The Webcomic Overlook #195: Derelict
Loneliness is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s kinda nice to be away from people. You can be alone in your thoughts. You never have to worry about behaving or others looking down on you. You are your own master.
And then there’s the flipside. It’s unnerving when the only voice you can hear is your own. There’s no one to help you if you get in trouble. There’s no one to comfort you when you cry, no one to laugh at your jokes, no one to tell you if you look good today.
Loneliness is both alluring and frightening. Thus, it’s a natural theme for most post-apocalyptic stories. Take the movie I Am Legend, for instance. Sure, an abandoned New York can be a pretty cool place where you can play golf on an aircraft carrier or break into houses and rummage through other peoples’ drawers or drive whatever exotic car you want. It’s such an alluring fantasy that there’s even a term for it: “cozy catastrophe.”
It’s also soul-crushing. When Will Smith is forced to kill his dog, you can sense that he lost something even more valuable than his utter surplus of freedom: companionship.
Which brings me to Ben Fleuter’s webcomic, Derelict.
Merriam-Webster has two main definitions for derelict. The first is “something voluntarily abandoned; especially: a ship abandoned on the high seas.” This would seem to be the one most apt to fit this comic. After all, it very prominently features a small boat. The boat is not, technically, abandoned, but it’s assumed that it had been by a previous owner. Considering the main character, though, the second definition would be fitting as well: “a destitute, homeless social misfit” … because that the position our heroine, Dang Thu Mai, finds herself in. A vagrant of the seven seas.
Dang roams the oceans, trying to survive in a world that’s been flooded. Kinda like Kevin Costner in that one movie … Field of Dreams. The story starts off with Dang salvaging parts from a U.S. Coast Guard cutter that has sunk to the sea floor. It’s a silent sequence that lasts a few pages, but it effectively sets up Dang’s situation. She’s out here by herself. If anything goes wrong in this risky operation, there’s little chance anyone is rescuing her. And the world is quiet. Unnervingly, eerily quiet. So quiet that when Dang first speaks, it feels curiously out of place, like she’s disturbing the dignified stillness of the world around her.
It’s a burden on her mental state. She passes the time reading a book that is partly unreadable because the pages are stained. She opens and closes her hands, reaching out at the stars with a look of heavy weariness on her face. In a later scene, she cuts her hair, sees herself in a mirror, and compliments herself. A beat later, her face falls; it’s a sad reminder that the only friend she has in the world is her own reflection.
Eventually the story unfolds in a rather unconventional way. We skip around in time. It can, honestly, be a little confusing. I’ve read Derelict twice now, and I can’t say for certain which is the correct sequence of events. Mr. Fleuter sprinkles clues here and there, and it shouldn’t take too much brain power to piece things together, but for whatever reason I still scratch my primitive monkey brain. It’s best not to dwell on the details and let the mood of the story take you.
Our first clue as to what’s going on happens when, in a very haunting and atmospheric scene, Dang’s boat crosses the path of a drifting container ship. She tries to radio the other ship, but there is no response. She scrambles, and she barely steers her boat out of the way. As the ship passes, drifting like a mindless hulk, Dang hears gunfire on deck. There’s someone out there. But what would normally be a beacon of hope in this bleak, lonely world is now a cause for anxiety.
The story flashes back, and we are gradually introduced clues as to what’s going on. We see Dang scavenging through an abandoned farmhouse. Her activity has attracted attention, and we learn that strange creatures are walking the Earth. They have heads like cattle skulls, vulture-like claws for hands, and wear big, bulky robes. They are called “Gargoyles.” I’m not willing to call them aliens yet. Coupled with the rugged, Wild West trappings of the rustic barnyard, these creatures could just as easily be malevolent spirits straight out of Native American folklore.
Fortunately, Dang is equipped with a crossbow and a UV bolt, which causes searing damage to our pursuers. This is, incidentally, one of the greatest strengths of Derelict. Very little is outright spelled out to the readers. Building an almost oppressive mood of the unknown and forcing the reader to pay attention at all times despite the dearth of dialogue adds to story’s aura of gloom and mystery.
Dang eventually does come in contact with another living human. Unfortunately, it’s under less than friendly circumstances. Dang finds a downed airplane and goes to sleep in the pilot’s chair for the night. She wakes up to see the barrel of a shotgun pointed in her face. The newcomer has one of the creatures as partner, who, unlike his brethren seen in previous pages, communicates with Dang in English. He’s also a bit of a Sherlock Holmes: he deduces that Dang has a boat because of her calloused hands and her soft feet.
So he does what any gentleman would do and … steals her boat. Well, like I’ve always said, human companionship is overrated. However, while Dang may have a permanent hang-dog expression on her face, she proves to be very, very persistent.
This becomes the story’s turning point. The slow, melancholy mood of the first act gives way to scenes where Dang wastes her enemies with frightening confidence and murder in her eyes. The juxtaposition between two time periods accelerates, too, driving home the point that Dang has transformed into a totally different person, from a shrinking scavenger willing to let the events of the world pass her by to a fierce, deadly warrior. It’s a frightening change… however, you can be sure that this new Dang isn’t the sort of person moping in front of a mirror after cutting her hair. The circumstances behind Dang’s transformation, by the way, have yet to be revealed. It’s perhaps a more important mystery than who the Gargoyles are.
With very little dialogue, the burden of storytelling falls on the artwork. Fleuter pulls the task off fantastically. The hazy colors and the focus on the even-changing nature of the mist and the waves from the early chapters establish the cold loneliness of being adrift in the ocean. Later, a bold red and orange color palette are paired with the stern metallic trusses of an industrial setting, heightening the sense of danger and urgency.
Derelict is a very deceptive webcomic. It’s deliberate pace and lack of dialogue can fool you into thinking that there’s nothing going on, when, really, plenty is being established with an expression, with small actions, and with tiny images that seem like tossed off background images that later prove to be instrumental in understanding the entire picture. It’s time-jumping may at first seem gimmicky, but they are techniques that effectively establish character. We seem to be building up to an answer to a big mystery, only to discover that perhaps it wasn’t such an important mystery in the first place.
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
P.S. Can anyone read the title of this webcomic and not think of this? No?