle on them. The artwork, as ever, is haunting, but here in the depiction of the wreck, is even more impressive than previously seen.
Shipwreck is a strange tale, exactly the kind of thing, in a way, you might have expected from sailors returning to London from the antipodes in the 16th and 17th century, with plenty of sci-fi and modern psychological focus thrown in. But it adds to the anxiety and questioning attitudes of the 21st century expressed so well by contemporary science-fiction, too.
Shipwreck #5 is currently available from Aftershock Comics.