I met Bryan Lee O’Malley three years ago at a book signing that I went to on impulse. You may be familiar with him from his graphic novel series Scott Pilgrim, which put Toronto on the map. It made 10-year-old me fall in love with Knives Chau, and also caused that same 10-year-old to become tangentially aware of Michael Cera following the release of the movie. However, I came to O’Malley’s book signing with a much different graphic novel in mind: Lost at Sea.
Nervously, I stepped up to the plate. “You have an interesting shirt,” O’Malley said. I looked down and realized, to my astonishment, that I was wearing the chemtrails propaganda T-shirt I’d gotten as a birthday gift. To this, I had no response. As everyone with generalized anxiety disorder does, I had pre-planned an opener while waiting in line, but the nicety I had prepared no longer made sense in the conversation, on top of the fact that it was already irreversibly forgotten, because I was 18 and therefore probably high.
So, I did what any rational human would do: I asked him if he knew my sixth-grade teacher, who once told my class that she had known O’Malley in her youth. She told us that he based a not-so-likeable character in one of his comics on her. While this outcome, if true, would have been both iconic and hilarious for my teacher, it was probably not the best thing to say. But I said it anyway.
With a hint of the soft, long-burning resentment that comes with of remembering someone you beefed with in the valley of time between teenage-hood and adulthood, O’Malley said, “Oh, yeah, I heard she moved back to Toronto,” signed my book, and sent me on my way.
But all was not lost, because I got what I came for: a signed copy of Lost at Sea.
Lost at Sea is O’Malley’s first graphic novel, written and illustrated by him in 2003. It tells the story of Raleigh, an 18-year-old girl stranded with three former classmates on a road trip up the California coast.
While this is easily reminiscent of the setup for any other high-school graduation or road-trip narrative, O’Malley masterfully deconstructs the clichés that accompany these tropes. Raleigh isn’t best friends with her co-travellers — in fact, she encountered them by accident.
Her actual high school friends didn’t seem to affect her and certainly weren’t her favourite people. This is in stark contrast to essentially every other high school movie, book, or comic, in which adolescent friends are cast as the most important people in a character’s coming-of-age arc.
Through this, O’Malley is able to capture how sometimes the relationships that you think will be meaningful don’t always turn out to be, and how lonely it can actually be for teenagers in the transitional stage before adulthood. He shows what it’s like for those of us who feel like background characters in our own lives, who didn’t necessarily experience the high school clichés of love and friendship, and furthermore, that those tropes don’t necessarily represent reality — that you can find meaningful bonds with people you wouldn’t expect.
Unlike the characters in other road-trip plots, in which the protagonists are either running away from or toward something, Raleigh and her classmates are doing neither — they are driving back home after their journey is over. This is strangely antithetical to the typical metaphoric reasoning for a road-trip or coming-of-age story because, instead of showing how the characters are moving forward, the protagonists of Lost at Sea are quite literally moving backward.
Raleigh spends her time remembering her life and the things that didn’t end up working out, finding strange symbolism in overlapping details between her past memories and her current trip back to Canada. However, this portrayal is actually more accurate to the experience of leaving adolescence.
Sure, growing up means looking forward, but being grown up means looking backward. This is because, for better or worse, our supposedly formative years are behind us. The feeling that goes along with this — the sad, nostalgic feeling of missing something you never quite had — is what defines Lost at Sea. It’s a story about what happens after love doesn’t work out, after best friends grow up and move away, after everyone changes and everything is gone.
Raleigh starts the novel with the belief that she doesn’t have a soul, a belief that — spoiler alert — doesn’t go away. It’s what makes Lost at Sea unique. Raleigh doesn’t have it all figured out by the time the novel ends, and neither should we. She shows us that it’s okay to be lost because sometimes growth means standing still, leaning back and running with it, not worrying, and finding yourself lost at sea.