The Vertical Sea is a graphic novel published in English by Dark Horse, written by Brian Freschi, illustrated by Ilaria Urbinati, lettered by Officine Bolzoni, and translated to English by Carla Roncalli di Montorio. The story opens on India as she discusses her anxiety and panic attacks with a therapist. She is an Italian teacher in an elementary school whose boyfriend spends long stretches of time working on a boat out at sea. She is plagued by panic attacks that render the parents of her students wary of her trustworthiness as a teacher. But she’s beloved by her students and gifted as a storyteller.
Admittedly, the storytelling in The Vertical Sea is a tad hard to follow at first. The art style and paneling are rather minimalistic, and there’s no set-up or exposition pretty much anywhere. You’re left simply to meet India where she is. You can choose to judge her, as everyone else does, put down the book, and never be blessed for knowing it. Or, you can have some patience, allow yourself to build familiarity and comfort with its storytelling style, and be swept away by its absolute beauty on every level.
Artistically, the book uses a beautiful watercolor aesthetic that absolutely stands out. It’s full of shades of blue in its light moments, balanced by smart pale backgrounds. In its dark scenes, I’m awed by how so many shades of color can thrive in such darkness. In particular, those dark scenes where India is telling her students a story within this story and the ones where she is amidst a panic attack are filled with creative imagery and creatures that smartly blur the lines between real life and a fantasy one.
The story is told in a sort of triptych, with one part set in the present as India recounts life to her therapist, one part set in that recent past, and one part set in a world entirely of India’s invention. The sections are largely desperate tonally, especially the therapy sections that mostly frame chapters. It’s not entirely clear what those sections, in particular, are doing early on, as the therapist babbles on, and India more or less has him talk to the hand metaphorically. But they do pay off in the end just with the sheer strength of the final one, even if that payoff had little to do with the previous segments.
The other two stories, however, are strong from top to bottom. India’s life is fragile for her on several levels, and the way that her anxiety and panic attacks are depicted, in writing and visually, are effortless. I am absolutely compelled by the way the story shows the way India feels unsupported from her own perspective as well as from the people not supporting her so that you can empathize with everyone involved while ultimately still relating with India and the fact that her perspective is the most important here. In her fantasy world, we’re blessed with not only a great and complex parable but also with a really amazing representation of a relationship between a fantastic teacher and her students. I can’t lie and say that isn’t one of my favorite aspects of the book, given my own background as an educator.
The Vertical Sea is a moving vision of life with anxiety. It’s visually beautiful, and its multiple story layers bring out a range of emotions from this small slice of a life.
The Vertical Sea is available wherever books are sold on July 19th.
The Vertical Sea
The Vertical Sea is a moving vision of life with anxiety. It’s visually beautiful and its multiple story layers bring out a range of emotions from this small slice of a life.